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This question is partially inspired by this comment on a recent post which says

[...] Part of being successful is working out how to work productively with people who are not as good/knowledgeable/skillful as you at something and still find that interaction useful.

I have often struggled with this myself where a particular senior researcher is unable to meet me at my level and we often spend a lot of meetings going over the same things. This often leaves me feeling tired and frustrated as things are not moving quickly enough. On the other hand, I have also (and admittedly more often) worked with people who are significantly smarter than me, and have found it to be an inspiring environment where I have been able to learn new ideas relatively fast. The difference (I think) being that I make time to read and learn independently, whereas the senior researcher in question, for whatever reason, relies solely on our meetings to learn about the background research.

The fact that this researcher is significantly more senior than me is perhaps relevant, since if the relationship was the other way around I think the answer would be much more straightforward.

My question specifically concerns the suggestion in the comment — how do I work productively with people who are not as good, knowledgeable, or skillful?

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    There's a very big difference between working with people who are not as knowledgeable as you are in some area and working with people who are not as smart as you. Commented May 8 at 20:59
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    Is this your project you're discussing with a collaborator/supervisor/mentor, or theirs?? Commented May 8 at 21:06
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    I do not appreciate user176372's comment above, although I hope it was made in jest. I am borrowing the "good/knowledgeable/skillful" terminology from the linked comment. I don't believe I am more knowledgeable than my senior colleague in some absolute sense. While I tried to describe my experience accurately, I have made a presupposition of knowledge only to simplify the question a little and to keep it sufficiently general (relative to the linked comment). Commented May 9 at 6:21
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    What is the purpose of these meetings ? I have a colleague who will go into excruciating detail about their work in meetings where what we are actually trying to determine is if we need to send them to a specific workshop/buy some specific hardware etc. If your meeting goals are at cross-purposes (perhaps inadvertently) it might be good to talk about why you ar ehaving these conversations. Commented May 9 at 8:33
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    A few edits would help, please OP. For example, to fill in how this pairing came together in the first place; if either you or the other party had any veto on the pairing; if a division of concerns was made, e.g. A does X aspects, B does Y aspects; if you both are part of a bigger group which meet weekly/monthly; how amenable you joint PI would be to an amicable doissolution of the pairing.
    – Trunk
    Commented May 9 at 13:26

4 Answers 4

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"whereas the senior researcher in question, for whatever reason, relies solely on our meetings to learn about the background research"

Being a young researcher you are likely much sharper in terms of learning things quickly. You are either still in or fresh out of your training. Of course you are likely to be more knowledgeable than some and less than others and you will experience this at every level in your career.

More senior people are further away from their very active learning phase of their academic career, they often become stretched thinner across multiple projects and multiple ideas, and other duties commensurate with seniority, and find it harder to keep up with all the details all the time. They often have very demanding family dynamics such as young kids, aging parents, and often the onset of nuisance health issues that come about with hitting middle age.... etc... all of these things add up to less time to be an active learner on every topic.

In many ways, they probably enjoy learning from you and your enthusiasm as you do from those who you find more knowledgeable than yourself. The best way to deal with them is the same way you deal with your superiors, your family, your janitorial staff, the barista who makes you coffee..... with kindness and respect.

How do you deal with them professionally? You continue plying your skills to drive projects forward and progress your career... and hope that some day when a new person you've hired finds themselves bored with having to explain things to you, they may show you some grace and continue working with you in a friendly and productive manner.

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    While all answers are helpful, I think this offers the perspective I needed. I appreciate it very much. Commented May 9 at 6:06
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    This answer hovers close to it, but to be clear: the likely reason a senior researcher doesn't "make time to read and learn independently" is that they have 150% full-time-equivalent of undergraduate teaching and admin tasks to do. Commented May 9 at 12:22
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    This answer treat the OP's counterpart as a bit of a dodderer who must (????) be somehow tolerated and effectively horsed through the program. I am pretty sure that such advice as R1naNo's won't leave you much nervous energy for your own friends and family.
    – Trunk
    Commented May 9 at 13:32
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    @DanielHatton the OP mentioned senior researcher, not professor, so I did not belabor on teaching and faculty workload because they may well not have teaching requirements as the question is ambiguous in that regard.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented May 9 at 13:45
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Well, one thing you should learn is to explain and to write things in such a way that understanding them (versus inventing/discovering them) would be possible 2 or 3 levels below yours (ideally any decent graduate student in your field should be able to understand your explanations the way you present them). It is not unusual to communicate in some kind of shorthand with your collaborators when all of you are on the same page, but if you see that for some reason it doesn't work, switch to the full explanations, go slower and include more details.

Another thing is that many people have a lot of duties and just cannot devote a lot of their time to the project, so "relying solely on meetings" is not as unusual as you may think. Try to make these meetings as productive as you can. If you want someone to think of something, present him/her with the simplest setup where the problem arises. If you want to communicate something new, present one idea/result/whatever a time and give your collaborator some time to digest it before going to the next step. Never be in a hurry. There are smart people who think fast and there are smart people who think slowly. You can do nothing about that until Elon Musk or somebody else figures out how to rewire the human brain and fuse it with silicon chips in an efficient way. Just take it for granted that you'll meet both people with abilities superior to yours and with abilities inferior to yours and the rule of thumb is that a more able person should adjust (for the trivial reason that it requires much less effort from him/her).

