Works Not Well With Others

Apr 24 2012 Published by under colleagues, graduate school

A reader wonders about

the boundary between immersion and self-centered approach inĀ research.

Is it possible to be too focused on your research in a way that is seen as "self-centered" rather than collaborative and collegial? Yes, of course, but context matters.

In this particular case, I think the individual (a research scientist) needs to clarify things with the head of the research group, perhaps discussing specific examples of possible problems and clearing up any misunderstandings. It can be a good thing for a research scientist to be totally immersed in their work (if that is their inclination), but perhaps there are some expectations (at present unspecified) about ways in which cooperation and collaboration is expected.

The question (from a research scientist) started me thinking about this boundary for other cases, such as those involving students and professors.

Professors who advise students and/or postdocs are supposed to be unselfish, sort of by definition (although I know it is not always so, and I am going to ignore the extreme/evil cases for this discussion). We give our best ideas to our students and postdocs and help them in many ways with their research, particularly in the first couple of years.

Some professors who do research work in large(ish) collaborative groups with other scientists, at least for some projects, whereas others work primarily with their own students and maybe a small group of other colleagues. My impression is that the "lone wolf" professor still exists, but is endangered (Does anyone think that is a good thing?).

But what about students? How self-centered vs. unselfish should students be?

Again, context matters, but I think in general, students need to find a good balance between immersion (self-centered focus) and learning how to collaborate with others (beyond the advisor), particularly if their career goal will involve work situations involving collaboration and cooperation. Working collaboratively does not work well for all people -- I am not a real doctor and am not going to opine about the prevalence of Aspergers/autism spectrum people in the sciences -- but, at least in my corner of academia, working well with other scientists is essential.

It is very common to see a brief works-well-with-others paragraph in letters of reference for academic jobs. These paragraphs typically give examples of how a student, postdoc, or other early-career person was a "good department/research group" citizen. Of course we don't expect students and most postdocs to do a lot of service work, so most of these examples involve ways in which someone was generous with their time and knowledge in helping others. This is seen as a good sign that someone will be a good colleague and mentor.

That doesn't mean you have to get along with everyone -- there are some people with whom I cannot and will not work -- but it's fine if it is a minor issue of some (but not many) specific personality/priority clashes and not a general trait of being unable and unwilling to work with others. It is also important that problems working with others not follow general patterns related to gender, ethnicity, religion etc.

It is also important that a student (or postdoc) not spend too much time helping others, to the detriment of their own work. What is too much vs. enough depends on the research, research group dynamics etc., but if anyone (student, postdoc, advisor) feels there is an imbalance, it's important to discuss it and work something out.

Questions for readers: How do/did you, as a current or former grad student/postdoc, feel about working with others, either in a collaborative role or in a sharing-your-expertise with other students/postdocs role? Do/did you feel that you spent too much time helping others and would have liked to focus more on your work? If so, did this problem ever get resolved (and how)?

16 responses so far

  • Dr Moose says:

    I struggled with the usual works-well-with-others paragraph in a recent letter of reference for a grad student. This is typically an easy one to write for most students, but this particular student worked well only with other male grads and did not work well with female grad students. He was hypercompetitive with the female students, to the point of bizarreness. Otherwise he was a nice guy. What would he be like as an advisor and colleague, I wondered (because that is the point of the paragraph)? I *think* he would likely develop the maturity and professionalism to treat female students and colleagues with respect but it still bothered me that he hadn't shown signs of this as a student. In the end, I decided to leave out any mention of his collegiality. I am not sure if that was the right thing to do.

  • anon says:

    I generally like to help others and have been that way in every capacity as a scientist - tech, grad student, post-doc, and prof. From the role of asst prof, I have helped high school students and undergrads by training them with no real benefit to the progress of the lab, but I don't mind doing it. I have had only two negative experiences with this - one was as a grad student. I was "stuck" with an alleged superstar undergrad with perfect grades. He was a fuckin nightmare in the lab, which is an understatement; this student could NOT get out of his own way. However, his classroom performance clouded my supervisor's vision of him, and he always sided with this student when I tried to complain to him, and told him that I wanted him fired. It wasn't until this student worked with my supervisor directly (after I gave up) that he ended up getting fired. That turned me off to working with anyone for quite a while.

