Wednesday, August 22, 2007

This too shall pass.

I hope it's okay that I'm reprinting this comment and then addressing it below.

Here's the comment in full:

Dear MsPhD, love your blog, have never commented before -- let me tell you MY situation, and please advise if you can.

I'm starting my 4th year of grad school after three full years (plus three years as a technician) working in a high-powered, MD-driven, hierarchical lab where I was fairly happy. In short, I was driven out of the lab because of a personal relationship I had with a junior faculty in the department - we are now engaged to be married. The PI, a clinical chairman and internationally renowned in his field, told me after 3 years that he could no longer mentor me -- not too much of a stretch, since his idea of "mentoring" was once monthly meetings to inform him what was happening with the project. Nevertheless, I was settled, productive and relatively happy in the lab. Would have graduated ahead of schedule.

I had only a short time to find a new advisor, and went to a lab which I was led to believe was equally well funded, well renowned, etc. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The new lab is staffed with four technicians, one post-doc and one other grad student. The techs run the show, and treat me as a hapless underling even though I've been doing this for 6 years, have spoken at international meetings, and am generally considered at the top of my grad school class. Now I have techs trying to impose their own lack of skill (they can't get an assay to work if their life depended on it) onto me and my project. The PI is approaching retirement, ruled by his techs, and clearly disinterested in moving the research forward in an aggressive way. I don't want to rock the boat, or revolutionize their lab -- I just want to graduate, and I'm one paper away. I feel such rage with my previous advisor over what happened to me, and I feel myself slipping into downright depression over the dismal situation in my current lab, where they have one functional p1000 between the 8 of them. Arrgghhhh!! I don't want to change labs again (i've only been here for 6 weeks), but I'm worried my technical skills will start to slip, and my committee chair (very supportive of me) told me people may start to think of me negatively because of my association with this lab. What to do??


So here is my advice.

Let me first say I totally feel your pain. But hey, congratulations on your engagement! At least your personal life is going pretty well, eh? Try to remember that you are a person before you are a scientist.

So first, I'll give you the bad news, because it's mostly bad news. Then I'll give you the good news.

The bad news is, you might be better off leaving this lab. If it's that bad after only 6 weeks, it's only going to get worse. You have to get out now if you're going to get out, but you better be damn sure that wherever you go will be someplace you can stay.

No matter what you do now, this is really going to be a test of your skills, your strength, and your patience.

It will be a test of whether you were receiving recognition in part because of your first PI's reputation. You may find that the quality of your work is the same, but the impact of your work will be less. You may have to find other, more creative ways to get the recognition you deserve. And you might not get it now, not for this work you've been doing as a grad student, and maybe not for a long while. But you will have other projects in other places, there will be more chances and that part will get easier as you move up the ladder.

The bad news is, no matter where you are, I think you already know this, you just have to suck it up.

Put your head against the brick wall and PUSH.

At this point, in this lab or another one, you're pretty close to finishing, so focus on getting your experiments done. Get your papers published, write your thesis, and get out.

Sounds simple, right?

The bad news is, it will be harder than it should be. It is always harder when you're working with people who know less than you do, and aren't smart enough to know it or even consider your input. It's always harder when you're working with people who don't share your high standards. And if you move again, you're going to lose more time.

I'm going to tell you what other people have told me, and it sucks that it has to be this way, but no matter where you are, you have to do whatever it takes to survive. Hoard pipettes. Work at night and on the weekends when you can hog the equipment.

It sounds like you've already tried to talk to your PI, and that didn't work, so I'm not going to suggest that will solve all your problems. But you might keep trying to gently bring the PI to see things your way.

Meanwhile, you can try to tune out the techs, or better yet, try to get them on your side. Bring in brownies, try to get them to like you, even if they don't yet respect you and take your advice. It's an experiment, but it might work, and it's a very useful skill to develop.

You don't want or have time to revolutionize this lab. I get that. But it's up to you whether you want to try to get them to help you or if you want to take the long way around.

There is no direct way to get where you want to go if the techs are a major obstacle. So you've got to go around them, or through them, or try to knock them down. Going around them might take twice as much work as it would if they weren't there. Knocking them down will be hard unless you have allies in the lab who agree that the techs are a terror.

What do the techs want? Food? Authorship? Long coffee breaks? If you can bribe them to move aside and just stay out of your way, it will be a whole lot easier.

If none of that seems like it will work, get out of that lab NOW and find somewhere that you can work, with a PI who wants to publish papers.

[aside: Not that it matters much, but can't the junior faculty member help you out at all with basic supplies and infrastructure?]

The good news is that you can get through this if you work hard and keep your thesis committee chair on your side. You really only need one person, ideally two, to genuinely support you to graduate, provided that no one else cares enough to try to block you, they will go along with your chair and your PI.

I know it doesn't seem like it now, but working in a 'bad' lab can teach you a lot. You've already learned to appreciate how good you had it in your other lab. You're probably learning all sorts of things NOT to do, like how NOT to be a PI, what techs NOT to hire. Try to look at it as part of your experience that will make you stronger than your peers who have had it easy all along, and some of this information might come in handy later on.

