Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advisor horror stories, continued.

Someone who wrote before writes again, this time elaborating on her horrific situation. I edited this comment only for typographical errors to make it more readable.

You're completely right. The key is to stay positive and sometimes things do happen for a reason...which may never be apparent until much down the road. (At least that's what I hope). I wrote to you a few weeks back about e-advice for my qualifying exam. The good news is that I submitted the written portion. The oral exam is coming up in 10 days. My advisor has been giving me a hard time about the days I have taken off to prepare.

She's giving me shit when I have 10 days left for the oral exam. Most other students have gotten between 4-12 weeks to prepare and study! I got exactly 15 days off for the written which is pretty scary since I have never written a grant before and my undergrad degree is in psychology.

Anyways what's sad is that my prof tries to run her lab like a company and she feels we are all her employees. She is constantly threatening me about taking these days out of my vacation time and about even not paying me. As a graduate sstudent I FEEL that she is being very unreasonable. When I try to reason with her and give her examples of more senior profs and their students her response is always I don't care.

It's sad because I am her first student ever. Is it legal for her to be doing this? Moreover she has been giving my experiments to other students to do while I am not in th lab and wants me to redo those experiments. I don't think this is ethical..and I also have my doubts about it being legal. I know in companies they have employees do the same experiments to see who gets the better results etc..but in a graduate school is this allowed?
I appreciate all your help. Thanks a lot.

Aside to the audience:

Ack! Can you believe this is actually going on in universities???

To the author:

Since when do graduate students have any vacation time?? That sounds like an empty threat to me.

But I don't know that there are any laws against her threatening you or even punishing you. The graduate program probably does not mandate that students be given any time off lab work to prepare for exams, nor does it mandate in any way that PIs be nice to their students.

In terms of how professors are supposed to mentor/advise/train students in your program, that is something you would have to look up in your university bylaws, graduate student handbook, etc.

You should see if there is an ombudsperson or other mediator service at your school.

Your attitude, however, could use some adjusting. Complaining that she's 'giving you shit' is not a very mature or diplomatic way to look at it.

I understand that it may be inpossible to have a reasoned, adult conversation with her about your obligations to her, to the program, and to your own career, but I'd strongly encourage you to try to do that if you haven't already. Since you are her first student, she may not realize that her behavior is only going to lead to you no longer being in her lab, if you fail your exams or if she's so unbearable that you leave or quit.

Does she realize that if you fail out, you'll either be gone and then she really won't be able to get you to do her experiments, or you'll need even more time to study the second time around? While most schools do give you a second chance, most don't give you a third.

And don't even get me started on what a crappy lab that must be for students. What kind of training is that, giving your experiments to someone else to do when you're gone for only a week or two?? Are your samples time-sensitive??

She doesn't sound like the kind of PI who is actually equipped to handle a university environment. Universities are slow. It's one of the things I don't love about them, but I've come to understand better why they are that way, so it doesn't bother me so much anymore and I know how long things take, so I can plan accordingly. Is she coming from industry or from years of maternity leave or something? Is she really young?

Sounds to me like a young, first-time grad student and a young, first-time PI are not a good match. It's the blindly ambitious leading the blindly terrified.

My advice:

If you can't talk sense into her, get out of that lab, and do it as soon as you possibly can. Ideally you need to pass your exams first, but then you should find out what you'd need to do to switch labs.

Good luck.

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At 6:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Ms. PhD on this one, with the following modification: Get out of that lab as soon as you pass your quals. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. As a new student, you are 1000 times better off in a more well established lab, not as someone's "first student". For her to threaten your "vacation time" is ludicrous. If you want to take time off, do it. As long as you are not abusing the system, you should be able to take time off when needed. I never asked any of my bosses for time off. I just said "I'll be out of town next week" and left it at that.

Brand new labs are a crap shoot. Your PI may not make it to her next grant which could leave you screwed halfway through your thesis work. She also has no experience mentoring students. Pick a lab that has a fairly well established PI who has a lot of mentoring experience.

