How to receive academic help and support

I believe supporting and mentoring others are key clinical academic tasks. I view them as favours that people have done for me, and that I seek to pass forward. But it regularly bemuses me how people receive these favours…I genuinely don’t think most people do it deliberately. I suspect it’s just about not realising how one comes across, and the impact it has on people’s future willigness to support you. I feel it’s also about a lack of appreciation that providing support and mentoring is voluntary. It’s about someone donating their time, head space and energy. Receiving support is not an entitlement.

I’ve collected some examples here. I am doing this in part because some of this feels so nuts that I can only laugh about it; and in part to encourage all of us to reflect on how we receive support.

All the examples below are genuine, and the sort of things that happen regularly (not just one-offs), and summarised for anonymity. All are obviously situated in wider contexts not described here, and I am not pretending that the way I present them here is the full story.

Example 1: Clinician A has been unsuccessfully applying for research funding for a few years. She approaches me for help. We exchange some emails to confirm she has her manager’s support and fix a meeting. The time and place are agreed specifically around A’s clinical commitments – I make extra accommodations. The day before we are due to meet, A drops me a brief email to say she can no longer meet as planned – no apology, no acknowledgement of inconvenience, no explanation. I email back to say I am surprised as this had been carefully planned and also signed off by her manager – and that I am concerned about whether the commitment is actually there.

How does A’s behaviour come cross to me? To me A’s failure to protect our agreed time indicates she has little appreciation for the resource I had allocated to her, and not making the meeting also suggests she is not serious. Do I feel cross? Not really. I am happy to allocate the resource to other things, and glad I have not wasted more resource on her, but I am very unlikely to reschedule her in to my diary.

Learning point: Sometimes we have to cancel no matter how hard we try, but if so make sure you show you have exhausted all other avenues and do apologise. Show that you understand the person was already investing attention and energy on you.

Example 2: Clinician academic B has asked for a favour, to which I have agreed. I am late at delivering that favour (bad of me!). Entirely rightly, B emails me to chase up. However, B’s email has an angry and accusatory tone, and includes passive agressive remarks to try to make me feel bad. When I don’t reply within a few days, B emails to my colleagues asking them to chase me up and/or to complain to them that I have not replied. She also emails me back the email where I said I would do it.

How this comes across? While I totally feel for B, and agree she has a genuine grievance, and am acutely aware of the pressing need to do the favour, it is very likely that I have a good reason for why I have not yet been able to do it. So, while I am genuinely sorry for failing on a commitment, no amount of anger, guilt tripping, or wasting my colleagues’ time will help. In fact, all these only make me feel negatively about B, which makes me more likely to avoid B and the task rather than prioritising it.

Learning point: It’s a favour not a duty, and favours cannot be forced. Showing a bit of appreciation goes a long way to guilting me to take action. Being (passive) aggressive makes me delete the favour from my task list for good.

Example 3: An aspiring clinician academic C contacts me by email. She is seeking to develop her career, has a clear idea of where she wants to be, and has very specific ideas about what she wants me to do for her. Having read her email, while I am supportive of her in principle, I decide that I don’t want to agree to some of the things she wants me to do. I explain that while I am supportive and happy to do certain things I won’t do the others, and I suggest some further actions for her to take instead. I receive a reply insisting on me doing the things I have said not to, along side with arguments for why she won’t do the things I have suggested for her to do.

How this comes across? There is nothing I can do to help someone if they are not willing or able to take advise about what needs done. I don’t expect people to agree with me on everything, but if I recommend a course of action it is because I have given it good thought. Why approach a senior colleague for input if you think you already know how to do it?

Learning point: If you approach someone for input, take their input – even if it’s not exactly what you thought you needed – and give it very careful consideration. If you then reject it, make sure your next email to that person reflects that you have been thoughtful.

Example 4: A colleague D is leading on a funding application, and wants input from me. We have agreed who will do what, and rough timelines. During the process, at some point relatively close to the funder’s submission deadline, D suddenly emails to me and a few others: “I need you to do X because I am going on holiday and we’ll miss the deadline…”

How this comes across? This is the one that makes me both laugh and infuriated, simultanously. So let my just pause here. You want me to work harder–in practice meaning my evenings and weekends–so you can blissfully enjoy your time off??? You do realise that you are essentially asking me to spend less time with my family and friends so that you can spend more time with yours – when this is your project.

Learning point: If I can do so, I usually complete the thing asked for. But be aware that I will not complete it as well as I could, and I will absolutely make a mental note that your favours account is now on serious negative. Try this for a second time with me and you are off my collaboration books for good. I may still like you as a person, but sorry I just cannot work this way.

Example 5: E, who is my junior but no longer new to the business of clinical research, and I have just been to a big meeting designed to advance some common goals. At the meeting E loudly declared she did not care to contribute to the activities discussed because she did not think they were going to directly benefit her. She was destructive to discussion and efforts to promote joint action. As I come back from the meeting, frustrated by E’s lack of willigness to think and contribute beyond her own immidiate needs, I have an email from E waiting: “Good to see you at the meeting. On a different note, I have this one specific problem in sorting out some stuff for myself. Can you help me?”

You MUST be having a laugh!!! Yes, I could help. But you really think I will?? I won’t even reply but delete the email.

Learning point: In life, but especially in academia, always always always build your bank balance of favours. Do them where you can, and actively seek to promote the common good. People do notice it, and they do feel it. And either they will return the favours directly to you, or they will pass them on to make it an all around better environment – which will eventually come back to help you.

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