Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A reader asks: Are all PIs assholes?

Dear Reader,

This is a fundamental question. And should make for a good discussion if people are back from vacation and ready to rant.

Are you rrrrrrrrrready to rrrummmmmmmmbuuuuuuuulllllllllllllll???

And the corollary to it: is science a black pit of despair because most of the people doing it are jerks, or just because it is a system that has outgrown its usefulness and needs to be massively overhauled?

I can tell you what I know, but I, too, look forward to seeing what other people want to contribute to this discussion.

I think my answer has (at least) two parts.

1) From your comment (see previous post), I can tell that you need to work on having a thick skin and standing up for yourself.

It's hard for me to gauge, from a distance, whether your PI is unusually assholish, or if you're unusually sensitive, or neither, or both.

However, I can tell you with great certainty that it doesn't matter, because having a thick skin and being able to take criticism (using it is another matter) will always be a useful skill, whether you stay in science, or in your current lab, or not.

2) Not wanting to make any assumptions, I can tell you my general feeling:

Yes, MOST PIs are assholes.

But this also depends on whether you believe that most people in general are

a) inherently good
b) inherently not good
c) inherently stupid

And whether you believe that stupidity leads inevitably to nastiness. I do believe that stupid people tend to be mean, and mean people tend to be stupid, after the poet Nikki Giovanni who was so astute as to say it that way.

Whether scientists are actually less stupid (not to be confused with the opposite of smart or intelligent) than most people in general... is another issue we can discuss later if people want to talk about it again, but I think I have older posts on this issue if you want to browse the archive.

I guess I think that scientists are just as stupid as everyone else, and since most people are stupid and mean at least some of the time... well you get what we've got.

As you yourself pointed out, your advisor isn't always a jerk. Taking that into account:

Nobody is nice all the time and able to keep their jobs. Sometimes you have to say "No more mister nice guy" or people will walk all over you.

Similarly, nobody is an asshole all the time. This may seem hard to believe, but I've had good experiences with some people who have terrible reputations. I don't love and admire them in every way, and I have certainly seen them treat other people like dirt and wanted to yell at them to get a clue. But I have had valuable discussions and gotten useful feedback, and even encouragement, from some PIs described as 'tough' or 'makes even the coffee nervous' or just 'totally unapproachable.'

I've also had bad experiences with people who had good reputations. What can I say, I bring out the best in everyone(?).

One thing to keep in mind is, nobody treats everybody the same. I always think of labs as little nuclear families. Much as we try to pretend it's not the case, everyone has a favorite, and everyone has one kid who is the 'trouble child.' Which one you are really depends on whether you click with your advisor, or if you get along okay but not amazingly, or if it's just a bad fit. (Or if your advisor is a sexist/racist/antisemitic/misogynistic jerk.)

Personally, I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I can be brutally straightforward sometimes if I need to, and sometimes if I'm in a bad mood and don't mean to.

It's important to remember that PIs are human, and they generally don't mean to treat you like crap. Many of them never consider the effect their words have on you, or that the phrases they choose are not always the best ones. Others realize later that they were being nasty, and feel terrible, but don't have the spine to tell you (can't lose face by doing so). I worked with one woman who would tell stories about how crazy she used to be, and laugh about how she's learned her lesson, but I never thought to ask her if she ever apologized to any of her former victims.

One thing that drives me crazy about PIs is when they Expect You To Know Things. No one has ever told you; it's not written anywhere that you could read about it, and yet they get mad when you can't Read Their Minds or you don't Just Know. I think this is a frequent source of friction between PIs and lab members, and it often goes unrecognized. It's one of the great failings of the old system in the modern world, I think, because apprenticeship doesn't cover everything we apprentices need to Know.

(Communication is a good thing, people!)

I guess my point is, there are different ways for you to take charge and deal with the way they treat you.

1. Stand up for yourself. Argue back. There's no reason to just stand there and take it, especially if they're wrong and you know it. This is America, and most people (scientists especially) will respect you more for defending your ideas than for being a doormat.

2. Resolve to stay in science and be a better, nicer PI than the world has ever seen before (this is one of my personal goals). I figure the system is not going to change from the outside, we have to change it from within. Plus, when they treat you like crap, you can look at it as, "I'm never gonna be like that!" And analyzing it as a learning experience always helps take the sting out. Just add it to your list as One More Thing To Not Do As a PI.

3. Try asking your PI to be more aware that language matters. There are books on this. Lots of them. Good managers and ambitious people usually make a point of reading these books when they realize something is holding them back. In lieu of your PI getting a clue on their own (we don't want to hypocritically expect them to read Your mind, do we?), have an adult conversation about how you value feedback, and that you would prefer that it be constructive, that the tone not be condescending because it's not necessary to get the point across. And that you can't read anyone's mind.

