Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 28: Practical Tips for Interpersonal Communication


Back again, with the second (and hopefully useful) part of my diatribe on interpersonal communication, and why lack of it has made graduate school difficult for a great many of us. I got a few stories; I'll be happy for more. I also got a few thank you notes from the readership following the last installment, it seems I struck a nerve.

I've learned some things on my own along the way, and some things I've been told by my mentors and peers. Here's a major point that I'd like to stress to my fellow students:

It's not about you.

I know, you thought graduate school was going to be this grand adventure in personal learning, conquering the scientific world, making new discoveries, and publishing the wonderful data that you have masterfully obtained. And it is, once you get past the garbage no one tells you about. But, honestly, a lot of the communication misfires and attitude malfunctions that cause us massive amounts of grief are not about you, personally.

The thing that we must remember, as students, is that we are the labor end of a grand scheme to get more research dollars, which in turn gets our advisor tenure (or promotion, or more research money), which makes the world go around. So at the heart of things, it's not about you. It's about the data you produce, the project you work on, and the peer-reviewed publications and presentations that extend from the lab you live in. It's about the grant proposal that may or may not be up for renewal, and the egos served or starved by it.

Your advisor wants data, and wants you to learn to formulate experiments and present data in a form that is acceptable to the outside world. Why? Because you--and even more importantly, the work you do--are their progeny, their calling card; the work you do, and how you present it, reflects on them. But many of us don't think about it this way. We think it's about us and what we want. We're wallowing in our own self-pity because someone was harsh to us when we gave a presentation, or didn't like our ideas. But it's really not about us.

Most academicians are hard task masters. This is a reality of our world. Many of them are repeating the cycle of abuse that was inflicted upon them when they were studying for their Ph.D. It's not that they can't be reasonable people, or that they're innately cruel. Their behavior is often modeled after their own mentors; it's hard for some of them to imagine granting those three letters without inflicting some pain. That is how it's done, how people earn the right to write "Ph.D." after their names. It's like the trainer says to the star athlete: no pain, no gain.

I didn't say it was right. Being on this side of the fence I think there has got to be a better way to create great scientists without making so many of them bitter, at least in the beginning. Still, it's not about you. And thinking that it is about you can make things worse.

Like I've said before, in previous columns, this is a game we play, and learning the art of communication can maximize your momentum and help you win the game. Neglecting this art can leave you stuck at home plate wondering why everyone else is scoring while you're standing still.

Taking things personally, whether it be comments on presentation style, experimental design, theoretical derivation, or some other area that we all--hopefully--negotiate and learn, is not an effective way to play the game. Yes, I know, your ego is bruised, but so is the ego of the student sitting next to you, and the one next to them ... if not this meeting, then the one before it, or the one after. It's a bit like flying on a commercial airline; when your luggage gets lost. Or when the little kid in front of you in line pukes on you and smiles. It's not because he doesn't like you; he just had an upset tummy. It sucks, but it's not personal.

We all experience anger, frustration, fatigue, and the like, but it makes a big difference how you deal with it. The sooner you learn to play with the cards you're dealt (translation: work the system) the better off you'll be, and the less time you'll spend griping about things that can't be helped to people who can't help you. Suck it up, learn the game, and you'll graduate faster. I thought that would get your attention.

Now, once you've learned how not to take things personally, you need to know how to play the game. It's a complicated game, with few or no fixed rules, but there are a few useful strategies. Graduate school is like a short-lived marriage. You deal with co-workers who may not be ideal mates, day in, and day out. The more adept you are at understanding each other's needs, the better the relationship fares. There's one big difference between grad school and a marriage though: In grad school, the better the relationship, the sooner it comes to an amicable end. Divorce from the lab is something to celebrate. Here are a few concrete suggestions for how you can make it happen.

Get to know one another. I know it sounds obvious, but what is so hard about getting to know the people that you work with, from the PI on down? I'm not saying that you should know all of their personal business, but if you have no clue if your co-workers have parents/siblings/pets, that's a good place to start. And once you know something, inquire about it every so often. You might discover a common interest you didn't know you had. If your advisor or another student has an interesting picture in their office, ask about it. Strike up a conversation. It won't kill you.

Put it in writing. Make sure specific requirements for graduating are explicit. This way, everyone knows what is expected. Your expectations have been communicated and clearly discussed, so chances for misunderstanding are minimized. And it's not just you; help your fellow students understand what is expected of them, but do it with humility.

Examine the style of the person you're dealing with. If, for example, you have an advisor that's direct, don't assume they don't like you; they're just direct, and in your dealings with them, be direct. They'll appreciate that you're not wasting their time, or yours. If, on the other hand, you have an advisor that requires constant reminding to get something done, remind them gently, and don't think that it's a reflection on you, or your relationship, that they won't jump when you say to (HA!).

Observe the interactions of your co-workers with others. You'll probably find that they interact with others much the same way they interact with you. They're not persecuting you; that's just the way they are. Again, it's not always about you.

Make sure items of interest to the entire group are available, in written form. These items include presentation basics, how to do a literature review, how to prepare a research talk, and how to make slides. When new members join, ask them if they have questions, show them how to go about creating presentations or posters, even if they don't ask. If you know that you're advisor hates the color yellow, make sure the new recruits don't use it in their slides!

Advisors: is it possible that you could practice more constructive, rather than destructive, criticism? Positive feedback can go a long way. Suppress the need to yell, belittle, intimidate, and otherwise harass your students. If they're like me, they're already traumatized enough if their project isn't working despite their best efforts. They care, and they really want it to work, for their sake and for yours. Find ways to encourage them.

Every now and then, you might ask your students the following questions: Are the requirements for doing research (collecting data, presenting data, giving literature talks, going about group tasks) clear? What, if anything needs to be clarified? Do you like your project? If so, what is working, and what isn't? Why isn't it working? What can we do to make it work?

Questions like these can help you become a better mentor/advisor. I know, if you're reading this you're already wonderful. But nobody's perfect.

Students: if your advisor has a moment of how-do-we-make-this-situation-better clarity, be open and honest about your experiences, but don't just share the bad stuff! It's easy to remember the bad things, but everyone wants positive reinforcement, including the boss ... who, if my experience is any indicator, is probably as insecure as you are. If your advisor has done a great job at something, tell them! Dig deep if you have to. Even if everything hasn't been rosy, let them know what things have worked well.

Assuming that students will figure the system out on their own, and that the bright ones will excel, is an erroneous belief that must stop, and we are a good place to start. I know that's what mentors are for, but good mentors are not always available. Graduate students need to start by taking care of one another, and then, when we're in our boss's shoes, we'll all be better mentors. The first step towards that goal is to stop taking things personally, to stop being self-absorbed long enough to recognize that others are hurting, too, and that you just might be able to help them.

As always, comments, stories, and suggestions for effective communication are appreciated, more next time! You thought I was done didn't you?

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