I was invited recently to participate in a panel discussion on career issues, specifically related to having a family and having recently moved to a new institution. I was one of several panelists, all from different careers, tasked to answer questions about different career options.
Toward the end of the discussion, one of the moderators asked us all a question I wasn’t quite prepared for – Looking back on your career, what do you know now that you wish you had known before.
I had people in the room that are affiliated with my research program, so although an answer immediately came to mind, it wasn’t an answer I felt I could give. I said something along the lines of wishing I had known how isolating it could be to start a new lab in a new place. Over the next day or so, other junior faculty came up to me and thanked me for my answer and said it was nice to hear that others had felt this way. That felt good, but it also made me wish I had been in an a place where I could have given my real answer…
I wish I knew how hard it would be to manage the different personalities in my group. I was talking about this later with one of my former/current mentors and he paraphrased it perfectly. You start at a new place and you’re excited that people want to come work with you and you start to scheme about how much you’ll get done and how productive you’ll be, and then you realize that science is done by people. And not just people, by trainees. These are people who not only need to be trained in the conduct of science, but come with their own array of personal bullshit that must be handled.
And, I admit, I have the sort of personality that makes me not-the-best mentor for folks that are very personally needy. It’s all made worse by the fact that our culture is highly social. We do our science, and then take our trainees to meetings where there is both science and drunken debauchery. So, for example, I found it incredibly frustrating when a more junior person recently had too much to drink at a meeting, drunk texted me in the middle of the night that I should take them out for fast food (which I ignored), and then spent the next several days avoiding me. I just want to do my job. Not babysit.
You can’t make people feel the same enthusiasm that you do for your work. Either they have it, or they don’t. I’ve come to really believe something that my personal life guru Dave Ramsey said regarding leadership- You can’t motivate people. You can only hire motivated people.This is a lesson learned the hard way.
No one prepares you for the social shenanigans, or mental illness, or alternative priorities that people bring to the table. No one prepares you for the kid who walks into your office and tells you they’re walking away from their ongoing experiment because their priorities have changed. You can think you’re going into this with a passion for science and a willingness to mentor and support people in their career…and then real life happens. Nothing prepares you for that.