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.

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Romeo and Juliet – in academia?

The internet is like a giant self-help handbook, and generally I read sections on “Why life sucks for a young scientists and what you can do about it”, “How to manage terrible PIs” and “How not to fail in a system that has failed you”. Last month, however, I came across a couple of really interesting posts from a new chapter, probably titled “This is how things look like from the other side”. First, I stumbled across a post from the Raj lab (Is My PI out to get me?), arguing that PIs actually do care, and try to make decisions that are – at least in the long run – in the interest of their students (even if we might not appreciate it now). Next, Dr Isis complained (Trainee-Level Fuckery of the Worst Kind…) about students who apply double standards regarding the supervision they expect from their PIs, and the supervision they supply to their own students. And finally, this entry on Scientific B-Sides (Managing Upwards Works! Until it Doesn’t) described the expectations of a PI towards his students/postdocs in a functional supervisor-student relationship: primarily that they should show initiative and be pro-active.

Then, last week, I attended a big reunion at my alma mater, talked to a bunch of people – and encountered a similar discrepancy between students/postdocs and PIs in real life. Students told me, how their supervisors did not give them with proper guidance (“She says she’s giving me academic freedom to develop my ideas – I think she just doesn’t care”) – young PIs complained how the standard had dropped (“When I started my PhD I spent 6 months in the library, trying to find an interesting problem to persue. If I told my students to do this today, there’d be a riot.”). Students complained that they did not receive any training, two PIs told me they had fired PhD students, because “he was really smart – but didn’t know how to hold a pipet/work at the bench”.

Juliet's balcony in Verona. Picture by gerry.scappaticci via flickr.

Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Picture by gerry.scappaticci via flickr.

So, all this got me thinking: there is clearly a discrepancy between how PIs and students/postdocs perceive the current system. But why? Sure, students might lack the experience to understand that the hard way (“forced” upon them by their mentors) is the better way in the long run. Also, everybody is keen to blame “the other side” when things go bad. But could there be more to it? What if it’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet plot: we have the superficial storyline, the conflict between the families (the PI and the student) – but in reality it’s a conflict between generations. Continue reading

On the (possible) Origin of Terrible PIs by Means of Natural Selection

This is a post about a species most young scientists have probably encountered at some point or another: terrible bosses. The PIs who are insecure, awful at recognizing and resolving conflicts, or distrustful control freaks. The group leaders, who think bullying employees, insisting on long working hours or installing a no-holiday policy will create a productive work environment. Or the (often young) PIs who are still so unaware of their position, and so involved in promoting themselves rather than their group, that they completely neglect their students/postdocs. The list goes on. Over the years I have seen many of my friends, who started off as enthusiastic, talented students, become victims of such bosses, and leave research disillusioned. And every time this happened, I have wondered how those PIs got their position in the first place? Continue reading