At 7:18 PM, Blogger yes said...

Run, do not walk, direct to the exit.

If the PI isn't being reasonable when you haven't even made it to your quals, then year 4/5/6 is going to be brutal.

Do you think they will let you out when you are done? (I don't). Do you think they will be reasonable about what done is?

Move to a lab that is reasonable NOW. Do not go to the ombudsman or anything, as that will just get you a reputation. Don't make a stink....just MOVE.

Otherwise you will waste several years being miserable and then likely have to switch labs or do some other horrible thing just to get the degree. You think your miserable now...wait until year 6 and then switch labs. Then you will be miserable.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger CDJ said...

I know this is a difficult situation, but this is not that unusual when working for a young PI. While I do believe that 15 days is a short time to write an oral proposal, I think more than a month is just a waste of time. When you get to the end of your PhD, no one will remember your oral proposal, or how you did on your qualifying exam. They will look to see what research you have accomplished, which is why your PI is pushing you to get as much done on that front as you can.

Also, does the PI have a grant due anytime soon? Is there a paper that is almost done that would have some impact and really help with funding? Some grants for young investigators can only be applied for once, so the results may be critical to the career of the PI and the reputation of the entire lab, which will effect the student's career as well.

As this PI is obviously young and very driven, they are probably having trouble learning one of the most difficult lessons: your students are not you. Most faculty members at large institutions sacrificed a great deal to get where they are. When students don't or can't work as hard as the PI thinks they should, it's difficult on the PI and the student. Probably as the PI gets older and has some success things will improve on their own.

Maybe the student could approach another member of their committee with some of their concerns? Talking with one of them may help alleviate some of these problems.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger JF, scientist said...

Let me EMPHATICALLY second the advice to switch labs. I've been with an advisor who ranges from indifferent to harmful for five years, and I should have left after quals. It only gets harder to switch, the longer you stay.

At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was so happy to see your post! What a coincidence to see it on my birthday. You really know people don't you? My advisor is young. She did her PhD in India followed by about 4 years of work in a Company and then she did a postdoc at the NIH. Coincidentally, she had a baby last year and was gone for maternity leave while I was in in the lab. My advisor has a lot of complexes. She basically inherited her whole lab from a really big guy in the field of rat genomics who retired 2 years ago. She gets a lot of criticism because it's His grants and his money. She did however get an RO1 3 years ago but people say it's cause the former professor was a coauthor on it. She has been complaining that the department has been giving her a hard time about not having published from the lab in a couple of years as well. So being her first student I am at the receiving end of a lot of this. When I say she is giving me "shit" it's becausee I see the unfairness and it upsets me considering what I have put in to the lab. I have ran personal errands for her, taken her home when she would ask me for rides. She didn;tworry that experiments weere not getting done then? I probably should have said no. Now she things she can walk all over me and get away with it. She makes personal comments about my weight and how I really should have no other worries in lab because I don;thave a husband and kids. She seems to have a bias towards male students. She will flirt with them and be considerate of their time. For me, she doesn;'t care. I could put it as many hours but if I don;t have results she's upset. She always says that if I were in companies my slow progress would not be tolerated. My samples are not time sensitive at all, she's just in a rush to publish my data. Which is sad because I lose out and I feel bad becausemy thought processess has gone into the experimental design. Not to mention how is it fair to the students who are having to do my work. They have their own projects. Everything that is being done is also part of my proposal. As far as vacation time,in our graduate school handbook it officially states we are entitled to 3 weeks a year. Of course, most of us don't even use half of that. I would shut up and not complain if I was a bad student or if I didn;t work hard. But I am a hard worker. I generated a lot of data my first 2 years in the lab, I worked diligentlly ,I won the best graduate student presentation award for my research at our school's annual reseearch forum, I have brought a lot of positive publicity towards her and her lab. So when she tells me that she will "cut my pay" or that I am " no good lazy and useless" I get very angry. I am not all of those things with respect to my research. I haven't even passed my exam yet and I want out of this crappy school and this lab. I want to move on with my career. I've taken enough injustice. Science should not be like this. My best friend tells me that I care too much. Advisors never really care about their students we are just paid cheap labor. I need to focus on my work and career. With that I'm gonna get back to my studying. One more week! Thank you so much for your advice and support.

