Guest Post: Implementing boundaries as a PI

Graduate school was a rough transition. After college, I struggled to find my footing with the relative lack of structure of a graduate curriculum. The lab I chose for my thesis research turned out to be a powerful source of support that grounded me as I navigated this transition. The incredible group of grad students, post-docs and research technicians in this lab made failed experiments and projects, uncertainty about whether I could be a successful scientist and other struggles more manageable. They also contributed to a fantastic intellectual environment that was utterly rigorous, willing to question accepted scientific premises, pushed members to think critically and deeply about their own projects and celebrated hard-earned scientific accomplishments. This environment seemed to me the best of what science could be and convinced me that if I could, this was what I would want to do as a career.

The lab that I performed my post-doc convinced me that my experience in graduate school was not an anomaly. I joined a young lab, which included one other post-doc, a graduate student and a research technician. I confronted additional failures (an inability to get funding in my first year, dissatisfaction with my project and its progress, difficult conversations with my advisor). However, being able to talk about these issues with the other members, who were experiencing similar challenges, eased any sense that there was something wrong with me and my approach to thinking about and doing science. In addition, as my and other projects in the lab began to blossom, the intellectual excitement and thrill were palpable and cohesive forces.

This emotional reliance on other lab members, people who were usually at somewhat similar life and career stages, became obvious to me when I began staffing my own lab as a PI. I was suddenly aware as PI that I occupied a very different place in the relationships amongst the members of my lab. I had seen both effective and ineffective mentoring during my training and was committed to learning from these observations. Moreover, I had an intense sense of responsibility towards the (future) members of my lab and an awareness that management was now a major part of my job definition. Even if the intense camaraderie that I experienced at almost every level of my scientific training was a major attraction to academic science, I also starkly remembered how this camaraderie could turn toxic and clubby. Therefore, as PI, I was now in a position where I had to balance promoting this camaraderie, which could be important to the success of my lab, with enough professionalism so that all members could feel valued.

As a result, I knew that some very obvious boundaries now defined my relationship with trainees in my lab. Unrestrained complaining about funding had the possibility of unnecessarily causing anxiety amongst my trainees. Trainees with different career goals and varying repertoires of research skills could not feel like these differences affected their relationship with me. All trainees were invited to social events to avoid the perception of favoritism. And one of my primary roles as PI was that of cheerleader: When confronted with setbacks or failure, I had to make sure our team maintained the focus and morale to move forward, even if I was struggling to place the setback in context. I’m not at all implying that I am successful at all these things, but they were definitely what I aspired to so that I could run a productive, fundable and intellectually engaging lab where all members feel like they are working towards their own personal goals as well as the larger goals of the lab.

I was completely unprepared for how socially isolating implementing some of these boundaries were. Yes, I had other PIs with which to discuss the lab’s failures and successes with and I did, seeking them out to ensure I was on track. But these other individuals, no mater how well meaning, were not as intellectually invested in our progress. Their concern or enthusiasm was a paltry substitute. Moreover, they were often at different career stages and could not necessarily provide support for a beginning PI.

I should mention that I’m sure that there are people who easily accomplish this transition in their lab, without the overthinking entirely on display here. But there are also people who don’t consider this shift in power and the boundaries that need to be imposed. Or consider it and don’t prioritize it as a facet of their lab culture. And to be fair, I get it. Just like graduate school was a huge transition, becoming a PI is a dramatic life shift, often accompanied by a move to a new area with few friends and support. It is entirely tempting to rapidly forge social connections with those who you are spending a fair amount of time with, that is, the members of your lab. We also tend to idealize lab spaces, imagining them as non-hierarchical spaces where ideas reign supreme. It’s an incredibly attractive ideal. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from or what training period you are in, you have the ability to contribute to the forward march of science. Yet, this idealization is false. When trainees rely on a PI’s letter of reference to progress in their career, the PI plays an outsized role in the future success of that trainee. It further breaks down as our labs become more diverse and we are forced to confront bias, both conscious and unconscious. It becomes apparent that the leader of the lab, the PI, needs to enforce a level of professionalism that recognizes power differentials. This professionalism ensures that those who might feel uncomfortable with potentially toxic forms of “camaraderie” have a voice in shaping lab culture and the progress of science.

