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


Science Events Student Style – still looking for inspiration!

I believe that communicating and discussing science is incredibly important. So, not surprisingly, I love going to meetings and courses. Amongst these, events organized by students are frequently under-appreciated gems: they are affordable, with much less naval-gazing, and much more lively discussions. Student organizers are usually extremely enthusiastic, who will go that extra mile to make the event a success. Even the speakers are often more motivated, because the ones you get on a low-budget, low-key event are the ones who do it for the love of science, and not for prestige. Finally, the program can be super creative, with items you would normally not see on a science schedule. Oh, and of course the parties. They’re generally great. (And the after-parties. And the reunions.)

Therefore, I would like to dedicate a section of this blog to student science meetings: the ones organized by students and the ones organized for students, regardlehelp_wanted-neonss whether they are at high-school or university. The first post was about a Science Summer Camp organized at my old alma mater, the Eotvos College in Budapest. I have some more ideas about other events, but if you are a student and are organizing (have organized or know of) some kind of science event for students/by students – I’d probably love to write about it, and would be very happy if you’d contact me!