  • postdoc says:

    "I *think* he would likely develop the maturity and professionalism to treat female students and colleagues with respect but it still bothered me that he hadn't shown signs of this as a student."

    This is not the sort of trait that improves with research experience. The few people I know like this created a toxic environment. The right thing to do would be to pick up the phone.

  • GMP says:

    I have a brilliant graduate student who is about to graduate with a PhD. He wants to be a professor (he's going to do a postdoc at a good place), and while I will do what I can to support him, I don't think a faculty position is the right job for him. He likes to work mostly on his own, at his own pace, participates in group discussions considerably less than others, avoids group outings... He is happiest when left alone to do his thing, and likes working at one thing at a time, at his own pace. He hates giving presentations and in general is a taciturn guy. But, technically he's excellent, a really deep thinker, and very smart.

    So yeah, he's definitely a lone wolf. A few decades ago I think he would have done well as a professor, but as FSP said these people are a dying breed. Communicativeness and a certain level of approachability are prerequisites for being a prof nowadays, for every aspect of work -- teaching, collaborations, research presentations, getting grants...

    • Isabel says:

      "likes working at one thing at a time, at his own pace. He hates giving presentations and in general is a taciturn guy. But, technically he's excellent, a really deep thinker, and very smart. "

      I've often wondered when really social, outgoing types do their deep thinking.

      Do they do less "deep thinking" than less social types, I wonder?

      • GMP says:

        Dunno. I don't know that there is a difference in capacity for deep thought between social and less social people. My (totally uneducated) guess is that social types are just better at absorbing information from other people than less social people, who generally need peace and quiet with a book/research paper (i.e. they prefer getting info from inanimate entities)...

  • Colleen says:

    I am in a trandisciplinary field and am hoping that my communication/verbal skills, which have led to several active and productive research collaborations, are what will give me a competitive edge in the job market (along with "hard" skills such as programming, research design, and statistical analysis of course).

    This is somewhat ironic given that I am a bit high on the Asperger's Quotient scale! However, I have compensated for those traits by being very good at pattern recognition, including patterns of social interaction. I have many "tools" in my "social skills toolbox" as I like to say. I have a conversation script for just about every scenario as well as training in theater and comedy improvisation, which helps. I am also very visual and can read facial expressions unusually well for someone who is neuroatypical.

    I am also proof that there are people with Asperger's, and then there are "ass burgers" as we call them. Being neuro atypical doesn't mean you have a free pass to act like a jerk.

  • zinemin says:

    For me collaborations have really been the high and the low points of my science career.

    I love complicated and interesting discussions, best by e-mail. People who answer my questions carefully, and ask good questions themselves. I like co-supervising projects by providing encouragement, ideas, enthusiasm and helping to communicate -- all things that I weirdly find much harder in my own project -- and I love it if someone provides the same in my project. I really see beauty in a good collaboration.

    But then if you have unresponsive collaborators who don't do what they promised, delay your project, seem to sabotage you, attack you aggressively shortly before you want to submit the paper, criticize you in an extremely vague, personal or destructive way, or try to dump failing projects or problematic students on you without any scruples....

    I have come to the conclusion that non-aggressive people like myself should at all cost avoid working with aggressive people, even if they initially seem to really add something to the enterprise. They will inevitably try to trample over you and take advantage of you. My goal is therefore now to build up a network of nice scientists to work with. I should make an ad... :

    I will provide and expect the following: Honest and careful comments at all stages of the project. Honest and immediate communication if any delays occur or if comments will take a while. Adherence to self-set deadlines. Responsibility for my own project and my own decisions. Politeness and respect at all stages of the project, even if things go totally wrong. Respecting the interests and career goals of my collaborator as if he/she were a friend.

