Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 30: Lessons in Mis-Management (Yes, More Communication)



Well, as you've seen from the previous chapters, it's been a trying year. I'm offering myself up once again for inspection and critical evaluation. This time it's communication as it relates to mentoring and teaching.

I've come to an interesting crossroads in my life, a quarter-life crisis if you will. Part of me is looking back wondering how I've made it this far. Another part is pondering how I can be a better person, scientist, mentor, and friend. The final part is mired in the muck of my current situations of the here and now, trying to figure out:

a) what went right,

b) what went wrong, and

c) what I'm clueless about.

I swear, sometimes it feels as if there is far more wrong and clueless than right, but I'm still here telling my story, so something must have gone right thus far.

Last time, I told you I thought I had the communication at work pretty much under control. Turns out I didn't. This time, it wasn't in relation to my adviser Jeff, or to the postdocs, or even my fellow graduate students. It was an undergrad. Go figure.

Ben has been an undergrad in the lab for about 2 years now. It's always been understood that he didn't want to go to graduate school--he's trumpeted it often--but he likes doing research, so he's been hanging with our ragtag lab, doing research, odd jobs, working over the summer, and such. He's good at what he does, so he stuck around for a while.

As I was the graduate student "in charge" of Ben, he came to me with questions, problems, procedural issues, madness, drama, and the like. I knew I could count on him to get work done in the lab, run some experiments, generally help with getting stuff done. As time passed, it seemed as if Ben and I had fallen out. There was nothing specific, just not the same congenial relationship that we had when he started working in the lab. When I finally stopped ignoring our precarious situation and asked him and myself what was going on, I was again enlightened. I hope somebody else is learning as much from my life as I am.

In a nutshell, Ben was frustrated with his work. The purpose, direction, and goals of his project were not clear to him. I see now that his situation deteriorated when his project changed; clear objectives were not established and kept up with. I thought that he heard and understood what Jeff had talked about in group meetings and in passing, but apparently he hadn't. I also thought that Jeff had met with him to discuss what he would be doing next. Something tells me Jeff thought I did it, and as the responsible party I should have, but I got a little overwhelmed. Poor excuse, I know, but hey, no one told me how to manage other people while I'm in graduate school.

Because Ben never approached me in a way that made me want to respond to him (whining like a 2-year-old and then getting nasty and walking out of a room asking why I have an attitude does not start conversation with me), the issue was not addressed until I looked him in the face and asked what was wrong.

It's not that Ben and I never talked; we did--about his life, his issues, his whatever, but not about work. I think that was partly because of my own frustration with my project and my life in graduate school. Sometimes you just don't want to talk about it anymore, especially with someone who already has doubts about your current life's work. I have enough of my own doubts, thank you. I don't need his.

Once I finally bit the bullet and tried to calmly discern what was going on, we made progress. I resisted the urge to cuss him out, jump, scream, or otherwise make a fool of myself, and we both rediscovered something "cool" about the project. I gained a greater appreciation for his frustration, and he seemed to have a little more respect for mine. The relationship is still precarious, but considering that he moved away upon graduation, who knows what will come of it all.

Who knew graduate school would be such a growth experience? I certainly did not. Hopefully, that's all for the growing pains for this season. I really can't take much more right now.

Playing the Game--Lessons in Mismanagement

Well, folks, I've learned a great deal from trying to manage someone else and myself at the same time. It wasn't quite a rousing success this time, but what good is life experience without mistakes you can learn from? Maybe some of this will be useful for the professors out there managing for the first time, other students with younger students in their care, or even for those younger students. Just because they're the advisers and you're the advisees doesn't mean they're necessarily the wise ones.

Some things NOT to do

Don't let the goal stray from sight: Keeping the goal out front would have kept Ben focused on and interested in his work. Instead, we got bogged down in the day-to-day details of the project, not seeing the forest for the trees. Maybe a solution is to not assign projects to younger students until you are ready for them, so they don't get bogged down too.

Don't let time slip by: Checking in on a weekly or even daily basis with new colleagues to see what challenges they are facing can be essential to their first successes or failures. Having weekly meetings with Jeff has helped me immensely; I'll be starting similar routines (meetings or reports) with other students I work with. But just having a meeting isn't enough; you have to take those meetings seriously and work hard to keep the lines of communication open.

Don't let attitudes get in the way: It's hard to deal with people who have a chip on their shoulder. Whether or not it's directly related to work, it fogs the air and charges it with resentment and hostility. At the next hint of disarray, I'm going to confront attitudes when necessary. (Right now I'm a little too good at ignoring them.)

Make sure learning has taken place: Although you shouldn't have to quiz students on what they're doing daily, making sure they have a good foundation is essential for keeping them in the loop and moving forward. Because I thought Ben didn't express enough interest, and I knew he didn't want to go to graduate school, I didn't put forth any extra effort. I should have.

Don't let disillusionment get in the way: It's hard enough when you're in graduate school to keep up with your own issues, much less someone else's. But that's part of what it means to be a scientist, and it's part of what makes graduate school a meaningful experience.

That's all for now, folks. Here I am 30 chapters in, speeding toward my fourth year. Can she do it? I hope so.

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