I'm sure Ms.Mentor has things to say about this, too, but I have to confess I can't remember (see other earlier post on my terrible memory).

Anyone else want to add to this?

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At 7:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Me again (the one who asked the question). Great response, and I hope this generates some good discussion as it is something most if not all of us can relate to. And I agree about making criticism work for us, in fact today while fuming at my lab bench I was telling myself to try to learn from the experience. So, fair to say, I can be a bit sensitive. But I'm generally sensitive to the way things are said, not the criticism itself. Also, my PI is considered an asshole by most people I know (one of my labmates today described him as "the rudest person I know"). Often a pleasant guy, very outgoing, but if he wants somehthing and you don't have it right in front of you, he's an asshole. And his family is very rich, so that doesn't make him any humbler. Anyway, as for "standing up for myself" to him, it happens seldom enough (him treating me like crap) that I don't bother. If it happened a lot, I agree with you that something should be said. But sometimes, its just easier to ignore bad behavior, than try to change it.

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Agreed that it's easier for you to pick your battles, but by doing nothing, you're also taking an ethical stand that it's not only okay for him to treat you that way, but it's okay for him to treat other people that way. Would you stand up for a lab member or say, a new grad student, if he was nasty to them in front of you?

If it's just that he's rude, you're right that it's probably not worth picking a fight. Being rude is, as I'm sure Miss Manners would agree, unfortunately not illegal.

And I think it's fair to say that when people need or want something right that second, they tend to be impatient and nasty, and it's easy to write it off as impatience.

But if it's worse than that, expect things to escalate. Usually people who are nasty over little things can be extremely abusive when actual bad things happen (funding runs out, tenure review, paper gets rejected, etc.). This is when I get worried.

At 10:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been in this 'business' for almost 30 years. With the exception of one individual mentor, most of my superiors (in rank) have been assholes. PIs are just people - they have good days and bad days just like the rest of us. The shit runs downhill from the Deans to the Department Chairs, to the tenured faculty, to the research faculty, to the postdocs, etc -- a good example of displaced aggression if ever there was one! I resolved to learn how NOT to be from the worst of them and have probably gone overboard in the opposite direction. Now I fight battles with Deans and Chairs to protect junior PIs, postdocs, students and staff. Believe me, there is no external reward for this other than knowing that I have done the right thing. The best you can do is to pick your battles carefully, maintain your dignity, and resolve to be better when you are a PI.

At 7:27 AM, Anonymous etbnc said...

Does Your Organization Have a Learning Disability?

That's the subtitle of Chapter 2 of Peter Senge's extremely helpful book, The Fifth Discipline. I highly recommend it. It's really made a difference for me in how I interact with other people in the workplace (and everywhere, really). The book looks thick, but the crucial Aha! moments are in the first three chapters.

It seems to me the Culture of Science suffers badly from organizational learning disability. It's ironic and sad. But worse, as you've described, it undermines the ability of scientists to pursue the proclaimed goals of science.

At 7:58 AM, Anonymous matt said...

I am a post-doc at a top tier large public university and was a grad student at a top tier private medical school and I have had 2 fantastic PIs. I have seen bad/mean PIs at both places but to get away from them, you just don't join their labs! It is that easy. We are researchers, so don't just do some research at the bench, do some research on who you are going to work for. If they are assholes, then its not worth working there. There will be dozens of good labs at any place you want to go, ask around and your list will shrink of the good ones to join.

At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I'd love to say that you should stand up for yourself, too, sometimes you have a really jerky P.I. who won't even let you do that. I had one P.I. (female, though I'm sure men do this, too), who was on SUCH a power trip that *every* discussion with her amounted to nothing but orders - it was all one-way. There was no such thing as debate. So, I just let her have her way. Everything she said, I nodded along to, even when inside I violently disagreed and could find a ton of literature out there supporting my opinion (if I had the chance to voice my opinion, that is). Her short-sightedness ruined some of my experiments, but I just wanted to graduate and get out of her lab at that point, so it stopped mattering to me whether or not the experiments worked.

Anyway, the point is that sometimes standing up for yourself, no matter how gently you do it, won't matter. For some people, science appears to be a power struggle more than an intellectual activity. Mind you, she could be nice - but usually only to higher-ups. Only the people working with her in her lab really knew what she was like.
I would have left her lab if I had had more guts. Because of her behavior, she may start losing other personel, too, which is pretty bad, considering the amount of time and effort one has to spend training new people.

I do agree that you can learn from these experiences. I've seen how that P.I.'s refusal to listen to other arguments has basically ruined her perspective on science. Her grants aren't getting funded mostly because she lacks the ability to understand concepts from more than one perspective.

