The listening game

The last few weeks have been busy: I was visiting old friends in Germany and San Francisco and other old friends came to visit me in my new home, Philadelphia. Since most of my friends are also scientists, naturally much of our conversation evolved around academia, gossip about old co-workers and experiences with new labs. Interestingly, although our careers have diverged extensively, there was one recurring theme that linked many problematic experiences: PIs who don’t listen.

Pis who don’t listen… Cartoon [De Niro as Newton] by RedPen BlackPen.

Listening in this context doesn’t necessarily mean physical listening, although that may also be involved. For example, one friend of mine, who was always known to be very social, got along with everybody in the lab and as a strong cohesive force, told me about an experience, where she flagged to the PI that one of the new lab members wasn’t integrating very well and was difficult to work with. The PI completely ignored her comment, the problematic colleague stayed and caused a negative atmosphere in the lab, especially when some of the older lab members left. Considering my friend’s status in the lab, and that she easily got along with most people, her “complaint” should have at least raised some red flags with the  PI…

In other cases, listening can be more indirect, more in the form of tailoring projects to the expertise of employees. This seems to be especially problematic for postdocs and technicians, who often already have substantial prior experience. One typical case is when a PI puts someone on a new, technically challenging project, even though someone else already has plenty of experience with that method. Sometimes, this happens because the PI isn’t aware of this know-how and once this is revealed, problems can be resolved rapidly. In other – particularly frustrating – cases, even after it is clear that someone has hands-on experience, their advice and comments are blocked. One friend mentioned that he had highlighted to the PI that a certain method he had used during his PhD wasn’t sufficiently quantitative/robust for the question the PI wanted to answer, but was rebuffed on multiple occasions, until a year and a half later, the new PhD student working on the topic figured it out himself.

A more subtle case of tuning projects is when PIs assign projects to people that really don’t suit their character. Some people may be highly organised and better at projects that require handling a large number of samples and being systematic, other people may be more of the MacGyver type who enjoy rigging up new equipment in the lab, yet another group may have a preference for computational over wet-lab work, etc. And so, when there’s a mismatch between a type of project and a “personality” this can be really demotivating for the person and slow down a project. This doesn’t mean that PIs should only assign the “matching” type of project to a given person, especially since sometimes people want new challenges. But more often than not, I see that PIs simply assign their newest idea to the next-best person, regardless of whether that style of project suits them or not.

Another issue where listening (or the absence thereof) is involved, is project ownership and pet theories. This seems particularly problematic, when the PI is more of a micro-manager or under a lot of pressure to produce results. In these cases it often happens that the PI gets heavily involved in details of the experimental design. Sometimes this starts off as advice, with the aim of moving the project along rapidly, but it can easily turn into a hostile takeover of the project, with the PI managing it and the student/postdocs/tech becoming the trained monkey doing the hands-on work. In its saddest form, this can culminate in a lab atmosphere, where trainees stop thinking about their own projects since their input is ignored anyway. Unfortunately, once such a mentality governs a lab, it is very difficult to change it, and it comes back to bit these PIs sooner or later. A specific  manifestation of this scenario is when a PI has a pet theory and ignores all evidence to the contrary. One PhD student I know wasted almost his entire doctoral thesis doing the control of the control of the control to show that the PIs hypothesis (which formed the basis of his project) couldn’t be right.

And so, finally, note to future self: listening is an art that any PI should learn to master.

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