Can we just be friends?

When I started my PhD, I was the first researcher to start in a long list of colleagues that joined the project that I was working on at a later stage. It was basically me and a Dutch technician on the project. We had an awesome time together, and he’s still a very good friend. I did scare him off rather quick, as he left after only one year of working with me. I still don’t understand how the prospect of a permanent position at the same institute could be more appealing than working with me, of course. Luckily he was quickly replaced by another technician. A crazy Belgian this time. Eh, yeah. We had an awesome time together, and he’s still a good friend. I guess I scared him, too, as he left for a job at some obscure Dutch biocontrol company. He was again quickly replaced by the technician that outlived me in the institute. I left because my contract ended, not because she scared me off, although she has a twisted sense of humour. (She just left for a PhD in Australia, so I know it is safe to say this now) That twisted sense of humour also was part of the reason why we had an awesome time together. Three out of three technicians were skilled and awesome. Lucky?

I don’t know. The stories would continue with my PhD-sister and the five postdocs that joined the project. I consider most of them friends, and even though I don’t speak to them every week, I enjoy it when I do. I miss them. I don’t know what it was, but the environment was just very suitable for starting friendships, and this happened across all level of ‘hierarchy’. Honestly, there was no hierarchy… Sure, the boss was the boss and all. And sure, he was our common enemy. (Sorry if we made your life hard sometimes, but you were also pretty good at that 😉 ) He has some excellent friend-group-creation skills though!

Since starting my position as postdoc – or I guess it is a kind of ‘junior group leader’ – position, things have changed a bit. Different country, different rules, but maybe also different role, different rules? Maybe it’s the pandemic and a lot of home officing? Or me having become a family man? Maybe it is all of the above. It feels like the relationships are amical with some, and I enjoy our lunches, when conditions allow them. But something changed. It feels different. There is no buzzing coffee-table vibe, or a ‘let’s do awesome stuff together, not because we have to, but because we like each other’ vibe. People all work in their tiny bubbles.

I was having a conversation about this recently, and then someone pointed out to me that it’s probably also because I’m a supervisor now, and that this is a different role. I never really thought about that. I tend to think of working with people, not above people. I guess this is why I don’t care to go against the professors, and it’s why I urge people I work with to not accept all my input as unchallengable truths. I’m wrong all the time. (And I prove my hypotheses wrong more often than right) The same is true for people that have been in the game for 25+ years. They are often even more wrong. And yes, they should be challenged when this is so. Not doing so obstructs the scientific process and promotes the spread of bullshit. And I firmly believe you can disagree all the time and still do so in a respectful way. In fact, you can still be friends. Trust me.

Hierarchies give me the shivers. How about we consider that we’re all just equal as humans?

Can we just be friends? (When my door’s open, I likely need a coffee break!)

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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