Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Semi-Adult

Children are selfish. They can't help it. They have not developed a sense of their place in the world. They also have not developed their moral reasoning to a level that would be acceptable in an adult. But somewhere in between the small child and the adult who is fully participating in society is a massive grey area. Many of the people you know probably fall in that grey area. They can't help it either. They just have some more growing up to do.

I don't presume to say that I myself have fully developed into an uber-adult; I don't always make choices based on what would serve the greater good. I can be selfish, too. And sometimes I don't even realize until it's too late. However, I sometimes find it annoying that many of the people I interact with on a daily basis are, being ten years younger, ten years behind me in this area of development. I will call these people semi-adults:

  • They complain openly about having to do their share of the grunt work required to keep the lab running smoothly instead of doing their REAL work.
  • They also complain openly when the grunt work doesn't get done. But they don't ever think of lifting a finger and just doing it, because they are TOO BUSY.
  • They say they don't have time to talk science (or anything else) unless they think you have information that might be useful to them (or they happen to feel like it). Of course, if you do (or they do), they have no problem whatsoever distracting YOU from whatever you are pipetting to try and get that information from you (or get that ego rub they can't do without).
  • Whatever anyone else is doing cannot possibly be as important as the semi-adult's WORK. Which is, by the way, much cooler than anything anyone else is doing.
  • When they are doing work on a multi-person, multi-paper project, they don't want to do things that will not eventually end up in the THEIR paper (the one on which they anticipate being a first author). Never mind if that holds up publication of another paper on which they will be a contributing author.
  • They make a big deal about how they can't POSSIBLY go to that talk everyone else is leaving for because they have so much to do.
  • Whatever challenges anyone else faces cannot be NEARLY as difficult as what the semi-adult has to overcome.

Hey, semi-adults - I know you can't help it. You're only in your early- to mid-twenties, and you have only just entered the adult world. But seriously, just stop it already and grow the fuck up! Everyone is working hard here. You don't have to act like a sanctimonious prick and screw everyone who has the misfortune of working with you in the process. As a public service, I am willing to spend some of MY precious time to set you straight. Every chance I get.

I will:
  • Make sure you are not overlooked when lab chores are assigned, even if you were too busy to make it to the meeting on time.
  • Remind you of your job if you forget to do it, since you are juggling so much these days.
  • Make sure I don't leave you out of the loop when discussing science or lab doings.
  • Mention, from time to time, that I, too, am doing research for my thesis. And yes, it's a pretty cool project that I am sometimes excited about.
  • Let you know how important the not-so-sexy stuff you need to get done is.
  • Not stop inviting you to go along with me to talks that might be interesting.
  • Occasionally invite you to take your head out of your ass and look around.


PhysioProf said...

I'm with you in general on this post.

Make sure you are not overlooked when lab chores are assigned, even if you were too busy to make it to the meeting on time.

Remind you of your job if you forget to do it, since you are juggling so much these days.

I would be careful about these two things. If you are not the PI, you can create a lot of resentment really fast if you start acting like you are management and bossing people around when it comes to doing scut work. Keep your head down, do your own shit, and only if someone else's irresponsibility is interfering with your ability to perform your own experiments, take it up with the PI or lab manager (if there is one).

Post-docs and grad students who become known as officious intermeddlers will be deeply despised. I have not seen many of these people end up doing well.

There has to be a very careful balance between being engaged in the common life of the lab, and minding your own business.

Rebecca said...

Awesome post! I know just how you feel. Unfortunately, some of these semi-adults never grow up. I know more than a few of them at my workplace. :(

Abel Pharmboy said...

I, too, agree with much of your post as well as with the caveats and cautions of physioprof. I certainly understand the frustration of these immature, egocentric martyrs and like the idea of "occasionally invit[ing] [them] to take [their] head out of [their] ass and look around."

I know how much it sucks to be there at 11 pm and find that plates aren't poured, someone used the last of the TBE, acrylamide, etc. or that parts are missing for the gel apparatus. But I also agree with working within the PI/lab manager system unless you are specifically charged with policing the juvenile and inconsiderate behavior or if people have defined common tasks for which they have dropped the ball. ("Dude, I was here in the middle of the night after I got my kids to sleep and you left me with no [ ] buffer.")

When I was PI of a larger group, I started each lab meeting with the question of how the lab was running, were things getting ordered, were people leaving common areas/equipment a mess, etc. I cultivated this rant session as a time where people could voice complaints and gently rib each other where I could then intervene and ask how we should solve this issue together. That way people held their major complaints for the group environment rather than have interpersonal battles royal in the lab since they knew they could voice their issues at our weekly gathering. When any repeat offenders came to my attention, I would deal with the issues myself.

As far as being interrupted with their issues of supreme importance while you are on well shit...8J...shit! shit! can always firmly but calmly tell them that you really must concentrate and we can talk later. Yes, they shouldn't have to be told that but since you appear to have experience working with children, they sometimes have to be dealt with similarly: firmly, calmly, and consistently.

Not sure how your PI does it but I'd offer the same sentiment to focus on your work as best you can and vent here on the blog, then take advantage of mechanisms within your group to fix things without drawing too much energy-sucking ire your way.