At 7:39 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

This made me laugh- I'm actually surprised my guess was so accurate.

I feel bad for your advisor. She is probably freaking out, and it sounds like anything she has managed to get for herself, people don't give her credit (though it's not clear whether she deserves any, from the outside).

But you've clearly crossed the professional line with her. By agreeing to run errands and give her a ride home, she doesn't think of you as a student, she thinks of you as her personal assistant.

Her sexism is really common. I had an advisor like this. They don't realize they're doing it. Have you ever tried pointing it out to her?

If she says you are too slow to be in a company, you should instruct her on how THAT IS WHY YOU'RE IN GRAD SCHOOL. If you already had enough experience, you wouldn't need to be there. Can she help you learn to be more efficient?

I understand the points about her being in a rush to publish, but I recently heard a story about a young PI who had several papers retracted (I'm omitting details on purpose here) because some of the data turned out to be wrong. In this case it was clearly a mistake of sloppy oversight by the PI- probably because of pressure to publish "high-impact" quantity rather than quality. If it can be finished as a team effort by the whole lab, and it is sufficient to save the lab livelihodod (funding), then fine. But I seriously doubt that rushing around now can make up for her lack of productivity over the last 3 years since she got her R01.

And I'm sure your advisor cares about you. She clearly needs and depends on you, and when she gets frustrated takes it out on you because she also thinks of you as a friend (since you ran errands for her).

I'm not sure you should give up and just walk away. That can actually be more of a stink, as someone called it, than trying to sit her down and have a discussion about her behavior. Do try to do that before you go, so at least if you leave, she will have learned something from the experience, and you won't be left wondering what would have happened if you had tried harder to make her see your side of the story.

Best of luck.

At 2:19 AM, Blogger Am I a woman scientist? said...

You know how in horror movies, when the teenagers are hanging out in a haunted house and the walls start to bleed, they decide to go up to the attic to figure out what that scraping noise is instead of running out the front door like you've been yelling at them to for 20 minutes?

Get. Out. Now.

If you can't find a decent advisor at the department, try another school. I have seen this horror flick many times. The longer you stay in, the worse the ending.

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grad student - I have seen behavior like your PI's from my former PI. Their youth and lack of experience is definitely what causes them to act like that (her view of academia as being exactly like a corporate environment is typical). What she should realize is that as a graduate student, you do have a certain amount of protection. You don't want to rely on that protection, but she should back off for that reason. Another thing I've learned from my former PI is that they don't necessarily see your best interest as their's. It's all about them - they are the star, and you are the first person they think that they can walk all over. Sometimes you have to gently remind them that your success is theirs. If she's smart, she'll get it... but there are plenty of people who make it as PI's that aren't necessarily smart (yes they can publish high impact papers, get grants, and kiss bureaucratic ass, but they are not capable of understanding some or all of the people who work for them and how the academic system really works).

The way that she treats you is most likely due to her insecurity. Either it's her stress over her job, or she feels threatened by your intelligence, or both. I read somewhere that the best mentors are people who are separated from their mentees by a generation. Older, more experienced mentors are more likely to view you as their proteges (though that doesn't always happen).

It is very demoralizing to have to work for someone like that, too. I'd advise leaving, as well. However, if you stay in her lab, it can be a learning experience. You can watch her and see how she succeeds (or fails) as a young investigator. You can learn a lot about how the academic system works, as well. I've learned a LOT about what NOT to do just by watching my former PI. I'm taking those experiences with me, and hopefully will be the better for it.

At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Virologista said...

