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


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.

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.

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.

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?

Do What You Love; Love What You Do

Technological and Scientific Councillor: The Bilateral Bridge