realworld PhDs

A resource for job hunting PhDs.

On lines of communication (or why no news is not good news).

I recently had an exchange (or rather, a lack of an exchange) with a coworker which I think well illustrates one of the biggest challenges we all face in learning how to be professionals.  One of my main duties right now is organizing the renewal application for my program - we are 100% funded through the NIH, and so every five years, we have to reapply for that funding, providing an application that both demonstrates how we’ve been successful in the past and where we’ll be taking our research in the future.  Our program consists of five major research projects spread across four universities and research institutes, as well as support cores (of which I’m the administrative core), which focus on helping the researchers leverage specific aspects of their work - community outreach, research translation with other researchers and policy makers, training students and postdocs, etc.  It’s pretty much as big and complicated as it sounds - in addition to the four campuses, we have a half dozen smaller collaborations with everything from other research groups to local and national community groups who help communities affected by environmental contamination.

Our first big deadline for the renewal application was last week, and thankfully all of our researcher scientists provided all of the material we needed on time - except one.  This person, who we’ll call Mary, is also the newest addition to our research group, although she’s worked with many of our researchers for years.

I had sent Mary a couple of emails asking for an ETA on her submission, and she had initially said that she could have it to me by the deadline.  At the deadline, I hadn’t received anything, so I called her, and she said she’d have it to me in two hours.  After that deadline passed, she said she would send it as soon as possible, but refused to give a specific timeline.  The submission eventually came through, 9 hours after it was initially due.

On the one hand, the delay had no significant impact on the research group as a whole - I circulated the rest of the material, and just tacked on her piece when it became available.  On the other hand, though, the whole incident made me think about how important it is to develop strong lines of communication, and to be willing to use those lines not just to ask questions or confirm details, but to admit to delays and problems.  As it turned out, one of the big problems her group was facing was insufficient support - the other participants in her group weren’t able to work on the draft, and she was feeling overwhelmed.  Our director or other available people in the administration could have helped finish the submission before the deadline, but since we only learned of the problem after the deadline, by then we had next steps and further obligations that affected the whole program that we needed to attend to.

Now, obviously speaking up when things are going badly is scary, especially for new people.  But it’s also an important test of the employee-employer relationship.  An employer who gets angry or seems unhappy that they’ve been told about a problem, especially that they’ve been told about a problem in advance, when something could still be done about it, is not a good employer.  Problems will come up.  Projects will fail.  No organization can run smoothly forever.  It’s more useful for you as an employee to know and know early that your employer freaks out about mistakes because that’s a great cue for you to start looking for a new position.

On the flip side, I think a lot of people resist the idea of admitting their mistakes because they’re worried about become a scapegoat.  In fact, I was actually given that exact advice by a manager once (albeit at a really dysfunctional organization).  Again, I could see this happening in badly managed organizations, but in a healthy organization, the ability to spot problems early on is a huge asset, and one that can potentially greatly increase your recognizability within the organization.  No one likes to see a project fall apart, and if you can be the person to spot the leak in the dyke, you can potentially save your organization a lot of time and money.

So for 2016, everyone should go out there and admit to their mistakes, as early as possible and to anyone they might impact directly (whether they’re above you, below you, or across from you in your organizational hierarchy).  No news isn’t good news - it’s just nonsense.