Saturday, November 28, 2009

Collision course

In an earlier post about responsibilities, DrDoyenne commented:
It's also important to realize that PI and trainee may not be compatible because of personality, work-ethic, and other differences. Neither need be in the wrong...just different. I read about many incompatible relationships in science blogs (usually written by the trainees), and the blame seems to be dumped on the PI. There are certainly bad mentors, but more often it may be simple incompatibility or a failure on the part of the trainee to understand why the PI is so hard on them.
I have been thinking recently of how true this observation is and how I have seen it play out in my relatively short time in science.

The transition into my postdoc has been a difficult one, and recent weeks have been particularly trying. Earlier in the month, I was exchanging emails with Bear over revisions for a manuscript resubmission. At some point, I made a comment about my frustration. I was a bit surprised a few days later--after having gone through a couple of more rounds of emails regarding the manuscript--to receive a message from Bear saying he was sorry to hear that I was having a tough time, but he thought that most postdocs do. He went on to briefly share his own experience of being a postdoc, worrying about not publishing, and ultimately deciding to pursue own interests, even if it meant "working on the side". I had already decided that this is what I should do, but that email provided additional impetus and encouragement.

Regarding that email, I tweeted*: As crazy as he drove me sometimes, I am really fond of my grad adviser. He continues to provide encouragement and advice. LadyScientist replied: That's really rare. And priceless. Sounds like you had a good one.

This brought a wry smile to my face because I daresay some who were in Bear's lab would debate that--vehemently. Hell, even I might have debated it at some point.

Too often, trainees have an unreasonable expectation for (a) consistent application of the same standards across all trainees, (b) rational behavior uninfluenced by emotional state, (c) consistent, professional, and formal mentoring. I know this because at some point, I had these naive, idealistic ideas. I have a feeling that this rarely happens. Let's face it, as much as we like to depict them as strange, otherworldly creatures at times, PIs are people too. They have unique personalities and styles, which don't always mesh with those of their trainees.

It took me some time to figure out a few important things about Bear's style. Bear expected his trainees to be independent. But he expected more out of those who were highly self-motivated and committed. There were times he was pretty aggressive with certain trainees during meetings. Some people would respond defensively. Others would just shut down. At times, I would get pretty upset and angry, but I tried not to react on those emotions. It was particularly frustrating, though, when he let others slide. I eventually came to realize that when he nailed me to the proverbial wall in a meeting or landed a snarky comment, it was because he expected more out of me. Bear pushed those who would respond (eventually) in a productive manner--that is those who would go search the literature or design and execute the experiment to address the question, knowing if he asked it again, we would have an answer. I learned that I should not take his affronts as personal insults. I would still feel that initial, primal reaction, but I no longer let it stick around for days. Because of his style, Bear forced me into situations that required me to think for myself. His personality forced me to be sure of myself and to display confidence even when I didn't feel it. I left his lab with a level of independence and confidence that, when I started grad school, I could not have imagined possessing. Some of Bear's personality traits that drove me crazy were what helped me become that strong, independent scientist, and realizing this allowed me to leave with an amiable relationship with my Ph.D. mentor.

Of course, now I have a new personality to contend with. Guru has presented a unique challenge. He is pretty damn impossible to read because he is so reserved. On a couple of occasions, he has called me out (one-on-one) because I seemed less than thrilled about something. Guru is also much more involved in research--not to the extent of working in the lab himself, but being very involved in experimental planning and design. I recently realized this is one reason that I have been frustrated about research: It is difficult for me to identify my intellectual contribution to my project because it was defined in such detail when I started. Some people would consider having a defined research plan a good thing. I'm not opposed to having a research plan, but I also like having some latitude within that plan or the ability to pursue a 'side project' of interest. There are many good arguments on both sides (i.e. defined plan vs. letting a trainee sort it out on his or her own or single project vs. multiple projects), but it largely boils down to differences in style and personality. Just as it did with Bear, it has taken me some time to define certain elements of Guru's style. I have also realized that I have been much more timid in my interactions with Guru than I ever was with Bear. My hope is that I can use this knowledge to find some compromise that will work for both our personalities. Otherwise I fear I will end up (a) working on something I'm not particularly invested in, (b) losing some of my fire for research, (c) butting heads with Guru during my remaining time in his lab, or (d) some combination of the three.

