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The Art of Giving Advice

Posted in: Dealing with Fellow Scientists
The Art of Giving Advice

Science is a culture of information exchange, from the top to the bottom. Sometimes we are simply presenting the information, such as in seminars or papers, but most of the time the information changes hands as advice, solicited or unsolicited. Obviously this occurs most often between labmates, but also between scientists within the same department, via e-mail or at conferences between scientists at different institutions, or on websites like this one.

One of the most interesting aspects of this, for me at least, is watching the dynamics of advice solicitation, dispense, and the resulting action. Obviously, certain people are asked for advice because they have developed a reputation for being knowledgeable and approachable, but for every person that becomes that go-to guy or girl, there is another who is equally accomplished and personable whom people largely avoid seeking advice from. Even worse, there are those whom people actively avoid talking about any problem they are having in front of, just to avoid unsolicited advice.

Insight from the experts
A paper examining the value that recipients placed on different types of advice that they received may shed some light on this, as well as enlightening us on the best way we can help others in the future. Normally I would like to read the original paper rather than a summary of it, but unfortunately I don’t have access to it, and it may be better to have an expert in the field boil the work down for us anyway. At Psychology Today, Art Markman summarizes the work of Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio.

“[The study] distinguished between four types of advice.

Advice for is a recommendation to pick a particular option.

Advice against is a recommendation to avoid a particular option.

Information supplies a piece of information that the decision maker might not know about.

Decision support suggests how to go about making the choice, but does not make a specific recommendation. (For example, you might recommend that a friend looking to go to a movie check out a website that aggregates movie reviews. You aren’t recommending a particular movie, but just a technique for making a decision.)

In the studies, college students were asked to imagine making a particular decision… They were given a variety of different kinds of advice and asked how satisfying and useful the advice was for making a decision.

In general, people found all of the types of advice to be useful to some degree. However, information was the most useful kind of advice across the studies.”

When I read this, I thought about the advice that the go-to people that I’ve known dispense versus the less favored sources, and my experiences are very consistent with this finding. One of the most interesting interpretations about why Information was the most valued is because it allows the recipient to maintain independence in the decision making process. I found this particularly striking in the context of laboratory culture, since a career in science tends to select some fairly strong and independent personalities. In my experience, most the people whose advice was avoided tended to try to help others by telling them what to do in no uncertain terms rather than allowing them to decide what to do.

Implications for lab dynamics
Another aspect of this that wasn’t discussed is the social implications of the decision of the recipient to follow or not to follow the advice. If you ask somebody for advice and they only give you information, then there is little or no awkwardness afterwards when they ask you what you ultimately decided to do. However, it can be uncomfortable to tell somebody that emphatically evangelized one option over another that you went against their advice. After one of these interactions, you aren’t quick to mention any problems you are having around the now-disgruntled labmate.

By extension, dispensing advice heavily advocating one option over another sets you up for feeling disrespected if the recipient of your advice chooses a different path than the one you advocated. If you routinely hand out this type of advice, your coworkers may start to avoid asking for your input, making you feel disrespected or under-appreciated and socially isolating you from the group.

Implications for training
In addition to these issues, I think there can be a strong argument made for simply dispensing information when asked for advice from a training perspective as well. Part of making a decision is the exploration of the options – in science this often means acquiring detailed knowledge of the mechanisms of options A and B (and C, and D, etc), along with their advantages and shortcomings. If a young trainee is simply told to use protocol A, then this exploration is short-circuited, and little of that knowledge is attained. In addition, a social pattern starts to become established in which the trainee becomes trained to ask for direction rather than thinking for themselves, stunting their development as a scientist.

What do you think? In retrospect, what was the advice method employed by your most valued mentor?

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  1. Rory Macneil on May 12, 2010 at 4:03 pm


    Thanks for your very thoughtful response.

    Your point about the paradigmatic academic lab being more a collection of individuals than a group whose primary purpose is collaboration is a fundamental one. Of course there is a spectrum — even the most individualistic academic lab has some collaborative needs and even the most group-oriented commercial lab needs to afford its members some scope for autonomy. But as you say the academic paradigm tends towards the collection of individuals.

