PhD Problems: You’re a Smartass Even When You Think You Aren’t

Living in a household with two academics is a strange experience. My wife right now is rounding the bases to complete her doctorate. I've had mine for just a few years now. It shows in how we approach life, and each other.

We’re both trained against saying things that are unsupported by evidence. So well-trained, in fact, that sometimes we’ll reflexively hedge our compliments to each other. After all, she’d need a much bigger sample size to be certain I’m really the best. Statistically speaking.

This reflexive nitpicking comes from intense, difficult training in research methods. That training instills a person with instincts to not commit to a statement or course of action until they have exhaustively attacked their uncertainty about the potential outcomes. That’s pretty important in research, where everything is an unknown and there are a lot of risky paths that you could follow for years before you realize you are headed nowhere.

On the other hand, in my personal life, such instincts can make me a real pain in the ass. Business culture is not set up to reward indecision, and partners on a team trying to execute a project do not like to hear hedging or uncertainty about when or how your part of the work is going to get done. Decisive plans and statements typically build trust and cohesion; dissembling erodes these things.

When your career experience has been in academia, this can be really uncomfortable to adjust to. Spending five years or more in a world of “Question everything you hear, and question your own work even more,” does not practice you in decisive planning.

Instead, it makes it easy to sound like a smartass. You may think that a meeting is being held to pick apart a project and analyze the points of its rationale, when all that your colleagues are interested in knowing is whether the work is going to be done by next Monday or Tuesday, and what resources they need to line up to help support it. In that context, your academic tangents into the fundamental designs of the work are just going to irritate people. They’ll think that you are showing off, being intentionally difficult, or not paying attention to their needs. This is where the “smartass” part comes in. You may think you’re being detailed or showing that you understand a challenge. Often you’re telegraphing the opposite, and it can backfire. At worst, you’ll make coworkers think you can’t focus and your leadership and teamwork abilities are lacking.

That said, if you are a recovering academic in a business setting, you are there because your inquisitive mind and creative abilities in science contexts have some value add for the work to be done. You are not there to just nod your head and report back on logistics. Suppressing your instinct to question and innovate could be just as damaging to your colleagues’ perceptions of you as flexing these instincts too much. You need to walk a fine line, and that’s not easy.

What you need to do, of course, is to realize that there is a time and a place for everything. Everyone on a team has their turn, and you need to wait for yours and seize it when it comes. At all other times, you need to focus on asking yourself one key question in every interaction: what does the person I’m talking to actually want? A good follow-up question is: will discussion help with that? This may sound obvious, but it’s always worthwhile to preview the conversation you’re planning in your head before you start hashing it out with your colleague.

The thing this all boils down to is to put yourself in other people’s shoes. As easy as it is to say that, academia doesn’t offer people much opportunity to develop that sort of emotional intelligence. Academia is isolating and driven by an apprenticeship model that does not take well to the kind of teamwork that is central in business. You may collaborate, but at the end of the day each researcher does their own work toward their own successes. Research is often too specialized for real teamwork. This is especially true for students, who are often required by institutional rules to produce a thesis that they certify to be solely their own work, performed alone.

The independence this teaches can be a virtue, but it is also part of the reason that academia can be a toxic environment for mental health. I can’t fix that, but as someone who has made the leap from academia to business, I can share what I’ve learned and am learning, for the sake of others walking the same path.

What academia has done is give you certain instincts about professional norms. Examples include being prepared to have your viewpoints assaulted by questioning, expecting to have to handle most administrative tasks without much support, or assuming that someone who asks what your plan is wants to hear an experimental design as an answer. Some of these are useful in industry. Some are not.

Likewise, business has its own norms, and every team develops norms. In some cases, free thought and open inquiry are favored. In other cases, there’s a pecking order and you need to keep your head down. Your personal style is going to affect those dynamics as well, but you need to learn how to integrate it with your team’s style in order to succeed. Keep an eye out for the ways your team works, and try to see how your preferences fit into that. This takes a degree of being a conformist, which doesn’t come naturally to many academics, but you should still have room to have a personal style as well as personal relationships — provided you use your formidable observational skills to keep track of what people react positively to, and what they don’t. That will take you from being a team outsider to being someone who is seen as a peer.

Learning to do real teamwork is one of the key lessons that I think all academics need to continually work on — myself included. The first step is the kind of listening and empathy that I’ve described, towards learning where and when you can contribute and what constitutes your turn to participate in the new environment you’ve chosen. This is alien to the academic context and the skills that it encourages you to develop, but if you do take the time to build such “soft” skills, they will help you both in the context of academia and outside of it, in ways that no research method ever could.

Virologist, author, damn fool. Also found at and Opinions my own, impressions yours.

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