* Don't worry, PhysioProf, I know how you feel about Twitter.

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leigh said...

alright, let's see if this works.

i also come from a grad mentor who identified and really pushed those who had the potential. yes, i got angry with grad mentor. but after it hit me WHY i was being driven so hard, i actually enjoyed seeing what i was capable of doing with grad mentor's guidance. there are also people who would argue that my grad mentor was not a good mentor. me, i would not trade my experience for anything.

i'm definitely at option "c" right now with one of my bosses. i've tried to look at things from this person's perspective, even having collected opinions from others who have a little closer idea than i of what this person might be thinking. i've tried being sympathetic. i fully acknowledge that i am here to do a job as outlined by the funding proposal. however, i am NOT a technician.

right now, i'm locked in power struggle with this boss. i'm really trying to tone down my need for independence and creative thought in order to make this person happy, (and my big mouth and attitude for that matter) but it's very stifling. i feel like i could be doing so much more. my only outlet is this grant proposal i'm working on. i'm glad for that, but still i'm really losing steam on several fronts. morale is not great.

mostly i think we have a major personality/style conflict. this is nobody's fault, it just is. and that's why i'm out when my contract ends. unless things do a 180, which is unlikely.

leigh said...

yay! it worked!

biochem belle said...

First off-so glad you could finally join the discussion, leigh. Stupid blogger glitches (for the rest of that's why the comment box is no longer embedded below the post).

I am with you regarding the grad mentor bit. A fellow grad student in Bear's lab had a pretty similar drive and work ethic as I did but did not respond well to Bear's style. S/he couldn't stand him when s/he left and would probably say Bear was no mentor at all-just a source of funding and resources for experiments. But, like you, I would not trade the experience.

I'm hoping for the best w/ my current situation. Besides pure stubbornness and not wanting to start over again, changing labs would be difficult due to a training grant that lasts for another 10 mo. Paramed and I only plan on staying in postdoc city until he is finished with undergrad studies, ~2.5 yrs, so changing labs when grant runs out is not reasonable.

I'm trying the direct approach first. I broached the subject of doing a side project. The idea was not well-received, at first, but he seems to be reconsidering. I have to provide some details, once I get my idea hashed out. He seems to want people to derive some pleasure from their project, so this route might work.

leigh said...

ah, i see. the fixer earned his degree while i was in grad school. it sucked intensely at the time, but now we're both free to move. which it appears we'll have to do anyway for his career.

it's the two body thing. it requires a lot of sacrifice on both sides. i see why you're so dead set on making your postdoc job work.

i'll say that working with boss1 and having a chance to design my own project, even if i know i won't stay to get it off the ground, is at least a creative outlet that keeps me sane. it also fills the days while i'm waiting for project delays.

DrDoyenne said...

Post-docs, keep in mind that the PI has primary responsibility for the Project and ensuring that the work is carried out well and on time. This pressure may be behind some of their incomprehensible "behavior". Also, if the PI wrote the grant proposal/ designed the study, then they get to call the shots (even if they don't make sense to you). It's their research program.

Also, it is very likely that some decisions are based on considerations of which you are unaware.

leigh: "right now, i'm locked in power struggle with this boss."

No, you're not in a power struggle because your boss has the power, not you. The nature of your position as a post-doc is not one of independence and demanding it of your boss will only lead to problems.

A better approach is to ask for guidance on how you can get the most out of your post-doc experience. Ask if there is anything you can do to help the PI's program or that might improve the chances of getting a grant renewal. If the PI is reluctant to let you pursue additional research, are there other things you can do to gain experience? Managing budgets, learning a new technique (to expand the lab's capacity), mentoring less experienced lab members, etc.

Post-doc side-projects are especially problematic. If a post-doc is given the green light and the side project begins taking valuable time away from the funded project, it becomes a problem for the PI who then has to be the bad guy and do something about it. Easier to say no in the beginning.

I usually suggest that the post-doc first work for 6 months or so (on the main project) and then, if they still want to pursue a side-project, come up with a detailed schedule and plan of action. More often than not, the post-doc's decision is that there is just not enough time to do a good job on both projects.

