We previously discussed the first four members of your research entourage, the people who are there to offer guidance, support, encouragement, and alternative perspectives: your coach, your dreamer, your doer, and your ally. To finish out the series, we’ll be shifting focus to a different type of person, one who may not always offer practical words or advice, emotional comfort, or one who knows the ins and outs of how to get a task done. Instead, this person is here to provide you guidance not on the doing side of a career in research, but on the thinking side: your sensei.
From Japanese, the literal translation of ‘sensei’ (先生) is ‘a person born before another’. In Japan, it is a formal form of address used in the context of referring to a person in a teaching role. At first glance, a teacher and a coach may not seem that different from one another. Both of them tell you what to do in order to grow or succeed, both of them give you instructions to follow, and both of them have expectations of what you should be able to achieve. However, the role played by your coach and your sensei is different, and can be summed up shortly as that the coach is there to push you to do, while the sensei is there to get you to think.
One of the crucial parts of success in graduate school or scientific research is knowing your limits and working to get past them, which is what a coach is there to do. A sensei, on the other hand, helps you work ahead to your future career by helping you learn what you don’t know you even need to learn yet. In essence, they are helping you go forward when you still don’t know where forward is. Your sensei should be a person who helps you not in doing the task at hand but in asking the good questions that will help you develop your skillset for any task ahead, and will prepare you for your future career and not just your present to do list.
Sounds like a rather nebulous type of role, doesn’t it? Your sensei has a more philosophical role in your entourage as the person who is teaching you how to think like a scientist, not just act like one. In one of our early posts, we discussed the philosophy side of your PhD. All of the science that you see, from papers to presentations to news headlines, is usually the result of a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, the whole lot. But the idea or the insights from which the work initially spurred from came from knowing how to ask good questions and from recognizing that science has a deeply intellectual and philosophical side that goes with the ‘publish or perish’ side. And the ‘common sense’ part of science, how to think about what you should do, is where your sensei can help.
Part of obtaining a PhD is through getting things Done, but if you want to get good things done then you need to Philosophize about them first. A sensei in your entourage can inspire you to ponder the tasks at hand and why they need doing, where the ideas came from, and where the results can take you. The sensei is there to remind you of the philosophy side of science, to show you how science should work, and to help you learn the process of thinking of new hypotheses and knowing how to address them.
Think of your favorite martial arts movie—maybe you’re inspired by the Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi’s lessons or wish you could train under Kill Bill’s Pai Mei. Whoever your favorite fictional sensei is, you can get a sense of their style as how they differ from a more traditional type of coach. A sensei is not just there to teach you how to punch and kick, and they often times convey lessons in a way that don’t make sense on the surface (e.g., ‘wax on, wax off’). But the benefit of their style is that the lessons they teach go deeper and can resonate beyond the simple or the practical and can be incorporated into a way of living.
What makes a good sensei?
They don’t need to talk in riddles, only eat rice and fish heads, or make you wax their entire floor, but you should look for the following type of characteristics in a potential sensei for your entourage:
- Always asking ‘why’. This will always be the question they ask, and there’s a reason for it. In anything you do, whether it’s a quick experiment or how you decide to analyze data, you should always have an answer and you should always know the answer (without relying on repeating back what your advisor/PI said about it in the first place). A sensei knows the importance of asking ‘why’ in order to better understand the reasons and motivations for working on a certain task, and can help see what sorts of things are important and which are superfluous.
- Tend to give more nebulous or open-ended suggestions. They won’t always be straightforward in their replies, and may not even give clear advice (or any advice at all). As portrayed in movies, a sensei wants you to work towards the solution on your own instead of being told the answer right away, because working towards it on your own is part of how you obtaining a more complete understanding.
- Provide insights from past experiences. As sensei literally means ‘person born before another’, and as such your sensei has been through the process of a career in research already and knows what it’s like. They offer guidance from their experiences, but appreciate that you will need to figure out some things for yourself, and in these cases will simply encourage you to keep learning.
- They want to see you learn more than succeed. This is different than the coaching relationship. A sensei cares less about the win and more about making sure you grow and learn from a situation. A coach might push you to do something before you’re ready to test your limits, but a sensei would rather hold you back than push you forward, making sure that you’re ready before going to the next step. A sensei would see it as a greater failure to let you move to another threshold or milestone without having achieved what you need to at the current one, and will encourage you to stay where you are until you’re really, really ready for the next phase.
- They know how to take time away from work or from a specific problem. A coach is more likely to have you work through a difficult situation, whereas a sensei will have you walk away from it and come back again with new eyes. This is because the sensei knows the importance of having a fresh perspective, and likely themselves can be seen taking a lot of breaks or doing things not related to work, with people maybe thinking they’re more on the lazy side. It’s not due to being lazy or unmotivated, but rather because a good sensei knows that you can’t always figure something out by staring at it.
Fostering the sensei-student relationship
One of the fundamental parts of any relationship (and as we mentioned before while discussing the coach member of your entourage) is having clear expectations of what you and your sensei expect from one another. Ask what they want to see you achieve and have them tell you what their working style is like and what they want you to learn from them. At the same time, keep these points in mind when working with your sensei:
- Respect their perspective and their method. You might find them too slow for your tastes or giving you too many questions and not enough answers, but if they are in the scope of your relationship expectations then work towards meeting them at their level. To keep a sensei on your side, you need to maintain respectfulness in terms of both who they are and the process they use to help you learn. A sensei will likely not respond keenly if not treated with respect—remember that their role is a voluntary one and if they think that you can’t learn or don’t respect how they’re trying to teach you, then they won’t keep working you.
- Ask questions of your own. Part of learning how to be a good scientist is learning how to ask good questions, and part of learning comes from doing. Ask how something works, how they figured out an idea, how they brainstorm, how they unwind, why they do things in a certain way. Their exact style may not work for you, but it can help you figure out what types of approaches and methods you can use in your own career.
- Don’t get frustrated when you feel like you’re not moving fast enough. A sensei won’t let you move forward until you’re ready, which can make you feel frustrated or like you’re being held back unfairly. Relax and try to see their perspective, and see what gaps you need to fill before you can move forward. Pushing against their will can only lead to a falling out between the two of you, but listening and being patient can help you move further as a scientist (and as an added bonus, you might even learn the five point palm exploding heart technique!).
- Follow by example and take your own thinking breaks. If your sensei leaves the office for a swim workout every day at noon, try your own regularly scheduled activity that takes you away from work. Whether it is a coffee away from your desk, a lunch break at the gym, or just a walk around campus every afternoon, a regular time away from the bench or your computer screen can give you the perspective you need to see what was beyond your narrow focus before.
- Recognize that learning is part of success, whether it gets you 100 papers or 1. Learning won’t always come easy, and it may sometimes takes time away from tasks, which we feel are productive, but are not really clearly thought-out. Learning is something you take with you through every stage of your career and is something that additional replicates or new experiments won’t take away. Work with your sensei to ensure that your work has dedicated time for learning, not just doing.
So now with some advice and suggestions for finding and maintaining a sensei relationship, your research entourage is complete! And as with any relationship, communication and expectations are the key to having a relationship that’s mutually beneficial for all parties involved. Talk to your entourage members about what role they play in your life and your career, what you’d like to learn or experience from them, and ask how you can be better at being at the receiving end of their guidance, support, or philosophizing. We hope you enjoyed this series and that you make progress on establishing your own research entourage, whether it be the people that get you through grad school or the ones that help you build on your career in research. Science isn’t an easy role, but with a supporting crew like these you’re sure to go far!