Dealing with difficult people- academia version (Part I)

Welcome to your new dysfunctional research family!

The moment you officially join a lab, you also join a research family that you have the privilege to be around, get to know, and enjoy their presence for the next 5-years. You pretty much will be around them WAY more than your family, friends, significant other, and even your pets. You will get to know them, learn about their personal lives, and even their deepest darkest secrets. Just like a typically dysfunctional family, there will be times of joy, times of sorry, and times you want to throw them out the window-with the last one to be the most common. When you graduate, you will remember these folks, both the good and the bad. And, if you are lucky enough, you may develop some life-long friendships.

However as we all know, the graduate school journey can be an exciting, yet a hard challenging journey. With that, the good and the bad will be exposed amongst your fellow laboratory colleagues and peers. If you, just like myself, came from (or are currently in) a larger-sized lab of 10-30 people, you will most likely encounter a wide diversity of very interesting characters. And at times, I do not mean this in a favorable way.

You did not sign up to pursue a Ph.D. to learn how to deal with difficult people. Yet, this is completely unavoidable and automatically comes along with the training. In fact, this may be one of the hardest challenges of graduate school (I kid you not). Knowing how to handing these difficult people is part of life and will greatly influence your training and sanity in the academic research lab on a day-to-day basis.

Here’s a handy, dandy list of potential characters you may encounter and how to best handle them while staying sane.

The Noisy Chatterbox

Who is this: This researcher is excited to share their day and enjoys talking about everything and anything to everyone in the lab. Before his/her laboratory day starts, the chatterbox enjoys going around the lab talking to each person for 30-minutes to 2 hours before getting to work.

How to handle: You see the Chatterbox heading your way with a big grin on their face ready to engage and talk your ear off. Yet, you are in the middle of an experiment or have a load of research papers to read through in the next hour. What do you do? Of course you want to be polite and see what the Chatterbox has to say. However you got stuff to do on your end as well. When you find yourself in this scenario, make small talk and purposely look for a way to excuse yourself from the conversation. Say you have to go to the bathroom or check an experiment in the next room. Do whatever you can to remove your presence from the Chatterbox since distance here is key. Always have a pair of headsets or ear buds in case you need to focus on your tasks. When people see you wearing them, they will know (I hope) not to disturb you unless it’s very important. Ear buds or headsets are your best line of defense to avoid the Chatterbox.

The Confident Know-It-All

Who is this: No explanation needed here. We all know this person. In fact, we may know many of these individuals. Academia breeds these overly confident “Know-It-Alls” and it can be incredibly frustrating to work with these stubborn individuals, even when you prove them to be wrong.

How to handle: Avoid these “Know-It-Alls” as best as you can to maintain your sanity. Unfortunately these guys are everywhere in academia so there’s no hiding from them. When handing a “Know-It-All,” you must be cautious of your response since their overly confidence is compensating for something that is lacking within them (wow that is deep). If you challenge the “Know-It-All” (which can be quiet entertaining if you are up for that), they may become incredibly defensive or lash back to defend themselves. Allow them to talk since typically these individuals enjoy sharing their “knowledge” while listening to themselves. Do not take offense if the “Know-It-All” starts belittling you and your input. Your best line of defense is to mile, nod, and listen until the “Know-It-All” feels confident enough to end their statements. Do not confuse the “Know-It-Alls” for those who are truly confident and are naturally very brilliant. These individuals will NOT have to open their mouths to prove themselves at all since their actions and accomplishments will say it all. Now that’s how you show confidence!

The Beloved Teacher’s Pet

Who is this: Your PI LOVES this graduate student. The teacher’s pet cannot do any wrong! Do you and the teacher’s pet have manuscript drafts for your PI to review? That’s strange that your PI got through the draft from the Teacher’s Pet first before yours, even though you handed it to your PI 4 weeks in advance!

How to handle: This is a challenging one since you do NOT want to anger your PI or challenge him/her in any way that will position you in a negative light. After all, your relationship with your PI is very important since this person will be handling you your degree at the end. It is very easy to compare your progress amongst your fellow colleagues and it can get incredibly frustrating when things don’t go the way you intended. The best line of defense here is to not worry about the PI’s interaction with the Teacher’s Pet, especially if this will not affect you in anyway. In the unfortunate circumstance that this relationship has a negative impact on your performance, do bring this up in a professional and adult-like manner. We are all capable of holding difficult conversations-uh, right?

 The Long-winded Detailed Explainer

Who is this: Group meeting is scheduled to be 45-minutes long. For some odd reason, the Long-winded Detailed Explainer drags group meeting to 2-hours instead. No one (not even the PI) wants to sit in a 2-hour meeting! The Long-winded Detailed Explainer tends to take his/her sweet, sweet time (and your time as well) to explain every nitty, gritty, useless detail in order to be as thorough as possible. This individual has a challenging time identifying what are the most important detailed facts to share that will impact the big-picture story. To combat that, the Long-winded Detailed Explainer finds it better to just explain everything! Yikes!

How to handle: There’s a couple of ways you can handle the Long-winded Detailed Explainer. You can proceed to keep yourself occupied or to do your own thing while the Long-winded Detailed Explainer does his/hers. Or to save the sanity of yourself and others too, the best line of defense is to work with the Long-winded Detailed Explainer to learn how he/she can identify how to best use their time wisely to discuss items of importance during meetings while leaving out the nitty gritty details that no one cares about. To avoid confrontation or to ensure this is a joint-collaborative efforts without attacking the Long-winded Detailed Explainer on his / her ways, you can be creative with your language on how you approach this situation. For example, you can say, “I have a meeting / commitment shortly after this one so it would be greatly appreciated we plow through the high-end action items we need to discuss.” Or when you find the middle of the Long-winded Detailed Explainer doing his / her thing, you can interject with, ” It may be best to revert back onto this topic just for the sake of time. I’m happy to review the other details afterwards if you think it may be worthwhile.” Addressing this problem head on will be your best line of defense.

Hit the follow button and check back for our next post soon.

-the Grad School HACKERS

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