If you have a good idea for a side- project but are told no, suggest that you plan it out just to get the experience and creative satisfaction. You might even ask your PI to go over your plan with you to provide some critical feedback on your ideas. Who knows? s/he might be impressed enough to reconsider.

If you think about it, being a post-doc is a great situation. You've not had to write the proposal or find the funding (usually) for your position and don't have to worry about keeping a lab funded and staffed. You don't have to deal with administrative or personnel issues, for the most part. All you have to do is carry out your research, gain experience, and get something published.

Enjoy it while you can.

biochem belle said...

DrDoyenne--I do realize that: (1) the PI has a responsibility to complete projects in a timely fashion; (2) being the PI, he/she gets to call the shots; and (3) that as a postdoc, I am dependent on the PI-for money, resources, etc. You are correct that there are occasionally, or even frequently, considerations that trainees are not aware of; I find this a bit unsettling, though, when the PI has a financial stake in a project that extends beyond grant acquisition/renewal.

I do think that a central issue to my current situation is a difference in personality--both between my current and previous advisers and between my current adviser and myself. To an extent, I have to adjust to this different management style. I am accustomed--and prefer--being provided a question and figuring out the best way to answer it, whereas my adviser is much more involved in deciding what experiments should be done and how to do them. It's not that I am opposed to working on the current project or to having my adviser's input; I just feel that I learn more and am more engaged in a project when I have a little space to work through it. I think that this approach is very important to my professional development, as well. As I see it, although I have a responsibility to my postdoc adviser to contribute to his lab's interests/projects/publications, I also have a responsibility to myself to continue my development as an independent scientist. I'm just trying to figure out how to integrate or balance these responsibilities.

Candid Engineer said...

Your relationship with Guru will get easier as time passes. You didn't understand Bear right away either. In another year or two, you'll have Guru figured out. :)

biochem belle said...

In another year or two, you'll have Guru figured out.

I agree. It's just the 'year or two' part that concerns me. I'm almost a year in and only have 2-1/2 remaining.

DrDoyenne said...

bb-you certainly should try to gain as much experience and skills as possible during your post-doctoral period. However, there's always going to be a conflict between your needs and the concerns/ responsibilities of the PI (especially if they are reluctant to delegate).

Sometimes, it's a matter of the PI getting to know the post-doc or staff member and what their capabilities are. My last post-doc and I discussed most things and came to a joint decision about the best approach. It was a gradual process, though, starting when she arrived with me mostly making the decisions---to us working more as partners by the time she left. She's now a valuable collaborator and a co-PI on the renewal grant.

I delegate a lot of decisions to my staff once I'm sure that they can handle the responsibility. However, I still expect to make key decisions about experiments and experimental designs.

In some cases, I'll ask someone to come up with a design for an experimental set-up or a method. They come back with ideas; we discuss; they make a prototype; we look at it together; I make some more suggestions; once the prototype is acceptable, I give the go-ahead to implement. I stay involved, but my staff get to figure out how to design things (and they come up with some really good ideas).

If your PI is less willing to delegate, then you have to figure out how to show that you are capable and that your greater involvement might benefit the PI/PI's lab.

You might also ask your PI (over beer, coffee?) what a post-doc should get out of the experience. The answer might give you an opening to ask about the types of experience/responsibility you are wanting and under what circumstances they could happen.

biochem belle said...

DrDoyenne-Thanks for your comments. It is extremely helpful to have a perspective from 'the other side'.

Everyone has given me much to think about regarding this issue.

leigh said...

i suppose i worded some things poorly. my second boss and i have a personality conflict going on. suppose that is a more accurate descriptor than "power struggle" given that i have no choice but to defer.

i feel like a technician in that lab. i am not trusted to do anything, really, so it's hard to be helpful. have been told i'm not really a part of the lab group. i get that there are crappy postdocs out there, but presumably if you hired me you did so because you thought i was up to the task. i am doing my job diligently, i bring the carefully collected data at the maximal rate allowed by supply issues.

i'm getting exactly the kind of career development i had anticipated from my primary boss, and i'm doing great in primary lab. if it were just secondary boss, i would be losing it.