“There is no way I am going to put her in my acknowledgements,” Kim said.
“Wouldn’t that look a little strange since she was a coauthor on all of your papers?” I asked.
“I don’t care, she’s been a total pain for the last six years,” Kim replied, returning her attention to revising the final draft of her PhD thesis.
I couldn’t blame Kim for leaving Sue out of her thesis.
Sue had been a senior researcher in Kim’s group for over 15 years, and she was also a lab manager responsible for ordering all supplies.
By default, Sue’s name was included in all of the publications because she was the “expert” on how to use the instruments in the group.
Unfortunately, Sue’s negative energy permeated the entire group and she was a gatekeeper rather than a mentor.
During group meetings Sue was always the first one to say why a new idea wouldn’t work, or that a new project would cost too much money.
She questioned every purchase that students made even if the cost was only a few dollars.
Kim had a difficult thesis topic and for five and a half years she tried numerous experimental setups but she didn’t generate any reproducible data.
Each time Kim redesigned her study, Sue undermined her efforts with criticism about the idea or the resources that had to be invested.
Fortunately, Kim had a good relationship with her thesis supervisor, and despite Sue’s negative energy Kim was able to get approval for the supplies she needed.
Kim’s supervisor was aware of the conflicts that the students had with Sue, but he kept Sue in the group because she supported him in the grant writing process and she managed the group’s funds.
If students wanted to finish their thesis in this group, they had to find a way to cope with Sue, and stay productive in a negative environment.
5 Steps to Finish Your Thesis in a Negative Academic Environment
A negative environment can suck the energy out of the brightest and most positive people.
You may already be avoiding negative friends and family members, but it may not be possible to avoid working with negative people in graduate school if you need their help to finish your thesis.
While working in a negative academic environment can be very stressful, the following five steps will help you to make the process less frustrating and more efficient.
Step 1: Detach yourself mentally from negative people
Negative people try to bring you down so they can feel better about themselves.
They may try to talk you out of pursuing a new opportunity, because if you are successful they would look bad.
This person could be a colleague, a friend, or even a family member, and they may disguise their message in a positive way to “protect you” from disappointment.
Most negative people are not even aware of their own insecurities.
How do you distinguish an insecure person from someone who is giving you sound advice?
A good friend is someone who encourages you to push the limits of your comfort zone and helps you to evaluate your options.
If you do make a mistake a good friend will help you to see your “failure” as a learning opportunity instead of saying “See, I told’ya!”
Don’t take advice from someone who automatically tries to talk you out of an exciting opportunity without even listening to the details.
When someone chronically discourages you from trying new things or undermines your ideas, it is a sign that they are trying to mask their own insecurity.
Step 2: Focus on your goals and priorities
When you have a meeting with a negative person it is especially important to be clear about your goals and priorities so you don’t get demoralized by their derogatory comments.
First, prepare a written agenda for every meeting.
When you come to a meeting with a clear agenda, it will be much easier to keep the conversation about your goals instead of getting side-tracked by negative comments or emotional outbursts.
Second, stick to the facts and explain the problem and leave your emotions out of the discussion.
While you cannot control other people’s behavior, it is much more likely that you can get support from another person if you keep your calm even regardless of what the other person says or does.
Finally, come to the meeting with one or two proposals on how you would like the problem to be resolved.
The easier you make it for someone to support you (especially if the other person is negative), the more likely it is that they will want to help you.
Your supervisor, committee member, or coworker will appreciate that you took the time to think of solutions, and will be more likely to view your proposals favorably.
Step 3: Make the meetings as positive as you can
If you have to work with a negative person, you might as well lighten up the situation by starting a conversation on a positive note such as:
“Thanks for taking the time to meet with me…”, or
“I know you have a lot of experience in XYZ, and your feedback would be really valuable on this proposal…”
The negative person you must work with may be another student, your committee member, or your supervisor (it’s tough, but not impossible to get support from a negative supervisor).
A small compliment on your end can go a long way towards having a pleasant and more productive interaction with a negative person.
