Being an academic researcher can be very frustrating. Solving a complex problem, often in isolation, without much experience, and then add to that, dealing with lots of, let’s say, “different” people – sounds fun, right? Oh, and I forgot to mention the lack of power also associated with being a PhD candidate – it just gets so much better!
All of these factors combined, can make your PhD feel really difficult. Although we tend to work in isolation, focusing in on our super unique and special problem, it is the human interactions that can make or break our PhD experience. Feeling really connected to the people around us, and having positive relationships with our peers, collaborators, and supervisors helps to get us through the tough times. But when this isn’t the case? We’ve all been there. Tensions arise: collaborators bicker over failed experiments, supervisors assert their authority, peers let you down. It can be hard not to take things to heart, as a personal insult (you know those well written (not) emails I am talking about!).
From what I have seen, a lot of people cope with these situations by ignoring them.
This goes against almost every fibre of my being. I am fiercely passionate (about a lot of things, unfortunately), and therefore tend to react to things that others might not deem that important, or even perceive to exist at the time! I have experienced great dysfunction from others sweeping things under the proverbial carpet, and I believe it is counter-productive. As for ‘sustainability’, ignoring conflict really doesn’t make the cut. I might not agree with ignoring situations, but I think there is merit in not reacting. Every. Single. Time. Which has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, that’s for sure.
We all grow, change, and develop (my mantra of late).
“But, Francesca, I am not a robot, I can’t not react sometimes!” I hear you say. You are preaching to the choir, let me assure you. This is when it pays to put your reflective thinking cap on. I recently commented on the amount of work that goes into an eloquent, 40 minute, research presentation. You don’t see the failures, and you don’t see the struggles.
Enter the iceberg. You can see a little bit from the surface, but there is a lot underneath that you sometimes never see.
And then add the complexity of the beast that is academia, and we have one HUGE iceberg. Every researcher has different experience, interests, priorities, aspirations, and social abilities, of which you are probably unaware. And, at the end of the day, let’s not kid ourselves: very few are there to serve the ‘greater good’ 100% of the time. That, however, doesn’t mean that everyone is out to get you either. I was recently given some passed-down advice for interpreting others’ actions: if you have to choose between ignorance and malice, always choose ignorance. This ties into a valuable lesson in handling difficult conversations, and that is about the story you tell yourself. If you approach a situation with a one-track mind as to how and why people behave, not recognising the iceberg beneath the surface, you will most likely lose out.
Step back and take a breath.
Understanding where people are coming from, and why, without our own bias, is powerful. It might not change the outcome, but trust me, it will save your sanity. It might not happen overnight, and you may feel as though no-one else is making the effort to do the same. But we need to grow, change, and develop. So let’s get critical and reflective in our thinking, and not get sucked into the continuous soap opera that academia can become.
“You can’t control other people, but you can control your reactions to them.”
Academia is a bunch of strange characters trying to work together. We definitely didn’t choose all the people we work with, but if we can’t see the iceberg in everyone, we will sink just like the Titanic.
And because we haven’t taken our reflective caps off yet – what’s in your iceberg?
PS. Title credit to my colleague, Kiara Bruggeman, for her love of word play (‘every man is an island’, get it?)!