Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her various writings can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.
Almost every department has that person who has elevated cynicism to an art. You know the one. That person who is always unhappy with and verbally tearing down her project, his program, her advisor, journal club presentations, or pretty much any part of the graduate school experience. Usually this is a senior student or postdoc, but these personalities can be found in any corner of academia if you look hard enough. Unfortunately, this person also has an overall negative effect on the morale of those around him, making the already-difficult graduate school process that much more grueling for those who have to deal with him. Even worse, formerly happy students may begin to mimic these cynical behaviors and perpetuate a negative training environment for both themselves and those around them.
This is what graduate school can do to people who are not guarded against becoming cynical: critical thinking skills and healthy skepticism run amok and soon cynicism, and the attendant negative mindset, is a reflexive response. Cynicism can come in the guise of intelligent criticism, and when you first meet these students they may appear wise due to how well (and even viciously) they deconstruct the argument or research of another person. Eventually, it becomes obvious that they are not more intelligent than their less negative peers, just more vocal.
Cynicism does not have to be left unchecked. Students can, and should, stand up for having a healthy working environment and combating the chronic negativity of cynics is a part of that.
Steven Colbert might as well have been talking about graduate students when he said:
“Young people who purport to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynical. Cynicism is not wisdom. Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness. You put the blinders on yourself to protect yourself from a world you think will hurt or disappoint you. Be a fool. Believe things will be good.”
For many graduate students, cynicism can be a form of self-defense, because if you expect the worst then you never have to worry about disappointment when you don’t get published, promoted, or funded. This kind of rejection happens ALL THE TIME in academia, so cynicism becomes an attractive alternative to sincerity and the difficult emotions that come with rejection. But you have to keep believing that your work is good, that the grant should be funded, etc., if you want to have any hope of moving toward your degree. It might be that the grumpy cynic in your department or lab was once a young enthusiastic student who was slowly ground down by rejection and failure to such a point that cynicism became a natural response for them. Don’t let this happen to you.
We graduate students are trained to be critical, to review the work of others and ourselves bent on catching even the smallest deviation or misstatement. Handled correctly, this healthy level of cynicism is more like skepticism and is therefore an excellent academic tool as it allows you to really determine if the work is actually good or just more fluff wrapped in pretty packaging. The problem arises when cynicism becomes the knee-jerk reaction to everything and you start operating from a mindset of defensive pessimism.
How do we manage cynicism in graduate school? There are two approaches: managing cynicism in ourselves and dealing with other students who are very cynical.
Combating cynicism in yourself: Before you begin to criticize or become negative, find something good or correct about what you are criticizing first. This will help you keep the bigger picture in mind rather than getting bogged down in purely negative details. Think of it as a compliment sandwich. Start with the good, then acknowledge the bad, then note one more positive element. Say your manuscript gets rejected. Instead of going straight to “this work is bad, why did I even send it in” try something like “I was able to put together my work into a full manuscript, and even though it was not accepted, I can use this manuscript as a basis for moving forward and improving.” This way you remind yourself of the good work that you have already accomplished while you continue to make progress, rather than sinking into a post-rejection funk. After all, the majority of academic success is a result of how well we manage failure.
Combating cynicism in others: There are two approaches to dealing with cynical students and postdocs. If you don’t have to have a close working relationship with a problem student then sometimes it’s best to keep your distance - kind of like staying a certain distance from monkeys at the zoo so that you don’t get hit when they decide to start flinging … things. And it will happen.
If you have to work with an extremely cynical individual the day-to-day of lab work can be more difficult. Your ideas will be routinely shot down, and if you come into the lab happy some cynics may see you as a target since misery loves company. You got funded? They will be sure to remind you of the awful funding climate and that it won’t last. Got published? Get ready to hear about how it’s not Nature or Science. Excited to defend and finish? Bring on the tales of job market woes! These people have a complaint for just about everything regardless of how much enthusiasm you bring to the table. If this is the case and another negative student is bringing you down you can deal with them directly by stating your boundaries. Sometimes a simple “I worked very hard for this publication/grant/abstract acceptance and I am proud of this” is enough to let a cynical individual know they have stepped over the line with their criticisms. If this person persists in their negativity, politely ask that they start offering solutions to the problems that they are complaining about or leave the conversation entirely.
By being aware of cynicism and combating it, you are helping to create a better working environment and developing the skills that you need to be resilient in the face of rejection. Cynicism may be tempting, but ultimately it is an unproductive way to approach your degree; you need to actively look for solutions to the problems that you encounter. This is a much more empowering viewpoint to have as opposed to resigned cynicism and will allow you to handle the rejections and failures of graduate school without turning into an ingrown toenail of a human being. Graduate school should be about growth, not about being ground down.
How have you dealt with cynics in your program or cynicism in yourself? Share your stories in the comments section below.
[Image courtesy of Flickr user mhx, used under a Creative Commons License]