CAREER COLUMN

Send thank-you notes to those who help you along the way

Encouraging a culture of appreciation not only makes for a more pleasant working environment, it can also advance your career, says Abdullah Shihipar.
Abdullah Shihipar is doing a Master of Public Health candidate at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, studying overdose prevention and harm reduction.

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Credit: Abdullah Shihipar

At our monthly laboratory meetings, we start with a tradition: something the team likes to call ‘affirmations’. The premise is simple — if someone helped you out that month, you should take the time to recognize and thank them. Time is allotted at the beginning of each meeting to publicly acknowledge and thank fellow team members who have helped us out; we pass along little coloured sheets of paper scribbled with thank-you messages and doodles. Usually, the person who wrote the note says a few words of appreciation in front of the team, before handing the note over to the recipient.

Most recently, I gave a note to a team member who had assisted immensely me with a draft of a paper I’ve been working on as part of my master’s degree in public health. Although handwritten notes are nice, outside the team, my thank-you notes usually take the form of a quick e-mail. When I have the opportunity to thank someone in person with a card, I do, but when we’re in different cities, I opt for an e-mail. Learning to make a habit of thanking and recognizing people comes out of my past life as a student-union leader, where it was crucial to foster an environment in which all my executives felt appreciated, so that we could create good working relationships.

Some might consider thanking someone on a coloured sheet of paper to be juvenile, and that to climb the ranks of academia, one must learn resilience through hardship: to survive without receiving affirmations from others, and without delivering them. I disagree; to me, thanks and recognition don’t just cultivate supportive spaces in academia, they can also be integral to advancing your academic career.

Before I started at Brown, I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Canada, where I made it a habit to thank teachers and mentors; this helped me to find new opportunities, such as article collaborations and grants — and made it easier to get a reference. Most people like to be remembered and acknowledged; it makes us feel good to know that somebody is thinking about us.

Graduate students might feel reluctant to write notes of appreciation to mentors; they might worry about getting every word perfect or clogging up someone’s e-mail inbox. But a study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin found that people who received thank-you notes did not care about those details — they were just happy to receive a note that acknowledged them1.

Recognizing students and staff for their contributions and work not only makes for better, healthier teams, it also sets a good example for others. Academia can be a toxic space, in which people feel trapped on a race for finite resources and positions; but it doesn’t have to be like that. Something as small as taking five minutes out of your day to send a few words of thanks can make a world of difference.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01879-z

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

References

  1. 1.

    Kumar, A. & Epley, N. Psychol. Sci. 29, 1423–1435 (2018).

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