Saturday, February 21, 2009

To say or not to say

Sorry for the potentially too-slow response, but hopefully this will still be useful in the archive for next time.

This post is in response, in case you're wondering, to a comment left on my last post:

At 6:12 PM, Anonymous said...

I need a quick answer!

A girl interviewing for a postdoc in the lab I'm in wants to hear about my "experience in the lab." I am NOT enjoying my postdoc and I hate this lab. I can't possibly endorse this lab, but it's every woman for herself. Should I give her my honest opinion or just tell her what she wants to hear?

So here's what I think. First of all DO NOT just say what she wants to hear! Do NOT lie and make it sound good or even just okay if it is awful!

However, do NOT sound super-negative either, because then she will write you off as a Negative Nancy and not as the Voice of Reason [For the Love of God, Save Yourself Get Out of Here].

In one of the first labs where I worked (as an undergrad), I met a woman from India who became a good friend and mentor. She was a postdoc at the time, and to my eye she was already middle-aged, and therefore ancient (oh, the irony). She was sort of the grandmotherly figure in the lab.

After I had been in the lab for a while, I noticed some tensions among PsychoRedneckPostdoc and NiceFrenchPostdoc (both male), and that their issues were going to get in the way of my (admittedly, in retrospect, impossible) project.

When I finally asked her why she didn't warn me about the Lab Issues when I interviewed for the position, she said I should have known what she meant when I asked her how she liked the lab, and she said I like the project.

What she told me then that she actually meant was,

I hate the lab, I'm miserable here, the only reason I haven't quit is that I like the science I'm doing.

This is a nice theory, and I've blogged about it before. But what if you're more devoted to the task of steering lambs away from the slaughter?

The MsPhD Approach to Hinting At the Dark Abyss

I've found that, when I meet with visiting postdocs, the key is to ask THEM the right questions to steer them into concluding that it's a bad lab. These include things like:

So, why do you want to join this lab?

[note that inflecting on the WHY and the THIS even just slightly can get your point across quite nicely!]

Then, if they give a standard answer, I usually expand on what that part of the lab is really like, and it usually involves some combination of statements of the following:

Well, the best people who really worked on THAT the most and really know how to do everything actually all have their own labs now, so you'd really have to start over from scratch... so why didn't you apply to one of their labs instead of here?


Wow, well that part of the lab is really tight-knit, all the postdocs who work on THAT came in at the same time, so, I mean, they're all really nice, but...

[note that trailing off is a good way to lead people to make their own conclusions!]

I also find that asking postdoc candidates about their expectations is a great way to get them to realize that none of what they're looking for is available here.

E.g. if they say they want a good mentor, or ask how easy it is to meet other women faculty in the department, I say

Oh, you didn't meet her yet? I can introduce you to her.

Or I ask them what it was like where they did their thesis work, what parts they really hated. And invariably they say,

Well, my advisor ignored me and then criticized me and then took credit for my work and didn't help me look for jobs.

Then I tell them,


And they say,


That usually gets the point across.

And you note how I didn't actually say anything specifically bad about my advisor at all? I didn't have to!

If anyone ever asks this poor girl why she decided not to come here, she'll just say she liked the other lab better.

She might not even know herself why she got a bad feeling about the place. But I'd like to think I might have saved an innocent soul anyway.

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At 10:38 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


apologies for the stupid small font. that is the last time I play with that feature.

stupid. fucking. blogger!

At 12:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did not mince words when warning grad students and prospective postdocs away from the lab where I was doing my postdoc. My PI had a reputation even among his own colleagues and his peers for treating his postdocs badly so I know I and the other postdocs in my group were not imagining things to get upset about nor were we being whiners.

When prospective students and postdocs would visit our lab, we would tell them privately that this is not a good PI to work for and that we are all trying to get out of there (because that was the truth). I would try to not sound too negative (otherwise this makes yourself look bad) so I would try to find something nice to say about the PI as well, but I would also be honest in saying sincerely that I did not recommend them working here. And because the other postdocs in my group pretty much echoed this same thing, I'm sure that must have made a big impact on the prospective postdocs. (one negative person could be written off as being a whiner, but when ALL are disgruntled in the same way then that is definitely a red flag.)

None of those prosepctive postdocs ended up joining our lab so I guess our warnings must have been taken note of. I'm glad that I have helped save other postdocs' careers from being derailed.

