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elemosynarical

undergrad grunt work?

12 posts in this topic

Posted (edited)

so the situation is that I'm in an immunology lab right now, so far I've only contributed around 20 hours, 
I'm a 4th year undergrad doing a double major in biology and psychology
but all that they've had me to do is empty out biozardous trash cans that contain blood samples and potentially sharp objects as well...
it takes me 2 hours to empty out everyone's trash cans and obviously i feel like i'm worth a piece of trash right now

not to mention I've had to wipe down and clean their equipment and inventory

I've never really had research experience in biology before
why all this grunt work though? i know... persistence, persistence... but they should have me start on simple experimental things, no?

this is making me feel that biology is not what I want to pursue in grad school, if volunteering is gonna be like this ALL the time...
not to mention, i'm starting to lean towards psychology, because as a psychology research assistant, I've never had to empty out trash cans

so far, I've had 2 work-study positions for psychology but all I can get for biology is  volunteering role where I'm the trashman

is this normal to be suffering so much? not to mention, I'm extremely misophobic to the point of extreme OCD, so having to dispose of biozardous waste every time I'm in the lab sickens me
I get they are just testing me to see how resilient I am, but it feels like a subtle form of self-degradation and humiliation

Edited by elemosynarical

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Well, you should probably talk about your responsibilities and potential for future professional development with your PI or whoever is in charge of you. However, I think you are reading a whole lot more into this than it is. Grunt work, yes. Degradation and humiliation, most likely not, and certainly not simply because they ask the most junior member of the lab to do the things they don't want to. You've only just started your training, so I'm not terribly surprised that no one has put you in charge of anything too important yet. That said, you should get more out of your experience than just emptying the trash, so just have a conversation with someone about the long-term prospects of your being in the lab. 

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Just going to add, someone has to do it. 

You say you've put in less than 20 hours. For my undergrads, that's barely enough time to get though ruined training, much less do much actual lab work. Starting on trash and disinfecting surfaces rather than working with reagents that are both dangerous and cost thousands of dollars isn't that uncommon. 

Everyone has to pitch in to do grunt work, and when you're note yet able to contribute in other areas, you're likely going to get a larger level of grunt work. 

I'm faculty and I still do all the things you're complaining about, fwiw. 

If after a few weeks or a month your not getting into anything more interesting, perhaps rethink it?

You might also consider attitude. Your post here comes across like they should be going out of their way to convince you that immunology is more interesting, so you don't switch to psych research. If they detect that, then it's less likely they'll want to invest time training you when you're likely to jump ship. And if after 20 hours (half a week for my students) you're already thinking about leaving, It doesn't come across like you were that committed to it in the first place.

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4 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

Well, you should probably talk about your responsibilities and potential for future professional development with your PI or whoever is in charge of you. However, I think you are reading a whole lot more into this than it is. Grunt work, yes. Degradation and humiliation, most likely not, and certainly not simply because they ask the most junior member of the lab to do the things they don't want to. You've only just started your training, so I'm not terribly surprised that no one has put you in charge of anything too important yet. That said, you should get more out of your experience than just emptying the trash, so just have a conversation with someone about the long-term prospects of your being in the lab. 

i guess i don't wanna be one of those people that always kisses people's asses in order to move up the ranks
doesn't every supervisor know that undergrads wanna actually take part in valuable stuff?
 

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4 hours ago, Eigen said:

Just going to add, someone has to do it. 

You say you've put in less than 20 hours. For my undergrads, that's barely enough time to get though ruined training, much less do much actual lab work. Starting on trash and disinfecting surfaces rather than working with reagents that are both dangerous and cost thousands of dollars isn't that uncommon. 

Everyone has to pitch in to do grunt work, and when you're note yet able to contribute in other areas, you're likely going to get a larger level of grunt work. 

I'm faculty and I still do all the things you're complaining about, fwiw. 

If after a few weeks or a month your not getting into anything more interesting, perhaps rethink it?

