Why can’t we just be human first?

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

I saw a nice post recently stating the words “Be human first, scientist second.” I really like this idea, and it is such a great lesson that we forget in the ever-competitive nature of academia and even in life in general; we are always on the go. This post will mainly focus on how we can be human first, and why we should.

Academia can be a very lonely place sometimes: as a graduate student or postdoc you may feel that you are the only one going through certain situations and that nobody understands you. By nature, academia can be a very self-centered place where everyone is fighting for their survival, perpetuating the “sink or swim” attitude, and creating a hostile environment for those that have an interest in science.

Anyone who has ever worked at the bench has come to expect failed experiments as a normal part of life. Even more, graduate students and postdocs are constantly reminded of their lack of power due to the prevalent hierarchy of authority in science. Over time, this feeling of oppression can have a very significant effect on your desire to even get up in the morning and go to the lab, let alone seriously consider research as a long-term career.

Failure is an all too familiar concept that we embrace as being normal in academia- why is that? And more importantly, what does that do to our society as a whole? Do we really believe that women are less capable of doing science, or that your origin or skin color should really matter over being good at what you do? How can we overcome the barriers that lead so many of us to forget why we fell in love with science in the first place?

I am a strong advocate for a diverse and equitable research enterprise, and I don’t believe anyone should be blocked from pursuing science as a career if that is their goal. But to achieve a truly transformational change, we need to change our value system as academics, and as a larger society. This can lead to a more positive and welcoming system for all. Change starts internally, from within each of us. We need to stop judging those who choose to stay in research, as well as those who don’t. Perhaps we should ask more questions about what makes people stay at the bench, what drew them here in the first place, and conversely, ask those who pursued other paths how they used their passion for science to achieve something greater. Only by understanding each person’s goals and motivations can we truly achieve positive change.

But how can we make this system better for ourselves and those coming after us?

Support

Support individual goals, even if we, as mentors and peers, may disagree with the goals of those we interact with. We need to look deep into ourselves and recognize the biases that we might have, and not let them cloud our judgment of the person standing in front of us. In a society that has the tendency to “herd cats” and assume that everyone wants the same thing, it is worthwhile understanding what each individual needs. It definitely takes more work, but supporting others in their goals is imperative to everyone succeeding together in science, and in life. Teach them not to be afraid of risks; you only live once so you might as well pursue what you really want. Be encouraging in helping them figure out what direction is right for them, and you will be happier yourself in the long run.

Encourage

Mentors can encourage graduate students and postdocs to take risks, do that daring experiment they’ve always wanted, and cultivate the curiosity for science that seems to have been, for the most part, lost in our generation. As a mentor, if you see that someone in your lab is struggling, take the time to talk to them one on one and find out what is really going on. Don’t just assume they aren’t qualified for doing science and kick them out of the lab, as I’ve heard of and personally (almost) seen happen by a PI who didn’t take the time to really understand what was going on with a particular postdoc and just kept pushing for results day in and day out. Having worked closely with that postdoc at the bench, I know that they were struggling in the lab and I was glad to listen and try to provide useful advice. I was saddened that the mentor did not take the time to do it themselves. He seemed to forget that being human comes first, before the scientist. Don’t be that person.

Listen

As a mentor, a peer, or really just as a decent human being, listening to others and taking the time to provide some advice can go a long way. You never know how much you are helping someone else by taking half an hour out of your day to sit with them, talk with them on the phone, or simply respond to their email. This definitely applies to academia, and we can really turn someone’s day around by just being there for them and being compassionate. Chances are that it likely wasn’t easy for them to open up, so honor that relationship by acknowledging that they have been heard, you are there for them, and you will honor their privacy. Such a simple gesture of kindness can mean a lot, especially for a graduate student or postdoc trying to figure out their life and career.

Listening to others and taking the time to provide some advice can go a long way.

Celebrate

Going back to the start of this post, in an academic culture where failure is normal, let your graduate students and postdocs know that these failed experiments don’t equate with personal failures. For scientists, most of whom I would venture to say are overachievers, their entire life revolves around their research; therefore, they could take this failure personally. Many times, showing encouragement towards them can make a big difference in the way they see themselves, which can also affect their long-term successes and goals, both in science and in life. The thing to remember here is that little things are actually the big things, and the way you make someone feel- valued or not- can make or break their whole life. So can we stop focusing so much on individual gain and how many things we personally have to deal with, and just take the time out to have a coffee with someone and ask them how they are doing? Instead of focusing on things that don’t work, can we instead celebrate the small successes that our graduate students and postdocs have in the lab and find ways to show them that? It will mean the world to them to feel appreciated and valued in this way.

Show gratitude

This question of how we show value for someone in science (and in life) is of great interest to me. I’ve been lucky enough to have people in my life who have made me feel valued, and I hope that I have shown gratitude to them for it, but if not, that is the next step. Be grateful for what you have today because tomorrow it may be gone, and appreciate those who take the time to show support. Those rare people are out there and the goal is that we all become like them so that we perpetuate the idea of value and how to best show it for others. Will you be the next person to step up and use your humanity to do something good, and indeed put the person in front of you before the scientist?

Appreciate those who take the time to show support.

In the comments below, thank someone who has been there for you. How have they supported you?

Featured image by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

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