Friday, November 13, 2009

Responsibilites: Open forum

A question for my readers:
In your opinion, what are a PI's responsibilities to his or her trainees?
The concept is thrown around in several blogs, conversations, and even in today's editorial in Science by Bruce Alberts. However, it's not something that has been clearly defined, and I daresay, there are many opinions on this. Of course I have my own thoughts on this, but I'd like to hear some other opinions before I post my own this weekend.

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DrDoyenne said...

First, I think it's important to recognize that this is a two-way street--in terms of responsibilities.

The PI has a responsibility to guide trainees while allowing them room to innovate (and even make mistakes). I would prevent a student or post-doc from making any serious errors, but let them try out an idea in a trial run. The guidance should be both technical and semi-technical (e.g., how to deal with rejection or problematic co-workers). This can even be expanded to other areas (optional, of course). For example, I once visited the lab of a wonderful European scientist who felt it was also his responsibility to teach his students about fine food and wine--he routinely took his group out to dinner or to his house to taste wines.

The trainee also has responsibilities to the PI and to the project that is paying their salary. PIs depend on students and post-docs to perform their work on time and to the best of their abilities. Unfortunately, not all trainees recognize the damage their poor or incomplete work does to a PI. The trainee also has the responsibility to ask questions and play an active role in their training.

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've had two recent post-docs. I think one would say I was a fantastic mentor, but the other would say I was terrible. The latter had many "issues", including problems getting along with the rest of my staff and understanding why I set high standards. I probably spent too much time and far too long trying to help her out (even though colleagues were urging me to let her go). My problem was in not wanting to admit failure in this instance--I kept hoping I could turn things around.

A PI does a trainee no favors by letting them slide. We know just how competitive it is in science, and that unless trainees are held to a high standard they may not succeed in a science career. I find that students and others in training may not have a realistic view of how difficult it is to get published, get research funding, and to juggle job responsibilities. In training, they are given a funded project, lab and office space, a computer, research equipment and are sent regularly to conferences. So it's easy for them to expect this to continue when they become PIs--without realizing exactly what it takes.

Bottom-line: my approach to trainees and employees is that there are no bad ones, only bad supervisors.

PS thanks for the plug for my series on women scientists in film

DrDoyenne said...

Some specific things a PI can do to help trainees:

1. provide clear expectations for both the technical work as well as professional behavior

2. provide general instruction/guidance in preparation of science products and opportunities to take the lead on aspects of a project or a paper

3. send trainees to conferences and introduce them to others in your field

4. give them opportunities (and push them if necessary) to learn new methods or gain additional experience

5. if possible, let them participate in proposal preparation or have them prepare one on their own

6. provide opportunities to review manuscripts and proposals (yours, others)

7. push them to publish prior work as well as their current work

8. if feasible, allow them to supervise or mentor others

9. provide some instruction or experience in budget management or in preparing research budgets

10. provide informal instruction in preparing their resume', going on job interviews, giving interview seminars, job negotiating for salary and start-up funds, contracts, etc.

11. write individualized letters of recommendation for them (or honestly explain why you can't provide a glowing recommendation)

12. make it clear from the beginning that they are ultimately responsible for their fate and should be diligent in identifying their weaknesses and addressing them

biochem belle said...

DrDoyenne - Thanks for your input! And don't worry: I will definitely be getting around to the trainee responsibilities in the (relatively) near future.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

DrDoyenne is very wise!

Zen said...

To paraphrase something Neil Gaiman said about parenting, a supervisor’s responsibility is to prepare people so that when they leave, the world doesn't mess them up.

Tsu Dho Nimh said...

When you are collecting and tracking reams of computerized data, consider using the same systems that are used to maintain and modify software source code or web sites.

These systems can track changes and create branches off the main line, and handle reversion control on text documents. They can also check files into a controlled directory, for your data collection runs.

Some applications intended for web development have version control built into them. Look at Wikipedia articles' history. Automatic backups to an off-site facility, or daily burning to DVD, can be set up easily.

Good grief, join the computer age.