You might also consider attitude. Your post here comes across like they should be going out of their way to convince you that immunology is more interesting, so you don't switch to psych research. If they detect that, then it's less likely they'll want to invest time training you when you're likely to jump ship. And if after 20 hours (half a week for my students) you're already thinking about leaving, It doesn't come across like you were that committed to it in the first place.

i legitimately find immunology interesting, but the only thing i'm taking part in right now is being trashman
i get it everyone has to pitch in to do the grunt work, but there's another RA who's not doing much grunt work at all, though I only once a week see the other RA, and it comes off as nepotism

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Have been assigned to a daily supervisor yet? Or have you spoken with the PI about your role in the lab? It could be that there was a misunderstanding somewhere as to what your desired role in lab is. Either way, it is on you to (respectfully) advocate for what you want. If you want a project, a timetable for when you will get started on one is definitely something to discuss with the PI.

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8 hours ago, elemosynarical said:

i legitimately find immunology interesting, but the only thing i'm taking part in right now is being trashman
i get it everyone has to pitch in to do the grunt work, but there's another RA who's not doing much grunt work at all, though I only once a week see the other RA, and it comes off as nepotism

Did the other RA start the same time as you? Do you have the same experience they do? Are you both working the same number of hours per week?

Complaining about nepotism (which would imply they're related to the supervisor) without any indication of their background comes across poorly. And again, you've been working for less than a week of full time work. 

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8 hours ago, elemosynarical said:

i guess i don't wanna be one of those people that always kisses people's asses in order to move up the ranks
doesn't every supervisor know that undergrads wanna actually take part in valuable stuff?
 

The conversation would be for you, not them. You've only just begun but you've already developed some very strong feelings about what goes on in this lab. A conversation with someone in charge might help you get some perspective on the training process that they perhaps didn't do a good job sharing with you at the outset. As others have said, you've only been there what amounts to less than a week full-time, so it's not at all surprising that you haven't been assigned any interesting duties yet. But it might help you to understand what the longer-term plans are, so you understand why you're being asked to do grunt work now. (Though frankly I think it's pretty clear, and I think that your negative attitude, comparisons with another RA that you know nothing about, and general approach to things, aren't something that this lab can or should be responsible for changing. I hope you're seeing someone for that, it's not good for you or anyone around you.)

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On 6/2/2017 at 10:24 PM, elemosynarical said:

so the situation is that I'm in an immunology lab right now, so far I've only contributed around 20 hours, 
I'm a 4th year undergrad doing a double major in biology and psychology
but all that they've had me to do is empty out biozardous trash cans that contain blood samples and potentially sharp objects as well...
it takes me 2 hours to empty out everyone's trash cans and obviously i feel like i'm worth a piece of trash right now

not to mention I've had to wipe down and clean their equipment and inventory

I've never really had research experience in biology before
why all this grunt work though? i know... persistence, persistence... but they should have me start on simple experimental things, no?

this is making me feel that biology is not what I want to pursue in grad school, if volunteering is gonna be like this ALL the time...
not to mention, i'm starting to lean towards psychology, because as a psychology research assistant, I've never had to empty out trash cans

so far, I've had 2 work-study positions for psychology but all I can get for biology is  volunteering role where I'm the trashman

is this normal to be suffering so much? not to mention, I'm extremely misophobic to the point of extreme OCD, so having to dispose of biozardous waste every time I'm in the lab sickens me
I get they are just testing me to see how resilient I am, but it feels like a subtle form of self-degradation and humiliation

 
 

I've had several undergrads (and high school students) come through the labs I've been a part of, and their experience are all similar to what I experienced when I started out. When I started as an undergrad researcher, I started doing things just as you are... taking out biohazard trash, cleaning benches, maintaining equipment. Then I moved on to handling and weaning the mice, genotyping, etc, then to sterile techniques for mammalian cell culture, and finally I started my own projects, but that took about 6 months. They cannot (and should not) let you start contributing to their expensive experiments until they know you've learned enough to do the experiment appropriately. This is far different than most psychology research studies, and you have to build a skillset for this.

