Thursday, May 29, 2014

What to do when you have an absentee PI? A reader responds

From the inbox, a reader responds to Tuesday's questions about absentee PIs (lightly redacted for privacy): 
What are the dept obligations? Who gets to know? 
Well, for starters, I do think that the department has an obligation to help the students out, and at least present them with options. That’s what [institution A] did for me/my former lab, although it was actually a little circuitous. The whole debacle started when the lab started bouncing checks and the department not yet knowing about [the absentee PI's issues]. But, regardless, what they did do was offer us options, and temporary funding. To paraphrase, they basically said “we know your lab is out of funds, and [absentee PI] has bounced during grant application season. The dept has funds and can float you to do what you need to do immediately, but this is obviously not a sustainable solution. You are strongly encouraged to seek other labs, because we cannot guarantee how long we are able to fund the lab, and we certainly cannot guarantee that [absentee PI] will have funds for future research.” Honestly, I was doing mostly [non-laboratory research] at that time, so it didn’t really affect me anyway, but that was a stand-up move by the department...  
...Who gets to know? Obviously, with any of these situations, there’s a certain amount of discretion that is necessary, but I think that ultimately students need to look out for themselves and fill in anyone who is on a ‘need to know basis.’ So, committee members, and grad-student advisory committee type people (most departments have one, with some sort of acronym). All of these individuals/organizations exist for the sole purpose of assisting the grad student, and I think it’s worth the ‘risk’ to confide in them.
  1. It’s their job to serve/advise/assist you, and they can only do so if they’re up to date on a situation.
  2. It shouldn’t be a risk, period. If your adviser is (un)intentionally putting you in an awkward position, they need to understand this and accept that you’re going to talk to others for support/advice.  
  3. Some faculty members seem to be able to exercise decent judgement and restraint, and if you approach them with a ‘you didn’t hear this from me, but’ type attitude, certain ‘cool’ ones can play along. Or, these kind of people can explain point #2 to your boss if they don’t seem to get it. Use your best judgement for who to play this card with. 
  4. If you’re talking to someone in the department, they’re going to find out eventually anyway.
What are the obligations to group members toward each other?   
(CJ's note: lots more good stuff after the jump)
First, everyone needs to be up to date with the same information about what is going on with the lab, and what is going on with the department. I think that’s easy enough to work out - usually, tension runs high, and having everyone on board as a support system will help a lot. After that, things get kind of grey… At [institution A], everything worked out for everybody, basically.... 
It seems that in these situations, a common solution is “join another lab” - this can cause problems if you have too many people that all need to find spots in different labs, as different labs all have funding considerations and limitations of their own. I can envision an awful Lord of the Flies scenario where multiple students are all vying for spots in a lab that doesn’t have room for all of them. 
How much time can you expect to add? 
Jeez, I have no idea. I’d say it depends on how far along you are, and if you switch labs, how closely related the new lab’s work is. If you’re really far along, you’re hopefully good, you can carry on as you would, and start writing. If you’re still super fresh in the program, you’re early enough to switch gears without a significant time-penalty, though you may end up ‘stuck’ in a different lab doing work you’re not totally fulfilled by. If you’re somewhere in-between, I couldn’t tell ya… 
Warning signs? 
This is a tough one - with science funding as volatile as it is now, I’d suspect that predicting such things is pretty hard, and who knows to what degree past performance is any indicator of future success in securing funding. 
I will say that whenever possible, REALLY weigh the pros/cons of joining a lab that is perpetually broke. Being 'the poor lab’ isn’t really a badge of honor to wear (the [absentee PI's lab at institution A] was known for usually being slim on funds, and having to teach a long way into your PhD). Honestly, in this economy having to teach forever isn’t really the worst thing that could happen, and is kind of a smart business decision if funds are there but not necessarily overflowing. But what to actually be concerned about is “whether or not I have to teach, does the lab have money for the actual supplies that I’ll need to do science?” If that answer is no, there may be a problem. 
This is probably ultra-jaded, but if a lab isn’t securing funding to even keep day to day operations afloat, the research might not be as interesting as you want it to be. In any other case, you wouldn’t invest in a company that didn’t have a tenable business model. Similarly, you shouldn’t invest your time in a non-tenable research model. 
Thanks to the reader for their thoughts on the issue. Best wishes to all involved.  


  1. Bring the MoviesMay 29, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    Finally: a great excuse for the dept to collect indirect costs from grants. Better for things like this than to support the salaries of lazy deadwood faculty.

  2. I made a remark like that once about 30 years ago and a senior colleague told me that today's young hotshots are tomorrow's deadwood. And that was long before the NIH payline became all but impossible for R01s. Maybe after 40 years of working weekends and nights for comparatively modest rewards, some people dial it back to 50 hours a week and help their spouse out a little or follow their doctor's advise a bit more?

    1. Bring the MoviesMay 29, 2014 at 1:08 PM

      All individuals in science, IMO, should look at themselves in the mirror in the morning and ask themselves this question: "Am I truly doing my job responsibly to the greatest ability than I can, in appropriate PROPORTION to the money that I make?"

      If you are faculty, bringing in grants and advising students competently, then the answer is, IMO, probably yes.

      If the grants run out and you are being paid 100% hard-money salary to sit on comittees and maybe teach 1 lecture a week, then I don't think so, if you are making 6 figures to do this. Remind yourself of how hard the post-doc works for a fraction for what the deadwood full professor (if on 100% hardmoney salary) is paid.

      Confess to making too much money? Ask for a pay-cut until you get grants and students again.

    2. I really like the question you propose every scientist ask themselves. However I naturally interpreted it in the opposite direction.

      Study for a decade to become an expert in a useful field, only to find that your salary doesn't let you afford the white picket fence and the 2.3 kids?

    3. Hehe, another

  3. Actually a nice age discrimination law suit would pay much better thank you.

  4. Unstable IsotopeMay 29, 2014 at 7:04 PM

    This is a great post. I think a department should have some minimum standard for their students, especially ones officially entered into candidacy. Should they guarantee at least a TA position? I wonder how many chem departments have official policies on this.

  5. The department definitely has a responsibility to the grad students in some form (even if it is just moral support). It was their choice to come there, and they could have gone elsewhere. My advisor quite coming in, or really giving advice around the beginning of my third year, and while we were never short funding, there was constant uncertainty about what our future would be. There was never any moral support from the department chair, or director of graduate studies (I suspect that was for legal reasons). Living essentially the last 4 years of your PhD not knowing how you are going to graduate or publish was a horribly stressful experience, and I am still suffering from the effects from it. A lot of the people from other labs sort of treated our labmates as pariah, as if we had caused our advisor to go AWOL. Had I known what I was getting into, I never would have gone to that school. However it is famous enough that there will never be a shortage of grad students who want to go there.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20