We’ve already set up three members of your entourage: a coach, a dreamer, and a doer. These people are here to push you further as you build up your skills and expertise and are here to provide different perspectives on your work. But who is in your entourage who can see you as you are and be there for you no matter what you’re going through? Who’s first reaction won’t be to coach you through an obstacle but instead will listen to each aspect of your situation as it is? This person is the fourth member of your entourage, and is your ally: A person who is on your side, no matter what.
What exactly is an ally? The dictionary definition of ally (verb) is “to be united formally; to associate or connect by some mutual relationship,” and as a noun, simply “supporter”. Your relationship with your ally is founded on shared experiences, mutual support and understanding. While your other three entourage members provide new perspectives, your ally is someone who sees work, life, and a career in science in the same way you do. An ally is someone who shares your dreams, recognizes your anxieties, and understands your goals, and doesn’t always have advice or an opposing view point for each situation you face.
There are a lot of great examples of best friend/allies out there: Captain Kirk and Spock, Tyrion and Bronn, Spongebob and Patrick, Austria and Hungary. While allies do have complementary perspectives or skills, what’s key is that they are by your side through thick and thin. Why? Just because they’re your friend. While the goal of the coaching relationship should be clear in terms of what the expectations are from both parties, for an ally the relationship is simple: Just be there when your ally needs you, and they’ll be there for you in return. But ‘being there’ seems like a bit of a vague term: what is an ally’s actual job in your research entourage?
What makes a good ally?
- A person you can talk to and know you’ll get a straight answer from. A good ally is always on your side-but also knows the importance of talking straight. An ally is a person that you can trust to hear the truth from, a person that won’t pull punches, and one who will see things as they are. While the truth may not always be easy to take, having someone in your entourage who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is can help you see the truth in complex situations.
- A person who see the world through similar eyes as you. The best kind of ally is one who has a similar outlook on the world as you. Because your ally isn’t you, even though they are a lot like you, they can see a situation with a clearer perspective, and can offer advice as to what they would do in your shoes. This advice is generally well-given and thought out, because it comes from a person who knows you well, who sees your dreams and your worries, and who most importantly sees things from a similar viewpoint, but not the exact same one, thus providing a bit of neutrality in assessing the situation. A third party perspective from someone with a similar viewpoint can help you see a way forward when your own doubts or frustrations might be blocking the way.
- Laughs and celebrates with you during your good times and empathizes with your tough times. Allies are always the first ones to share good news with, the ones who will applaud the loudest at your presentations, and the ones who will be as excited for you as you are for yourself when you accomplish things. And when times aren’t as easy going or successful, your ally is there to listen to your story and to hear you out when you’re feeling down. No matter what, you’ve got someone at your back, good times or bad!
- The person that reminds you that your dreams are valid and you should go for them. Often times in grad school or research, it’s easy to get frustrated. Things won’t work the first time, we won’t make as much progress as we thought we would, we didn’t get enough papers, conference talks, grants, etc. It’s easy to tear yourself down in these situations and start to think that maybe you’re just not cut out for research, or wherever you wanted your own dreams of a career to take you. An ally reminds you that above everything else, you’re you, and that your dreams are never wrong if they’re truly your dreams.
- A person who listens and doesn’t always have a solution or advice, but sometimes just listens. Sometimes people can help us get out of a difficult situation, or know what to say to make us feel better, or know how to fix something, or even just make us smile. And sometimes those things are all hard to do. Sometimes all you can do for your ally, and them for you, is to hear the other person out. This is likely the hardest task for any ally relationship. It can be hard to feel like you can’t do anything, or to feel like you should say something or make a suggestion. A good ally recognizes that sometimes support sometimes comes just from being present, and nothing else.
Where do you find good allies?
Most often, your best allies are your lab mates, office mates, class mates, or colleagues met through other professional/outreach/extracurricular activities. While in the first week of work you may not have been sure if you’d get on well with your immediate lab mates, sometimes allies appear where you least expect them: perhaps you didn’t click with someone right away until you suffered through a really bad talk together, and spent the next hour chatting about all the same mistakes that annoyed you. While research tends to be a very independent day-to-day task, make an effort to step out of your own world and learn about someone else’s. If you don’t have an easily identifiable ally in your own research group, strike up a conversation with someone at seminar, or in the break room, a lunchtime seminar/workshop, or at the PCR machine you’re both waiting on. The key with finding good friends is being open to meeting them and not being overly drawn into your own world for the entire working day as you obsess over data, lab work, and other goings-on in your own little bubble.
I’m thankful for the many allies I’ve had in my graduate and post-doctoral careers who have become some of the best friends a person could ask for. Looking back on the good and bad moments of any career, my allies were the people who were there to listen, to laugh, to cry, and to complain with, and were the reasons that the day-to-day stresses of research felt manageable instead of insufferable. I’m happy for the people that I’ve shared cheeky Friday afternoon drinks with, espoused similar viewpoints on the mismanagement of scientific research, and most of all the people with a vision and drive to work for a world that is better in some (even small) way than the one we were currently in. As for my allies (both past and present), I can always trust in them to tell me what’s on their mind about an idea or a plan, to hold me back or to push me onward when needed, and to help me keep on dreaming big, no matter what challenges come about.
Research is not an easy gig, but the allies we have can make it seem like we’re not alone. They are there to support, understand, and listen, and should always serve as a reminder that what you’re doing is good and that there’s no reason that you can’t achieve what you set out to do. Now the entourage is almost complete, with only one member remaining: Your sensei. So until we finish our entourage series next week: be sure to tell your research ally thanks for what they’ve done for you, and go out and find some go-to friends if you don’t have one yet. Just be sure you don’t make the ally relationship too formal; if they ask for a signed treaty, retreat!