Friday, July 5, 2013

Teamwork in Grad School: Don't take it personal. It's only science.

Grad school is not a solitary endeavor.  

I should restate that as: grad school shouldn't be a solitary endeavor.

As a grad student with a research project you'll probably spend the majority of your time working within a larger group of researchers which may include your PI, defense committee, postdocs, project scientists, other grad students, internal collaborators, external collaborators, and so on. Your dissertation eventually gets defined as one piece of a larger puzzle that the group, as a whole, is trying to solve.

Of course the ultimate goal of grad school is to write and defend a dissertation. That, my friend, is inherently your own. Eventually you will break away from the group and focus on your own thing, especially during those last several months of frenzied last-minute experiments and late night dissertation writing as you race to finish.

You stand alone at the end, sure.

Until then, it's wise to think of yourself as a member of a team.

"There is no 'I' in team, but there is an 'I' in pie. And there's an 'I' in meat pie..."

Teamwork I should've learned in kindergarten but graduate-level research actually forced it into use. Some of us driven, left-brained, competitive, introverted types (I'm talking about myself here!) aren't necessary highly skilled at working well within a team by the time they start grad school, yet it's vital to survive in academic research.

A few things I've learned:

Treat grad school like a job.
This is basically impossible because your life is defined as a graduate student. And, often, the only people you see every day are other academics and graduate students. It can get pretty competitive as well as incestuous.

For me, it helped a lot to consider my research project as my "job" and my labmates as "coworkers." There's just something about that mental classification of calling trips to campus as "going into work" that helped me maintain some life/work separation.  Calling the other students in the lab "coworkers" helped keep interactions with my peers as professional as possible.  (Except when I happened to date them, haha.)

Being friendly and being friends are two different things. 
It may be unavoidable, but you don't have to socialize with your coworkers outside of work. You don't even have to like them. But you should be friendly with them anyway.

I was in grad school for over a year before I joined a research group. A HUGE research group. At the time, I only talked to a few senior grad students who were directly responsible for training me in the lab and didn't set out to specifically make friends with my extended research group. I'm pretty reserved by nature anyway, so I basically ignored them completely.

Looking back, my first few years could have been a lot easier and productive if I'd communicated more with my other group members right off the bat. Not only to broaden my social circle, but for collegiality sake.

Here's why:

Being on a first name basis with everyone in your extended group makes you a more useful member of the team.
It's important to be comfortable working alongside different people, even ones you don't work with very often, or don't seem to have much in common with, or wouldn't want to be friends with. Just knowing who's who and their area of specialty is a huge step. Going beyond that, to the point you actually say hello to each other when you pass them in the hallway, can be even better.

It's important to break down potential communication barriers because your coworkers and labmates can be valuable resources.

Experimental research work has so many unexpected twists and turns, you never know who might have an impact. 
Obviously, the point of a PI, defense committee, and group meetings are to share your results and ideas and get feedback in a structured format. Yet the more people you're comfortable approaching and engaging in unstructured, casual conversation, especially the ones working in the same office or lab, the easier it is to go to them with questions or problems. Even small ones.

Short, casual conversations at the right time can be more beneficial than a planned project meeting.

It's vital to facilitate these small conversations. 
Check-in with your group members, even the ones you don't regularly work with.  Someone with a slightly different perspective may end up providing useful insight.  They may ask an intriguing question, suggest a new idea, or interpret your results in an enlightening way. Perhaps they know the exact solution to the weird problem you're having, or read an esoteric research paper that's totally relevant with what you're trying to do, or are trained in some characterization tool that does the exact measurement you need to do.

I can't even count the number of times I struggled to solve some problem in lab, only to find out some other grad student figured out a much easier way long before. I only had to ask around.

Speak up if something goes wrong.
Thanks to Doc Becca for reminding me of this advice: If you make a mistake, say something! It's ALWAYS better to say something. Even if it's a little thing. But ESPECIALLY if it's a big thing. Making a mistake and hiding it are grounds for getting kicked out of a research group. I've seen it happen!

Mistakes happen all the time, it's fine, it's expected. But hiding them or not being forthcoming when they happen can only cause more problems. Coming forward and admitting mistake might be embarrassing, but it's fine. After all the point of academic research is to learn!

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
Graduate-level coursework and research are hard enough as it is. You can make it much easier on yourself, and complete tasks in a more efficient way, if you ask for help when you need it. Especially in terms of experimental research, operating equipment and analyzing data, asking for help is not an admission of failure.