  • Mac says:

    As a very social person I get a little offended by the idea that I do less deep thinking than introverts (as Isabel suggest) just because I can talk to people happily for hours doesn't mean I can't be on my own and think deeply about a problem and as GMP indicates we can keep thinking with people as well. It seems to have become increasingly acceptable to 'bash' extroverts, while I agree introverts often get a raw deal why can't we work on a little mutual respect?

    I felt my grad years included a good mix of enough independent work to develop as a scientist and collaborative work to learn to work with people. In my opinion labs that I saw where virtually everything was collaborative produced lots of papers but fewer grads that went on to head their own labs because they didn't have the independence to establish their own research programs.

    • Isabel says:

      "doesn't mean I can't be on my own and think deeply about a problem "
      Sorry, didn't mean any disrespect, I was sincerely asking. I had no idea anyone had been bashing extroverts. And while I agree with your goal of mutual respect, bear in mind we are discussing a reality at the moment that is much more favorable to extroverts, fair or not.

      It sounds like you do spend time on your own, anyway. I know people who almost never do. It does seem to be a really different way of processing information.

      For example, I get a lot more "deep thinking" (thinking about the scientific questions I am pursuing, the direction my life is taking, major social issues, etc) done when walking or hiking alone than I do if I am with other people and talking the whole time. I only seem to do certain types of thinking when I'm with other people, though that does include great collaborative conversations- I'm not a recluse or anything, and I enjoy participating in group discussions.

  • hkukbilingualidiot says:

    I second Colleen, I scored highly on the ASD spectrum but put me in a crowd of more than 3 and I collapse socially. I also have the algorithm for social interactions that I've started developing during my volunteering days at a spinal injuries unit and continually adjusted with data from tv scenarios. However, as it IS a complex algorithm that may or may not be even more complex than what I currently study hence the collapse of social skills in groups beyond 3...

    Then, there is the problem of holding a conversation, most people don't have the patience or curiosity to develop the ideas being talked about. I really do try to hold and engage in social activities but with the current groups that I'm working with their egos and pride forbade them to even just listen to a different point of view. I struggle with casual delivery. I have been one of the best presenters around, engaging, fun and confident. But put me in a social setting and it's different. I just don't respond quick enough...well I AM reading body language, intent, the actual conversation itself and my own bunch of facial, body and linguistic responses all at the same time.

    Maybe it's the current crowd that I've found myself in but as I have to create a mental profile for each and every person I deal with, to know how I should interact with them, I tend to be perceived as a lone-shark but students, who put in an effort, and professionals who actually knows what they are doing will say otherwise. I have absolutely no problem working with these people and am slowly forming friendships with them. However, as it really is very difficult to hold social relationships if on the first time we engage in conversation there were signs of topic juggling or total denial for friendly discussions I cut my losses and give up. They may not understand or recognise the reasons why I do it but life's too short to put so much effort into a relationship that you neither gain professional enlightenment nor social companionship.

    I'm sorry if that makes me a jerk but I really don't have the mental capacity to be friends with everyone. However, that doesn't make me unwilling nor incapable of collaborating. It just means that unless we can all contribute in equal shares towards solving or discussing about whatever we happen to have common grounds in, I'm sorry I just haven't got the time or patience to deal with you.

  • Anon says:

    How important is the 'works well with others' paragraph in a reference letter? If it is missing, does that (usually) mean that the person doesn't collaborate well, either in research or as a colleague, or does it mean that the letter writer doesn't think this is important? I guess that's why a phone call might be necessary.