It sounds like an obnoxious situation, but I wouldn't go so far as switching labs unless you think that this will interfere with publishing papers and getting your PhD. Switching labs is a major trauma, and will set you back years...

At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a guy, so I have a completely different way of handling things, but if any male advisor told me I was "no good, lazy, and useless", I would probably be out of a job very quickly as my first response would be to smack him. Needless to say, her saying these things to you are COMPLETELY unprofessional (unless you are paraphrasing?). At the very least you should sit down and speak with her about these things, as Ms. PhD says maybe she's somewhat clueless about her own behavior.

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to concur with unidentified male above: your PI is definitely exhibiting unprofessional behavior. She sounds like a bully. It also sounds like (from some of her comments to you) she is *at least* subconsciously, if not fully, consciously, comparing herself to you, which indicates that she probably feels competitive with you. As a grad student, you need a PI who isn't competitive with you, but who will scientifically nurture you and who criticizes your *work* in a *healthy* way (and doesn't criticize you for your appearance or what she thinks you will become in the future - that's just messing with your mind).

As for her "dire" prediction about how unsuitable you are for future industry work: you're only a graduate student - your success in the future can't really be predicted at this point because you're just starting out. It is totally wrong for her to be so discouraging and negative. Her job is to train you to become a confident scientist, not to attempt to undermine your self-confidence.

Another point: You just joined her lab - you are NOT responsible for her successes/failures right now while you study for your qualifying exam. If anything, it sounds as if she should have been more productive in the past, before you joined her lab. Maybe she was thrown off track by having a baby, but you're certainly not responsible for that. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't work hard, it just means that she can't expect things from you that are unrealistic.

Not knowing your situation fully, I can't recommend whether or not you should stay or go. I agree that if you do decide to move, you should do it as quietly and diplomatically as possible.

At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is another vote for switching labs. Run, do not look back. The longer you wait, the harded it gets.

In general, I think that personality of the PI is more important then any single other issue in graduate school. Even the quality or type of research done in the lab can sometimes pale besides it - what is the use of joining a lab that puts out five high-impact papers a year, if you have zero chance of getting first author on any of them, and are pretty much guaranteed five years of absolute hell?

The best piece of advice I ever got about graduate school: never forget that you are not there to serve the PI, or to serve the department, or to serve the university. You are not even there to do groundbreaking research. You are there to get a degree, period. Never lose that from your sight.

At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that these comments seem to be "on target." I would back up their advice to leave the lab, except I would do it now. If your department would give you the option to delay your quals, do so. The reason is that if you don't do well, your advisor may blame you, your work ethic, etc. I was in a very similar situation where my advisor was "green," much like yours. When things go south, whether her fault or yours, it is ALWAYS the graduate student's fault. This is the danger of having a new mentor; if they screw up, they have an uphill climb (and it's them or you!) to regain their academic integrity.

I hope we all remember these comments when/if we have students of our own.

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in a Master's program with a new PI too. I'm his first graduate student and I have the same issues as you. Do you think all new PIs are like this because of the lack of experience?

At 8:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is quite an old post, but since I am reading this now I figured others might be too. I was in a situation with two PIs, both of which senior. One was a good personality match for me, and I chose the work because of him, expecting that the other PI would defer to him. This was mostly (but not entirely) incorrect. After 2 years I was still moving slowly but feeling good and proud of my work. She started insulting me and pretty much everything I wrote, though I could see that she was trying to be supportive/motivational in her own way, and telling me what was out of no where (to me) that I could never leave town or take a day off, even though she didn't understand what I was doing in the first place because I was really working with the other person. At any rate, I couldn't handle it, and as I moved toward quals the advice I received was to get through the exam and then get out. It turned out I was so anxious of her when preparing for the exam that I couldn't concentrate or retain any information, so I totally blew it. I don't like failing, so I spent the next month trying to find some way to make it through again (with her), until I realized that getting up and running out of lab to cry on a frequent basis was not going to cut it. Now it is over, but it was MESSY to end it.


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