Also, don't confuse being smart with being knowledgeable. Nobody knows everything and even smart people can be rather slow learners when presented with new stuff.

At last, if you see total lack of interest in your collaborators and it is clear that they would rather drop off, just let them go. If doesn't mean that you should abruptly stop all communication, merely that you should stop relying upon them and try to figure everything out by yourself.

The seniority per se plays little role in that all. Most people are at their full strength as soon as 3-4 years after their PhD (and quite a few even earlier than that), so we are all more or less on equal footing regardless of our age, official titles, or accolades, though, of course, some will always be more equal than others.

Just my two cents.

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    You mean somebody paid by E.M. figures out how to rewire the human brain and fuse it with silicon chips in an efficient way :) Commented May 8 at 23:14
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    @IvoryTower Not "paid", but "hired". The difference is that a good administrator is way more than just a rich person paying others to do the job. The selection of what to do and whom to put in charge is crucial. As the current NASA director put it, the best decision Musk made regarding SpaceX was to put Gwynne Shotwell in charge (jalopnik.com/…) though I somewhat disagree: IMHO it was his second best. The best one was to start the enterprise. And Gwynne Shotwell doesn't make rocket engines single-handedly too ;-)
    – fedja
    Commented May 9 at 11:04
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You should have a conversation with this senior researcher about what you each hope to gain from these meetings.

I cannot say for certain but it is definitely possible that you currently have very different understandings. For example:

  1. You think that you are collaborating on the project as peers. You expect them to invest in learning the fundamental of the project and make significant contributions.
  2. They think they are providing "high altitude" assistance to a budding researcher. They expect to be a sounding board for your ideas and to give you high level advice without understanding the details.

Differing implicit assumptions can often lead to frustration. The solution is always to be make implicit assumptions explicit in a professional manner. In particular your aim should be to explore difference with curiosity, rather than with an eye to assign blame, and then to try to reach a new understanding which is mutually agreeable.

Many outcomes are possible:

  1. You might adjust your expectations and see the value in the meetings as they are.
  2. They might realize that they would like to invest in the project as a collaborator.
  3. Some sort of compromise might be reached, where they agree to invest a bit more into learning the background stuff so they can give you more fine-grained advice.
  4. Some other completely unexpected creative re-thinking of your purpose could occur.
  5. You might mutually decide that what you each need and have to offer to each other are incompatible, and end your collaboration.

I have personally found the framework of compassionate communication to be invaluable in both my personal and professional life. This cheatsheet (direct pdf link) does a pretty good job of summarizing and might be useful to you as you prepare for this conversation.

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Usually, a collaboration arises when both (or several) collaborators have something nontrivial to contribute to a project. It appears that you are asking about a situation when this is not the case. Most frequently, this happens when one is advising a student. In this case what one hopes for is that eventually a student would start to contribute something (after learning enough from the advisor in the process). In the worst case, this never happens and it results in a paper/dissertation written effectively by the advisor. This has happened to me a couple of times. (In one case, the student never finished and in the other case the student defended his dissertation but the paper was never published. This was still not a complete loss since student's dissertation is available as a reference and people still refer to it.) Your situation is different as you are interacting with a senior researcher. This happened to me only once (even though I had many collaborators). This was quite frustrating as my collaborator has decided to "correct" the paper by introducing incorrect theorems. It took quite a bit of effort to convince him that he was wrong.

My suggestion would be to try your best explaining the staff carefully and patiently again and again. You might (and probably will) find this frustrating but this will prepare you for future student advising and also help to sharpen your exposition skills as you may find novel ways to explain some of the ideas. (In my experience, as a research mathematician, the first explanation is usually suboptimal and finding a better one involves quite a bit of thinking.)

If this does not work and things do not seem to be going anywhere, cut your losses and either take over the project completely and write the paper by yourself adding the name of your senior collaborator if you have to, or abandon the entire project and work on something else.

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  • The last paragraph advice is likely inoperable without the approval of the OP's PI or HoD. OP seems reluctant to approach either of these people.
    – Trunk
    Commented May 9 at 13:36
  • @Trunk: Yes, likely. But I tried to make my advice more general than the situation when a young researcher completely depends on the senior one. For instance, in math (in the US), postdoctoral positions are typically supported by departmental funds rather than individual grants and, as the result, postdocs have more independence. Commented May 9 at 13:59
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    In UK/IRL postdocs hardly exist at all outside of EU/govt/industry funding. Departmental funding would usually imply a small pet project of a HoD or some powerful special chair within the department - and one of short duration. For departmental postdocs, I'd say zero independence within the program's objects.
    – Trunk
    Commented May 9 at 15:10

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