Monday, July 09, 2007

Ask A Scientist: Real, Crying Co-Workers

Edited: My expand-post script isn't working. Here's the whole thing.

A correspondent, Nice Post-Doc, writes (I summarize):
'I remember you wrote about women scientists needing to behave like "one of the boys" and not be too emotional at work. So, I thought you might have some advice for a well meaning post-doc... Today, a female student who's writing her thesis broke down crying. She's losing her stipend, her friends have left, her project didn't turn out well, etc. I'm helping with language in her thesis. We sat down to talk today, and she had come out of our boss's office, and she came unglued. I was pretty uncomfortable. She was clearly embarrassed about it, but she settled down and I managed to tell her about the tears I shed during the writing of my thesis, among other things and we agreed on a plan between the two of us, the kind of plan she should be making with my [male] adviser. So what is your advice? Should I never mention this ever again? Check on her a little since I know she doesn't have family close? I don't want to treat her like a little sister or some sort of emotional cripple either nor do I want to increase her embarrassment, but she is rather alone.' [In a later message:] 'She came over for dinner Sunday, and is clearly over most of the embarrassment.'
First, I applaud NPD for not only stepping in for the professionally absent advisor, but for also empathizing to put his colleague, Stressed Grad Student, at her ease! Would that everyone's colleagues were so nice, sensitive, and helpful. (Sigh.) Can you come re-train my colleagues?

I agree that checking up in a 'did you get through X, Y and Z on the plan yet?' way would be annoying. Since she's already asked for help with language, and presumably with organization as well, I think it's appropriate to check up in a professional way. It's nice to know that someone cares about one's work, and is willing to help. If you want to ask SGS how her thesis is going every several days or so, and if there's anything yo can do to help out at present, I think that would be great. She knows that she needs more guidance than she's getting, and that's what you've offered. In effect, you are her (surrogate) advisor, except without the pressuring-to-finish part that advisers generally supply.

I wouldn't bring up the crying in a 'Remember that time you had a nervous breakdown' kind of way (not that NPD would!), nor really go into her feelings unless she brings it up. The last thing I want in lab is someone to ask me if I'm less upset now.

Speaking of emotions, I'm all for work situations where one needn't pretend to be emotionless. The response to her tears- this is upsetting, I found it upsetting too, and I'll try to help you get through it- is the best one I could imagine. You acknowledged that SGS was upset, told her you had been upset in similar situations himself, and helped her to find her feet professionally. To me, the wrong response is to ignore that someone's upset. Usually there's a reason, and ignoring it is like pretending the terminally frustrating situation is all okay. Especially if it has to do with work frustration, the cryer doesn't want to feel they're crazy to be upset. When this happens to me, I want to know that I'm perceiving a difficult situation accurately, and that there's a way out. I don't want to be treated as less intelligent or able, which is the sometime downside of crying in lab. But that isn't happening here; you made it clear to SGS that she is legitimately upset at an upsetting situation.

The dinner invitation was also very nice, and I don't think condescending; more nice and sociable. Clearly you treated SGS with respect, which in my experience is sufficient to overcome the embarrassment of having cried in front of someone.

On a more personal note: Like NPD, I am also somewhat disconcerted when my own co-workers cry in front of me! (Rare though it is.) For some reason, if someone from the next lab over cries, it doesn't bother me. They work on nuclear submarine construction, which is nothing like bricklaying, so our interactions beyond 'Could I use your soldering iron' are mainly social. In fact, the last time I was sobbing in the bathroom, a submarine tech patted me on the shoulder for a half-hour. Maybe it's because there's no particular expectation of a purely professional relationship between us that crying is less alarming.

Good luck to SGS and her frustrating thesis. May it be over soon, because while 'done to perfection' is good, 'done' is usually better.

Thoughts, dear readers?