Saturday, November 21, 2009

Great Expectations

I am still a mere, lowly postdoc. However, I have a very clear idea of what I want to do with my life, at least professionally speaking. In my view, my time as a postdoc is not solely to expand my knowledge base and repertoire of techniques, or to publish fabulous papers, or to become a more independent scientist, although each of these things is important. It will be a few years, yet, before I am ready to begin searching for my dream job, but this is the time that I am defining an image of the career scientist I want to be--which involves pondering issues such as those described here. I likely have a naive and/or idealistic view of some things, which is why I am posting them here--for discussion with the commentariat.

At the end of last week, I posed the question of what responsibilities a PI has to his or her trainees. DrDoyenne provided some great responses (You should go read them!). She raised the important point that both the PI and the trainee have responsibilities in the relationship. She is absolutely right. It is difficult to discuss one without the other.

This question of responsibilities, both on the part of the mentor and the trainee, is a critical one but is often taken for granted. I think most students and postdocs have perception of what their responsibilities and their adviser's responsibilities are. The same can be said of the PI. However, we rarely discuss these matters (at least based on my experience and observations). There is no handbook or contract clearly stating each party's responsibilities. Instead we assume that the other person knows what is expected of them. When someone doesn't meet those expectations, there is a great deal of frustration, anger, passive-aggressive behavior, in-clique bitching, and, on occasion, bandying of the phrases like "it's your/his/her fucking job". I would like to clarify that I have never been told to-nor have I ever told anyone-that "it's your fucking job". But similar phrases have been thrown around by parties in private conversations.

This scenario brings us to what I view as the first responsibility: establishing clear, reasonable expectations. Of course, expectations (should) change. They are not one-size-fits-all-forever. Expectations are influenced by where we are at and where we are going, both personally and professionally, on the part of the PI and the trainee. Although this may be temporally a first responsibility, it is one that should be revisited throughout a trainee's tenure.

There are two parts to this responsibility, which I would argue, initially fall on the PI. The first is establishing expectations for trainees. New grad students may have very little (or even no) experience working in a laboratory. Even if they do have more substantial experience, it is as an undergrad RA, in a company, or as a tech in an academic lab, which are completely experiences from doing dissertation research, and with distinct expectations. Postdocs, of course, have research experience, but the culture of every lab is different. It is important for the PI to help define that culture by establishing certain expectations. These may include but are not limited to:
  • ballpark figure of hours/days a week the trainee is expected to be in the lab
  • responsibilities in the lab outside of research such as maintaining equipment or inventory
  • expectations for scientific engagement outside of research such as seminars, conferences, courses, and scientific reading
  • attendance and etiquette for meetings
I distinctly recall a few months after I joined the lab, Bear called a meeting with all the grad students. Bear was not one to engage much in formal mentoring activities, but in that meeting, he spoke with us about things that he thought were important to becoming a successful scientist. In addition to providing very useful advice for new trainees, it also established some of his expectations... and I took it as such.

The second part of PI's responsibility here is to establish some expectation of what trainees should expect from the PI. This goes back to the idea that every lab has its own culture. Every PI has a unique personality, schedule, and style, which most assuredly affects how the lab is run. Some PIs are very involved in research, day-to-day. Other PIs are mostly hands-off. Either way, the PI's style dictates what a trainee can expect from the PI. How much help or input should I expect from my PI when it comes time to write a manuscript/prepare a presentation/design an experiment/search for job? A PI shouldn't have to provide a decision tree for trainees but should give some idea of how involved he or she is when it comes to research and training.

The trainee also has responsibility in this establishment of expectations. First off, PIs rarely make frivolous comments regarding things trainees should do. You may think your PI is talking solely because he is enamored by the sound of his own voice. But when your PI prefaces a discussion with "This is what it takes to be successful in this field", you should probably interpret that as "This is what I expect you to do while in my lab". If you have some concern about what your PI expects of you or what you can expect from your PI, ASK YOUR PI. Your lab mates can provide useful information about the PI's style and expectations, but there are limits to that information. Their information may be based on assumptions because they never asked, not to mention circumstances may be very different. Expectations are only a starting point. As a trainee, you have to set some expectations for yourself. Ultimately, as a trainee, you have to take responsibility for your own career.

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DrDoyenne said...

