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On the rocks? A bartender’s guide to scientific success

Setting the Bar

Growing up on Cape Cod was not quite the quaint beach town upbringing that most people envision. Many of the picturesque beachfront mansions were summer homes, while most of us year-round residents lived in ranch-style cottages and worked overtime through hectic summers to stay afloat during harsh winters. If you were lucky like me, you found a job at a year-round establishment and worked your way up from dishwasher to the coveted position of bartender.

While I now live in Washington, D.C., and have committed to a career in science, it was only six months ago that I packed up my favorite corkscrew and bottle opener to begin my adventure as a Knauss fellow. I keep my “14 years of service experience” on my resume and CV whenever possible.

Five of the lessons I learned through my bartending experiences stand out as those that I believe make me successful as a scientist.

1. “Tip out” your support staff well.

In the service industry, at the end of their shift servers and bartenders “tip out,” or share a portion of their tips with their support staff. These folks work tirelessly (often as their second or third job) behind the scenes to keep service running smoothly as things inevitably get chaotic. Whether it is a barback hauling out 160-lb kegs to restock your bar, or an undergraduate field assistant devoting their summer to sorting your 160-lbs of eelgrass samples (thank you, Jen, also a 2020 Knauss fellow!), they are never paid nearly enough for the magic they make happen. Their success means your success and vice versa.

In science, we “tip out” by facilitating connections. We send letters of recommendation and mentor others; we share career advice and learning opportunities. These supportive relationships are invaluable and keep us grounded — don’t forget you were likely in their position once, too! So, take the time to be a good mentor. Give good advice. Spend some time considering what individual interests your helpers express, unique skills they may have, and make note of those in recommendation letters.

2. Don’t panic when you get “in the weeds”.

In the service industry, “in the weeds” means disastrously overwhelmed. It is when you walk into work and 30 customers simultaneously fill your bar. Everyone wants a different flavor of margarita. You have two blenders. You go to pour the first batch of sour mix and it’s empty. Anyone who has worked in the service industry has nightmares about getting “in the weeds” for years to come. (My recurring nightmare is that I am late for my shift with no time to change out of my diving gear and a bar full of new customers. I am trying to walk backwards up steps to get behind the bar with my tank and fins on.)

What I learned while bartending is that when you’re in the weeds, take advantage of the opportunity to shine (and make some money!). This can apply to any career when you are “in the weeds,” including as a graduate student or scientist balancing multiple grant deadlines and mandatory training modules with teaching courses and troubleshooting research. For scientists, innovation and creativity are key components to research. Teams can bond, and even have some fun, while troubleshooting when they are in the weeds. For example, on one particularly hectic morning, our diving research team forgot one of the most important pieces of equipment when surveying underwater habitats: a transect tape. Rather than panic, we put our heads together to MacGyver our own transect using zip ties and spare rope. Since we were consistent at each site, we still collected good data.

3. Own up when you mess up.

As we learned in the last example, everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes it’s forgetting to put in an order for a well-done steak; other times it’s realizing that you forgot an important piece of field equipment when you are already three miles offshore. The sooner you own up to a mistake, the sooner your team can work together to find a solution. In that regard, there are a couple of key things to keep in mind that I learned when working on a service industry team that also apply to being a scientist who supports sound science:

Speak up as soon as you realize something is not working. When I immediately admitted to customers that I messed up their order, they were much more adaptable and more likely to be joking with me by the end of their visit. In science, by addressing mistakes rather than trying to cover them up, you avoid producing unreliable results. The sooner it’s all on the table, the sooner everyone can adjust the plan to move forward in the right direction.

Never point fingers. No one wants to hear whose fault it is that something isn’t going right. Be a good teammate behind the bar and in the research field. Determine what is the root of an issue, be open to alternative suggestions and work directly with your team to find a solution.

4. Take bad reviews with a grain of salt.

One bad review, whether it’s about your bartending skills or a manuscript you’re trying to publish for the third time, can fuel imposter syndrome. Some folks are just out to cause a ruckus — don’t let them throw you off track! The best advice I received from both a restaurant manager and an academic mentor was to save words of support and encouragement for the inevitable rough patches when confidence is low. Keep a folder of the thank-you emails, glowing letters of recommendation and student success stories as a scrapbook of accomplishments that you can always look back on. No one is a career superstar 365 days a year. As long as you’re working hard when you can, then you are moving in the right direction.

5. Adapt your communication style to different audiences.

Bartenders are often expected to provide additional entertainment by connecting with their customers through conversation. Navigating variations in customer personalities and expectations taught me that one blanket strategy is not sufficient. Being able to adapt conversations as needs and perspectives come to light is similar to effectively communicating science to different audiences.

Many scientists complete communication workshops or courses where they craft an “elevator pitch” for their research. An elevator pitch is a succinct description of a research topic or concept that aims to explain things in a way such that any listener can understand it in a short period of time.

The lesson here is: one elevator pitch is not sufficient. When communicating science, it is important to continually adapt your communication style based on who you are talking to. Changing your tone to be more formal or more casual, adding a personal story, or including place-based case studies can make or break your attempt to effectively communicate your research and connect with your audience.

Keep in mind that the customer, or in this case, the audience, is not “always right.” Regardless, the ability to listen to and acknowledge different perspectives leads to more fulfilling and compassionate conversations. In my experience, this is when real progress happens.

Last Call

Beyond providing a stable source of income in a seasonal community, working in a bar as a full-time graduate student is actually how I honed my science communication skills. My bar was my tiny soapbox, and my customers and coworkers were my captive audience. Each and every time a customer asked what I was studying, I had another chance to practice explaining my research without scientific jargon. Any time they looked confused, I knew I would need to change it up.

When I felt stranded “on the rocks” and discouraged by how difficult it can be to enter the marine science field, my service industry employers and customers always supported my ambitions. They weren’t angry when I left for months at a time to earn my master’s degree. They were my biggest cheerleaders when I commuted part-time to work as a diving technician for Jarrett Byrnes’ lab at the University of Massachusetts Boston. I am now a Ph.D. candidate in that same lab, where I study sustainable expansion of seaweed aquaculture in New England. Without the encouragement and inspiring conversations with my customers and coworkers, I would have never realized my true calling: to act as a liaison between the community that raised me and the scientists and policymakers working to understand and protect it.

Brianna Shaughnessy

Brianna Shaughnessy

Knauss Fellow, Aquaculture Education Coordinator
NOAA Office of Education, Office of Aquaculture & National Sea Grant Office

Learn more about MIT Sea Grant and how its work serves coastal communities in Massachusetts and beyond.

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