The Difficulties of Asking for Help: A Weakness of High Achievers
By Marianna Evola
Last month I did not successfully complete my monthly column on Responsible Research for our Scholarly Messenger newsletter. Actually, that is an overstatement. I never started the column. I failed because I could not come up with a topic for the monthly column. So, sadly, on the day of the deadline, I emailed our communications director with the subject heading, "I got nothing." It happens on occasion when you write a monthly column. My last "blank" on a topic was February of 2015. I've been writing the column since 2012 and I'm sometimes amazed that I have managed to identify topics with relative consistency.
So, I have started this month's column with a really good rationalization for last month's failure. Now I will confess my true failure. My actual failure was not asking for help, and last month's incomplete column was the result of that failure. You see, there are multiple people with whom I work that I could have turned to for topic recommendations as my deadline approached. However, rather than asking for help, I ignored the passing time with an expectation that I would figure it out by myself. I assumed that some random interaction with students or faculty would inspire a topic because historically, students have been my inspiration. But as the month progressed nothing clicked, I was not getting any ideas and yet, I did not turn to my colleagues for assistance. When I finally confessed my incomplete column to our communications director, I realized the true nature of my failure because in response to my confession, she provided me with topic suggestions for upcoming columns. Specifically, she suggested that since faculty and students were returning, maybe I should address resources that are available on campus that can be useful for them.
When I received her gracious reply and suggestion, I immediately realized that her proposed topic was also a good reminder to me that I have resources available to me when I need help. Often, when I speak to students about responsible research, I strongly assert the importance of asking questions and asking for help when they find themselves confused or frustrated in the lab. Specifically, I point out that many high achievers have a very big weakness, they never want to ask for help. They always assume that they will "figure it out" by themselves. However, as they struggle to do so, they can waste considerable time and resources that could have easily been saved by asking their mentor or lab mates for assistance. So this month I will be discussing the important skill of asking for help, the difficulties we have with asking for assistance and the many resources that are available to personnel that are having difficulties with their research.
I've worked with a lot of honors students in the laboratory over the years and I have learned that most of them have difficulty admitting that they do not understand something and that they need help, especially when they are new to the lab. They would rather nod at you with a knowing smile and blank eyes than admit that they have no idea how to complete the task that you are assigning them. As I learned to recognize the blank, knowing nod, I learned to incorporate a discussion on the importance of asking for assistance with all students when they were new to the lab. You see, I needed students to be willing to admit that they had no idea what I was talking about because I often lost track of which students had been trained on which research techniques. As such, it was quite likely that I would assign a student to a task for which they had not received any training. Therefore, relatively early in their training, I would inform students about my tendency to make this mistake and inform them that it was their responsibility to let me know if I had not yet trained them. In other words, I gave them permission to blame me for their ignorance which enabled them to ask for help. So, was their ignorance always my fault? Honestly, I don't know and it does not matter. Permitting them to blame me gave me what I wanted, the students were willing to ask for help/clarification without being concerned that I would judge them. It made me approachable and I was made aware when the students were struggling so that I could intervene. Then gradually as students gained experience, they lost their insecurities and knew that they could approach me with questions. In fact, many of those students, now professionals, are still willing to contact me when they find themselves struggling with career issues.
When addressing challenges it is important to remember that there are resources and people that are there to assist you as you struggle. The greatest part about being part of a university community is that there is an active service community that wants to assist students and faculty with their academic endeavors. In fact, many of the people that contribute resources for students do so as a service that is not central to their employment. In other words, they really want to assist students maximize their academic potential so that they can contribute to the scholarly community. I encourage students to familiarize themselves with the abundant resources that are available on campus for their use and familiarize themselves with the people that want to provide service to our scholars. Furthermore, if you do not readily find the assistance that you need, contact the offices listed below to ask for help. Many of our seasoned staff are well networked around the university and may know someone that can provide the assistance that you need.
So, what resources are available to our students and faculty? Below is a short list that I think are highly valuable to our incoming students. However, this list is not even close to exhaustive.
The University Library provides graduate students and faculty with a variety of helpful resources. To my generation, it seems obvious that the library would be service oriented, however, I've learned that few graduate students utilize the library to the degree that I did when I was in graduate school. Electronic resources have made it much more convenient for students to conduct literature searches from their lab or home and thus, many students seldom go to the library. As such, they are unaware of the many services that are provided by the library and librarians. First of all, personal librarians are available for all disciplines at TTU. Personal librarians are familiar with references and search engines that can enhance literature searches. Furthermore, personal librarians are also familiar with data management systems and data repositories that academics can utilize to keep their data organized. There is also a data management team that can provide individual consultation to help research teams develop a data management plan. Finally, the library also provides a series of academic and professional development seminars that can enhance professional skills development.
Technology support provides technical and professional skills development training through online training as well as face-to-face short courses. The Skillsoft Online Computer-Based Training (CBT) can assist personnel develop a wide variety of skills including personnel management skills, communication skills, presentation skills and a wide variety of other professional skills that may not be provided in student coursework but are critical for a professional career. A wide variety of technical skills can be learned in the Short Courses provided by IT and full list of courses can be found on the Short Course Website.
The Graduate Center provides a great deal of support to graduate students. The graduate center, a resource provided by the graduate school, provides graduate students with academic and professional development support. There is space for graduate student organization meetings, a quiet location to work, writing assistance and statistics consulting. Actually, although all the resources are valuable, I think that the quiet workspace is highly valuable because like many graduate students, I found it very difficult to find a find a quiet place to work when I was in graduate school. Grad student desks are generally in the middle of the lab and it is hard to focus with people working and talking all around you. I encourage graduate students to utilize the quiet workspace that is provided by the graduate center and treat it like a professional workspace. Shut down all your electronic distractions while you study and write so that it becomes a productive work environment.
Finally, the Office of the Vice President (OR&I) provides support and information for new faculty and research teams that are working toward submitting sponsored projects. For new researchers that are learning to navigate the complexities of applying for and engaging in sponsored research an excellent Guide To Research can answer a lot of questions about procedure and regulations associated with research awards. The Guide is a great first step toward learning about the personnel and support that are available to our faculty and research teams. I, of course, work in the OR&I and as such want to endorse the service that all OR&I personnel want to provide our researchers. All OR&I staff are very focused on assisting research personnel maneuver the complex regulatory environment of sponsored research.
Marianne Evola is the director of the Human Research Protection Program in the Office of Research & Innovation. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.