I mentioned to my husband (also a scientist and professor) the question of PI and trainee responsibilities. He said that students/trainees often failed to ask questions about what was expected of them or to speak up when they did not understand something.

We PIs try to establish general expectations (and some specific ones), but it's impossible to cover absolutely everything or to know when to spell something obvious out to a particular trainee (until they screw up).

Regarding a PI's "style": this varies over time and also with the trainee (or groups of trainees). There is a dynamic that is established with each lab group, depending on their personalities, past experiences, and expectations and how these intersect with those of the PI.

I tend to be more of a "hands-off" kind of PI, more out of necessity than anything, but can be quite different with an individual who expresses a need for more "hands-on" guidance.

My group probably would prefer more face time with me, but I cannot manage that and also deal with everything else I must do. But in general, I meet regularly with my lab/field manager who then oversees day-to-day activities of post-docs, techs, and undergrad. student workers and interns. Post-docs also meet separately with me to discuss their specific projects.

We do have periodic lab group meetings to discuss items of general interest. During those meetings I express my expectations, reiterate lab rules, and explain the reasons for rules.

We do a lot of fieldwork, and I reserve my "life lessons" for those trips. My group jokes about my "stories", but I find telling about the time someone forgot to go through a boat safety check and ended up having an accident much more effective than just stating the safety rule.

biochem belle said...

DrDoyenne - Your husband is quite right about trainees not asking questions. From the trainee angle, I think there are many contributing factors:
- fear of asking something seemingly obvious and looking like an idiot
- the intimidation factor, which causes some trainees to attempt to minimize interactions with their advisers
- experiences with the current or even past advisers that were less than pleasant
- the trainee's sense of independence/stubbornness
- difficulties communicating with one's adviser (often due to differences in personality/style)
- "horror stories" from other lab members

Regardless of the reasons, we often end up either depending on (a) our own instinct or (b) the experiences/opinions of other lab members. Depending on others' experiences can create problems because, as you point out, a PI's interactions with his or her trainees are tailored to the trainee, to an extent.

DrDoyenne said...

bb--I agree with you about the reasons for trainees not asking questions. I was very shy and intimidated as a student and understand why questions are not easy for some. My husband, on the other hand, is just the opposite--so he finds it difficult to imagine this reluctance on the part of his students.

I think females tend to be more intimidated (although there are certainly exceptions). So it's important for male advisers to be aware of this and perhaps be a bit more proactive in dealing with female trainees.

biochem belle said...

An excellent point and advice re: the intimidation factor and female trainees, DrD.

LM said...

Sorry to reply to an old post, but reading Biochem Belle's list of "contributing factors" was like looking into a mirror (if I can mangle my metaphors):

- fear of looking like an idiot: yes. yes. a thousand times yes.

- intimidation factor: PI is a Big Cheese. Trying not to avoid walking past his office/regular haunts (many people do)

- less than pleasant experiences: I may have blocked out these memories. Which is probably bad because I'm sure there was good information there. (Only partly joking)

- trainee stubbornness: am attempting to cultivate humility. It's a constant battle

- difficulties communicating with one's adviser: in my case, due to difficulties communicating period.

- "horror stories": yup. Regularly. At first I thought it wasn't a problem, but now I wonder if it's not just reinforcing things.

Maybe I'm just lucky, or maybe these are really widespread phenomena. Either way, my strategy so far (not entirely successful, but I can't think of anything better) has been to ignore my fear, hopefully not to the extent that I say dumb things (there's the not exactly successful part) and to do good work in order to convince myself (and my PI) that I'm competent and my questions are valid.

biochem belle said...

LM-You're certainly not alone. I often wonder if higher education, esp. in sciences, just selects for certain personality traits. Even though every PI and trainee is different, there seem to be variations on a few themes.

quietandsmalladventures said...

sorry to continue the convo on an old post, there's one more reason we lowly trainees don't ask questions (or the right ones)... we just don't know to ask. i was in an unusual position in my master's lab, new student and a brand-spanking new PI. we both learned as we went along. in my ph.d work, i have an experienced PI but i still don't really know all the questions (the obvious ones: work schedule/vacation policy etc i have) but there are things that come up.

i figure as grownups we have to adapt and communicate for efficient and amicable PI-student relationships, but it seems like i might be more the exception some days.