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,
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,
IT'S ALL THE SAME HERE.
And they say,
OH, I SEE.
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.