Asking for help is what smart people do when they realize there's probably a better way.

In my research group, grad students work VERY independently and the ones who burn-out are the ones who take on the entire the burden of their project by themselves and get stuck. Sure, high-level technical details and mind-numbing measurements are part of the grad school experience and science in general, in moderation. But it's only useful if it's getting you closer to the goal.  And NOT at the price of your sanity. If you're getting nowhere, it's time to reach out.

Sometimes admitting difficulty (i.e. complaining, when done correctly, i.e. you tried a lot of things and none of them are working) turns into a really useful collaboration.

The whole benefit of working in a team is the ability to collaborate. 
Of course you should be expected to do a lot on your own. But you should also take advantage of the people around you, especially the more experienced grad students and postdocs.  If you're stuck on something, ask them how they would do it.  If you're having a hard time writing a paper, ask them to look it over and provide suggestions. If you're swamped, consider delegating some tasks to someone else.  Train a new student to take measurements for you.

If no one around you is being helpful, ask your PI to suggest someone new to talk to.

Give credit where credit is due.
Don't take advantage of people who help you. Acknowledge them. In fact, you may be ethically obligated to do so.

If someone contributed significantly on a project you're trying to publish, include their name in the author list or thank them in an acknowledgement section. If you borrow a slide or a figure that someone else made, give them credit by listing their name in the author list or put "courtesy their name" in the caption. When in doubt on how much specific credit you should give, ask. 

Offer to help.
Getting help when you need it is a benefit of working in a team, but this works both ways. Someone may come to you with a problem or question that's in your area of expertise, and it's in your best interest as a group member to try and help them out. If you can't help directly the very least you can do is politely point them in the right direction.

It's good to build up karma when you can because you never know when you'll help in the future. Who knows, helping someone else could lead to something interesting (or even a co-authorship). Of course, there is a line between being helpful and being a doormat, so it's important to know your limits, especially if it distracts you from making progress on your own research project.

Be approachable & agreeable (even if it's annoying).
As a postdoc and one of the most senior people in my research group, I had to do a lot of favors: giving lab tours to campus visitors, editing research paper drafts, training grad students, etc. I don't mind it all because I consider it part of my duties as a postdoc and I get a sense of fulfillment being able to help.

But it isn't always easy.

For example, I used to find it unnerving when younger students drop by my office unannounced asking for advice.  But I know being approachable is an important part of managing a team, and if the situation were reversed, I'd hope they'd be happy to talk to me as well. It's all part of fostering a friendly workplace. So I'd try to be open to it.

Email people back. But keep it prompt and short and sweet.
Email is my favorite form of communication with my group members. I know not everyone likes email, but it's a good way to keep a record of communication and progress.  So it's important to stay on top of it. Automatically filtering my inbox is a big help.

One of my pet peeves is asking for a quick favor or verification via email and not getting a reply, especially arranging meeting times with younger students. Sometimes IM/calling/texting is better if you need a reply within several hours.

Another pet peeve is receiving really long, rambly emails (although I am TOTALLY guilty of writing them). Sometimes it's better to schedule a face-to-face meeting if it requires more than a few sentences.

...And don't write angry emails. 
The worst interpersonal conflicts I've had as a grad student (not that there were many) was someone berating me with a really passive-aggressive, angrily-written email.  Usually it was for something completely mundane like misplaced lab supplies. DO NOT DO THIS. It's childish and unprofessional.

First of all, always give people the benefit of the doubt. If shit goes down and you're upset, give yourself time to cool down before you want to rage on your keyboard. If you're past the rage and still have a major problem, talk to them in person. You will find a much nicer way to phrase it when you're looking at them right in the face. If you can't do that, talk to your PI about it.

One of the important parts of teamwork and fostering a friendly workplace is civility. If someone made a mistake and you need to let them know, choose your words and language in a way that doesn't come across as angry or belittling.  We've ALL made mistakes. You don't want people to be afraid of admitting them.

It's okay to dislike someone you work with.
The Harvard Business Review has another great post How To Work With Someone You Hate that includes some helpful advice about managing your own reactions and keeping negative feelings to yourself.

There are some people I get along with really well, and some people I don't. I find it very emotionally draining to be around people I don't communicate with well, so I try really hard to managing my mood when I'm around them. Mostly I try to keep my personal feelings to myself and just focus on the task at hand.

