Columns PhD Cafe

Empathy: An important ingredient for a rewarding PhD journey

Aditi Jain

In this PhD café article, Aditi Jain, Development Editor, ACS Publications, emphasises the importance of empathy in academic settings, particularly research labs, for fostering a supportive and innovative environment. Cultivating empathy enhances relationships, supports colleagues during challenging times, and ultimately contributes to a positive and successful academic experience.

Ph D Cafe E Mpathy
Though empathy isn’t about being materialistic at all, it is a form of expression. This collage by Aditi showcases a collection of rejuvenating activities, tokens of gratitude, words of appreciation, and much more that fuelled her creativity and brought joy during her academic and professional journey.

Have you ever been caught in a storm of discouragement and stress, feeling like you’re wading through an academic abyss? If so, please know that you’re not alone. Our ability to experience emotions is what makes us human. At times, we go through situations that deeply impact us, but can be hard for people around us to comprehend what we are going through. These feelings are natural during academic training and otherwise. 

Although pursuing a Ph.D. can feel isolating and challenging, you have the ability to turn it into a fulfilling experience for yourself and those around you. How? The secret is by practicing empathy. Numerous examples, including my own experiences, affirm- that empathy is both unconditional and demanding. It may seem difficult, but in reality, it’s also as simple as that.

Empathy in research labs

When you witness a research group fuelled by sustained collaborative spirit and mutual gains, you’re certainly witnessing empathy in action. The essence of empathy lies in understanding someone’s circumstances without any preconceived notions. It’s about cultivating a psychologically safe environment, enabling those around you to freely share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without the shadow of judgment. 

CliftonStrengths (a talent assessment platform that describes what you naturally do best), enlists empathy as one of the 34 strengths and shows that people with empathy build strong relationships that unify a team and enhance its overall performance. This concept holds true for research labs, where empathy plays a crucial role in fostering innovation and engagement among lab mates. But it demands patience, mental fortitude, and a selfless disposition to genuinely listen and process any negative emotions being discussed. It’s all about leading by example and being the person who cultivates a space for everyone to be heard and seen. Empathy facilitates the formation of deeper connections among lab mates, promoting the generation of unique ideas and benefiting everyone involved. 

A strong support system 

I completed my doctoral degree in 2020 from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and stepped into a career in the publishing industry. It was then I took a moment to reflect on my past experiences of working in the lab with a diverse group of individuals. From interns fresh out of college to post-doctoral fellows who were also juggling the responsibilities of being parents, I witnessed a rich tapestry of life experiences. This made me realise how significantly my life has transformed, transitioning from living independently in a college hostel to embracing family life and societal norms. 

A souvenir from Aditi’s PhD advisor, Kaushik Chatterjee, Materials Engineering, Indian Institute of Science- Bengaluru, a symbolic of mutual respect and appreciation extending beyond a Ph.D. degree. Picture Credit: Aditi Jain.
A souvenir from Aditi’s PhD advisor, Kaushik Chatterjee, Materials Engineering, Indian Institute of Science- Bengaluru, a symbolic of mutual respect and appreciation extending beyond a Ph.D. degree. Picture Credit: Aditi Jain.

All of this led me to ponder if we provide enough support to our colleagues who might be navigating personal matters. Whether it’s having to leave an experiment midway to care for their children or struggling to meet deadlines while dealing with domestic issues —do we truly offer the support and understanding they need? We often underestimate the significance of having a strong support network unless life throws a curveball. I’m finding the courage to hold onto faith even amidst the swirling uncertainties.

As I navigate the delicate dance between my personal and professional life, I’m on this continuous journey of learning (and perhaps, improving!). 

It’s remarkable how a simple act of kindness can be a sprinkle of stardust, bringing positivity into the lives of those around us. Research backs this up too — when we’re in a happy state, our altruistic instincts kick in, propelling us to extend a helping hand, brainstorm solutions for others, and exhibit compassion. It’s this positive domino effect that fuels our desire to make meaningful changes in the world. 

Cultivating empathetic approach

Cultivating empathy is essential for building trust and nurturing strong working relationships, which can provide valuable support when dealing with stressful situations. The Harvard Study of Adult Development reveals that the quality of our relationships strongly influences our well-being and motivation levels during uncertain times. Here are some situations for us to reflect on where your empathetic approach can have a significant impact:

  1. A colleague has returned to the lab after a family bereavement. Instead of urging them to swiftly resume their lab responsibilities, it’s important to acknowledge and respect their pain by providing the necessary time and space to grieve. Doing so can lead to a quicker and more effective recovery.
  2. Have you noticed a colleague engrossed in a time-sensitive experiment, skipping lunch or a coffee break? Consider grabbing them a drink or a samosa from the tea stall. Small acts of kindness can wield a significant impact!
  3. If your advisor is feeling down following the rejection of their grant proposal, offering words of appreciation can be beneficial. Express how much you value being a part of their lab and emphasise working together to move forward. It’s important to offer support to your mentor during tough times and otherwise.
  4. Imagine an alumnus visiting the lab after a few years. How can we express our gratitude for their contribution, which continues to benefit the lab even though they have moved on? A little appreciation can make a lasting difference.
  5. Before becoming upset and lodging a complaint, consider helping an intern in learning from their mistake. Giving people the benefit of the doubt can work wonders, even when things don’t go as planned.
  6. Celebrate the success of your peers rather than downplaying their achievements. Your actions can leave a lasting positive impact on others.
A printable matrix to fill in with words or phrases about what empathy means to you and to remind yourself to practice it in a holistic way. Matrix conceptualised by Aditi Jain.
A printable matrix to fill in with words or phrases about what empathy means to you and to remind yourself to practice it in a holistic way. Matrix conceptualised by Aditi Jain.

It would make a huge difference if our academic curriculum highlighted the power and significance of empathy not just as a training component, but also as our ambitions escalate. Meanwhile, this article strives to ignite the spark in each one of us to champion a culture of empathy and compassion within our research labs. By doing so, we can navigate challenges and achieve greater success. To help get started with this, I’ve created a matrix for you to fill in with the values that promote mutual affection, admiration, respect, and ultimately, foster happiness.

Empathy comes with being mindful and regularly asking yourself, How can I be a healing presence in the lives of those around me?”

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