Recently I received the most destructive feedback of my academic life and found a way to still learn from it and am glad to receive it. I wanted to share 5 lessons I learned from this feedback for both my future self and for all students:
If you were ever on a highway, you know the hurry, honks, and the crowd of cars that are always moving from one place to another. This is a very good analogy for academia: In academia, there is an endless line of deadlines and one has to always run from one task to another. In such a busy space, small cases of misinformation and misremembering overlap and turn into major highway accidents. For the last 3 months, I was working on a project by iPraktikum at Munich Technical University and was spending a reasonably high effort on this project than was required. My teammates were indicating that they were happy to work with me and so were my team leader and coach. Then, what happened? Two small misunderstandings were adequate for my team leader to blame me for all the problems in the project and I was to learn this very late in his feedback. Were these misunderstandings crucial enough to cause such a result? No, but the stress of deadlines and the inability to reach pre-proposed project goals were indeed critical.
I will save you time by sharing the lessons I learned rather than going into details. Some of these lessons may seem incorrect or absurd to you, as they would for me before this particular case. However, they are what they are, and sometimes real life is just different from what one reads in books or learns in school.
Lesson 1: Do not over apologize. Maybe do not apologize at all.
I am a person that easily apologizes as I would always admit my failures and take responsibility. So what happens in an ideal world is that everyone would apologize for their mistakes and learn from them. However, real life is not the ideal world. When one takes responsibility and another does not, the first person is blamed for all the failures. Even though anyone who would just check the team meeting documentation or the work logs would understand that the problems were not all due to the one person apologizing, who has the time to check everything in academia? The coordinator trusts the team leader, the team leader trusts the coach who remembers the one that apologized for a small mistake. Hence, a misremember just adds up like a rolling snowball down a snow-covered hillside and the apology of one ends up making that one the source of all problems.
Lesson 2: Document everything and even exaggerate. (Self-marketing)
This is my greatest failure: I concentrate on working on tasks rather than explaining what I did. If you are a founder or are working on your project, this is not an issue. However, in academia, your busy team leader or coach will not remember the work you worked so hard on. They will also not remember the good appraisals they told before. To tell you the truth, this is unintentional, they just have many other important things to remember. Normally you can count on the first and the last impression (recency and primacy effect). However, in academia, there is just so little time for first impressions and what counts in the end is the documentation. So from experience, I would suggest you to document everything and focus on marketing your outputs during the project.
Lesson 3: Do not look back. Past is past.
Even when asking for a favor, stating that you helped the person already may not help you. You need the state why that favor would help the person in the future. You even have to market and politicize a favor. The same is true for academia, you should never try to remind your team leader or coach, or supervisor how much you worked in the past. They may just not care and may even consider your past work inadequate. Even if you single-handedly saved the project by fixing a crucial bug that took hours to understand and fix in a legacy system, they will just not care or may even state that your work was late and inadequate. Unfortunately, some team leaders and coaches will not care about your past work at all but only give value to you depending on the value you would bring them in the future. So always concentrate on explaining the future value you would bring and what awards, rewards, or gains your team leader and coach can earn from your work.
Lesson 4: Make sure to display incremental progress. The last effort counts the most.
So you are the expert developer who did a really good job in the first weeks. Do you think your team leader or coach will appreciate this? A big no! The first mistake you make, the first time you slow down, they will be cross with you for not working. Even if you are doing the same work, you would still be penalized for your outcome. Why? Because people in academia look for incremental progress, how much they motivated you to increase your outcome, and how much more sleepless nights you spent. If you are good in your area, they would expect you to become an expert by the end of the project and even if you worked hard at the beginning, you have to work harder at the end. Unfortunately in academia, the total output sometimes does not count and you are expected to develop at least linearly during a project. So, here comes the big catch: Do not show your talent more than necessary at the beginning. Just wait until it is most needed and show it where it counts. The times when you did not do anything will be forgotten as long as you save the team in the end. So just fulfill the minimum requirements at the beginning and increase your output continuously, it would show that you greatly improved and thus result in better grades.
Lesson 5: Life is not fair.
Unfortunately, this is the biggest lesson that I had to accept. Life is just not fair, and as much as you can complain, ask for reevaluation or work for many more hours, it sometimes just will not be enough. This is sad but true and the earlier one accepts this the better one can cope with real life. There is a limit to what you can do to respectfully complain and sometimes you just have to find another project where your contributions would be valued and one that has fairer and more experienced team leaders and coaches. I want to end this lesson by quoting the serenity prayer by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Bonus Lesson: Friendships are hypothetical like mathematical assumptions.
When working together in teams with good communication, it is natural to make friends and even close friends. In work life, I made very close friendships with people from all levels but in academia, this was not always the case. Especially with coaches who you may assume to be a friend as you chat multiple times, laugh together, and have lunches together, you may understand that your assumption of friendship may be mistaken. Even a coach, who was at the same academic level as you, and taking the same lessons with you, who you believe to be your friend, may share your messages (dm) with your team leader to blame you. You might think that it is greatly unethical and unprofessional for your coach to share your messages with third parties or use them in official feedback. However please do not forget that your coach does not want to be blamed for the project’s failure and thus might make an individualistic move to assign responsibility for the failure to another person at all costs to this person without ethical concerns. In academia sometimes friendships are hypothetical like mathematical assumptions and people who laugh at your face and act like your friends can easily turn against you when they need someone to blame.
Thank you for reading so far and I hope these lessons will help you in the future. I would like to use this opportunity to thank my team leader and coach once more for these lessons they helped me to learn.
Please keep checking updates for my upcoming posts about “how to be a better coach” and “how to be a better team leader” in which I explore my personal experience as a team leader and my experience with problems in team leadership and coaching in academia.