Saturday, October 15, 2005

Whining and dining

It's Saturday and I'm at my desk, blasting music to ward off the deathly silence of a mostly-empty building. My gels are transferring and incubating in antibody, my cells are growing, and I will be here until it's time for dinner & going out tonight. My feet hurt already and I have about 5 hours left to go, so I'm just happy to be sitting down. The only food I have with me is an apple, and there are no vending machines here.


Actually it is kind of nice, except that when I'm actually doing a lot of work, I am constantly finding broken equipment. I'm trying not to think too hard about why no one else noticed one of the gel boxes and stir plates aren't working, or if they just don't care. No matter what, it's a bit depressing since I'm always the one who needs to use the stuff. And because of the way things are set up here, I have very little control over any of it actually getting fixed.

I'm also avoiding one of the only other people who is here today. The last few days I've been listening to a lot of ranting about my advisor. From time to time, I have mentioned a few ridiculous things that she has said or done, but from my perspective, in general she has been nothing but encouraging and helpful to me. I know that she doesn't treat everyone equally. They all say she's nice to you at the beginning, and I haven't been here that long.

I don't want to tell them they can't talk to me, since I really do believe that talking about it generally helps alleviate some of the stress. If anything, I am a bit jealous that everyone here has each other to lean on, while I had nobody when I was being verbally abused by my thesis advisor. It is interesting to see how uniting against a common enemy brings everyone together. But it makes me really uncomfortable listening to these people bitch and moan about how horrible and mean she is.

I have made some headway in pointing out that all PIs say stupid or mean things sometimes, that if they didn't learn from this experience they would go on to be just as shocked when they find the same thing in their next lab. That there is really no such thing as the perfect advisor, or boss, in any field, and the few really great ones are very hard to find. And so on.

It is hard for me because I think my advisor and I have a lot in common. While we would both like to think I won't make all the same mistakes she has- she has freely admitted regretting some of the interpersonal conflicts she ignited as a young professor- naturally, I am terrified. The idea of being a PI and having everyone in my lab complaining about me behind my back... shades of elementary school come to mind. Or for that matter, anyone seen Mean Girls ?


At 8:17 AM, Blogger K said...

Yep, I've seen Mean Girls. I thought it was fairly true. Sometimes you think all that childish stuff will stop once you're "grown-up" and around other adults, but I don't think it ever ends. From what I've experienced so far the academic world is also full of jealous, back-stabbing people. Not everyone of course! But you can't get away from it.

I've complained about my own advisor before, but right now we're getting along well. I think you sometimes have to appreciate the good while you have it, and hope for the best in the future. Hopefully you're relationship with your PI will continue to be good!

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous petina said...

I share similar experiences in my lab. I get along decently with my advisor, and unfortunately, I am one of very few who do.

Based upon my experience, I think you have probably earned the good relationship you have with your advisor - and maybe the others haven't had the occasion to, blew their opportunity, or just have personality conflicts. I've seen all three in my lab. I also try to sympathize, but sometimes I just can't.

I am sure we will all make mistakes as PIs. The successful women I've worked closely with have put up a strong front - they FORCE you to respect them. I think that hurts perceptions of them to a large degree. We expect women to be understanding and nice, but maybe we don't have the same expectations of men... maybe we do... I don't know....

Hopefully we will carry the memories of being on the receiving end - and remember it doesn't have to be THAT hard.

At 11:14 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

I think there are a few important things to do that may make a big difference to a new PI. One is to locate a mentor -- someone who can help you figure out the peculiar features of the institutional culture and who can be a good sounding board. Another is to cultivate your grad students as partners while you're coming up to speed -- not that they're *equal* partners, of course, but letting them be part of the project of getting the lab and experiments up and running will teach them lots of valuable stuff (that will help them when *they* become PIs), and it will undoubtedly work better than putting up a front. In my experience, lack of straightforward communication is often a source of crappy advisor-advisee relationships.

Probably the fact that you're already pondering how to have good relations with your future students bodes well for those relations.

At 5:42 AM, Blogger Dr J. said...

I´ve worked in, umm, 7 labs by now (gee how did it get to that many?). There is, unfortunately, a very typical young female PI mentality and it isn´t positive. I´ve been told by others that it isn´t necessarily always the case, but I´ve now had 3 young women bosses and they were all overly sensitive paraniod control freaks who give their people no space to think or move in their own directions, can´t take any criticism from any one and view all questions from their postdocs as personal attacks on their knowledge.
Sounds exceptionally harsh I know, but that is all I´ve experienced from that level of female scientists. I´ve known a few female professors and the ones who seemed to have the best labs were those with a personal life as well - relationship, family, hobbies, sports. Those who put their entire life into their career, forgoe relationships and children, seem to have the most to lose. And they know it, and it comes out in this over reactionary manner I´ve seen so much (this is amateur psychology at it´s worst here).

Not sure what I´m trying to say really except: don´t become that! Sit down and anayse your own reactions to every situation in your group and see if you would agree with it as the postdoc/student on the other end. Guide and involve, don´t control. Work hard, be aware that as a woman we have to give 200% to get slightly ahead, but don´t let it make you bitter, because that feeds back into your group and colleagues and affects your career. Have a balanced life and allow your group to have them too (don´t email on a Sunday evening asking why they aren´t at work! -experienced that one). Read on managment techniques, attend seminars - they are unbelievably helpful.

As my father always said (and he´s a very big management guy): "There will ALWAYS be someone working for you who hates you for whatever reason, the point is how are you going to let it affect you?"

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Joolya said...

It's weird and scary how adolescent people can be in labs. My PI is crazy - aren't they all? -and although he means well, he is not always the paragon of tact. Sometimes he drives me nuts. Ditto my last PI. But I have sat at my bench and listened to my co-workers, post-docs who were/are in the process of becoming PIs themselves, completely assassinate our bosses' characters, gossip and speculate about their personal lives, and complain using language that sounded more like grumpy teenagers whose parents just don't get that they've got their own minds, man. It always gets me, this - grown up people still acting out child-parent relationships.
Of course, there is no PI school for manners (though there should be), and the qualities that make a great scientist are often the opposite of those that make a good manager. We're all a little eccentric - if I had an office (if I had any provacy whatsoever!) I would be closing that door all the time, and I have trouble enough knowing what day of the week it is let alone keeping up on what everyone I work with is doing . . . so basically, anything people complain about in my PI I can already see myself doing.
Talk about turning into your mother/father.


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