Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Dear PI

Dear PI,

You may not be aware that your age is apparently affecting your memory.

That figure looks the way it does because that is how you wanted it when last we met to work on this paper. Which was, by the way, embarrassingly long ago because you are always postponing meetings.

You may not be aware of how infuriating it is that you think co-authorship means you get to re-write everything in your own words. It does not.

You may not be aware that we mostly indulge your requests because we are beholden to you in order to get jobs. Or maybe you do. It does not mean your suggestions always have merit.

You may not be aware that we notice when you are nice to some lab members and let them show crappy data without controls, while you are nasty to others and pick on every little detail on every revision including when the changes were your idea.

We notice.

You may not be aware that this letter is directed at you. You might think you are not one of 'those' PIs. Or maybe you don't care.

You may not imagine in your wildest dreams how we spend every waking minute trying to figure out how to get out of your lab and on with our lives.

We do.

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At 11:48 AM, Blogger Jennie said...

where do I sign!

except I feel my PI is equally nasty with revisions with all his students.

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...lately, your posts have been so sad and bitter....I hope the job search is successful. It sounds like you need to leave where ever you are! Best of luck...

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Davey Jones said...

I hate to sound stupid, but I don't know what a PI is? Someone please clue me in...

At 1:15 AM, Anonymous JaneB said...

Dear Grad student/postdoc

I do hope that isn't me but of course if my memory IS going with age then I might not recognise myself.

And it's true I do treat people differently - 'Id-rather-be-fishing-boy' is expected to tell me exactly what he's up to and respond to on-the-spot inquisitions, but he is still effectively 'on probation' after completely blocking use of the fume hood for two and half weeks to prepare 20 samples badly, which should have been 12 hours work, and wasting a large amount of the MostExpensiveChemical we use... whilst SeniorGradStudent is in her final year and knows exactly what she has to do to submit her thesis before her funding runs out so I try not to get in her way and just check in once a month (and ensure that supplies of MEC are kept topped up and that she has priority access to the fume hood at least one day a week if she needs it). And SouthAmericanStudent is expected to revise written work more often and get it checked more often...

I am trying to hold you all to the same standards that I hold myself to, your treatment differs according to what you seem to need/deserve to reach those standards, so I hope I'm not doing any of those things - and that if I am, I'm sufficiently approachable that one of you (or maybe your friend and mine energynerd from the group across the courtyard, or the Advisor of Graduate Students?) will point it out to me...

At 1:22 AM, Anonymous JaneB said...

Incidentally, my PI had definite favourites - the baseline of helpfulness was a lot higher than your PI seems to manage, but there were still some people who got a great deal more leeway and positive help than others (co-authorship on sexy speculative papers to tabloid journals for limited input... if only one member of the group could go to the super exotic conference destination, they went... being introduced to visiting bigwigs first and invited along to the lunch...) - maybe they deserved it, who knows. But it's a tough situation even when you ARE getting positive support yourself. When you're getting trampled on it's incredibly hard not to be resentful (I will not start on the politics of a department where all the Profs (in a UK sense - the senior academics who actually have most of the administrative and budgetary power) are in two of the five research clusters and the other three clusters constantly scrabble around for any resources... it would be very dull for everyone... but this isn;t just a problem when you work directly in someone's group, it happens at all levels).

At 2:53 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

That can be okay so long as it's fair.

Interesting point. I hadn't noticed that myself. It's not that I don't have any funny stories. I just can't blog about them.


PI = principal investigator, as in the person who writes the grants. The professor. The head of the lab.



At 5:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fairness is not an objective criterion on which to judge anything. Especially a training exercise. I think there should be a minimal standard of treatment that everyone receives, but that beyond that it is all context and personality.

Besides, no matter what level you're at you don't appreciate all the behind the scenes stuff that your senior folks are doing. All that Adam Smith, 'invisible hand' type of stuff.

Maybe if you treated your mentor like a mentor you would get better results. I went through grad school and most of my postdoc with adversarial relationships with mentors. It was a bad way to be. I have learned to respectfully disagree, but still do the experiment. To keep most of my concerns about our systems to myself, because they are theoretical limitations that we don't have data to address and those experiments would probably have ambiguous results as there really aren't positive controls. And spending 18 months developing the reagents is not a good use of my time if I ever want to move on from this project. So its a lower impact paper, that's a decision the PI has to make and I get to live with.