No matter what people say, doing experiments in the biology lab is not the simple step-by-step that it is in your classes. You have to put in quite a bit of time to learn how things in the lab work and what needs to go into an experiment. Remember that their experiments are going to be funded by grants. That funding is limited and experiments are expensive. In addition, wouldn't you hate to generate some "data" that derailed the direction of the lab only to find that it was wrong later because you didn't do it correctly? I've seen this happen, and it isn't pretty! It takes a lot of experience with seemingly menial things to do well in the lab. Cleaning up biohazard trash means you're less likely to contaminate yourself with a virus, etc when you're doing a real experiment. You might spend a couple weeks pouring gels for western blots for people in the lab to use, which seems menial, but now you have a valuable skill that is one of the most important parts of a protocol that you likely won't mess up when you get to run a real experiment.

Also, 20 hours is nearly nothing. That's the minimum amount my current PI allows for time for undergraduates in the lab. If they can't be in at least 20 hours a week, they're not going to get to join the lab because they won't ever be able to get anything meaningful done except for what you call, "grunt work." Was your 20 hours in a single week? If you've only alloted 5-7 hours to lab a week, you're only going to get grunt work. This is because experiments take a lot of time! A western blot takes about 6 hours the first day and 4 hours the second day with some incubations in between. That doesn't count the 3 hours it takes to prep protein for the blot, or the 6 hours I spent dissecting mice to get the tissues for the experiment, or the 2 hours a day I spent treating mice for two weeks before the dissection. That's just one experiment. A typical grad student has 3-4 of these going on at a time while also doing data analysis on the previous ones. In our lab, we expect an experienced undergrad to handle one of these on their own (with guidance from a grad student). However, we don't let them do an experiment like that right out of the gate. They have to do exactly what you're doing first so they can show that they're committed, but most importantly that they're careful and they can follow direction. Once they show that they can do this, I start them with small, bacterial cloning experiments for things we need in the lab. If they do a good job, they get to move up to something more exciting. I have a high school student, now, who moved up to doing mouse experiments in about 2 months, and she's an author on my last paper.

Don't be so negative. I would not call what you're doing suffering at all; in fact, I think it is quite nice of them to have you handling biohazard trash rather than starting with gross dissection (or worse, poop processing). If you're disgusted by biohazard trash, which should be nicely bagged or boxed up so you just have to close it and autoclave it, then I would question how well you will be able to handle the real experimental work. Mice are gross, and if you're not working with those, you'll be working with human samples, bacteria, viruses, or cell llines, which can also be quite stinky and gross. You need to evaluate if you're going to be able to deal with these things.

Finally, your reasoning for being in the lab might affect what you get to do. If we get someone that is just fleshing out their resume for med school, it is usually obvious even if they don't tell us; they're usually not as committed to being in the lab when we need them and don't do A+ work on what we assign them to do. Because of this, they don't do as well with the grunt work, and usually get a smaller project, if any. However, if a student wants to go to grad school or is genuinely interested in research, they're also usually willing to be in lab a little more and they really put in the effort. Those are the students that get the cool projects because they ask for things to do, they ask questions about the research, they raise their hand in lab meeting, they read papers, etc. If something goes wrong with their experiment, these are the students that come up to you and say, "Well, this didn't work, but here are the things that could have gone wrong and here's how I want to troubleshoot it." If that's the kind of project you're wanting, you need to be that kind of student.

If you're still concerned, send me a message. I'd be happy to talk more with you about this. You should also talk to the faculty member in charge of your lab, but don't be disappointed if they tell you everything we've just told you.