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost all PIs are assholes, but I say that since I think people are inherently bad. If it wasn't for religion or the concept of karma, would people bother to be nice or helpful if there wasn't anything in it for them? Maybe it boils down to reward/consequences in the end. A lot of people outside of science are assholes too. (Maybe you are biased, and the majority of people you encounter are in research.) So, to answer the question, I don't think science or the research lifestyle can explain it.

I agree with MsPhd's comments about not letting your boss's comments get to you.


At 6:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt, are you sure you're not a PI posing as a postdoc? Just kidding. But seriously, to blandly state that one should just "do research on who you are going to work for" is a bit shortsighted. I certainly did that extensively, and I'm sure many others do as well. I didn't even consider working in labs that I heard lots of bad things about from others. The problem is, you hear good and bad things about almost every situation. So you have to filter that information and make the choice based on mulitiple factors. It is easy to avoid people who don't hide their assholishness well. But lots of people are good at hiding that part of their personality until you've known them a while.

At 8:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comment on AFGS's statement about religion - I would argue that *because* of religion, people can act awful. I mean, look at where one religious president got us - this war where thousands of American soldiers have died and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq. Some of the most horrendous attrocities have been committed in the name of a higher power, in the name of religion.

I'm not against religion, however. I am just pointing out that religion doesn't really seem to be effective in keeping people from doing awful things. In fact, sometimes, it inspires those things (what was done to the "heathen" Native Americans by the conquering Catholic Spaniards and missionaries, what was done to Jewish and Muslim populations in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, what was done to the "witches" at Salem and elsewhere, what was done to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim natives of Jerusalem during the Crusades).

At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the previous comment: Yes, there are people who use religion to further their own agendas. But within a religious group, don't they look out for their own?

At 6:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a junior PI so my grad school and postdoc perspective are still pretty recent in my memory. I had one PI that I thought was a jerk and another PI who was awesome. However, as I deal with my own lab, I start to have a little more sympathy with my mentors. I really try hard to have a good relationship with the folks in my lab. Sometimes they are fantastic and other times, they could do better. Unfortunately, it's now my job to let them know when they can do better so that they will leave the lab as fantastic scientists. Although I always try to give criticisms in a constructive and kind manner, I'm sure it doesn't always come off that way. Also, I'm sure there are days when I have more things to do then I can manage, and on those days, when someone can't be bothered to do appropriate controls even after they were suggested, I'm probably a bit sharp. I give my mentors a lot more credit now for writing endless grants to fund the lab, making sure students and postdocs have interesting projects, organizing the lab to make it functional, mentoring lab personnel, helping them write papers and fighting to get them published and pushing to make sure people in your lab get where they want to go in life (not to mention teaching, committee work and university and national service). Yes, some PIs are assholes, but some of us are just trying to do our job as best we can given the crushing workload.

At 7:05 PM, Anonymous Fitz said...

This comment also addresses what Matt wrote. I had a postdoc mentor who appeared very charming and pleasant and fun, and maintained that attitute until right after I started working for him. I was totally surprised - he was not as nice to people in the lab as he was and still is to everyone outside. And he was way nicer to his postdocs than to his grad students, so I think I actually had it pretty good. I constantly encounter people who meet him and just think he is a complete delight, and I just have to hem and haw and not say anything about the truth because if I were to do so it would absolutely hurt me later when I need that tenure letter. So it's often really difficult to get a true feed on the asshole nature of PIs. Particularly if the PI has the possibility of retribution against anyone who says anything against him or her.

At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Response to comment about people within a religious group looking out for each other - I don't even think religion goes that far in inspiring "goodness" in people. There are plenty of scandalous deeds that occur between members in every congregation. It seems that religion is often just another excuse to create yet one more social organization with a hierarchy that is supposed to instill respect for some set of rules and, by extension, for that hierarchy, itself. However, I do respect the human drive to nurture a spiritual side. I just don't think that beating people over the head with a holy book, inspiring fear of hellfire and damnation in the afterlife, luring people with promises of a later heaven, or convincing people to act out cultish rituals is enough to really change people for the "better." Furthermore, perhaps fear acts less as an incentive to do "good," and more as a motivator to judge and condemn others in our own minds, to make ourselves feel better about our own "sins."

Sometimes I wonder why we humans think we are so great. We are the only species on this earth that murders each other in such large numbers, even creating specialized killing machines to do so. Religion has not saved us from that fate. In fact, the killing just seems to be getting worse.

At 10:51 PM, Blogger misguidedgrad said...

your words of wisdom amaze me..i'm so glad I read your blog!


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