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Career tip: keeping your radar up September 1, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.
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Scientists are not known for their strong people skills. Some of this comes from the intense focus many feel when doing their work. This translates into being pretty oblivious to a lot of what else might be going on and to seeming indifference to it. It also arises because scientists more often than not are introverts and do not take the initiative in interacting. At best, they observe others and wait for somebody else to be the extrovert that links up with them.

In a lab full of such people, personality clashes are always a potential. Something that might be an issue is often tolerated with gritted teeth until it becomes intolerable. The resentment builds and comes out in angry, harsh words. These create a toxin that poisons both people.

What kinds of things can lead to these acrimonious disputes? For one person they often are petty and insignificant, yet for the other they are important and onerous. The maintenance and cleanliness of common areas, sample prep areas, hoods, balances, and such are quite often a sore point for some in the lab and unimportant trivialities for others. Maintaining and ordering of critical supplies, like consumables – solvents, lab gloves, and other items in everyday use that cannot be readily found in the stockroom can be the bone of contention, too. One person may feel that he or she is ordering for everyone else because the others are too lazy to do it.

If these sound familiar, especially if you remember someone in your lab complaining about your messes or your not reordering something, then you have an issue – maybe budding, maybe festering, maybe on the point of eruption. If so, you need to realize that you are not the only one in the lab and that in spite of your research’s importance to you, that it is not someone else’s number one priority – in fact, her or his research is.

Keeping your radar up, that is listening for clues and paying attention to them can prevent lab squabbles. Does this mean you have to become an empathetic extrovert? No. It means you just ought to pay attention when your labmates tell you that they have a problem with something you are doing or are not doing. It means taking a few minutes to address those issues once in a while.

If you realize that the supply of a key reagent or solvent is getting low, take the time to order some more or let the person responsible for ordering know. Then there will be no need for rush orders or times of not having any. If you take five or ten minutes after to clean up after you prepare samples, then the overall mess will not buildup as fast.

This awareness of others is a good skill to build. It comes in handy in many other situation – especially if you ever make the transition to being a supervisor in industry or government labs or a research professor in academia.

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