    A few additional thoughts . . . First, communication is a key aspect of ‘collaboration’, and ELNs that, in addition to sharing of information, include the ability to send messages should find favor with a broader range of academic labs, since even labs where members have a lot of autonomy need to communicate with each other.

    Second, that is, I think, an excellent point about the value of having information archived so that it can be found and used after someone has left the lab — a solution to the classic ‘missing postdoc’ problem. That raises the question of whose work it is anyway? The lab’s? The institution’s? The individual’s? Again the ELN adds value because with an organized set of electronic records it is possible to make copies of some records so that the lab retains one copy and the individual takes one with them. Also,some records can be kept private by the individual whereas others can be shared with some or all of the other members of the group. If some records are meant to be retained by the lab then permissions can be set so that the individual who created the records is not able to take a copy when they leave the lab. And the whole system is transparent so that everyone in the lab knows what is what at all times.

    As to who should make the decision, your conclusion that “big decisions have to be made by the PI, but that a good group leader should find a way to accommodate the needs and preferences of the lab members,” seems right on the mark to me. From a practical point of view, if the PI does not want to adopt an ELN it is not going to happen, but as you point out if they adopt one without bringing a critical mass of lab members along with the decision,the ELN is unlikely to be adopted in practice, or if it is it will be a messy and needlessly long and involved process.

    So that leads to another question, about the best adoption process. There are a variety of possibilities. Does the PI test out the ELN first and then encourage others to do so? Is it better to delegate the testing to a couple of testers/guinea pigs who are keen on the idea of an ELN? Or should an IT person set up a trial and invite people to try it out if they like? And at what point and how should the PI or the people who are leading the testing demo or overview the system for the other members of the lab? I don’t think there is one correct approach, it probably depends on the makeup of the lab, the way decisions are usually made, the preferences of the PI, the level of comfort and experience people have with other collaborative tools like wikis, etc., but it is also probably true that unless some process is thought out in advance and communicated to members of the lab the chance of a successful trial is not great.

    Finally, weaving together the need for ELNs in an academic context and good governance, almost all PIs want to keep in touch with the research that is going on in their lab, but this can be difficult given their multiple responsibilities and the fact that they are often away from the lab. A web based system that they can log into anytime, anywhere and see what people are up to — and which people can use to communicate with the PI — can be a big help in this regard, and almost certainly will lead to more effective communication and hence improved governance.

    Since you liked the last link, I will end with another one! com/successlab/_SiteNote/WWW/GetFile.aspx?uri=:/successlab/default/en-us/Files/wp1591276990/McKinsey-RAndD-Compendium-SuccessLab_e95a23ea-b486-4567-9584-9798afd06ad5.pdf

    Its a study of the working practices of a selection of successful academic and commercial labs. Its interesting that they seem to sit in the middle of the individual/group spectrum, or maybe its more accurate to say they have achieved the right balance, in that they provide a lot of autonomy for individual development and view fairly rapid turnover of people spending time in the lab as a plus, while at the same time encouraging openness and sharing of knowledge between lab members.

  2. Jode Plank on May 8, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Wow – now that is a comment. Thank you for the link – that is very interesting.

    I completely agree with your point about the collaborative power of ELNs, and I think this (along with greater financial resources) is the reason why industry has been quicker to adopt ELNs than academic labs. While there are certainly exceptions, I think academic labs are less collaborative. When the lab is full of trainees, be it grad students or postdocs, there is an inherent focus on individual achievement rather than the completion of a project, as it is in industry. Some of this may be by design – you will never master the nuances of protein purification if you don’t do it yourself, even if your labmate could get the job done faster and better. The other aspect is purely the nature of the system – the first-authored papers that a trainee produces are taken as the evidence of their training, so spending a significant amount of time advancing other’s projects wouldn’t likely be a wise career move. That is why I think the aspect of the collaborative power of ELNs that would most appeal to the average academic lab wouldn’t be the lateral exchange/management of information (between current members of the lab), but rather the linear exchange/management of information (between a previous member of the lab and the trainee(s) that are continuing the project). Admittedly, I have an academic perspective on the world (since that is where I currently ‘live’) so I don’t think I gave the collaborative aspect of ELNs enough of a discussion in the post. For posterity’s sake, I’m adding this comment to the ELN post as well.

