Don't Be a Professional Downer

Talking about our professional problems to a point where our peers and colleagues may perceive us as pessimistic can be damaging not just to our mental health but also to our career prospects, writes Thomas Magaldi.

February 8, 2016

In October 2008, three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery and development of green fluorescent protein, a jellyfish protein that was used as an innovative tool in cell and molecular biology. On the morning of the announcement, my thesis adviser and lab mates were excitedly discussing this wonderful achievement. Instead of contributing to the pleasant conversation, I revealed that one of the scientists who had made a pivotal discovery for this research was now driving a shuttle van for a living.

My thesis adviser sarcastically replied, “Thanks, Tom,” and immediately ended the conversation. Sharing that depressing story was the equivalent of playing a sad “wha-wha” trombone in the middle of an otherwise jovial discussion.

Every reader of “Carpe Careers” is aware of the challenges of pursing a Ph.D. and working in academe, including issues over reduced research funding, limited faculty positions and overuse of adjunct faculty. All of those problems deserve constructive debate that will lead to pragmatic solutions.

However, some of us talk about such problems to a point where our peers and colleagues may perceive us as pessimistic, and that can be damaging not just to our mental health but also to our professional prospects. I had certainly reached that point when I told the story about the significantly underemployed scientist. Fortunately, my thesis adviser and lab mates’ reactions to my story helped me to realize that I needed to change my attitude.

Persistent negativity may be hurting your professional image and the morale of those around you. In your career, you will need assistance from others. You will need advisers to write recommendation letters. You will need peers to connect you to their network or inform you of interesting jobs. You will need colleagues for collaborations. But it might be difficult to secure reference letters and forge collaborations if people perceive you as negative. Your research is necessary but not sufficient for your career success. You must also have a positive attitude.

Recently, the challenges in academe have appeared to overwhelm the intrinsic rewards. A tendency to be influenced by and recall negative experiences instead of neutral or positive experiences is known as the negativity bias. If you find yourself compelled to highlight the negative aspects of graduate school and academe, you must implement strategies to ensure that you do not inflict damage to your professional image. I have outlined six strategies you can use to combat pessimism.

1. Think before you speak. To control unproductive pessimism, ask yourself the following questions every time you wish to contribute a negative comment about the graduate experience or the state of academe:

  • “Have I commented on these challenges before?” If the answer is yes, it is probably best to abstain.
  • “Am I enriching the professional lives of my colleagues by sharing this story or opinion?” If no, what are you actually hoping to achieve?
  • “Will my comments add any new insights to the challenges or am I venting about well-known problems?” If you are just venting, it is probably best to keep your comments to yourself.

If I used this litmus test in 2008, I would not have ruined the mood of a positive discussion.

2. Wait before you post. Refrain from posting negative comments on social media. This form of venting can be worse than verbal communication, because it’s permanently documented and those who don’t know you well can misinterpret it.

One study from 2014 revealed that more than 90 percent of employers use or plan to use a candidate’s social profile when hiring. Greater than 50 percent of those employers rethink their opinion of candidates after reviewing their social profiles. If an employer encounters a consistent theme of negativity in your social profile, they may reconsider your candidacy. Therefore, instead of posting a negative comment or story about academe, post a positive story about a new discovery in your field or article about a Ph.D. who has pursued a successful career.

3. Recognize and mitigate your triggers. Shortly before the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded, I decided to expand my knowledge beyond my field by learning about current events. One way in which I did that was by listening to Morning Edition on National Public Radio.

Unfortunately for me, I started listening to NPR during the peak of the financial crisis. Every news story seemed to cover the collapse of the global economy. In fact, I actually learned about the scientist-bus driver during a news story on Morning Edition. Listening to NPR first thing in the morning exacerbated existing concerns over my employment prospects if and when I graduated. Starting my day with the news program compelled me to share depressing stories with others. To combat that impulse, I started listening to NPR at the end of the day instead of the morning.

If you know that certain triggers drive you to pessimism, I encourage you to identify ways of mitigating them. Triggers might include certain websites or publications that discuss the challenges in academe without offering solutions. I am not suggesting that you stop reading these publications. Rather, I believe you should control these triggers in a way that prevents you from venting in an unproductive manner.

4. Redirect group conversations. Visit any local university coffee shop or graduate student lounge and odds are high that you will stumble upon a group of Ph.D.s or postdocs lamenting about stresses in academe. Those conversations often provide participants with a feeling of solidarity. In graduate school, I not only participated in such conversations, but I also was occasionally the driving force behind them. While I felt better in the moment, those group venting sessions did little to alleviate my long-term concerns. In retrospect, I realize that I felt better by interacting with optimistic students and postdocs or professionals who pursued successful careers after their training.

If you find yourself in the middle of one of those conversations, use the questions in the first strategy to help steer the conversation in a productive direction. That will not only help to demonstrate your professional maturity, but it also may help to boost the demeanor of those around you. One student whom I advised said she uses a code word with her classmates whenever one person in a group starts complaining about academic stresses.

5. Focus on solutions, not problems. Occasional discussion about problems in academe is necessary. However, when you talk about those challenges with others, be sure to focus on solutions -- not just the problems. The Future of Research initiative is a grassroots movement started by young researchers with the aim of discussing the flaws in the research enterprise and identifying solutions to fix them. Adjunct Commuter Weekly not only highlights the plight of adjuncts but also the lifestyle and professional needs of this underappreciated population. Instead of dwelling on the persistent challenges, such movements have motivated thousands of people to action.

There are many movements like these that may be worth your time. Their members have energy, shared interests and different perspectives from people in your lab or department. Alternatively, you can organize your own group of optimistic academics. For instance, a few students and postdocs at my institution have decided to start a discussion group on science and education policy.

6. Use humor. During my most challenging days in the lab, many of these strategies would have failed to prevent pessimistic thinking. As a last resort, I combated my negativity with humor. Rather than stoically sharing academic problems, I would joke about them. That might entail sharing a satirical article about life as a Ph.D. or telling a science joke. Using humor allowed me to vent about common stresses while improving the mood of others.

The strategy worked so well that I regularly use humor during professional development workshops for graduate students and postdocs. Its effectiveness is reinforced by the popularity of Ph.D. Comics. In that comic strip, Jorge Cham accurately captures the challenges in graduate school in a hysterical fashion. (Side note: if you are having a bad day, search for the phrase “Minions Postdoc” in Google Images. I dare you not to smile).

The A in Academe Is for Attitude

In many cases, you cannot control the stress of graduate school and academe. What you can control is your attitude. Lamenting about the challenges may feel good in the moment, but if you do it enough, other people might perceive you as a pessimist. Therefore, you must implement strategies to maintain a positive professional image that will be essential for the next steps in your career.

P.S.: Douglas Prasher, the shuttle van driver from the story at the start of this article, is now working as a staff scientist in the lab of Roger Tsien, one of the recipients of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


Thomas Magaldi is the administrator for career and professional development careers services at Memorial Sloan Kettering.


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