Get social: Talk to your friends

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They say ‘No man is an island’ and ‘you gotta have friends!’ and as scientists we are no exception. Frequently, scientists are portrayed as lacking social skills and some non-scientists may imagine that we are all like the cast of the Big Bang Theory, in which the four main characters try to relate to each other, the world and girls, with varying degrees of success. Whilst I’m sure very few of us would consider ourselves to be a Raj, Sheldon, Howard or Leonard, we can all benefit from increasing our social skills and networking a little. 

In my last blog post, I touched on how to make the most of your conference season. Obviously some of the points were specific to a large meeting with poster sessions, oral presentations or exhibitions, however, the good news is that all your networking doesn’t have to happen at these events and in fact that is often just the beginning of the benefits of making new contacts. I consider myself lucky that I’m reasonably confident talking to a wide range of people and I have friends who include professors, post-docs, PhD students and members of technical and administrative staff. The last two groups inspired this post and made me reflect on how helpful it is to have a wide network of friends.

As I’m sure you know, not all of life as a scientist is work in a lab environment. There are times when we need to stop by the finance office (to order something or organise a trip) or the workshop to get an adjustment made to a piece of kit. Many of us also may need to discuss some new ideas for a project with someone from a technical point of view. In such cases, knowing someone to go to may be helpful to reassure us, if and when we step out of our comfort zone. I’m sure that the end result might be the same, but I’m certain things would take longer and maybe cost more.

Three weeks ago, we had a turbo-pump blow, which needed to be replaced. If I had looked up the part in a catalogue and put it through the sometimes tricky purchasing systems, I’m sure I would have received it in 3-4 weeks at the book value. Before pursuing this line, I paid a visit to our vacuum support technician, who took one look at what I needed and smiled. He proceeded to call a contact of his and got a quote by the afternoon, noting a good 30% discount. Coincidently, the next morning the same salesperson dropped in and updated his quote to include a 40% discount. Following this my contact even ordered the part, thereby saving me more time. What was the reason for this? We’ve talked before and shared lunchtimes and cups of tea and although not close friends, the connection we have was enough for him to offer to do things on my behalf and to help me.

Our broken pump, which was replaced with the help of my colleague

Whilst this may be a minor concern for some of us, issues of microscope operation or preparation protocols might be an area where we will need help. Instructions are great, but it isn’t it nicer to have another human being there to explain the finer points or demonstrate it to you? A friendly face and even a generous acquaintance at the end of an email, phone or who might be willing to pop over makes life much more pleasant, and, I’d suggest, increases your chances of success or shortens the process as they help you. For many of us the maintenance of equipment and instruments is a common necessity as is the task of fault finding, and in due course instrument upgrading or replacement. For all of those issues we will require the help of instrument engineers, service personnel, application specialist and eventually sales representatives. A good relationship with all these individuals or teams of people should ensure that in the eventual need for their help, that they will enthusiastically assist you (and not just because they are being paid to!)

Image from a hands-on microscope workshop run by the RMS, courtesy of the RMS.  

Of course, I couldn’t write a blog on being social without mentioning social media. I do tweet, and I also use LinkedIn, although I’m a less frequent visitor to Facebook. I find that I’m happier doing work stuff on both Twitter and LinkedIn and I’d imagine there are others who do the same. Regardless of the media platform, there can be no doubt that they are amazing tools to share thoughts, flag up papers or interesting articles or stay in touch with contacts around the world. Never before have we been able to interact simultaneously with so many potential ‘friends’ or spread the word about our latest piece of research or that of others. The many groups that LinkedIn offer are great and encourage the sharing of advice and expertise, which would otherwise remain in the mind of the individual or the work practices of a particular institution, so again we see the benefits of being social.

Some may be cynical after reading this and think that I’m only concentrating on how to get people to do things for you, but I’d counter that there is give and take in all relationships and that it is not what we can get from someone, but rather what we can give that we should focus on.  Just as I was finishing this post, I was contacted by my former PhD supervisor, who was is urgent need of help with cryo-TEM imaging for some of his current students. I was of course only too happy to help and continue the relationship we’ve had for over a decade!

With all these things in mind, I’m challenging you to make new friends, to give and receive a smile, to help and offer your time as an added bonus to shaking someone’s hand and saying ‘How are you?’. For those of you social media minded, why don’t you say hi on Twitter @DocParmenter or @MicroscopyViews and hopefully we’ll meet face to face in Hartford at M&M in August or in Prague at IMC18 in September.

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