Valuing chronically ill graduate students


Many states issue “special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked.” Working under these rules, a disabled person can expect to make less than $4/hour. Some people think paying disabled people less is a good thing, as shown by this response when Maryland ended sub-minimum wages for disabled people:

If a worker is less productive, should they be paid less? This is not an abstract question for me.

Continue reading


When trainees go bad

Toxic work environments – including lab environments – are bad for everyone. They are utterly destructive to those involved, to the rest of the lab, and to the PI. We have discussed toxic mentors, problematic advisors, and mentoring styles, with the goal of understanding how to identify toxic situations and how to survive and get out intact. These situations are especially despicable due to power imbalances between PI and trainee.

But what happens when it’s not the mentor but a trainee that is the major source of problems in the lab? . This is a very different issue from toxic PIs – there isn’t the same kind of power imbalance, and there is much more protection for the PI than there is for trainees. Nevertheless, a problematic individual in the lab can cause massive amounts of stress for both the PI and the other trainees in the lab. We don’t often talk about “toxic” trainees, or even “difficult” trainees, or trainees that are making everything more difficult for everyone. Perhaps we should. Continue reading

Grad student mentorship

One of the biggest sources of both joy and stress in my professional life is working with grad students. Joy because I love working with other people, particularly students, and feel an immense amount of satisfaction watching my students develop into fantastic scientists with their own ideas.  Stress because the process of mentorship is HARD, and also because I need to be able to fund my students- tuition, salary, and research expenses.

It’s that time of the year when I am starting to get emails from prospective students for admission in 2015, so I’m thinking hard about whether and how many students I would like to accept and what types of students I want.

With this post, I would like to accomplish two things: 1) to communicate to prospective students some strategies that will make me consider them beyond their initial email; and 2) to present the various constraints and opportunities that I am trying to balance, so that students know a little bit about what goes on in the minds of their prospective advisors. Continue reading

Not the newbie anymore – growing into mid-career mentorship

I’m 35. I’m an Assistant Professor. I haven’t used all three shots at an NSF CAREER proposal. By many measures, I’m early career. But… This is year 8 on the tenure track, my first round of federal grants is into the no-cost extension stage, and I’ve both graduated and published with multiple cohorts of graduate students. I survived year 1, year 2, and beyond. At some point, I realized that this whole “professor gig” was what I was doing with my life. It isn’t always easy, but it’s a lot easier now than it was when I started. So by some metrics at least, I’m some distance past early career.

But sometimes I feel unprepared for honorific “mid-career” and the role as a mentor that this stage of my career seems to be inviting.

I have junior colleagues who come to me for advice. I’m not always sure I have good advice to give, but I listen and can usually tell them what my experiences have been in somewhat similar situations, how it worked out, what I’d do differently, and maybe even what I’d recommend they do. But often I feel like a complete impostor. How can I be considered a good source of advice, when I don’t even have tenure and my publication record is not where I want it to be? Continue reading

Blurred lines in the field

A six hour car ride to a field site. A fourteen mile hike in the wilderness. Two months living together in tents in the middle of nowhere.   These types of experiences are common to those of us that work ‘in the field’ – i.e., not always stationed at our home base. And they all lead to situations where the lines between mentorship and friendship are likely to become just a little bit fuzzy. Let’s be honest, you can only talk for so long about experimental design. Now that I’m in my first summer of field work as a professor, and looking at the friendship-mentorship boundary from the other side, I’ve been thinking about where that boundary should be, how to set it (in the field), and how to reset it upon return to ‘normal’ life. Continue reading


Acknowledgment: Thanks to everyone who talked to me about this both on twitter and in person. Please join in the discussion – I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

We think a lot about mentoring here. About who we want to be, what we need, how to GTFO of a toxic situation (and help others in similar boat). I’ve been thinking about the role of my female mentors, and about my role in mentoring students and trainees.

There is a question I get asked with some regularity, it is “Why did you do your PhD and post-doc with women mentors? Was that on purpose?” The answer to the first question is “because they were doing the science I wanted to do” and to the second “yes, it was very much on purpose that I worked with people who were doing the science I wanted to do”. I usually answer that way, because I’m obstinate and I intensely dislike the question that is actually being asked – did I choose to work with women because I am a woman? Continue reading

Toxic academic mentors

Unfortunately for potential scientists, professors don’t receive any formal training in mentoring – and a disastrous mentoring situation can derail a trainee’s career.  Although some professors go out of their way to think about mentoring (see Acclimatrix’s post), and many want to be good mentors, the truth is there are some downright awful ones out there.  So what creates a ‘toxic’ mentoring relationship?  To me, the worst relationships happen when the person in power (the mentor) takes advantage of the mentee’s work without sufficient regard for their career and mental health.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been part of a department where there wasn’t at least one professor that “everyone” knew was a toxic mentor.  Some examples include:

  • One who drags out a student’s defense date for years because of limited resources for that type of research (doesn’t want the competition)
  • One who blocks mentee publications or degrees by putting up unreasonable and unethical roadblocks
  • One who prefers mentees from their home (non English-speaking) country, but keeps around one American at a time to be an editing workhorse.
  • One who publishes mentee’s data (or allows others to do so) without discussing in advance with the mentee.
  • One who goes to former mentee’s conference talks, and then scoops them by using his/her plentiful resources to crank out the research (and publications) faster

I had the unpleasant experience of being involved in a truly toxic mentoring relationship. Continue reading