A lot of these ideas had been swirling around in my head for a while. The news about Christian Ott and his “punishment” by Caltech for sexual harassment brought it all back. Several people mentioned that this seemed a perfect example of how PIs are not trained to be managers. But it also brought to my mind all the instances I observed when PIs had failed to acknowledge the shift in power that came with their new responsibilities. With this shift comes the imposition of boundaries that explicitly say:

“No you can’t go out regularly with a subset of your lab, giving the impression that this subset is favored.”

“No you can’t fall in love/date/have sex with a trainee.”

“No you can’t talk about these feelings with another trainee in your lab.”

The revelation of Jason Lieb’s utterly inappropriate, potentially criminal, behavior provides an even starker illustration of how important these boundaries are.

I know some might argue with this assessment and point out that sexual harassment is inherently a display of power. Undoubtedly, there are examples where people are cognizant of their power and use it to sexually harass people who work with them. But there are also those who are unwilling to acknowledge their power, or privilege, as PIs, as men (in some cases), as white (in most cases). These individuals can find themselves in situations with their trainees that they consider non-threatening that are nonetheless harmful for their trainees. These are people who can, unbelievably, think that if a PI is in love with a student, the student might take advantage of this situation. If we are to encourage scientists to take on management or mentorship training with their transition to being a PI, an absolutely necessary component of this is the acknowledgement that PIs occupy a unique and powerful position in the hierarchy of a lab. This can be an informal conversation between a PI and the chairperson of a department highlighting behavior that will not be tolerated and will result in sanction. It can also be a formal training that PIs need to undertake before a trainee can join their lab. But PIs must absolutely understand: We mentor trainees with the hope that they will ultimately become our colleagues but we must maintain the professional distance that ensures their success is among our highest priorities.

Today’s guest blogger is a tenured faculty member at a US research university

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Implementing boundaries as a PI

  1. this hits close to home, especially the part about becoming a PI linked to geographical relocation and other shifts in life… I still haven’t completed the transition (started 2 years ago) and I am not sure I ever will. Finding friends who are not working with you (or worse, for you) is very difficult when you spend most of your time in the lab/ at work!

  2. It’s nice to hear a discussion of the isolation being a PI can bring. I have found that a hard part of the transition, utterly necessary, but difficult. I do social things with my lab (and everyone is invited) but also try and give them the space they need. I can have dinner with them but I’m not going to go out drinking with them or be too involved on a social level. It’s wonderful to see them develop rich social lives but yeah I don’t really have that and it can be a little lonely.

  3. Thank you for this post, interesting and thought-provoking. I’ve been a PI for quite a few years. I deal with it by having a co-PI and a few close academic friends (my career level and higher) who are not involved in the day-to-day of my group. I let off steam with these people. I am trying to make it explicit that each member of my group has personal goals and have tried to create a culture of mutual positive reinforcement. I think some of the issues you mentioned are proportional to the size of the group. Growth is great, and often seen as a sign of success, but it seems that sometimes there is a price to pay.

  4. This resonates with me completely. I had wonderful colleagues in graduate school and in my postdoc that really stimulated by scientific discovery and helped relieve the stress of the failed experiments. I am currently in my second year as a PI at a primarily undergraduate institution that is very research intensive. I find my days of directing undergraduate research projects and troubleshooting their problems while being a constant cheerleader quite draining. In a way in my new role I find that I am constantly feeding other scientific souls (? minds?) but my own is not getting replenished with food of its own. Luckily I have some collaborators at other institutions that I can have phone calls and can rejuvenate my love for the science, but they are certain few and far between during my daily academic life.

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