June 27, 2016

Motivation, Equilibration, and Empathy

Three traits to cultivate as an academic

A few weeks ago, I participated in a career workshop at the Norway Plant Biology meeting in Trondheim, where each of the panelists was asked to present advice for students interested in a particular career path. While preparing, I started to think about all the hoops I've jumped through (or tripped on) in my own academic career. I came up with three qualities that I think have contributed when I've been successful, and that have been lacking when I’ve failed: motivation, equilibration, and empathy. To be clear,  I don't think I've gotten them right all that often. I could list multiple examples where I've failed at all three! Also, obviously these are not the only things that matter in an academic career. However,  I hope these thoughts are useful to others, and I'd love to hear your ideas and any additions in the comment section. 

Motivation. noun 1. desire or willingness to do something; enthusiasm. 2. 
a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.


You have to be willing to work and think hard if you want to be successful in academia; that is true for any professional career. But I am thinking of “motivation” more in the way an actor would use it—“what is motivating my character?” Knowing the reasons for the choices you make as a scientist is powerful. What fundamental question do you want to answer? What tools do you want to make for your field? What problem do you want to solve? If you can further articulate your rationale to the person reviewing your manuscript, ranking your grant, watching your seminar, or judging your job application, all the better. 

Equilibrate. verb (used with object) 1. to balance equally. verb (used without object) 1. to approach or be in balance. 


Many things will challenge your ideas about yourself, your science, or your field as you move from grad school to postdoc to professor. It is hard, but essential, to find a new point of equilibrium each timeespecially between your ideas and those of other people. While feedback and criticism are a constant and unavoidable part of life as a scientist—indeed they are an integral part of the scientific process—you can’t always let other people tell you what matters, what’s correct, or what’s interesting. The equilibrium you find between your own ideas and those of your community should be constantly shifting, and ideally you will actively seek out opportunities to test any point of balance you think you’ve found. Those who seek feedback (AND do not take it personally when they get it) are able to 1) improve whatever it is they are doing and 2) recover quickly and move forward intelligently with the response to reviewers, new proposal, or whatever is challenging their current sense of balance.

Empathy. noun 1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.


Empathy is important for human interaction (though it does appear to be completely lacking in the current geopolitical climate!), and will help you interact better with your supervisors and with your trainees. It’s also a good trait to cultivate as you prepare to on communicate with a particular audience. If you can put yourself into their place, you can do a better job of telling them about your work. The member of your thesis committee that sees you once a year may not know why mechanosensitive ion channels are important (or maybe even what they are), has surely forgotten why you did that 50-sample RNASeq analysis, and probably needs to be reminded what you’ve already accomplished and published. Having empathy for the tired person on a grant panel, who is probably reading your application late at night in a pool of 20 other applications, might mean adding some white space to your document, including a figure that summarizes the relationship between the various aims, or providing a bullet point summary at the end of the introduction.

Of course, many other traits could be added to this list. Another panel member suggested “generosity”! Any others?


Hey Haswell Lab,

Great post. I think these are three essential qualities to success. I think I would add "humility" and "going the extra mile." It seems like everyone is obsessed with getting something without giving. Rather than just equilibrium, give more! Instead of doing the minimum, do the maximum :-)

Hope to read more of your posts soon.


Flexibility. This is linked with empathy and equilibrium. You will always need to be flexible- how do you fit the question you want to answer with what the grant agency wants? How do you choose a project that meets your interest and the needs of your supervisor/lab? There isn't much use in just plowing ahead - you need to be aware of the system you work in.

Good points, Dennis. I've just started reading "Give and Take" by Adam Grant. It's about the power of giving more than you get, just as you suggest above!
Absolutely. Also flexibility in approaches--it's so easy to get stuck in a rut of familiar tools.

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