I mean, you have to get beyond the "I'm the only one who cares/smartest/only honest person/ in the room" kind of attitude to be an effective mentor. What are you going to do if you ever get a student like yourself?

At 8:55 AM, Anonymous MoonSinger said...

My best friend from college only got her Doctoral thesis approved by her advisor when she brought in the documentation to show him that his latest suggestion for changing it was IDENTICAL to what she'd started with six revisions ago.

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Fucking Blogger lost my comment.


Here we go again. Not exactly the same as what I wrote before.

Anon 5:28 AM writes:

"Maybe if you treated your mentor like a mentor you would get better results...I have learned to respectfully disagree, but still do the experiment."



However, it has not escaped my notice that the experiments that were MY idea tend to work and give useful information. The ones that were my advisor's idea have a much lower rate of return.

I have tried to learn to convince my advisor, who is too old to remember otherwise, that the 'good' experiments were NOT my idea.

Because then the results are assumed to be 'real' and judged on their own merits.

Experiments that were my idea are criticized on a whole other level.

But my advisor doesn't know which was which, since in fact almost none of the experiments I have ever published were my advisor's idea. They are suggested, I try them, they don't provide new information, and they never become a figure.
The end.

The drawback to playing on prejudice is that it is self-reinforcing. It might work in the short-term, and my papers might get published, but in the long-term I think my recommendation letters will not be reflective of sufficient 'independence'.

It's damned-if-you-do-or-don't.

"I mean, you have to get beyond the "I'm the only one who cares/smartest/only honest person/ in the room" kind of attitude to be an effective mentor. What are you going to do if you ever get a student like yourself?"

I love how everybody who reads my blog thinks this is how I am in an actual room that does not exist in anonymous internet space.

And what makes you think I haven't had enough students already to have figured out how to deal with this kind of problem?

Just assuming I guess.

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous JaneB said...

I assume that the voice on the blog is the sort of uncensored version of you I might encounter if we met at a conference, got on great, knew our fields were sufficiently different that we weren't playing the same set of politics, and were now having one of those brilliant late-night chats in a bar somewhere with just enough alcohol to keep the conversation open and flowing.A bar that none of the other attendees who we care about politically know about. I assume that blogs are the places FOR all those thoughts that we daily supress, the fantasies we'd never act on but need to keep our sanity.

When I was a post-doc I developed an elaborate daydream about how I would coax my PI into becoming a 'bog body' (Bronze/Iron Age ritual sacrifice) which I would replay in my head to stop me from yelling or crying whenever he said 'only an IDIOT would do it this way' because I'd followed his suggestion from the previous week, or 'I'm sure it's easy, why is it taking you so long?' whenever I did a lab process he'd never done or 'you know, maybe you should have done it the other way from the beginning, I'm sure I told you to' when the other way had been my suggestion and he'd ridiculed it/refused to let me do it... he's now a friend and a collaborator, ten years on, so clearly I managed to act professional, collegial and appreciative around him. Some of your readers seem to have a great deal of difficulty coping with the idea that people SAY things in different ways in different places, and often say grumpy things in order to keep acting cool, calm and collected - we all blow off steam somehow.

Hope things pick up for you soon

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Yes, that is pretty close. Although here I sometimes play out more extreme fantasies that only seem to pop into my head when I'm writing.

Anyway would love to meet you someday and hope we would 'get on great.'

I will admit I did not always act professional, collegial or appreciate around my thesis advisor. For a variety of reasons I won't go into here, I think most people would agree I did pretty well considering his behavior.

Suffice it to say that most people are surprised I decided to (try to) stay in science, considering.

I have tried very hard to always be respectful, positive, even professional-to-the-point-of-being- almost-chilly, with my postdoc advisor.

Amusingly, so far neither approach seems to work better than the other. If anything, I've noticed that the histrionic wheels get more grease. Histrionics definitely got me more publications faster. The ongoing experiment is whether patient professionalism will get me "better" publications (and outstanding recommendation letters).


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