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. Continue reading

Crushing hopes and dreams since 2013

I’ve been an academic advisor, teacher, and research mentor for three years now. I’ve done ok at figuring out the nuts and bolts of teaching and advising, and I’m doing better with understanding how to be there for students as an empathetic ear. As a teacher and research advisor I’ve gotten more flexible about my expectations given the fact that most of my students are non-traditional. Overall, I think I’ve made progress in learning how to be supportive and encouraging of students’ goals, while also realistic.

Each student comes into college with their unique set of abilities, resources, and drive to succeed.  They also come with a set of expectations – perhaps simply of achieving a degree, or of getting straight As in their chosen major, or of getting into a top graduate program.  Many students at my College are high achieving and could fit in at any top-tier university, and they achieve their goals. Others are relatively apathetic… ‘Cs (or Ds) get degrees’; they aren’t going to do that well, but they’ll pass the classes and get a bachelors, also achieving their goals.  Others realize for themselves that they are not reaching their own expectations in their chosen major, and transfer to another department of their own accord.

The students that I continue to struggle with teaching and advising are those that are not achieving their own college expectations but can’t make the hard decisions that entails. Even worse are those whose college expectations for themselves were mismatched with the expectations of the program or the career they have chosen.  Continue reading

Being a shadow advisor

My department has several wonderful faculty, working in a variety of areas, producing great work and supporting their students. There are also a handful of faculty who are not as great: toxic toward their students, condescending, generally hard to work with. As luck would have it, they are all in the same subfield, which I happen to have an expertise in, too. From my perspective, this has been a rather sad discovery: on paper, this is a great career opportunity. I am at a place with multiple famous researchers, who have work that clearly and obviously interfaces with my own, and who would be great people to talk and work with. However, it became clear early on that they are anything but great to talk to, so I have been keeping one-on-one interactions to a minimum and instead have opted for large group meetings and presentations, so I still get the feedback on my work that I require. I’ve also been cultivating interactions with others on and off campus. I feel like I’ve been fairly successful at that, so it’s not what I want to concentrate on in this post.

I feel particularly bad for these professors’ students. Over the time that I have been here, several of them have reached out to me. Some simply looking for a sympathetic ear, someone who can help them navigate their difficult relationship with their advisor. Others needing a confidence boost, after being repeatedly told by an advisor that they were not good enough. With some, I have also begun a more substantive advising relationship, since I have expertise in their areas of research. And this is where it gets tricky: some of these professors are also isolationists–they have told their students that they shouldn’t talk to anyone other than them. So, I have been meeting with students “off the books,” because I want to help, but this entire situation is clearly unhealthy. Continue reading

Unofficial mentorship

This post has been rattling around in my head for months now. The seed of it started a year ago, with this post. Then, it sprouted with the first visit from a grad student to my door this past semester, asking for advice. And then there was a meeting request from a second student and a chance encounter with a third student, both ending in tears.  Finally, it fully flowered after I met individually with two other grad students, all seeking a similar set of advice, with more tears (on both their part and mine). Some of these meetings fell under the guise of official mentorship (e.g, I’m involved in the students professional lives in some official way, as their mentor or committee member), whereas others were requests for informal mentorship. But in all cases, I realized that the students were able to be much more honest and open about their issues with me than they felt they could be with other faculty.

The common themes?  All were female students in labs with male PIs (though I have also served as an unofficial mentor to a male grad student in the past). Second, these grad students all wanted advice on how to deal with their difficult advisors*.  But the most devastating theme to me?  All of these women are spectacularly intelligent individuals, and none of them believed they were smart enough for grad school.

Continue reading

On my role/effectiveness as a mentor

Graduate students are one of the best, and one of the most difficult aspects of my job. I constantly wonder if I’m doing it right. I worry because I care about the students. I care about whether they are learning and growing as scientists, and I care about them as human beings. I also care about their scientific output. In fact, as a lab-based scientist, I am dependent on the work that they do.

There are a two main flavors of my worry. First, Am I doing enough for their scientific development? Second, am I falling into the trope of the over-demanding pre-tenure faculty?

The first of these generally has two main steps transient* frustration with a student triggers a longer spiral of second guessing myself as a mentor.

The frustrations are usually normal** day-to-day things. Mistakes, failure to take notes of discussions, failure to locate notes from discussions, needing to repeat instructions that should not need to be explained again****, slowness of writing, oversharing about personal issues, failure to talk to me about research-related questions, and lack of keeping up with the literature, for example.

But then I start wondering: Is there something about what I am doing that could fix some of these problems? Am I giving my students too much room? Or am I micromanaging? Am I applying too much pressure? Not enough pressure? Is it contradictory if I am working on something up to a deadline, but demand they have drafts to me early? Continue reading