How to make friends and influence your happiness

I consider myself a fairly collegial person. Even during rough times, when I’ve felt negative about my skills, abilities and output, I’m rarely envious of my colleagues’ achievements. You got a Nature paper accepted? Go you!

Except…during my first postdoc I occasionally collaborated with a young student who drove me nuts. Anthea* was super nice. She got on really well with her PhD cohort and senior colleagues. She was incredibly prolific, pumping out paper after paper. She was generous about collaborating and authorship. She had a real spark and her ideas scientific ideas flowed easily. But at times, I really hated her. Basically, I was jealous. Although she was a student and I was a postdoc, I felt that her effortless performance made a failure of me. I found her enthusiasm grating and felt that her drive to produce work often ended up treading on my toes.

Several years have passed and it seems really strange to think of the energy I put into being irritated by Anthea. We are now both postdocs. We still work together, but now I find our relationship easy. She’s great to bounce ideas off, is very respectful of deadlines and always willing to put up a hand to volunteer for group work.  With a bit of time and space, I can now see that when I caved into jealousy and insecurity, I lost the opportunity to make a strong working relationship with someone who would have offered me a wealth of support and encouragement.

In some departments, these kinds of competitive and jealous relationships are actively encouraged. At times, two PhD students in the same group, or two young postdocs, or two female early/mid-career researchers will be played off against each other in a high stakes game of winner takes all. In the cases that I’ve seen, two young researchers of exceptional talent are pitted against each other to produce frightening volumes of output. The department or group wins in this regard. Unfortunately, both young researchers invariably end up feeling pretty rotten.

As banal as it sounds, making work friends – that is, good, supportive collegial work relationships – will influence your happiness. Here’s some tips I’ve been considering since my experiences with Anthea:

Surround yourself with nice

Some departments are light-filled, hallowed halls of rainbows and halos. Others are dark and dank sites of misery. We don’t all start on an equal footing in terms of our working environments. Regardless, there are nice people to be found everywhere. Surround yourself with nice, and you too will be nice. If your department is unfriendly or toxic, there will always be a group or a subset of people who rejected their department’s cultural norm. There will always be someone willing to offer encouragement and support. Seek out the humans and don’t let them go. Fill up on their niceness and let it radiate.

I had a particularly difficult PhD experience. I felt like I was existing in a world in which I was entirely unwelcome. I was confused and upset, I was angry and spiteful. Even during these times that tested my resolve, there were still nice people around being nice to me. There were academics with nothing to gain from me who offered to read my work or take me out for a coffee. There were fellow students who would drop everything to provide a proverbial shoulder to cry on, or an afternoon beer. I wasn’t always nice, but I was most certainly nicer for having been around niceness.

Reign in the nasties

I mentioned in an earlier post that everyone feels scared, but sometimes you just have to think about what you would if you weren’t terrified, and do that anyway. Turns out everyone, at some point in time, feels nasty. You might be jealous about a colleague’s new paper or promotion or their enviable skills. You might find yourself being overcritical of someone’s conference presentations. Or you might start wishing on a certain someone research troubles and delays. Nobody is void of negative feelings.

In my case, Anthea pushed my buttons the wrong way. Everyone else loved her earnest enthusiasm. I found it bloody irritating. As I said, it wasn’t about her, it was because I felt insecure. I certainly wasn’t always subtle about disliking Anthea, but I wish I had been. That is, everyone feels nasties, but sometimes you have to think about what you would do if you didn’t, and just do that anyway. Don’t make snide comments. And no, not even in emails to your friends. If you can’t muster anything genuine, just pretend to be a nice person.

Do what you say you will 

I’ve promised to provide the secret to making professional friends. In my own incessant list making, deadline obsessed mind, the key to professional friendships is related to doing what you’ve said you will. Don’t put your hand up for something when you are too busy. Don’t consider a line on your CV as a good basis for taking on responsibilities. Participate and volunteer because you are interested in learning new skills and processes and you have the time to be committed. Don’t take on too much and do it badly, while others take up your slack. This will not make you happy and it won’t make you friends.

Be the academic you want to see in the world

If you want to be a cut throat, at all costs- type academic, that’s great. My cynical side would say that you’ll probably fit right in and be tenured in no time. But if you don’t like working in an environment where chest-beating and posturing are the norm, then don’t be part of it. If you admire those who are generous with time and feedback, then try to be like that instead. If you admire those who build you up, instead of cutting you down, then be that person for others.

* Not a real name

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