But then again, there are always students and postdocs who join a lab without having talked to any of the existing students/postdocs. (when I joined that lab the PI was in between students and postdocs so I had no one to ask about him ahead of time, and then the other postdocs joined around the same time as me so we were all equally clueless about the PI and we all figured him out at about the same time)

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My advisor just announced that a female postdoc would be joining our lab. I feel so badly for her. She did not ask any questions about how I liked it here or anything about my experiences during her interview.

There are two people in the department carrying around tape recorders to get my advisor on record. He is the most hateful person I have ever met. No one leaves his lab happy and he has not placed a single person into a R1 institution. I can't wait to leave this place.

At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I'm not interviewing for post-docs, but looking into graduate programs. One of the grad students in a particular lab I was really excited about told me that half of post-docs have left the lab not on speaking terms with PI. That gives me a bad feeling.

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HAHA - The small font isn't whispering?! I thought you finally came up with a secret bloggy handshake code. ROFL.

I have 2 experiences with this.
1. I interviewed for a postdoc by phone and I asked everyone but advisor to participate. The problem was that because everyone was in the same room, I couldn't be blunt. Everyone just agreed with everyone. Moral of story: you need to isolate people to get specifics.

2. My advisor was interviewing a woman and my lab was H.E.L.L. In fact, the advisor was applying and interviewing at other jobs. So, when it came time for the woman to pull us aside individually, we each told her DO NOT COME HERE. She was so upset over this, that she wound up breaking down in the advisor's office! And then the shit hit the fan (there was still shit on the fan from the previous time it hit the fan... the day before, and the day before...). Moral of story: Be subtle.

At 8:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really don't see the need to play games and try to make someone read between the lines in these situations. I'm fairly blunt with people who interview for positions in our lab. I tell them if they are looking for a lot of guidance from the PI, this is the wrong place for them. I tell them if they like not being micromanaged, this is the right place for them. I don't see the need to personally attack my PI (some people have issues with him, others don't, like anyone else there are positives and negatives about his personality). I've certainly had my moments with him, but I've seen how other labs/PI's operate around here, so I honestly can't say our lab is worse.

That being said, I remember (as a rotating grad student) being told in no uncertain terms by a senior student in our program to run not walk away from the lab he was currently working in. I knew him to be very strongly opinionated and fed up with life (as most senior grad students are) and ignored him. I"ve never regretted that decision.

At 6:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am really not interested to do Science any more. I had a terrible PhD boss and a horrible postdoc boss. I really don't know what to do now . I am a foreign national, so I can not do any other job in USA and there are no science jobs in my country.

After 8 years of PhD and now a horrible Postdoc, I feel miserable and every day . Life is like hell for me every minute. God Save me please.

Any help female scientist ?

or from any one who reads this blog?

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Naj said...

Good post,

first you can fix he font NOW; if you go to your setting!

I have been looking for a post doc recently and I think my experience might be helpful, and if not, at least amusing.

I received an offer from a guy who wanted to hire me on the fone. I asked to meet with him first. I did. And he changed his mind; he thought I was too strong-headed! He came back a few months later, offering me the job, this time he wanted a strong headed person! But, he was not polite and courteous. He made it sound as if he was doing me a favor to offer me the job!

My answer was a sweet F. Y.
I decline!

Then I was asked to another interview. I asked to speak to the PI on the phone before costing him money and myself time travelling to New York!

On the phone, he started sounding irritated that i wanted to know more about the pay and the project! I told him, thanks but no thanks! I don't think we CAN work together!

Then a call came from one of my least desirable offers. On the phone, the PI asked about my history, and explained to me the project, I told him how I would handle the project. somehow, the data was irresistable; and his manners impeccable! He called me the day after to offer me the job! I asked if he would mind I go visit them first. He generously agreed to paid for my trip. I went and met with him! I never got a chance to ask his students what they thought. but, I figured when people are anxious to tell me about their projects and welcoming, then it means that the environment "should" be okey!

So, at the end I made my own judgment and agreed to join. The fact that he was willing to accommodate all my demands was helpful.

I am coming from experiencing an incompetent asshole as a PhD supervisor! But, I am realizing that his assholeness touches "me" more than others! So, at the end, personalities may always clash. Instincts are important! Trust your guts! And advise people: "trust your gut!"


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