Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ask CJ: What to do about an absentee PI and a lab that's running out of money?

A reader writes in with an interesting set of circumstances (heavily redacted/edited for privacy)
"[Lab B] is in dire financial straits. They're not bouncing checks yet, but there is scrimping and saving, and the occasional delay to get [standard lab supplies]. [Lack of funds for stipends] has brought the lab to a standstill, [on occasion...]
[The PI's time/energy is entirely spent elsewhere. They gave their senior-most students an directive that they are to graduate ASAP] -- an interesting conundrum if these students don't have the funding to efficiently and swiftly carry out their research to meet that end-point. Newer students to the lab are blindsided by this as well, and aren't sure how much of their current research they'll get to keep if they're transplanted into a different lab.  
...there is also a disconnect between what the students know, and what other professors know. Needless to say, this puts the grad students in a very awkward position when collaborators very clearly don't know about this move and the students do." 
This isn't the first time I've heard of this sort of thing. Classic examples include the sad cases where the PI passes away. In those cases, it seems to me that the department recognizes that There Is Business To Be Handled, and students are Taken Care Of. But in cases like those of Lab B, the PI has unfortunately put the students in the position of not knowing when it's okay to tell the department authorities (the chair, the director of graduate studies, what have you...) and trying to handle things Within The Family.

So, readers, questions for you:
  • First, has this happened to you? If so, what happened? What worked well? What did not? 
  • What are the obligations of the department to these students? Who, within the department, gets to know the bloody details and make sure that the students progress towards graduation?
  • What are the obligations of group members towards each other?
  • For those who have been in similar situations, how much time can you expect to add? 
  • What are the warning signs that this might happen in your laboratory? 
Obviously, if you'd like to comment by e-mail, I would be happy to receive your comments at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com 


  1. The Director of Graduate Studies is the person the letter-writer should talk to first. They're will know Departmental protocol for your situation.

    If you are a younger grad student in the group who hasn't passed their Comps/Quals/etc, then it might be possible to transfer groups at that stage...or leave with a Masters and try again elsewhere.

  2. I agree that the director of graduate studies is the first person to talk to. However, keep in mind that the DGS often is an assistant professor with limited power, so don't be afraid to escalate to the department chair or dean if necessary.

  3. My graduate adviser only showed up for work at school 20 min per week. He has his own company. If I was lucky, I got to talk to him for 10 min per week. BTW, this started happening my 4th year. Oh, and calls and emails, no reply from him. He didn't even read my dissertation before my defense. My graduation was delayed for almost 2 years. I talked to dept chair and dean of grad school. They did nothing at all.

    1. My adviser didnt read my thesis dissertation either (or any other grad students). I don't think anybody on my committee read it.

      As I recall, one night my adviser yelled at one of his students" "Thesis's mean crap! The only thing that matters is publications and grant money!"

      I think advisers forget that historically their role in an academic institution was to advise their students.

    2. The Iron ChemistMay 27, 2014 at 4:29 PM

      Actually, that's pretty decent advice. Research output and attracted investment are what impress, and most people never consider anything besides those two worthwhile enough to give more than a token acknowledgement of importance.

      Given that theses are usually (hopefully) drafts for manuscripts, I'm of the opinion that it's a good idea to put some work into them. Further, given the potential consequences, it's also a good idea to make sure that they're not plagiarized.

    3. Because you are faculty I am not at all surprised by your, IMO, narrow perspective on this issue.

      Now: Imagine how you would feel if you spent 6-7 years doing research and your adviser didn't read your thesis. How would you feel?

      If you don't feel so bad about it, then start a movement to eliminate the thesis requirement. But then again, if there is no thesis, then it becomes clear that all a PhD program is, is a system to set up cheap labor for a lengthy amount of time to support the lifestyle of the adviser.

      So why not eliminate the PhD ll together?

    4. The Iron ChemistMay 27, 2014 at 9:19 PM

      I apologize NMH; I didn't make my thoughts sufficiently clear. The "decent advice" comment was directed towards the "all that matters is publications and grant money" portion of your adviser's exclamation. When all is said and done, these are what people will notice and use as a bases for judgement (hiring, promotion, etc). I would argue that this is cynicism on my part rather than narrow-mindedness.

      That said, if you're going to get these as a post-graduate researcher, you'll need experience writing and thinking about how to put your work into context. In my earlier statement, I noted that theses often contain drafts of future papers, and writing a thesis should be on a pathway to hopefully many publications. The introductory chapter is usually the one that provides most of the context; why should people care about the rest of the work? You won't get any grant money from people who don't have any use for your research, no matter how thoroughly your experiments have been designed.

      So I guess I only partly agree with your adviser. I consider the thesis to be a valuable training exercise. I carefully read every one which I've been assigned, whether it is by one of my own students or from one of my colleague's. Sadly, this isn't uniformly done.

      You wanted me to imagine how I would feel if my adviser didn't read my thesis after many years of doing research. At the risk of offending you, I would feel like I had made a poor decision. If a potential adviser is not committed to developing their students' skills, well... that doesn't make them much of an adviser, does it?

