Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 27: Communication


For those of you that have not been following along with the saga that is my life in graduate school: Last month I talked about my adviser, Jeff, and the bruises he suffered as a result of an abrupt departure by one of my labmates. I think that one reason she chose to leave is that she apparently hated her project; to my knowledge, she chose not to tell my adviser this. This leads me to my diatribe for this month:

Why is it that we, as scientists, are taught that communication of our science is essential for success, but somehow communication with others, for general well-being and harmony, is left in the dust?

I mean, think about it: We've all seen seminars on how to write effectively, how to present effectively, but rarely do we see anything geared toward educators and the educated on how to communicate effectively in a nonscientific context and how to relate to one another. And I believe that lots of the conflict that we experience, in lab and in life, happens because we simply have not learned how to communicate.

When I say "communicate," I mean a variety of things. First of all, to me, communicating effectively involves more than just talking. It also includes listening. Further, it involves body language, tone, inflection, motive, perspective, culture, and a whole host of other things that most people just don't take into account when conversing. Have you ever thought for a minute that everyone doesn't operate the same way you do?

That's a novel concept for some of us. Different people interpret these things in different ways. The same sentence said to three different people will be heard to have three different meanings, even if the inflection and body language are the same. The person who knows the speaker best will probably come closest to understanding what the speaker is trying to say.

This is why PIs need to get to know their students outside of the lab and understand what kind of backgrounds they are coming from. PIs just might want to know what kind of behaviors their students normally exhibit--outgoing versus shy, rambunctious versus calm, angry and bitter versus sublimely happy (if that even exists)--and how to respond appropriately.

Nothing about your students can be assumed; I repeat, nothing. Do you know who has siblings and who doesn't? Where their parents live? If they like the candy you keep on your desk? If they are diabetic? Don't assume that a person of color, for example, grew up in an environment with less money than average or that her parents didn't go to college. Don't assume that just because someone is nodding he understands and agrees with everything you've said; he might come from a culture where disagreeing with an authority figure--yes, that's you--is considered bad manners; or maybe he's just shy or is trying to impress you. Don't assume that because a student is female that she wants to have children someday or that she doesn't. Don't even assume that she's made up her mind yet. Don't assume that just because someone came from a less prestigious school that they have less experience or intelligence.

I know this all seems like common sense to some of you, but you'd be amazed how often we scientists put other scientists and engineers into a box and assume that they will conform to the image we have of them. I think we all do it, unless we work at not doing it. If they don't conform to your image, and they're not comfortable fitting into the box, why would they stick around?

It's not always the listener's fault. Like a lot of people, sometimes I fail to say what's on my mind; when something is wrong, someone says something that offends me, or I disagree with something someone says, I keep my mouth shut and my anger or hurt inside. Or I may open it--my mouth--up too wide and overreact. Either way, the result is likely to be bruised egos and misunderstandings, neither of which helps improve communication.

As scientists, we tend to pretend that needs, wants, emotions, relationships, ego, and so on, don't matter--it's all about the science, right?--when in reality they can be a large factor in the political games we play, just like everyone else does. We want to think that it's about working with the purity of the subject, increasing knowledge, and solving the world's problems. Yet the more successful particular scientists are and the more clout they have, the more likely it is that they can do as they please, run over people, and make lives hellish with little or no regard for consequences.

For those who wonder why there aren't more people interested in science, or why more people don't stay in it to become professors: Have you ever thought about how elitist, isolated, and obnoxious some of you--um, I mean your colleagues--can be? People don't leave because they can't cut it; they leave because they find some other place that welcomes them, lets them express themselves, and rewards them according to their merits.

Back to this communication thing: We all, students and PIs, must learn to do it better. If we could step outside of ourselves for a moment and truly listen to the things we say, and think about how we are perceived, and have a decent dialogue with others about such a thing, that would be a step in the right direction. For those of you thinking "I'm fine just how I am," think for a minute about your interactions and relationships. Are they strained? Do you think this is because everyone is against you? Are you always right? If people really upset you, do you tell them why? Or do you just stop talking to them?

Maybe I'm completely off my rocker here, but I believe in a sort of karma: The universe will give you back what you expect and what you put out. Yes, graduate school, and life in general, are hard, and sometimes we all want to quit. Have you checked your state of mind lately? If it's all bad, and you have absolutely no joy ... are you spending any time looking for it?

Enough of my diatribe. Next time: concrete ways to improve communication with each other, as people and as scientists.

If you have examples of how effective communication, or lack of it, improved or ruined your life in the lab, feel free to share, and I'll pass it on. Until then, let's all think about what we say and how we say it. And smile, daggumit! It doesn't hurt. ...

Micella can be reached via email at

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