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Mentoring, suicide and Harvard

Linnea Ista lkista at unm.edu
Sat Dec 12 02:14:20 EST 1998

On 9 Dec 1998, S L Forsburg wrote:

> There was an article about this tragedy in the NYTimes 
> Sunday Magazine on 28th November.  Did anyone else read this?  
> It certainly captured the feeling of research--one student commenting
> that at a certain point when things aren't working, it's just you
> and the molecule.  I imagine that chemistry of this sort is particularly
> isolating, since usually (not always) in biology, people are working
> on related problems in the lab and have more of a network.  But
> biologists suffer the same sort of crises of confidence where our sense
> of our self-worth is completely wrapped up in how well our experiments
> are going. ( I find that explaining the degree of my
> self-identification with  the research problem to a non-scientist 
> is just about impossible.)

I really remember this vividly from my grad school days. I was doing
molecular biology on a new  organism and was having all sorts of
problems, which were all ASSUMED to be due to my lack of "trying hard
enough". Turns out when the hot-stuff postdoc tried it, he got the same
results. It was very lonely.

> The complete lack of positive feedback contributes to this-- 
>  all anyone has ever wanted to tell me is what is wrong with 
> what I'm doing, and now that I'm on the faculty, this constant 
> criticism is more striking than ever. It's not that I can't take
> criticism, it's just that on occasion, it would be nice to hear "good
> job" when something goes well.  Instead, I find people are great at finding
> clouds over every silver lining.  (Paper got published?  It's in the wrong
> journal.  Grant got funded?  Not enough money.  Interesting result?
> Probably an artifact. Invited to a meeting?  Never heard of it....)  
> So, I try to give encouraging comments to my students and 
> postdocs regardless of how their experiments are doing.  But is that 
> enough?
It is a good start. My boss has learned to do the same thing -- good job,
thank you, that is great, and it has made a HUGE difference in my outlook.
This was a big difference from when I first started working for him. I
remember he announced to me one Friday that he would be giving me my 6
month performance appraisal the following Monday. Having heard NO postive
feedback in that half-year, I asked him to let me know if there was
anything in particular that I needed improvement on so that I could think
of a way to accomplish this over the weekend. He looked at me and said
"The biggest problem I am having with this evaluation is trying to say you
walk on water without being too gushing". Yet we always knew when he was
displeased. I think he learned fairly soon after this that postive
reinforcement made everyone happy campers. So it makes a HUGE difference,
especially when we know it is sincerely meant. 

Even when things are NOT going well, it is nice to hear "keep your chin
up! I know you can do it!". I think if you let folks know that your basic
assumption is that they are competent, it just works better all around. 

And it is infectious. With the tone sent in that manner, I find that
interpersonal communications are much more respectful and if someone says:
"I really thought your seminar was great" once in awhile, it makes "You
know, perhaps that technique would work better if you..." sorts of
comments easy to take.

So on behalf of all of us, THANKS!


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