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Handling Difficult Situations at Your Institution

Susan Nittrouer

DOI: 10.1044/cred-pvd-path011

The following is a transcript of the presentation video, edited for clarity.

Susan Nittrouer:

As far as disappointment goes — we all experience it. You’re not alone. You’re not being singled out. So ways for dealing with disappointment at your institution.

Know when to speak up and when to just suck it up. We’re all going to endure it. Pick your battles. And if you do want to say something to a university administrator or an administrator in the research facility where you are, make sure you have a suggestion for how you might change things. Don’t just complain about the plan as it is.

Make sure your concern is based on your needs and not just your feelings. Then, of course, before you say anything think about the situation from a broader perspective. Actually try to think about it from the perspective of the department chair, or the dean of the institution.
Make sure your suggestion for change helps the group as a whole, and be prepared to compromise.

Always show appreciation. If you go in and complain about something to a department chair or dean, and they listen to you and do what you want, it’s nice to say “thank you.”

Then, just remember that because someone listens to you, it’s not evidence that you have special insight into the truth. It means that you were right in that case. Continue to pick your battles carefully.

Questions and Discussion

Tom Campbell:

The last two questions really are about, you know, if you get in a bad situation or something is not going right, how do you actually negotiate that or change that within your department or with your school?

Audience Comment:

A wise old dean once told me that in the world of business, it’s dog-eat-dog. In the world of academia, it’s just the opposite.

Swathi Kiran:

On a more positive spin to that, I think it’s about self-advocacy. These questions are saying, “I came in 2011, I got a lab, I negotiated all that space. Then in 2013, the next guy walks in, and he’s got a phenomenal lab. What did he do, that I did not do? And now he has all the lab space.”
I think this happens a lot. At the first level, you have to make sure for yourself that it’s not you. The deans and chairs are all dealing with space constraints and budget constraints. None of this had to do with you. Maybe — but that’s most likely the Occam’s Razor reason.

But maybe that’s not the case and you feel like you’ve been short-changed there. You should be able to go back to your chair and articulate your concerns about not having enough space or resources to get your work done.

It’s all about getting your work done. It’s not about what the square footage of your lab is. It’s about saying, “This space is not enough for me, and I need to get my work done. I see that you have accumulated resources to give other people the space they need. Maybe the next time some space comes up, you might want to give me some of that space because I don’t have enough space to do my work.” I think that’s one way to frame it. But this is just an example. I’m sure most of you have other examples like this that you might want to share.

Sonja Pruitt-Lord:

I would just add a little bit to what Swathi said. It’s better if you look at it pre-emptively. Instead of, after someone got that bigger space, going “I’m mad I didn’t have that.” Instead, what could have done? What could you have done beforehand so that somebody knows what your needs are? As opposed to then being upset that the new baby got something better than you did.

Audience Comment:

Space is a premium at every university. At my university, we’re pretty lucky. We all have pretty big labs. But truly, the only way to increase your lab space there is to get grants. Or, if you get another position someplace, maybe you can negotiate. But it is not an easy thing because space is a premium and money talks. If you have money, you get it. And if you get another position and they think you’re wanted elsewhere, then you might get a bigger lab.

Question: If you’re applying for the grant, and part of the grant is that the university says they’ll support you. But they’re not going to give you the space until you get the grant, so then you need to negotiate to get the space. That seems very circular to me.

Audience Comment:

The home institution, if they accept the money from the NIH, they have to provide you the resources to do the work. However, that’s very subjective. Somebody could say, “I think you can do that in three square feet.” In any case, that’s a negotiation that goes on between the office of research and the granting agency. But they have to provide space.

Question: If you get an offer at another institution that might help you get more space. Could that work against you if you’re a junior professor. Is that something to do when you’re more of a tenured professor? Is that a strategy even in a junior professor position?

Audience Comment:

Yeah — assistant professors can do that. Absolutely. If you’re a new assistant professor and somebody else wants you, that tells your home institution that, boy, this person is really great, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to keep that person here. And if they can’t do that, maybe you don’t want to be there. Maybe you want to move someplace else.

Tom Campbell:

I would say, that’s exactly right. But I would also say that when you start playing that game, you have to be willing to walk, right? Because you may walk in and say, “I got another job.” And they may say, “Thanks for everything you’ve done for us, and good luck to you.”

Audience Comment:

I don’t think you can approach it from a threatening point of view. But you go to your chair, first, then go to the dean. And tell them that you have another offer, and they can do whatever they want with it. You have another offer, period. You’re not saying, “I have another offer, and if you don’t give me x, y, and z, then I am leaving.” That’s not the way to do it. But you’d wait to see whether or not they come back with something. And some universities might not be able to do that, even if they do really value you.

Susan Nittrouer
Ohio State University

Presented at Pathways (2015). Hosted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Research Mentoring Network as part of a panel session on “Setting and Achieving Career Priorities.”

The presentation was developed and delivered in collaboration with Edward Conture, Vanderbilt University; Susan Nittrouer, Ohio State University; and Preeti Sivasankar, Purdue University [2015]; and Tom Campbell, The University of Texas at Dallas; Swathi Kiran, Boston University; and Sonja Pruitt-Lord, San Diego State University [2014].

Pathways is sponsored by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through a U24 grant awarded to ASHA.

Copyrighted Material. Reproduced by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in the Clinical Research Education Library with permission from the author or presenter.