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I understand that the experiences described above are typical for some biology labs and personal experiences may differ but I just wanted to add my 2 cents. When I started out doing research it was very different. I started in a lab that was just starting and thus got started on the ground floor. My grad student mentor spent 3 hours with me a night running through basic techniques and explaining the experiments and did everything with me side-by-side so that we could be both productive and he could monitor my skills. This went on for about a month until he trusted me completely and started giving me a list of tasks to accomplish on my own time instead of having to supervise. And it took another few months before I started developing my own experiments. I will say that I had the lucky pleasure of being paired up with a grad student that really cared and purposely told me that he wanted me to learn.

What I mean to say from this is that there is always grunt work to be done. I put out the trash, scrubbed tabletops, etc. but depending on the culture of the lab everyone may do their part or they may have one designated person to do it (perhaps like in your case). For us, the lab started small and the first couple of grad students were pretty conscious about creating a good lab culture so even as the lab is now up to 20+ people we still take care to do our own parts and share duties. I think it's worth identifying who your direct supervisor/mentor is and talking to them about it directly. Make sure you're both on the same page. 

I was told by other grad students in my group that their experiences as undergrads were totally different; they scrubbed dishes and took out trash fro two years before doing real experiments (at UChicago; I'm generalizing here but I assume they were probably not terrible students). It really depends from case to case but in this case you may need to advocate for yourself. I don't blame you for feeling that way and I think some people have been a little harsh about the "negative attitude"; it's hard to know what to expect when it's your first time in a biology lab. It may be that the other RA has a bit more experience on their resume than you do but I would say you should stand up for yourself here. Perhaps offering to do grunt work and on top of that making time to learn biology techniques will sit better with them and they'll see that you really want to learn the science as well. 

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I think standing up for yourself about grunt work is important, but time is a factor. 

If you've put in several full time weeks and are still doing grunt work, that's a problem (imo). If you've been there 1 or 2 days? Not so much of a problem. 20 hours of work is really quite little for a new undergrad in a lab, and unless I was really sure that student was reliable and passionate, I wouldn't start putting a ton of time into training them until I was reasonably sure they were going to stick it out. 

If a student came to me within the first week and was upset about not getting to do anything "important" yet, they likely wouldn't be staying in the lab. 

A lot of this (from my perspective as a PI) also depends on what work the student is putting in outside of the lab. A student that has read all my papers, and all the papers those cited, and is really going above and beyond to learn the basis behind what we do will get given a "good" project and more mentoring time than one that's showing up less and only doing what is directly given to them to learn.

In your case, CavityQED, it seems like the grad student working with you was relatively sure you were going to be sticking around for a little while, and you were obviously willing to put in very regular hours to learn. If you consider all of those hours the grad student was working with you as time they weren't going to be able to produce results for their dissertation, it's a lot of time devoted to training you, specifically. If there was any question of your dedication to the lab (and, say, a good chance you weren't going to stay more than a few months), then spending over a month training you would have been a lot of lost time relative to what you might (eventually) produce. Ideally, labs only take on students that are in your situation, and then spend the time training them. But sometimes there's a borderline case, and seeing how well they can do basic maintenance tasks is a way to have them (a) free up graduate student hours that can then be spent training them in a few weeks, and (b) see if they're likely to stick around for the long haul. 

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On 6/2/2017 at 11:24 PM, elemosynarical said:


but all that they've had me to do is empty out biozardous trash cans that contain blood samples and potentially sharp objects as well...
it takes me 2 hours to empty out everyone's trash cans and obviously i feel like i'm worth a piece of trash right now
 

In my experience the best way to start doing meaningful experiments is to finish the grunt work as quickly as possible. It shouldn't be taking 2 hours to empty biohazard bins. If you want to get an experiment, finish all the housekeeping tasks and then when you have nothing to do start asking other people in the lab if there's anything you can help with. Everyone in a lab usually has too much work to deal with so if you are consistently sitting around because you have finished your work, someone will find you an experiment to do. If you finish all your work and still no one is giving you any experiments or at least training you on more meaningful tasks, then I would start looking for a different lab. 

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