Saturday, January 23, 2010

Into the void

In a recent discussion about the shifting focus of my project, Guru asked if I wanted to learn super cool method. I did. It was one of the reasons I chose his lab, and I told him such. His response: "You're too shy about telling me these things." This conversation made me realize that I may not have been very clear about what I'm expecting out of my time at BRI... and clarifying what is expected of me.

Oftentimes grad students and postdocs don't speak up, at least not with advisers. On an earlier post about establishing mentor and mentee expectations, DrDoyenne relayed her husbands feeling that trainees "failed to ask questions about what was expected of them or to speak up when they did not understand something". This is equally applicable to other areas of interaction with our advisers. We have a tendency to hide behind a mountain of excuses, and we lose out.

Widening the gap
Many times, when we fail to speak our mind or ask questions, we widen the communication gap between us and our advisers. So why do we do it? I briefly highlighted some reasons in my earlier response to DrDoyenne, but here are a few (expanded) contributing factors in my mind.

Village idiot/impostor* syndrome
*"Impostor" added in response to an excellent point by PhDamned
When you're starting in a new lab and/or new field, you sometimes feel like the village idiot. You don't know all the techniques, the terminology, the data from years of research that have pushed a project forward, the status quo on lab meeting presentations, typical expectations, and so on. You don't want to ask the obvious questions--whether or not they are, in fact, obvious to everyone. When you're the n00b, you can get away with some things, but you're not really sure where the line is. This is exaggerated when you're a postdoc because you already have the Ph.D., which means you should know some of this stuff; at least this is what you tell yourself. So you sit quietly, trying to understand what's going on, feeling completely lost.

Mule syndrome
Science selects for trainees possessing some sense of independence and persistence. This statement contains more truthiness, if you've decided to follow the tenure track. Independence and persistence are good--in the appropriate context. However, some of us could be described as stubborn as mules, which sometimes keeps us from asking for help when we need it.

High IF
Not impact factor, but intimidation factor. For some, speaking to anyone in a position of authority, is enough to silence them. This is feeling can be intensified by the adviser's standing in the institution/field (big cheese=high IF) or a trainee's perception of the adviser's personality. Regardless of the reason, when we feel intimidated, we tend to avoid interactions, especially if we are bringing in problems instead of solutions. And when we are forced into interactions, we hold back.

Past is present
We are all human, which means we carry our experiences and memories into current and future situations. If we've had difficult interactions with our current adviser or an adviser in the past, then we are hesitant to risk putting ourselves in a similar situation again. We also look to colleagues' interactions with our advisers. We hear "horror" stories from past or current lab members about how critical/apathetic/irrational/(insert your own key word) the PI is in one-on-one interactions with them. We sometimes let these shape our own interactions with our advisers--missing the point that other lab members' interactions and perceptions are colored by their own personality and experiences.

Other planet complex
This is a point we've touched on previously. Sometimes we connect with our advisers. We speak and she/he understands what we're saying and vice-versa. Other times it's almost as though we are on different planets speaking different languages. It's frustrating. We think we know what our advisers want/are asking and respond accordingly, only to realize they want something else entirely--and we can't figure out what that is.

Bridging the chasm
The communication gap between adviser and trainee must be closed if we're to have a productive and long-lasting relationship, something which will impact our careers. How do we do that? That's one I'm still working on, but this is my view so far: Try to figure out the major cause for the gap and adapt. There are some things we cannot change, like our past experiences or our advisers' personalities, but we can change how we react to them. For instance, I have to remind myself that Guru is a very different adviser than Bear, and I need to adjust how I communicate with him. We can also look to colleagues that do seem to communicate effectively and evaluate what they do differently.

In all this, though, we have to keep a clear idea of the purpose for this relationship. This isn't about making your adviser a drinking buddy or establishing a "sunshine and rainbows and lollipops" relationship with him/her. For me, this is about making me a better scientist and future mentor. I will not always like what Guru (or any other adviser) has to say; the critical point is that I appropriately interpret what he's saying and that I find my voice and make sure it's heard.