    5. Not every thesis can become a publication. And I have seen a lot of graduate students getting their degree without knowing a bit of chemistry. A lot of students ( I should say most of them I met) didn't know how to proper use a centrifuge. A kid with MS degree in Engineering , BS in biology, doesn't know what Beer's law is. How many of you have seen students getting degree just because they stay there for #s of years or the advisor is tired of the student?
      Back to the topic, if the advisors don't guide the students, then why have a graduate advisor position (I agree with NMH). Why do they get paid not doing their job? There are evaluations for undergrad to score their teachers, evaluations for professors to score their graduate students(cheap labor), but there is no mechanism to watch these advisors. Who is looking out for graduate students?

  4. In answer to more of Chemjobber's Questions.
    * Money begets money. When looking into joining a lab, check out how many recent grants the PI is holding (the main NSF, NIH ones are publicly listed online) and when they are due to expire. Find out how many current group members there are - if their 2010 group photo shows 25 students and you are introduced to only 5...you know that funding is haemorraging badly. If all of the grad students are 3rd year & above, you know that there hasn't been money to take on new students recently. Which is bad news.

    * Don't be an asshole to fellow group members (don't steal their limited resources)...but advocate for yourself first. Keep your fellow group members informed of your conversations with the DGS/Dept Chair/PI. You aren't obliged to place them in another lab yourself, though.

    1. Only wish I got advice like this before I chose my advisor. That time, everyone(Professors) told me to choose what I like.

  5. I remember that some years back this happened to a chemistry dept. professor at Harvard, which shall not be named. He was too busy (starting his own company) and he procrastinated on writing grants, with predictable results, his students going to beg and borrow and use GC instruments in better run groups...

    My suggestion how to deal with the problem is not to complain to anyone, scrounge the needed chemicals/glassware, write up and take the opportunity to graduate ASAP. Meanwhile start looking for a good postdoc with some famous name because this grad school advisor is going to be next to useless when looking for a job.

  6. Couldn't agree more re: background research in advance. Recent pubs, talk to students, see if everything [asses the smell test.

    Unfortunately, sometimes circumstances like the above happen, and sometimes students get screwed. I would echo:

    1) speaking with grad supervisor as well as other profs in the department for their take

    2) depending on what stage you are at, leaving with a MSc and getting a PhD elsewhere, simply leaving without a masters and doing the same, or trying to transfer to a different group within the same department.

    Also, if a student is close to done, speak to everyone possible to make finishing a reality, and try to increase your chances by planning ahead (specific guidelines and deadlines), and/or by securing a position with a start date (postdoc, new grad program, job).

  7. And for the record, the comment about pubs and presentations and grants being ultimately more important than the thesis itself is totally correct. By the time a PhD defence rolls around, it should really be a foregone conclusion, and the committee should ideally have an idea about where you stand/what your degree has been like, largely based on those metrics. Not all the time, but MOST of the time.

    That said, profs/committee members shouldn't be assholes and not read it. If you have a PhD, and are in a position to be on a committee, it's not incredibly challenging or time consuming to flip through a thesis, read a chapter in depth, and come up with a few questions.

  8. Where I went to grad school it was relatively easy to change groups in the first 2 years, as in it happened in nearly every group. Since moving for any reason was acceptable it rarely stigmatized the student or professor, unless there was a pattern. My boss had several people leave, but that was more due to working hours/ personal issues, not funding or lack of research. One person even left in their fourth year and still got 3 publications with the group.

  9. At my grad school, a pretty famous prof dropped out of the world with a group of maybe a dozen people, like he stopped coming in, stopped answering e-mails for long stretches. His students tried to complain to the higher-ups/ other professors, but nobody really stepped in to do anything, I think they didn't want to be seen as going behind the famous prof's back, and the students were a low priority to them. At least his students had funding. I think the last of the grad students left a little while ago, and there might be a couple of post-docs left, but it is sad because I think a lot of people got left in the lurch with regards to their publications and ref. letters. Oh well, better to save face of a famous prof, and screw over a few nobodys that are just students anyway.

  10. Similar situation happened to me. Pretty well known professor stopped showing up, in my fifth year decides to quit writing grants and purge the group to retire. Since I only had 2 publications and my long term project wasn't going as well as we'd have liked he suggests that I get my MS. Problem was I had already received it 2 years prior. I was able to switch to a new professor who treated me like a postdoc for graduate student money. Originally I was only suppose to stay for 2 publications. Got the publications in about a year, but when I got a job he didn't hold up his end. I went to the dept. chair and eventually the dean who all sided with the professor. The only thing I got out of it was a contract written by the prof. and approved by the chair. Ended up working full time during the week and going back to the lab on weekends. Finally finished and he wouldn't sign my dissertation after my defense because he didn't read it. I had to go back the week before the final submission date to hound him for his signature. Felt like indentured servitude with the contract and everything.