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March 19, 2016 / jpschimel

Take care of the people who take care of you

In Writing Science and in past posts, I’ve discussed survival and success strategies associated with writing. Yet there is another suite of success strategies that underlie our ability to produce those papers. Managing personal relationships with our support team is high on that list. I think we all know how important collaborators are in advancing our research careers. If you are a student or postdoc, I’m sure you’ve learned the hard way about “major professor management;” if you are a professor, you’ve learned about mentoring lab members.

The group of people we often don’t discuss very much is the staff. As faculty and researchers, we all recognize that we carry the mission of the University—we are the people leading the research, teaching the classes, and doing the service. Yet, though we may carry the mission of the University, we wouldn’t carry it very far without a large team behind us. I don’t prepare my budget forms. I don’t pay the vendors. I don’t maintain the files on graduate applications. I don’t fix the plumbing in my lab when it breaks. Bottom line—without the staff, I’d be sitting in an empty field pontificating like Plato.

Together faculty and staff form a single team, each with different responsibilities, but with shared contributions. Many of the staff functions we rely on require knowledgeable and skilled professionals—as systems become more complex that need only increases. Yet, many academics take the contributions of the staff for granted. For example, once, when I was serving on a search committee for a grants coordinator, a faculty member criticized one of the candidates: “Yes, they are willing to stay late and put in the extra time when a proposal crisis comes along, but they let you know they’re doing you a favor.” That comment struck me. We were talking about a staff member, who has a 40-hour a week job without overtime, and when she stays late to get your proposal out the door, she is doing you a favor. And it seems just common human decency to recognize it!

Absolutely, I want staff who are open to doing that favor when needed, but they don’t have to, and do so because they are committed to their job and to us. Keeping the staff on our side is essential to our success as academics. Don’t assume, ever, that staff functions just happen by magic!

No one rates a University on the quality of its staff, but I’ve worked in several universities, and I know my ability to perform as a faculty member is enhanced by the great people I have supporting me. Having a terrific team allows me to focus, as I should, on teaching, research, and service.

The staff works in an environment where all too often the motto might be “Perfection is invisible; anything less, complainable.” No one appreciates that. If you want your staff members to be there for you when you need them, be there for them. At the very least, say thank you and make sure they understand that you do appreciate them. They are our team members, our colleagues, and hopefully, our friends.

If you don’t recognize and appreciate your support staff and their contributions to your work and career, you are making a foolish and dangerous mistake. If you don’t show them that you do, you are making an almost equally large mistake, one that may hobble your academic success.

My version of the Golden Rule is “Take care of the people who take care of you.” That applies to all the people who support us in our jobs—colleagues, students, and importantly, the support staff.

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2 Comments

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  1. Meredith Warshaw / Mar 19 2016 3:03 pm

    Thank you! As research staff at a major university, I get very tired of the invisibility of staff. I recently pointed out to a dean that our school’s website has tabs for faculty, students, and alumni, but not for staff – she’d never noticed that before. It can be demoralizing to be a non-Ph.D. at a university, especially when you are doing essential work.

  2. jpschimel / Mar 19 2016 5:24 pm

    A University is a little like the Air Force where faculty are analogous to the pilots–the people who ultimately deliver the goods. A pilot may get the glory but someone has to give them an airplane to fly that has been built, maintained, fueled, and armed. Someone gives us a lab or a classroom to fly. I love my “ground crew.”

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