Monday, June 30, 2008

Abandon Ship?!

I have talked before about lab politics and trying to stay out of them, but I feel I can no longer do that. Information has come to light and things are happening that will affect me. I have to make a decision on how to deal with these issues. The question is should I jump ship or not?? and if I jump ship, do I jump to another lab or leave the whole Phd thing?? The answer to the second question is an easy one. I will no quit my PhD. I started my PhD for personal reasons, not to become a great scientist or PI but to learn about science, and to know that I could do it. I have said before that fear is never a good reason for not doing something and one of the main reasons for not doing a PhD was a fear of failure. When I came to this lab, I really enjoyed coming to work, talking with the people in the lab and about science. That has slowly changed. Our institution is half empty and full of people that our unhappy with either their PI or ours (my lab mates), which is sucking the life out of me. Within the next 2 years all the senior people in our lab will be gone, which means I will not have any mentors to teach me. My advisor has been struggling to balance work and life, as he has a new baby and partner, so he has not been around for a long time and when he is around he is stressed out, distracted and uninvolved. I firmly believe that my performance reflects not only my work ethic and intelligent but also upon the ability of my advisor to prepare, teach, and guide a student. So far PI has been failing at that miserably, as evidenced for his lack of assistance with my seminar. But mentors can be replaced, and I can find someone outside of my PI and lab to assist. I've said before he's not the worst. But today I had a very long conversation with female post-doc1 (FPD1). Someone I really really admire, and for the second time she has told me to seriously consider leaving and this time she recommended it. I should point out that our very experienced tech that just left also said do not stay. I need to do a pros and cons list so here it goes:

Reasons not to jump
  1. I get along with my PI, he genuinely cares about me as a person, can be kind and compassionate.
  2. I also feel loyal to him. He understands work-life balance, he was very good about my having a child and going on leave, paying me as tech even though I wasn't so I could collect mat leave benefits.

Reasons to leave
  1. He's passive-aggressive and unhelpful with conflict. When I had a problem with male postdoc1 (MPD1) in conversations with me, he said I was correct, with conversation with MPD1 he told him he was correct - that does not help solve the problem. If I am wrong tell me!
  2. He can be manipulative - giving away projects to suit his needs not the students
  3. He puts himself before students - as in student has enough to finish, would like to finish, he stands in the way until student does what he says
  4. Funding is becoming an issue
  5. He has poor scientific standards - as in not always worrying about correct controls
This last two bug me because my last PI had very high standards and at the time it drove me nuts, mainly because no body else seemed to care. Now I care. What is the point of doing all this, getting results analyzing and publishing IF you can't be certain that your conclusions are based on solid repeatable data??
Furthermore if you are willing to publish and make conclusions about the role of a protein when you know that effect was due to an effect of the experiment not the actual protein, what does that say about your ethics? Some of his issues (passive-aggressive) be worked around IF he had good lab management skills, but he doesn't, He's all over the map, asking 4 different people to work on the same thing, takes students off task on a regular basis and then re-assigns projects because student is not focusing on them! And if I am not sure about being a PI does scientific standard matter? I think if they matter to me I can do my science well but that may make me run about against him many a day.
The feminist in me is screaming to run. Staying means I am condoning his behavior, something I spend a lot of time working to clear science of. If so how do I leave? What do I say? How do I approach other PI's???


Melanie said...

Wow - I don't even know where to start.

One of your reasons for staying is that your PI understands work-life balance ... but you also said he's been struggling with it, pretty much not doing a good job.

The passive-aggressiveness isn't going to go away. The flakey lab and research management isn't going to either. And if his research standards aren't great, publications are going to be a problem, and so funding issues will just get worse and worse. Okay, there, I'm awfulizing.

Does good science matter if you don't want to be PI? Of course it does :) What's the point otherwise? BUT, you have other resources to help you make sure you've got the right controls. Think of other PIs, find other mentors, who you can run your ideas past.

But it comes down to fear I think. Are you wanting to change PIs because you're afraid of staying, or because you know it's not the best choice for you to stay? Are you hesitating because of fear?

How would he react if you talked with him about the problems you're experiencing? ... though I guess you can't really go up to him and say, "Your understanding of controls sucks. Why?" :)

It's a tough decision ... I at many points considered leaving my MSc or finding another lab. In my case, I'm glad I didn't. But I know many cases where it turned out great for people who did switch.

Nicky said...

I faced a somewhat similar issue last year about whether to switch labs (same question, but it was for very different reasons). For me, it came down to one question: which decision will get me to graduate earlier, with the right experience?

If I switched, I would have ended up with a better advisor, but I also would have pushed my graduation back at least a year, probably more. I also would have been forced to focus on dissertation on a topic that just wasn't as interesting to me. Not appealing. On the other hand, staying where I was allowed me to keep doing the work I wanted to do, but put extra pressure on me to find outside resources (other professors, scientists at other labs) to bounce ideas off of, to validate my approaches, to suggest publication venues, and all around to fill in the gaps left by a less-than-ideal advisor.

Ultimately, I decided that sticking to my planned graduation timetable and keeping the same research focus was important to me, so I didn't mind taking on the overhead of getting outside help. But then, my advisor situation wasn't too awful, and other resources were readily available to fill in those gaps. If my advisor were worse, or if the gaps were much bigger, or if other colleagues were harder to find, I probably would have gone the other way.

So, I guess my advice is: figure out how much work it would be to fill in the gaps in your education that your PI isn't filling. If it's a lot of work, find a new advisor. If you can get help in keeping your own academic standards high, it might be worth sucking up the bad parts and sticking around.

Echloe said...

What happens if you switch labs now?

1. you could end up with a PI who isn't as understanding about family life.

2. you could end up with another passive-aggressive boss (i feel like a lot of scientist have this trait).

3. the bad politics of it will likely travel with you unless you change institutions.

I don't envy your position. It would probably be best to talk out some of your issues with your PI before making any major decisions. Also, I agree with Nicky who recommended that you try to fill in the gaps. What is stopping you from just getting a co-advisor. Or even just stopping in to talk to your committee members for mentoring. Postdocs and senior grad students in other labs will probably be happy to help you too.

Good luck in any case.

ScientistMother said...

Thank you so much to for all your feedback. One thing that I did not put in the post was that PI may be getting charged with making inappropriate comments for a second time - which really is one of main reasons to leave. I am early enough (I don't even have a committee) that it won't affect my graduation. Its the politics and the how do I avoid the same situation...