Monday, November 29, 2010

What does a grad student or a postdoc owe their PI?

Photo credit: wikimedia.org
Two weeks ago (remember last week? I don't, either), I asked the question "What is desired from a chemistry PI from their grad students and postdocs?", especially in regards to employment seeking?

I think it's only fair that we assess this question from the other side: to deserve a good phone call or a nice letter from their PI, what does a graduate student or a postdoc need to do? Here's a small list:

Results: It's brutal, but it's true. If you're productive, things will come your way (hopefully.)
Effort/perseverance: Barring lots and lots of results, I think it's fair that you throw the kitchen sink of effort at your work. This doesn't mean chaining yourself to your hood, necessarily -- I think it means a thorough assessment of the problem you're working on, from the literature on down. You have to be able to answer the typical PI (and interview questions!) that start with... "Did you try [list of random but obvious techniques]?"
Leadership/mentorship: It could be as simple as setting a good example, or it could be as complex as training new graduate students in the lab's special techniques.

Of course, all too often, students' contributions to their groups are missed; and true, some PIs are just clueless. In those cases, of course, you're really in trouble.

Readers, I'm positive I've missed something. What does a grad student or postdoc owe their PI?

UPDATE: Liberal Arts Chemist, an actual PI, writes in the comments:
Loyalty: I would not want blind loyalty or an unsafe loyalty but in the ups and downs of the PI - research group relationship I have seen too many students piss in their own well. Departmental politics are brutal and a tired and bitter graduate student can really cause problems if they find a kind and listening ear in a competing faculty member. This is the kind of loyalty that feeds to departmental tribalism and in fact will do the grad student no good at all. It will come back to them either through faculty - faculty gossip or a less than supportive letter of reference. Students need someone in their lives to whom they can download their "Bitter" file ... but that person should not be in their department.
For what it's worth, I agree with him.

9 comments:

  1. Loyalty: I would not want blind loyalty or an unsafe loyalty but in the ups and downs of the PI - research group relationship I have seen too many students piss in their own well. Departmental politics are brutal and a tired and bitter graduate student can really cause problems if they find a kind and listening ear in a competing faculty member. This is the kind of loyalty that feeds to departmental tribalism and in fact will do the grad student no good at all. It will come back to them either through faculty - faculty gossip or a less than supportive letter of reference. Students need someone in their lives to whom they can download their "Bitter" file ... but that person should not be in their department.

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  2. "Students need someone in their lives to whom they can download their "Bitter" file ... but that person should not be in their department. "

    Which, of course, requires time outside the lab 8-)

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  3. Chemjobber I believe you've got the blanket requirements down. I'll expand upon them a bit more.
    - Under the heading of efforts I would add an honest attempt to keep a positive outlook. If you go into a reaction assuming it will fail, then you probably won't be looking for unexpected/weird results (maybe you won't isolate that spot that doesn't make sense in terms of polarity, etc).
    - Under leadership I would add a professional relationship with your group. So maybe you really hate that guy in your lab, and maybe your boss even knows it, do you still come in say hello, do your job, offer advice on their research (especially if they ask), etc or do you make a big deal out of it and ruin the lab dynamic?
    - I would argue that students should make an honest attempt to be active at group meetings. Are you giving research advice to others when they share their roadblocks in group meeting, or do you just stare at the ground and let then flail about? When it's your turn to present something to your group (like a literature topic), do you do a half-assed job or do you put together a nice presentation with a topic that teaches the lab something new while promoting an interesting discussion? Of course, this is all assuming the PI actually pays any attention to their own meetings. If the PI doesn't care, then there's less motivation for doing any of this...
    - Lab upkeep/Division of chores. Keep running out of solvents? Need some more 18 gauge needles? Need to submit some halogenated waste? Well are you the one that ignores it knowing full well that somebody more responsible will take of it all, or do you pitch in to do your fair share which makes sure the lab runs smoothly. Here again though, if the PI isn't around much, they can expect this but they won't have a clue if it's being upheld or not.
    - Be proactive about your degree requirements. Do wait around for someone to tell you when to do your oral exam or write that proposal. Be on top of those things.
    - Be honest about you results and your thoughts on the state of your project (though this could be hard to do if you don't have the right type of PI). Are you always "pretty sure" a reaction is going to work just b/c the boss thinks it would be sweet if it worked and you can tell they are getting excited about it? Do you like to be agreeable and the yes-man when your boss suggests something? While it's hard to bring the boss back to reality, sometimes it's required (bosses can forget things, "uh dude, we've already tried that"). How about an honest opinion and what results you'd expect ("well I'll give that suggestion a try right away but I know that in so-and-so's work they had trouble with a similar substrate so it's possible that X will happen instead of Y"). However, if your boss doesn't have the right attitude, honesty can feel like your enemy.

