This week I received feedback that I need to act more confident in my role as expert. I recognize myself in this feedback, because often when I'm in a discussion about something neuroscience with someone who is not a neuroscientist, I come with all these nuances and considerations and find it hard to make very concrete statements. However, that is something that is needed when decisions need to be made about how to measure something or how to interpret literature.
This lead me to think about the difference of what you consider an expert on a topic in academia vs in industry (at least in my line of work).
My interpretation of the difference between being an expert in academia vs in industry. Not drawn to scale. Also, the yellow is a drawing from Little Brother that I thought would not be visible but clearly is.
In academia, after having completed a PhD thesis and some time as a post-doc, you can consider yourself an expert in those topics (even if it feels like there are others who are even more expert). I definitely feel confident making statements about subjects in those incredibly tiny circles. However, now that I am in industry I am supposed to be an expert in much larger areas in a group of people who know even less about this topic (along the lines of: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"). I have always been more of a generalist, so I like reading and thinking about these bigger areas (with dotted lines in the drawing because the areas change every now and then).
But I guess what comes next in this transition from the left circle to the right is to stand up in a meeting and either say:"I know that this is such and such and that's why I recommend this" or "I need to analyze this further and will come back to it". I need to figure out how much knowledge and analysis is needed to fulfill this role, because it is impossible to take the time to reach the expertise level from the left circle in my current job. And in academia, I feel I've been trained to withhold from any firm conclusions until you've looked at a topic from different viewpoints.
And I guess for a part it comes back to the question of how you become visible and get your opinion heard if you don't look like the prototype expert...?
I think that in the past couple of weeks I have cried more at work than in the years before that combined. We have a complicated thing going on with people who have feelings and opinions about the complicated thing which made me cry in frustration when discussing it with my manager. I have a colleague whose dad passed away which made me cry in sympathy. I had a bad migraine last week that made me cry when another colleague asked me if I was doing okay. And then today my manager kindly asked me if I was doing well in the middle of all of this and their kindness made me cry. My manager asked:"you're crying, are you sure you're okay?" and I told them that I guess I cry easily and I'm really, really okay and their concern about me made me cry more.
To feel better after this meeting, I re-read Meghan's post on crying in science because it says so nicely why it can be okay to cry at work:
... instead view [crying] as a natural form of emotion that simply indicates that the person is passionate or stressed or concerned or tired or anxious or frustrated – or, more simply, that they are human.
Someone who gave a training in our company a while ago said: "it's not so bad to cry at work as it used to be, because we are starting to appreciate vulnerability more." I'm not sure this is true, but I like the idea.
I feel that I need to reduce my crying at work though. I've started meditating again at the end of my day, because I feel that I was dragging all these emotions and opinions from people at work home, without really realizing I was doing that. I need to order my thoughts more so that I won't be caught off guard during a meeting by something someone says. But I guess I don't want to stop caring about what I do, so there may be some crying at work left sometimes.
When I moved from academia into industry 1,5 years ago, the biggest eye-opener was that in that company we were being evaluated not only by WHAT we did, but also HOW we did it. So it is not only important that you submit a paper, or get results from an experiment, or start a collaboration, it is also very important how you do that. It is for example important that you openly communicate with people, involve all the stakeholders that are important for the particular project. And this leads to an evaluation system where it can happen that you did not submit a paper that you were supposed to submit before the end of the year, but that happened because you involved an additional collaborator, thereby making it a more influential paper and/or set up a new collaboration, and you will still be evaluated positively because of that contribution.
I really like this way of working, because it means that shit can happen (and being in research you can rest assured that shit does happen), but the most important thing is not the shit itself, but how you handle said shit*. To me, this feels very different from being in academia, where it seemed like I was being judged by things that felt largely out of my control, like getting papers and grants accepted and rejected. It seems like in academia there is much less appreciation of HOW you make things happen and I wonder if changing that would contribute to more people being happier there?**
*Of course in the long run you do get judged by the things that you’ve helped to make happen, which makes sense I think.
** Additional reading: Universities with "cooperative culture" can help women thrive
I was the smartest kid in my primary school class, I think. I know I was the smartest girl, which was not a thing to be proud of. I was a smart kid in the time where there were no additional things to do aside from the normal curriculum. There were no science projects or other extra things. There was the education everyone got and then there was a lot of waiting until everybody else was done. I quickly learned that being smart or nerdy or funny was never rewarded. It was laughed at (not in a good way) and ridiculed both by my classmates and by some of the teachers. Girls (kids?) were supposed to be average. So I learned to wait. I remember not being allowed to sit next to a plant because out of pure boredom I killed the plant by picking at its leaves whenever I was waiting for the rest of the class to finish an assignment. Imagine the things I could have learned in that time. Luckily my parents are both scientists and there was enough to learn and explore outside school. I played an instrument and I fondly remember a car ride with my mom when I was 8 or 9 and I asked her all about HIV and AIDS and how that worked. My mom patiently answered all my questions with her knowledge from reading Scientific American.
I'm not sure if learning to act average has made me sloppy and the not-at-all-perfectionist person that I am. Maybe that was always already there. Learning to act average however comes with one advantage, which is that I always knew I could do much better if I actually did something. Even though I had to work harder once I got to secondary school and later university, there was always still that feeling that there was a lot of reserve, and that I could always go that extra mile if needed.
A while ago I wrote about personality differences, and recently I had the training where we discovered our personal profile. Apparently, I am pretty extravert, and also competitive, enthusiastic, determined and strong-willed. But, the best sentence in my personal profile came from the page describing my blind spots: "This person would much rather engage in quick intellectual banter than complete some mundane task..." Seems like a perfect description of procrastinating on twitter!