    So who should make the decisions in the lab, be it about ELNs or other aspects of the lab? I think we have to rule out big industry discussion here, since almost all big decisions are already made above the laboratory level there, so we are talking about small biotech or academic labs. To many people the answer would seem obvious – the PI – and in many or most labs I think that is how things actually work. In the lab that I hope to have someday, I think I will shoot for something between the democratic and autocratic models. For a happy group, I think the PI needs to show respect for the opinions of the lab members, and the best way to do that is get their feedback about procedural issues in the lab. Since they generally have more context on the issue at hand and will be the most effected by the decision, they also likely have some of the best insights into the advantages and disadvantages of any change in procedure. Also, I think if a lab is going to get the most out of a change in procedure, the people executing it have to be behind it – people whom have had a unwelcome change forced upon them generally do the bare minimum, or even worse, find ways to subvert the new change. On the other hand, the PI is the one who is ultimately responsible for… well… everything. This is particularly true for data, which could touch upon data storage and management issues. Also, the PI generally does have the most ‘long-view’ experience in the lab, and may have to balance in-lab considerations with factors outside of the lab, such as funding agency or institutional rules. Obviously, if outside sources have more experience or knowledge on the relevant subject, then they should also be consulted. Ultimately, however, I think big decisions have to be made by the PI, but that a good group leader should find a way to accommodate the needs and preferences of the lab members.

    What are your thoughts?

  3. matt on May 6, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    just today someone gave me “advice” – means – the phd blaffed at me (still student).
    Still don´t know if hes right:
    I prepared a quick and dirty pcr to check if dna extraktion (disruption of leaflets) has worked (afterwards another pcr to check for the insertion of a specific gene is done).
    So the crushed leaflets were in Eppis + a Buffer for PCR – and i left them in room temperature as i always did until i was done preparing another thing.
    I always did it like that – and most of the pcrs work (the ones not working are in my opinion caused by not enough material for disruption+extraction).
    So as the phd blaffed at me that i will minimize my pcr results by letting the extracts stay at room temperature – and until now i got one of the best extraction results in the lab – i ask myself -wtf.
    But anyway i also ask myself : can it do any harm to the extract if it is not cooled?? May brain says – don´t know – and so far i couldn´t find an answer.
    So it is just some disrupt leaflets in an eppi – together with a buffer containing MgCl2 and (NH)4SO4. That´s all. Can anyone of you give me a clue??

  4. Rory on May 4, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    I came across your previous post about electronic lab notebooks, liked it, and then discovered this one about decision making in the lab, which also raises some interesting issues. Although its got an incredibly dry title, Patterns of information use and exchange: case studies of researchers in the life sciences might interest you. It consists of in depth discussions with people — PIs, postdocs, PhD students and technicians — in seven different labs and touches on lots of issues related to both your posts, i.e. the use and take up of collaborative research tools, and communication and decision making in the lab.

    An observation about your ealier post is that both you and the people who commented focussed on the utility of electronic lab notebooks for the individual researcher. Its obviously the case that ELNs have to be easy to use and attractive to individuals (or they will never get adopted), but the real utility of ELNs is in the value they add to the group, by making it easier for people to share and search for the full range of types of information dealt with by the lab, including experimental data. It would be interesting to get your views and those of your commenters, on this aspect of ELNs.

    This brings into play another aspect of the lab dynamic, namely the question of who is the research being done for/by — the individual or the group? Judging from your earlier interactions with commenters, you are not averse to being asked questions, so here is one that ties together the themes of this post and the last one! If a lab decides to look at adopting an ELN, how should the process work, and how should the flow of advice unfold — as a democratic process with a consensus emerging, or should one person, like the PI, who has the best overall perspective on the needs of the lab, make the decision? Or should the lab turn for advice to a techie or someone else, either within the lab or outside it, who has prior experience or relevant knowledge about collaborative tools?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

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