Although, honestly, sometimes the easiest way to be around someone you don't like is to just be really nice to them anyway. It makes the time pass more quickly. And besides, just because someone's an asshole one time doesn't mean they're an asshole 100% of the time. If someone did something to upset you, give yourself some space, but don't hold it against them for life.

Don't badmouth coworkers behind their back (especially with other coworkers).
Try not to participate in office gossip. This is basically impossible in a grad school setting, but try. A little light-hearted ribbing is one thing, but often gossip can become cruel and unfair and create strife within a research group. Try to avoid it. This isn't middle school. Don't be a dick.

Besides, you never know who you might have to work with or depend on in the future, so it's better not to burn that bridge.

If you MUST gossip, do what I do and make up funny nicknames about your coworkers so you can vent about them to your non-grad student friends.  (You still have non grad school friends, right?)

Diversity leads to more innovation. But it can also bring conflict. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.
And by diversity, I don't just mean ethnic or gender diversity. (They are both great, for sure!)  I mean diversity in a larger sense. David Goldberg wrote a good article about different kinds of diversity, such as diversity in personalities and aspirations, and how they can inspire innovation. Which I totally agree with. More diversity is better all around.

BUT the downside of having many people with many differences in ideas and points of view and opinions is it CAN lead to conflicts.

Conflicts are not a bad thing. In fact, the Harvard Business Review suggests that conflict among team members can often lead to more creative outcomes.

It comes down to respect. Differences in opinion are great if they are appreciated equally. Again, don't be a dick. Be patient. It may take longer to resolve things, but the solutions will be all the better for it.

Realize everyone communicates differently.
I get uneasy categorizing other humans into "types," however, I recently attended a seminar on communication that talked about the Hermann Brain Dominance Model that breaks up people into four types: Analytical, Sequential, Interpersonal and Imaginative.
  • Analytical thinkers are logic and fact driven and want to know how things work. They're the ones arguing about data in a group meeting.  
  • Sequential thinkers are detailed, organized and like to break things down into steps. They're the ones typing out step-by-step instructions for lab equipment. 
  • Interpersonal thinkers are more sensory and feeling and like group discussions. They're the ones organizing the group happy hour.  
  • Imaginative thinkers are more conceptual and like to look at the "big picture," can be innovative and solve things long term, but gloss over details.  
For example, I'm a "sequential thinker," and it's important to me to take very detailed, careful notes whenever I get trained on new equipment. Other people don't like taking notes  and would rather just watch and listen. I used to think this was irresponsible, but I realize now that it's just a different way of learning. Which is totally fine.

It's not particularly important to have a list of types, or what they're called or how many types there are.  The point is this: it's important to recognize and respect the fact that someone may operate differently from you. This recognition and respect will make working with them easier.

Communication is what real science is all about. 
Grad school can be a bubble. Don't get trapped in a bubble. Not many people can be successful being in a bubble.

The whole point of doing science is communicating your results: writing and reading research papers, attending conferences, and so forth. It's not just about designing experiments and getting good results and then graduating and never being heard from again.  If you can't communicate your science, you're kind of just wasting resources.

Oh yeah, and there's that networking thing, too.
One day you WILL graduate, and being on good terms with as many people as you can may be beneficial for your future career endeavors. Trust me on this. You will need to look for a job one day and you'll want to reach out to as many people as possible.

Consider the fact that people you don't know very well can be more helpful than your closest friends, career-wise.  Adam Grant wrote about the hidden value of "weak ties." He says, "When you haven’t seen people in three or five years, you can’t predict what novel ideas and networks they’ll be able to share. And it turns out that the older you get, the more valuable dormant ties become." This is what networking IS and this is why social networking sites CAN be useful.

Don't take it personal. It's only science. 
Sometimes there are disagreements. Sometimes you get cut out of a project, or all your friends got to go to some conference and you didn't, or someone undeserving gets a great result while you're slaving away getting nowhere, or someone lands a better job out of school than you did. Sometimes people are just assholes. It's important to not let these kinds of things get to you.

Some might say 'pick your battles' but I'd rather say 'suck it up and get back to work.'

Your coworkers are not your enemy. You are, after all, part of a team.  


Check out my Grad School Survival Guide!

1 comment:

  1. Great post and great advice. This was also me:

    "didn't set out to specifically make friends with my extended research group. I'm pretty reserved by nature anyway, so I basically ignored them completely."

    But after a few years in the game, I came around to your line of thinking too.


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