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A Commonly Overlooked Aspect of Communication Skills

July 23, 2013 1 comment

Any compendium of advice for budding researchers is never complete without admonitions about the importance of developing good communication skills. However, communication skills are defined almost exclusively as the ability to write technical manuscripts and give formal oral presentations. Although these skills are critically important (don’t even contemplate applying for an academic job having not gained some mastery in them), there is another set of communication skills that are not any less important but are commonly overlooked. I am talking about the ability to manage the expectations of your research peers and superiors as well as keeping them properly informed about your progress or lack thereof.

The modern research enterprise is a fundamentally collaborative process of discovering new knowledge and sharing this knowledge with your research community.  Few researchers work by themselves. Even a researcher who publishes all of her papers as single author has organizational superiors (e.g., dept. head, manager), whose jobs are affected by her progress. A graduate student working on his own research under the guidance of an advisor has the responsibility to inform the advisor about his successes, setbacks, and changes of directions in a timely fashion. Doing so properly requires strong communication skills that graduate students must take time and effort to properly develop. What I am going to say next may sound blasphemous, but an otherwise competent researcher working in a team (e.g., in an industrial research lab) may be forgiven poor formal written or oral presentation skills. Other team members can take the lead on writing research papers or giving presentations. However, not properly communicating with your research team about your personal research progress can be truly disastrous.

Let us consider a hypothetical example of a graduate student working on a project that involves applying an AI algorithm to a software engineering problem. The statement “The AI algorithm we picked does not quite work” from a graduate student to her advisor would have vastly different implications depending on how long in advance of the planned publication deadline it is uttered: (a) two months—normal research process; “let’s find and try another one”, (b) one month—worrisome; “can we make this deadline?” (c) two weeks—frustrating; “forget about making a strong submission now!” (d) one week—exasperating; “why are you telling me this now, when I have wasted all this valuable time working on this manuscript?!” (e) days—catastrophic and maddening; “…!!!”

Nevertheless, I often witness graduate students struggling with developing this important aspect of communication skills. I believe that some cultural norms and common misunderstandings may prevent the effective development of such communication skills. Let us examine them in turn.

  1. Lack of Appreciation for Negative Results
    Some graduate students take an engineering approach to research tasks: something to be successfully executed to completion. Especially for someone who had a career in industry, not performing an assigned task on time successfully often signals incompetence or lack of work ethics. By contrast, doing research entails continuously trying out new ideas to test them out for their promise. In that light, knowing that an idea does not work is often as valuable, if not even more so, than knowing that it works. Hence, negative results should be reported and discussed in a timely fashion.
  2. Not Feeling Comfortable to Ask for Help
    Some students have a false sense of pride in handling all the research challenges by themselves. They see asking for help as a sign of weakness and incompetence. As a result, they often postpone getting the required help until they get dangerously close to the publication deadline. This creates unnecessary stress for everyone and often leads to failure.Nobody was born knowing how to conduct great research. So it is perfectly OK not to excel at each aspect of this demanding cognitive activity. Asking for help in a timely manner makes planning easier. The planning is required for the advisor to be able to plan how best to help the student. This help may entail allocating more of the advisor’s time to the project, a brainstorming session, an inclusion of additional students, or targeting a publication venue with a later deadline. With enough time, all these options are possible.
  3. Poor Articulation in Describing One’s Progress
    Often graduate students fail to properly articulate the progress they are making in their research. Instead of precisely identifying which aspects of the project are going well and which ones are problematic, they report their progress using generalities. Here is a list exemplifying inappropriate answers to the question “How is your project going?”: “It is going fine.” ; “No specific results yet, but I am working on it.” ;“I am writing the paper.”A competent researcher should be able to articulate her progress using concrete terms and specify not only the successes but also the hurdles to be addressed. For example: “I am having a really hard time finding a convincing motivating example—the ones in the literature do not seem very applicable.” “I have finished the implementation of the system. For some reason, I am not seeing the expected performance advantages. I am checking my implementation for bugs, and if my implementation is correct, we may need to tone down our performance efficiency claims.” “My paper draft is almost completed with the exception for the experiments section. For some reason, I find it hard to clearly explain our experimental setup.” “When summarizing the system design, I find it hard morphing the text from my prior papers to avoid self-plagiarism. I may need your help with this part.”

I know that some research teams hold regular meetings, in which each team member reports on their progress and difficulties encountered. Some academic research teams even have successfully adopted Scrum, an approach used for managing Agile software development teams. However, I find the practice of regularly reporting progress in a rigid format contradictory for my vision of the research enterprise, even though these practices may work exceptionally well for other research groups. I see research as a fundamentally creative enterprise, with researchers being more akin to artists than engineers, with individual researchers having a strong ownership of their work. In my view, properly developing the neglected aspect of communication skills discussed in this post can help ensure timely research progress without jeopardizing the spirit of free discovery and exploration that I value so much.

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