Academics juggle a lot of balls. The absent-minded professor stereotype is, for some of us, an apt one. Because our jobs involve multiple independent demands on our time, we’re often tossed (or hold on to) more balls than we can handle. Balls get dropped, neglected, or stay in the air for far too long after they should have been safely placed on the shelf.
We forget deadlines, studiously ignore emails we should be answering, miss meetings, triage our to-do lists based on what’s most overdue. In my first couple of years as a PI, I’ve seen (and committed) my share of academic courtesy faux pas: never-returned emails, late reviews, late manuscripts, that one person who holds up the special issue, forgetting to notify co-authors of a conference abstract submission*, leaving names off of manuscripts or talks. We may be new PIs still figuring out academic workloads, we may suck at saying no, we may be really disorganized or even inconsiderate or selfish. We’ve all had colleagues who just wouldn’t deliver a draft on time and needed a lot of nagging, or who were so late on a manuscript review we’ve had to give up.
Academic etiquette is one of those stickier bits of professional development that isn’t so much taught as modeled. We know good behavior when we see it — and when it doesn’t inconvenience us — but it’s not something we necessarily discuss in lab meeting or talk about in a professionalism class. Often, it’s something we learn by doing (yay, progressive education!), because we’ve inadvertently stepped on someone’s toes or had them step on ours.Sometimes lapses are honest mistakes. Sometimes, they become habits. And sometimes, people get reputations.
I don’t know how many mistakes or bad choices it takes to get a reputation as a flake or a bad actor, and I hope I don’t find out. I do think that we can get so caught up in the hectic nature of the work that we forget that we’re working with other people — especially around a deadline. I empathize with the fact that life happens (I had a hand surgery earlier this year that really set me back on a lot of projects), and that sometimes when you fall really behind on something, the anxiety it induces makes you neglect it even more.
Ultimately, though, the important thing is to make sure that these are exceptions, rather than the rule. Once missing deadlines becomes a habit, they start to lose meaning. When so many of our interactions are online, they can feel removed from consequences. But there can be consequences, in terms of your reputation. When you’re over a month late on a paper review and not responding to email or phone calls, the editor will remember. If you’re the editor that misplaced a paper for six months, the authors will remember.
Good and bad behavior are obvious. Most of us have been on the giving and receiving ends of both. The repercussions of poor behavior are a bit harder to predict. In a discussion on Twitter, folks were all over the place in terms of whether annoyance at bad behavior would translate to action (maybe that’s because we’ve all made mistakes)? Some folks said they’d drop, or not pursue, collaborations with people who were bad actors. I don’t know if it’s riskier for early career investigators to make mistakes (because we may alienate colleagues in positions of power), or less risky (because we get the New PI Get Out of Jail Free Card). Does grumpiness at someone translate to retaliatory action down the line?
Ultimately, I suspect that being a bad colleague may not be as detrimental as being a good colleague confers benefits. If you develop a reputation for being quick, organized, positive, and helpful, you’ll probably get more collaborations, papers, and invitations than the slow, disorganized, negative, and unhelpful person loses. Either way, I think it’s worthwhile to think about the reputation you’re cultivating, especially if you’re early career (which is when you may be prone to making the most mistakes).
*This post was inspired by my not only forgetting to notify my co-authors of an ESA abstract, but leaving one co-author off entirely. Don’t make important decisions on post-surgery opiates, folks.
Categories: Professional Development