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  4. Stewie Griffin says:
    Chemjobber I believe you've got the blanket requirements down. I'll expand upon them a bit more.
    - Under the heading of efforts I would add an honest attempt to keep a positive outlook. If you go into a reaction assuming it will fail, then you probably won't be looking for unexpected/weird results (maybe you won't isolate that spot that doesn't make sense in terms of polarity, etc).
    - Under leadership I would add a professional relationship with your group. So maybe you really hate that guy in your lab, and maybe your boss even knows it, do you still come in say hello, do your job, offer advice on their research (especially if they ask), etc or do you make a big deal out of it and ruin the lab dynamic?
    - I would argue that students should make an honest attempt to be active at group meetings. Are you giving research advice to others when they share their roadblocks in group meeting, or do you just stare at the ground and let then flail about? When it's your turn to present something to your group (like a literature topic), do you do a half-assed job or do you put together a nice presentation with a topic that teaches the lab something new while promoting an interesting discussion? Of course, this is all assuming the PI actually pays any attention to their own meetings. If the PI doesn't care, then there's less motivation for doing any of this...
    - Lab upkeep/Division of chores. Keep running out of solvents? Need some more 18 gauge needles? Need to submit some halogenated waste? Well are you the one that ignores it knowing full well that somebody more responsible will take of it all, or do you pitch in to do your fair share which makes sure the lab runs smoothly. Here again though, if the PI isn't around much, they can expect this but they won't have a clue if it's being upheld or not.
    - Be proactive about your degree requirements. Do wait around for someone to tell you when to do your oral exam or write that proposal. Be on top of those things.
    - Be honest about you results and your thoughts on the state of your project (though this could be hard to do if you don't have the right type of PI). Are you always "pretty sure" a reaction is going to work just b/c the boss thinks it would be sweet if it worked and you can tell they are getting excited about it? Do you like to be agreeable and the yes-man when your boss suggests something? While it's hard to bring the boss back to reality, sometimes it's required (bosses can forget things, "uh dude, we've already tried that"). How about an honest opinion and what results you'd expect ("well I'll give that suggestion a try right away but I know that in so-and-so's work they had trouble with a similar substrate so it's possible that X will happen instead of Y"). However, if your boss doesn't have the right attitude, honesty can feel like your enemy.

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  5. Sir,

    the highly suggestive traffic sign that you unfortunately used as illustration seems to imply that graduate students and postdocs owe acts of physical gratification to their research advisors.

    I have nothing against frequent couplings going on within the research group - as long as it involves HATU, DCC, NMR spectroscopy or a Spanish brunette in the hood next to me. Its just that I generally don't find my advisors all that attractive.

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  6. Gee whiz, milkshake. If that's the case, careful on your drive home! ;-)

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  7. @milkshake: I have no idea what you're getting at...all I see are paired electrons obeying the Pauli exclusion principle :|

    Recalling an exclamation made by a frustrated colleague upon receiving a journal rejection, "Who do I have to **** to get into JACS?!"

    @Liberal Arts Chemist: Is it really healthy keep misery "within the family"? While it's helpful to have an external sounding board for grad school bitterness, a "neutral" faculty member could do a lot mitigate professional conlicts between PIs and their undergings. We can all list examples of grad students/postdocs who were placed on dead-end projects or otherwise allowed to flounder by aloof/stubborn PIs. In some cases, they were too afraid to voice their concerns, fearing reprisals from their advisers.

    The overall health (financial and intellectual)of any chemistry department should supersede those of its constituent research groups/factions. Professors who gossip and connive at the expense of their subordinates are not fit to be faculty. PIs and their subordinates should treat each other more like human beings, rather than just commodities (subordinate = pair of hands, PIs = résumé-booster/meal ticket/foot in the door).

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  8. Things may be different elsewhere but I have been a faculty member of five different chemistry departments and they all worked the same way. The faculty for the most part suffered from "grant envy" and students would routinely "get back" at their advisors / supervisors by complaining to other faculty. This was true even in a chemistry department in the UK that I worked at for a while. So the culture in your department may be closer to the ideal but that hasn't been my experience. I am not talking about cathartic venting I am talking about malevolent backstabbing, which I am sure the students are aware that they are doing when they do it. That is where the "pissing in their own well" comment came from because bitter reprisal is the sort of thing that gets invoked in letters of reference ("while exceptional at the bench Ricky Bobby could, at times, find it difficult to communicate negative results, he could be moody and at times, from my perspective, spent excessive time socializing in other research groups."). Try getting a job with that reference.

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  9. I'd like to give a hearty second to Stewie's mention of lab upkeep / group jobs. Yes, I KNOW they're boring. Yes, I KNOW they're not in your thesis, you aren't paid for them, and they don't get put in a paper....

    ...BUT...if you're the one in lab on a Saturday afternoon, and there's no clean glassware / silica / pipettes / needles / reagents, you'll wish you had held up your end.....

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