Meanwhile, I'm sure by now you regret agreeing to leave your other lab, for whatever lame reason your lame advisor cooked up, even if it seemed to make sense at the time.

Because by now you know that even with a total lack of mentoring, it's better to be in a lab where you can actually get work done.

These are the tradeoffs we all have to make. Best to learn it now than find out the hard way when you're a postdoc, as a lot of people do.

I'm curious though, did you try to fight to stay? Do you wish you had fought harder? Would you want to go back if you could? Do you think they'd agree to let you go back just for 1 more year to finish up and graduate?

But assuming it's too late now to go back (?), that doesn't mean you have to stop being angry.

USE YOUR RAGE. But also be patient. Being angry can be good, so long as it's not stopping you from getting work done. But don't be depressed. This is a solvable problem, and as a scientist you are a good problem solver. Just look at it as strategically as you look at your research, and break it down into pieces you can handle. One thing at a time, one day at a time, keep moving toward your goal.

Things like this, and much more insidious things, happen almost every year at almost every grad school in the world. You are neither the first person nor the last. It's totally unfair and stupid and bad for science.

Some of us know that we've already lost a lot of good young scientists, just like you, for reasons that have nothing to do with abilities or productivity.

So try to remember that it's not you, it's them. It's a problem with the system. And if you stay in the system, if you BEAT the system, you can move up and change it so things like what happened to you don't keep happening again and again.

After that, find a good postdoc lab, preferably in a different field, and you should be able to put this behind you. Or hey, go to industry if that's what you want to do. Or do something else. But get your PhD first, just to show them, and yourself, that you can.

Put your eye on the tiny flicker at the end of the tunnel, and whatever you do, just keep going. Getting a PhD is mostly a test of perseverance.

And do check back in and let us know how it goes. We'll be thinking of you.

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At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms.PhD's advice is spot on. You deserve your PhD and must figure out a way to get it since it is oh so close.

The other thing I am curious about is how you figure you are at the top of your grad class. I don't mean to be snarky, but I have rarely heard this claim.

At 2:34 PM, Blogger Mad Hatter said...

Ms. PhD--great advice and I agree completely. I hope you don't mind if I also leave a note for Anonymous below:

Anonymous, I'm very sorry to hear about your situation. Ms. PhD's analysis is right on. There is no easy answer, but I think whether you'd be better off leaving the lab depends on (1) whether you can win over the techs enough to get work done, (2) how much work you *really* have to do to graduate (yes, it will always take longer than you think), and (3) what choices you have for a new lab.

One other thing I'll add: I understand the rage, truly I do, but whatever decision you make, try hard not to let the rage cause you to burn bridges. I can't emphasize enough how much a good relationship with those who train/mentor you can help your career, even years down the road.

Best of luck and I hope it all turns out well for you.

At 6:47 PM, Anonymous JR said...


What do you think of these postdocs geting fingered for fabricating data? There was one at Penn a few weeks ago and here is another one from Dartmouth.

I have to say that I am bothered about complete lack of accountability of the PIs. To put 100% of the blame on the postdoc years after they have left the lab has reached a new low. You have to wonder if this is a modern interpretation of the good reference letter/bad reference letter where now if your former postdoc now independent PI is a threat to the mentor PI that you can now be exposed and have your career killed just as it starts to be productive. Just a thought.

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for all of the great advice - I really appreciate the support! MsPhD had asked whether I fought to stay. I did. This was a major battle and went up the foodchain to the Dean of Graduate Studies, who encouraged me to keep quiet and not rock the boat. Chairman-PI is a major contributor to University grant funding (3rd or 4th overall at the university) and the school did not want any negative publicity.

My relationship with Dr. Junior Faculty was disclosed two years ago to the University, which promised to provide proper "management" such that my graduate studies were never affected. This never happened, and I was therefore completely unprotected when incoming postdocs complained of so-called "favoritism," which I can assure you I never received. If anything, I had to work harder to garner PI's respect, because of the relationship. So yes, I fought to stay. But I realized that once PI's mind was made up, it would never be a good working environment for me. I am sure that had my fiancee not been working for the PI (and he still it), I would have sued the university because of this. It was that big, and even the Deans told the PI he was making a huge mistake in asking me to leave, but to no avail.

This happened in January, I started in my new lab this July. I'm still struggling to adjust, obviously, but I will come out okay. There's no way I will not finish, I've come too far and have way too much invested to drop out now. I'm hope that someday my personal rage will subside, and I'll be able to see my old advisor without being overcome with anger.

I wanted to share my story because I want others to know that no matter how safe you feel, how protected - I'd worked for this guy for 6 years, remember - bad things can still happen. Never assume that everything will work out easily, or without a struggle - but eventually, with the help of allies and an iron will, if you're good at what you do you'll end up alright. Jaded, but alright.

-Anonymous in Cleveland part II.


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