22 February 2010

Compete or be nice?

I'm participating in a program this year sponsored by the MU Graduate School called Graduate Colleague Circles. I'm serving as a mentor/facilitator of monthly meetings with three other senior grad student mentors and 15 first year graduate students from science departments on campus. The goal of the program is to give new students a little extra help to facilitate retention after the first year of a doctoral program in particular departments.

I really like the idea of the program. I really like to talk about science, life, teaching, learning, etc with other peers, particularly those from other departments. I'm not going to discuss the relative success or implementation of this particular program right now, but it is the premise of the set-up and a meeting we had earlier tonight that sparked my interest in the issue of competition among scientists.

First, I must admit to personal interest in this issue, as I've recently had some eye-opening experiences with a few of my peers regarding their interpretation of my behavior and comments in class and the lab. Suffice it to say that I have a strong personality that I apparently do not sufficiently temper enough to put some of my colleagues at ease while working with them in a professional setting. However, I'm starting to think about getting a job after I graduate (May 2011? So soon?!?), and that means dispassionately evaluating where I am in my education and career development, where I would like to end up, and who I am as a scientist. Inevitably, that means comparing myself to my peers to see how I will stand out in a stack of applications.

How do I compare? Well, that's for me and my insecurities to battle out later. What I can say, though, is that my exposure to the mean side of competitiveness and criticism has been miniscule compared to what other students may experience. Case in point: a senior grad student from a biomedical-type department detailed his recent experience giving a seminar to his department. He said he was grilled fairly hard-core for 10-15 minutes afterwards in the question-and-answer session by a half dozen professors, all of whom expressed seeming displeasure or intense criticism of his research. Afterwards, though, they all came up to him, smiled, and said he did a good job.

Yes, I used italics, because this observation is so important to me. As scientists we are taught to be critical, and sometimes that criticism is not happily accepted. That does not mean, however, that the criticism is provided with malice, and sometimes we need a critical view. Another student revealed tonight a philosophy that I had not encountered: if labmates are too nice to each other, they must not be in a competitive or successful lab, because there is not enough criticism. This was revolutionary to me, that there were people who thought like this! While I believe one should be nice while providing their viewpoint, I sort of believe that constructive criticism should always hurt a little bit.

Here's what I really think. I can be pretty durn snarky at times, and while I don't intend to be rude to other folks, I think sometimes my head gets pretty far up science's ass and it's difficult to moderate the more harsh aspects of my personality. In other words, if I'm really thinking about a scientific question, enough of my brain power is committed to the problem at hand to make playing nice even more difficult. To me, that's good. I like that I'm committing that much brain power to an issue. It's efficient, and it doesn't mean I'm trying to sound smarter than you. I promise.

But it's only efficient if the receiver of said criticism can handle it, and can separate emotion from science. Easier said than done, and I speak from experience: that one's taken me years, and I still fall off the bandwagon sometimes.

1 comment:

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