Being nice in academia

It’s Researcher Wellbeing Week this week at my University, which has prompted me to finally write this post about ‘being nice’. It seems a fitting time to highlight how a little support and camaraderie can make a big difference…

Several weeks ago, a senior colleague (not my supervisor) was really nice to me. To clarify, my working environment is generally very nice. My research group are my friends and most other people across the department are open and good natured. But this was not your standard everyday niceness. It was specific, targeted, and meant a lot. For me, it was extraordinary niceness.

It might not sound much to you: The person in question ‘just’ casually pulled me aside and recommended that I apply for a position they’d heard about. They stressed that I’d have a very good shot. The interaction was brief, but long enough for me to realise it wasn’t just a passing comment – they had made a deliberate effort to mention it, and their motive was sincere. It was a job I wouldn’t have considered applying for – I wouldn’t have dreamed I was a possible candidate.

I left the room literally glowing, the blood in my cheeks creating a warm halo of delight around my head that has stayed with me right up to the point of writing this.

Perhaps this person didn’t realise how nice they were being; how great an impact that thirty second chat might have on my self-perception, confidence, and enthusiasm. I’m not exaggerating – since that conversation, I have felt positive and ambitious about my future career, and have sidelined doubts about applying for independent funding. Perhaps my colleague didn’t think it was much at all – but to me, it was.

That’s the thing about being nice. It’s actually quite easy. You might not even notice you are doing it, but I bet your recipient will notice. Especially if they in a more junior position, maybe struggling a little with confidence, maybe having a crap day/week/year, maybe in need of some support. A little niceness can go a long way. It can bolster people up, spur them on, propel them forward. It can make people glow. Academia could do with a bit more of that.

As I said before, being nice is so easy that you might not notice you’re doing it. I think it would be even better if you did notice. If you made the conscious decision to donate some specific niceness to those who deserve it – to take thirty seconds to mention a job you think they’d be great at, or commend them on their fascinating conference talk, or retweet their cool new study, or tell their supervisor how impressed you are with their work. Why not actively champion your colleagues and their brilliant accomplishments? I’m not suggesting any compromise on honesty: The majority of people I work with are pretty awesome, so it’s really not that hard to find something nice to say. Who knows what it could lead to? Little things can have big effects.