In fact, some students have been able to turn around a difficult relationship with their thesis supervisor into a positive one in just 1 or 2 meetings, by having honest, open-minded conversations.
Caution: Don’t be a doormat!
Showing appreciation doesn’t mean that you have to go out of your way to please a negative person by doing extra favors for them.
Don’t buy presents for a negative person or do favors for them in hopes that this will reduce their negativity. It won’t.
As tough as it may be to accept, there is nothing that you can do to turn a negative person into a positive one, although you can influence your relationship and how a negative person treats you.
Simply acknowledge during your conversation that their help, expertise, or time is very valuable, and then focus on your issues.
Step 4: Follow-up consistently
Negative people are frequently self-centered and your thesis is probably is probably at the bottom of their priority list.
Unless you follow up with them regularly, your proposal, recommendation letter, or manuscript will stay buried in their pile of papers.
One of the most frequent sources of conflict (especially with difficult people) is miscommunication or lack of communication.
For example, you might misunderstand your supervisor’s suggestions and take your project in the wrong direction.
The best way to avoid miscommunication is important to summarize each meeting in writing.
Send an email within 24 hours after the meeting, and summarize any agreements you have reached, and the action plan and priorities until you meet next.
This will give the other person a chance to review what you have discussed and add their suggestions, which will reduce the likelihood of conflicts in the future.
Also, it is very important to always follow through on your end of the deal.
During your meeting prioritize your action item list and set some approximate timelines.
Be sure that you keep your commitments, and if for some reason you are not able to, let the other person know as soon as possible.
In order to build trust, you need to demonstrate that others can count on you to follow through on your commitments.
Step 5: Seek as much support as you can from positive people
One of the reasons that negative people are pessimistic about novel ideas is that they are afraid of failure.
They are terrified of making a mistake and looking bad in front of other people
What if someone discovers that they are not as smart, as they pretend to be?
Fear keeps negative people in their comfort zone, and it holds them back from personal or professional growth.
Negative people may ridicule your new idea, or tell you all the reasons why it won’t work, because they are projecting their own fear on you.
While you may have to work with negative people, you don’t have to internalize their negative energy.
The best way to reduce the stress and frustration that you feel around negative people is to seek support from as many positive people as you can.
For academic support, seek help from other graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and more experienced researchers.
Equally important, however, is to get emotional support from friends and family members who encourage your growth.
You may have to work to some extent with negative people to finish your thesis, but keep these interactions to a minimum.
Instead, get the help you need from positive people who have your best interest at heart and will support your professional development.
You Have More Control Than You Realize
You have full control over what you say and what you do.
Others may try to bring you down, but no one can “make you” do something you don’t want to, or physically stop you from taking action.
They may feel alone, unsuccessful, and believe that bad things always happen to them.
While it is not your job to make negative people feel better about themselves, their negative behavior will affect you less when you realize how painful their lives must be if they treat others with so much disrespect.
If you have been accepted to graduate school, you are smart enough to get the resources and support you need to finish your thesis even in a negative environment.
Kim thought it would be impossible to get the resources she needed to finish her thesis because Sue was so reluctant to fund her studies, but, with determination and persistence, Kim was able to convince Sue to approve her purchases.
It was not a pleasant interaction, and Kim felt like she was fighting an uphill battle for six years, but this experience gave her the confidence to apply for academic positions where she knew she would also need to be persistent to get funding for her ideas.
Once you detach yourself from the opinions of others, you will have the confidence to find the resources you need to finish your thesis, whether you need more funding, expertise, or time.
In addition, you will get the training you need to cope with difficult people at the work place in your future career, when your paycheck may depend on how well you work with others,
If you package your challenges with negative people into learning opportunities as you are advancing career, you will become the independent, assertive, and proactive person that all employers are eager to hire.
What is the #1 challenge that you face in dealing with a difficult person (or people)? Please leave a comment below and Dora will respond to you directly.
To learn more tips to be more productive in graduate school, click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”