Thursday, April 10, 2008

I woke up this morning

in a cold sweat. I had a terrible nightmare about lab work. I know, this really makes me a certifiable freak, but it's true.

I need a certain reagent for my experiments that is difficult to make. In fact, I spent a few months troubleshooting the protocol for making this reagent, and have only managed to make it correctly once. I will pat myself on the back here, because I am the ONLY person who has done this, to my knowledge. I have been using the one good batch that I made for my experiments, which are yielding some interesting data. But I will run out before long, and a post-doc that I work with would like to use this reagent, as well. So I am supposed to teach him how to make it. And this is what spawned the nightmare.

In my dream, I suddenly realize that I really can't make the stuff. It was just a fluke. I open the tube that held my one successful batch, and there is nothing left. I feel the horror rising up in my chest as I look at tiny droplets clinging to the side of the tube; not enough for even one experiment. My PI is looking over my shoulder as I do this, and he begins to yell at me, "How could you let this happen. You'll never be able to write a paper now!" He is telling me that I should have planned better, I should have been more careful, etc. And I feel paralyzed because I know that I can't make any more.

It's funny, but it was the yelling that clued me in that this was just a dream, so before I woke up I knew that it was a projection of my own anxiety about trying to teach someone else something I don't feel that I know all that well myself. My PI would never yell at me like that. And if he did I certainly wouldn't just stand there all frozen like I did in the dream - I'd yell back! BTW: this is why I knew I had to choose a PI who either never yelled, or who would be comfortable with a student who would respond in kind. Anyway, I still felt the tightness in my chest and the clammy hands that come with a nightmare. What a shitty way to start the day.

But this reminds me of a conversation I had with a fellow student, about how to talk to your PI about the things that sometimes make your work go slower than you'd like without sounding like you are just making excuses. I told him that I usually begin our meetings with a brief, matter-of-fact recap of what has happened since we last talked - what experiments I have done, which are still on the to-do list, what data analysis is pending and how much longer I think it will take, and any equipment problems I've had and how they have been or will be resolved. Finally, though I always let him know when I have to be out of the lab, I remind him if one of the kids was sick, or if there was a school holiday, or any of the other reasons that I may not have had as much work time as I planned. I don't think of this as making excuses; it's just setting the stage for our discussion. I suggested to my fellow student that he try doing it that way. And I commented that, since our PI is a pretty nice guy, he's not likely to rake you over the coals as long as you're not bringing in a sob story every week and you actually are getting some shit done.

Then, my fellow student asked the million-dollar question: why are some PI's nice and reasonable, but others absolutely nasty-assed, unforgiving jerks. Wow! I had to think for a minute or two on that one. Finally, I said that I think it's because that's how they were treated when they were students. Or, maybe it's because they think that being unreasonably demanding is a good way to get someone to get a lot done, regardless of how soul-destroying it can be to a student to feel that they are always coming up short. But really, I don't know. This is a real problem, because it means I don't know if my PI is likely to end up going to the dark side...


BerryBird said...

I am not a scientist, so my suggestion is not based on relevant experience. But I tend to think it's just human nature: some people are nice and reasonable, while others are nasty-assed unforgiving jerks. [Whether academia self-selects a higher per capita rate of jerkiness than other professions is another issue.] Based on that theory, I would guess your PI would be unlikely to flip to the dark side.

Good luck with the reagent.

MissPrism said...

Seconded on the good luck wishes! Hope your PI stays mellow.

Abel Pharmboy said...

The PI asshole quotient (PIAQ) is a function of two general factors, I believe. First, is that scientists outside of industry rarely have formal management training, although that is changing. However, if one suggested to scientists that managing people, group dynamics, and conflict was important to scientific success, many would tell you it was a waste of time.

However, I would argue that I lack the training to do roughly 50% of my job as a PI. Moreover, perhaps 90% of my career screwups have come from this lack of training in personnel and budgetary management. The pharmaceutical and chemical industries (and other businesses) seem to recognize that the need for these skills transcend disciplines, and that managing independent technical geniuses is particularly challenging and essential to one's career development as a group leader.

Second, I feel that science tends to tolerate social delinquents more so than other professions or businesses. Many PIs end up "successful" as measured by grant dollars, publications and citations, or named professorships, but some of these individuals are on the far right of the PIAQ spectrum. PIs are not normally rewarded for metrics that include being compassionate yet demanding mentors or for exhibiting sensitivity toward the diversity of gender, race, age, and family situations.

Your PI does indeed rock and I just wonder if he is just a fine human being who conducts himself in this way in all aspects of his life. Assholes tend to be assholes in all aspects of their lives - pay particularly attention when you are out to dinner with a prospective PI; how they treat the wait staff will give you some insight as to how they run their laboratories.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

I think there's a third phenotype: PIs who are jerks because they think they're demanding reasonable things and that continuing to demand, in the face of impediments, is MOTIVATING.

Also I agree completely with the lack of both training in and attention to management and dynamics.

Drugmonkey said...

I need a certain reagent for my experiments that is difficult to make. In fact, I spent a few months troubleshooting the protocol for making this reagent, and have only managed to make it correctly once. I will pat myself on the back here, because I am the ONLY person who has done this, to my knowledge.

Is it veritaserum or polyjuice potion you are making?

acmegirl said...

DM: I'm making an emerald green potion to protect my many horcruxes...

Jenny: I think it's this third phenptype that frightens me most! I do think, as Abel suggested, that my PI is just a decent human being who has made an effort to learn some effective management and motivation techniques. But each PI who is like this may be surrounded by others who are whispering in his/her ear, "So the data isn't coming as fast as you'd like? You need to beat them. Graduate students really respond well to the strap. That's how I got my 20 Science/Nature papers."

Anonymous said...

Not sure about the PI issues... I also think a lot of it comes from no repercussions to their poor behavior... even rewards (like the aforementioned 20 Nature papers...) for it

Oh, and I also get the wake up in a cold sweat nightmares about lab life... once had a vivid dream that I failed my PhD defense (still coming up) because the examiners gave me a practical exercise to do by the next morning and I couldn't remember how to do a western blot. So you're not alone on that front!