Abel Pharmboy said...

P.S. Great to see a post from you!

BugDoc said...

Next time a semi-adult interrupts you in the middle of pipetting, try just saying "Cone of Silence!!!" loudly and then profoundly ignoring them. This also works for small children.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

I sympathize about the lab-stuff issues. The problem is that in most labs, other people's failure to do something really does affect the rest of the lab--who used up the sodium chloride without ordering more, for chrissakes?? A really good lab manager will prevent many of these crises, but lab managers that good (or lab managers, period) are few and far between.

I have no problem telling people off if they leave the tool bench a disaster zone for > 24 hours, for example. PhysioProf tells you to take it to the PI--I have to disagree. I would rather have the reputation as a bossy biyatch (and I do!) than the reputation of a tattling whiner. (Obvious exclusions for Really Important Stuff like animal neglect etc.)

acmegirl said...

Physioprof and Abel, I can see where you guys are coming from. However, my PI does not like to get involved in interpersonal dynamics. He prefers us to handle issues ourselves, like adults. Which I think is a laudable goal, because I'm sure he has better things to do than to remind people to autoclave pipette tips and replace important supplies when they are used up. Occasionally things get raised in group meeting, and the solution is to re-allocate jobs and encourage people to "communicate". Interestingly, I have been thanked (in private) for ripping someone a new one for bad lab behavior - somebody has to do it, and not everyone has the stomach for it. And yes, I save my agro for the stuff that affects my work, and let the boss man know if it's Really Important.

Mrs Whatsit said... You just described someone I work with to a T! On a personal level, she is really quite a nice person, but in the lab, sometimes I just want to wring her neck! ARGH! And yes, she is much younger than me.

My boss is like your boss, he doesn't want to get involved with this sort of random shit and there's no lab manager to do it, either. Unfortunately, sometimes the resentment builds in the lab until things really start becoming dysfunctional.

K said...

Wait, are you working in my lab? Only I'm the only advanced student and I end up spending about 80% of my lab time dealing with issues that arise with undergraduates not doing their part. It is refreshing to find someone else dealing with the same issues.

Southern Grad Girl said...

While I am in the age range of these semi-adults, I also find this type of behavior frustrating (and I'd never consider myself one, of course...who would?). I do some combination of addressing it myself and getting my boss to do it. My PI uses the "food offense" method of dealing with it and has a time at the beginning of lab meeting to mention these things. Link (p3) describes the idea.

Just found your blog, btw, and look forward to reading your archives. Enjoyed this post!

acmegirl said...

southern grad girl,

I love, LOVE the "food offense" method! I think I might try to find a way to introduce that!

CAE said...

I once brought up this kind of behaviour at a big lab meeting, since I wasn't absolutely certain who to approach and our PI had no patience for people who couldn't sort out their own problems. The person who I was 99% sure was using stuff without re-ordering had the nerve to tell me to calm down. And then she patted me on the head. Seriously. She didn't own up to causing any of the problems I mentioned, and things never got any better...

drdrA said...

Every lab I have ever worked in had a representative from the poor lab citizens. Many of the bosses that I have had were from the no-management/oversight/or expectations school of management. These two do not mix, and make the work environment less productive for everyone.

Do you really want your best postdoc making the TBE, when someone continuously uses it up???
Its just stupid for the PI not to manage this situation and to let people work it out like 'adults'.

NeuroStudent said...

Yeah...and they don't even have to be in that age range...

we have a second-year student (SYS) in the lab (I'll be defending in the foreseeable future) who is at least 4 years older than me--therefore, over 30 (with "tons" of research experience--and SYS likes to tell everyone how much research experience they have) who can't seem to remember to screw the lids back onto the chemicals--not such a problem for non-dangerous chemicals (although annoying as shit--I'm ordering my own set of anything humidity will screw with), but I'm worried that if SYS ever does start working with something that could harm us SYS will do the same damn thing (and yes, I've asked SYS politely to please put the lids back on properly and SYS doesn't think it matters and my PI doesn't deal with lab issues, but SYS will only listen to PI, so I'm just hoping to graduate before SYS actually works with anything dangerous).

of course, it's not the only thing that's an issue---it seems to be an overall mindset that SYS has of being the only one in lab when, in fact, there are other people trying to run experiments too.

Professor in Training said...

It's like your actually in either of my two labs, particularly the one with the lab princess) in residence!

Things actually got to the point in one of my labs last summer that, in my role as the supposed "senior postdoc", I had to call a "lab meeting" and run through several dos and don'ts of the lab ... including some very serious safety breaches (seriously, using mercaptoethanol on the bench anyone???), restocking common-use chemicals and consumables and even things like leaving KimWipes on the floor (the response to the latter was "isn't it the housekeeper's job to clean those up?"). I even had to lecture these "adults" on lab etiquette, particularly how it was very bad form to invade other people's bench space uninvited (one postdoc became known as Dr Metastases about a month after she started in the lab!).

There was no point in asking that particular mentor for help as he is a clinician and doesn't have a clue about how a basic science labs runs.

Grrrrr. I wish that the above had been a joke, but alas, it was not. Seriously, I don't get paid enough for this crap.

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