  • Anonymous says:

    The comments from people with Aspergers are fascinating. I once struggled to advise an undergrad who was somewhere along the autism spectrum (in my amateur opinion), and in the end I think I mostly failed at it. I understood that the student needed to put her head down and close her eyes when we were talking, especially if I was explaining how to do something. This was how she focused. That was fine with me, and once the others in the lab understood what she was doing, it was fine with them too. She learned things very quickly and well using this approach, although there were challenges because sometimes I had to demonstrate something and she would have to look up, which was difficult for her at times. She also didn't know when a conversation was over, but I found ways to be very clear about this without being rude, I think. The major problem was that there were days (typically 1-3) when she couldn't leave her room and just had to be alone (she said she was reading a book), but she wouldn't tell me about this until she reappeared, so it was difficult to have continuity in the research, and some research activities were prohibited because there was such a high chance she might not show up when she needed to. Even if we had a specific appointment to meet at a certain time on a certain day, she wasn't guaranteed to show up, and then she would show up at a time when I was busy with something else. This is why the experience ultimately failed for us both because she wasn't able to get any useful results given the lack of continuity in her work. I think if I had known that in advance I could have designed a different research project, one that could accommodate gaps in time and communication. No matter what, though, the flexibility required in terms of my advising time would always make it difficult for me to advise a student like that again. I was paying her a stipend, so there were also the usual stresses associated with that when someone doesn't do the work they are supposed to do (for whatever reason).

    I know similar things have been discussed before, but I still really struggle with my wish to be the kind of advisor who is very understanding and accommodating of students, knowing that it is (unfortunately) normal for there to be physical and mental/emotional problems, and trying to find a way to accommodate this. Yet at the same time, I have constant stress about grants and productivity and being evaluated and having a million and one things to do (not allowing me the time and flexibility to really help students like the one I described), and these things affect not only me but also my other students. I need things to work smoothly in my group and for everyone to get along as much as possible so everyone can be learning and making progress. How to do it right? Especially if there is someone who doesn't (can't) work well with others?

    • zinemin says:

      I totally understand you. have been in the opposite situation, with an advisor that probably had Asperger's. It was very difficult to work with her until I figured this out.

      I would urge all scientists with Asperger's to openly disclose their condition and do some educating about it as soon as they start to collaborate closely with someone. With closely, I especially mean an advisor-student relation, but also other long term close collaborations.

      Of course, this requires trust, but such close collaborations can only work with trust anyway!

      PhD students and advisors should anyway really be more open to each other; it is sad to hear (as a postdoc) how much guessing about each other is going on both on the internet but also at the lunch tables.

  • Mac says:

    Isabel - sorry if I reacted too much - I get what you're saying. Yes, in general I think extroverts do have an easier time of it but it's funny there's a new book on introverts that seems to be inspiring a certain level of commentary that starts with "extroverts have it easier" but in at least a few columns/commentaries I've seen it degenerates into bashing "vapid extroverts". I have enough (in age, gender, etc) that I fight to be taken seriously if extroversion gets added as a 'problem' or as less serious - that's not going to be easy so I worry.

  • Alice says:

    I am having a particularly hard time as an advisor at the moment with a student who helps others too much, and does not focus on his own project. He is also disruptive in lab meetings, because he focuses on every single unimportant detail and, as a result, the big picture is often buried deeply into the discussion. I have spoken both to him individually and the group regarding focusing and prioritizing, but it has been to no avail. It seems that every time I walk into the lab, he is "helping" (often driving the person nuts with unnecessary uber-cautious worries) someone else. The few experiments that he does for his project are never what I discussed with him, but instead others, which he considers (but I certainly donĀ“t) must be done first. Often, he complicates the experiments with so many precautions that he is unable to do/finish them.

    I have finally come to the conclusion that the real problem is that he is afraid to directly address the central hypothesis of his thesis (after all, it may prove to be untrue, as in all Science), and thus distracts himself from doing the experiments that are going to point him into the direction of the answer.

    The question is how to steer him into a productive path. He is certainly highly intelligent and knowledgeable, but seems impervious to sincere conversations in this line. I accept suggestions!