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I'm doing an internship as a high school student in a lab and am wondering about etiquette in research/life. The problem is that I interrupted my supervisor while he was having a meeting to tell him someone from another country was on the phone (I know he regularly collaborates with researchers in foreign countries). I'm wondering whether this would be perceived by him as rude. He is still in his meeting so I want to know what to say to him when he ends it.

The details are as follows:

Due to some complications (unnecessary details) my supervisor and I have switched offices.

At some point while I was sitting in his office, the phone started ringing. Thinking that it could be urgent and knowing he was in a different office and so may not get to checking this voicemail, I picked up the phone. It ended up being one of his collaborators from another country who asked to speak with him. I went and found my supervisor talking to someone in person, likely another of his collaborators. I assumed that because this person on the phone was calling from another country, it was important; so I tapped lightly on the door and informed him that someone from country X wants to speak with him. He told me he'd call back the person later, telling me the phone call wasn't important enough.

In hindsight, I think I did two things wrong: (1) I picked up his phone, and (2) and I interrupted his meeting.

My questions are:

  • Is what I did wrong?
  • How should I approach him afterwards?
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    Everything techmsi said below, plus: you are a highschool student doing an internship. If your supervisor is anywhere close to reasonable he will not hold this one event against you, especially if you do as suggested by apologizing and asking for clarifications on what to do in the future. – Willie Wong May 24 '16 at 19:14
  • This isn't specific to academia. Nor is it a big deal. One learns how to behave in professional environments, and this sort of thing is part of the process ;) – Flyto May 26 '16 at 14:01
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Is what I did wrong?

Picking up his phone might not have been the best idea, unless he specifically asked you to do so. What if the call received was a personal one? How would you handle that? Then interrupting a meeting to relay this information was not a good idea. However, you will make many wrong decisions but it's important to learn from them.

How should I approach him afterwards?

I advise open communication this case. Begin with an apology then continue by explaining your reason and end by asking what process he would like you to follow should this occur again in the future. Finally, ask for clarification if the answer is vague.

Example:

"Apologies for answering your phone & interrupting your meeting"

"but I believed this call would be urgent."

"If someone calls again, what would you like me to do?"

"Should I answer & take a message? Should I ask them to wait? Should I interrupt you if you're in a meeting?"

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In hindsight, I think I did two things wrong: (1) I picked up his phone, and (2) and I interrupted his meeting.

At most, you did one thing wrong. Interrupting the meeting was a judgement call. It's perfectly reasonable to think that a long distance call from another country might be more urgent than a meeting. In an ordinary business environment, I might have interrupted the meeting too. However, academics tend to receive a lot more long distance calls than your average worker.

As techmsi says, it's usually not a good idea to pick up someone else's phone. But given that the supervisor had just moved and you thought he might not check that voicemail, it's an understandable faux pas.

I agree completely with techmsi's description about how to approach your supervisor about this. And as Willie Wong says, you are an intern. Part of the purpose of an internship is to learn how to navigate the business/academic world. You are expected to make mistakes... and to learn from them. So don't stress out about this. If your supervisor gets angry, he is being unreasonable.

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