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Oh, hey, there! Questioning my existence

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Hi all. This is my first post. I hate being one of those guys who registers to ask the big questions, but I just found your forum and would love to become a regular contributor! I was hoping someone might be able to hear me out about some woes of mine.

I have an advisor who is a nice guy and who is not outwardly a bully or a jerk or anything like that. He doesn't ask for personal errands or sabotage my work or do anything with malice in his heart, so far as I can tell. I like him as a person, but inside the lab I am feeling kind of hollowed out and torn between interests.

Basically, my dedication to the craft of research is shaken these days. I just don't like DOING it that much. Last week I had a conversation with my boss that solidifed that for me but also created a lot of confusion in my mind.

We had a relatively routine one-on-one meeting where we got into the usual discussion about results and moving forward, and he proposed I do an experiment that I did not personally feel would yield a significant result (it would have meant weeks of work to do nothing more than confirm or deny already-published results on my boss's hunch that it simply was wrong because it did not agree with his assumptions). This led to him telling me a lot of peripheral things and his perspective on a lot of issues, which I will detail.

1) He works in the lab all the time, far more than any other professor. Works 7 days a week, at least 8 hours a day IN LAB. The work ethic is admirable but has grown disconcerting to me, as it feels like I have a gargoyle watching my every move. He's no a totalitarian and usually kinda sticks to his own stuff. At any rate, he told me that the reason he has to work so hard in lab is because he cannot count on his students (that would be my lab partner and me, both of us PhD students) to get anything done. Specifically, neither my career nor his can survive if all I produce is one low-impact publication to graduate with a PhD.

2) He told me there was something lacking in my enthusiasm, citing a specific example in which he gave me some samples to run on a gel and immunoblot. He didn't tell me what they were or what they were for, and the tubes were simply numbered 1-6. When I ran it, it didn't stain well, so I did not pursue it further since I was busy working on other things and didn't care about that result in particular. He said that if it were him he would have rerun the samples immediately to figure out the problem.

3) He told me I read too much, spending too much time on the computer and not enough at the bench. Let me clarify that he meant I read too many science papers. Specifically, he said I act more like a professor and not enough like a student because I am reading all the time, and this is going to confuse me and prevent me from making progress in labwork.

Now, you might read those things and think "This kid's just a jerk. His boss is right in this case! Who does this student think he is criticizing his boss?" I agree with you. I am posting straight-up facts as best I can without spin (again, as best I can). These are generally admirable qualities for a worker to have. It's just that it's mired with other mixed signals.

Most important is that my boss is incompetent in a lot of areas. He tells me not to find out protein concentrations before loading samples, generally shirks teaching about or bothering to think about the proper controls for experiments, and criticizes my experimental designs if they are not exactly as he would have designed them (a specific example: I ran one experiment in triplicate because I was getting a lot of variability in an assay I was running, and when my boss saw the three experiments on my film instead of one, he criticized me heavily and said I had wasted reagents; I asked other professors casually what experiment they would have set up and was told that the way I did it was exactly what they would have done). He does not seem to have a grasp on literature post-2003 or so. On the aforementioned experiment that he proposed in which I saw little potential benefit, I showed him a paper basically proving my hypothesis on the matter, and he looked at one of the blots and said "That band is overexposed. Also, one paper is not enough, so go find another," essentially denouncing the paper based on his preconceived conclusions about what is going on.

There are other professors who do not think highly of my boss, a fact that I ascertained after joining. I have recently been told face-to-face bruntly that he is the one of the worst scientists ever met, which struck me a bit. My boss is not THAT bad. He's very good at a lot of things. It's just that when he is out of his element he does not know how to approach it and so proposes experiments that draw a lot of questions from people who have more experience.

Now, I know I am not blameless in my woes. Our frank conversation got me thinking about the process of PhD education in general. What am I in it for? Why am I bothering? If I dislike my lab, why wouldn't I just find a new one?

That last one is the only easy question, in my mind. I have a fellowship to study my dissertation project that funds well and is somewhat prestigious. I have no idea what I would do if I wanted to leave my current lab, as nobody else studies that. In addition, I feel personally invested in my lab partner. She basically joined us at my recommendation (she would not be here if she had not talked to me because my boss does not make give good lectures, which is usually where he is first encountered). I am also in my fourth year and have committed a lot of effort to my projects, and we are close to publishing some things. Unfortunately, none of it is on my main project. We've gotten tangled up in side projects for years now, and so my report to the funding agency is going to be rather sparse, something which I fear mightily.

Honestly, that is my main issue with the boss right now. I feel like he doesn't have my back. He antagonizes any experiment I propose if it is not something he thought up or if I do not have every single detail about why I am doing it and what will happen down pat. I have reports and meetings coming up that I am not very well aware of, and he has made no effort to educate himself, either. I feel like I am proceeding through my education more or less alone, the administrative part of it, at least. I feel like scientifically I am also feel impeded by his input on scientific matters, which I tried to convey but obviously cannot fully in this short communication.

I am also angry with myself because I can put more into lab. I only spend around 50 hours a week in there and don't get enough done. If I am better-focused, I can accomplish more. That I have been trying to fix recently, with better planning and more strategic approaches, and I feel I am personally moving in the right direction. All I can do is move forward, right? I guess in the end I appreciate the chance to vent in a safe environment where I might actually get some advice from knowledgeable people, too. I appreciate the time you, the reader, have taken to hear out my troubles. Surely, there are a lot of details missing in my story and may give an unintended impression of myself or my boss. I would be happy to clarify anything, and I would be elated to hear any advice you guys might have for me!

In the meantime, I hope to be able to make a significant contribution to the forum! Have a nice day!

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i think that every student in the "applying" sections of these forums should read your post. this, to me, sounds like a normal advising situation. normal. not good, not ideal, not as it should be, but rather, as it tends to be.

i'm not a science student, but i'll try to break down what i understand to be the core of your conflict:

you are not running his experiments as he would like, or giving up on them when they're not panning out, because (as you yourself admitted) you don't really care about the results. you don't see the point in doing them, so why spend hours tinkering with them if they're not working? a fair decision for a professor to make about his/her own work, but maybe not a fair one for a PhD student to make about a professor's work.

at the same time, as you attempt to progress in your own research, you're criticized for your approach. running an experiment three times, instead of once, on a project you care about (but one that your advisor does not), is a completely legitimate thing for you to do. it's your work, not his, and you need to get it done properly, not him. in that instance, he was wrong to criticize you for being thorough in your experiment.

in essence, it sounds like neither of you are particularly invested in each other. not him in your work (which is a big problem, objectively speaking), and not you in his (which he sees as a big problem, which makes it a big problem).

if you weren't so far along in your program, i'd tell you to consider switching labs or getting a co-advisor. now, you're so far along that to even get a co-advisor will seem antagonistic to your current advisor. what you CAN do (and i recommend you do), however, is get a MENTOR. find a professor in your department whose career trajectory you wish to emulate. find someone you respect, whose work ethic you admire, who approaches your discipline with the same ethics and sense of importance that you do. find that person and go talk to him or her. tell this person that you're really happy with the work you're doing with your advisor (even if it's not true), but that you value this person's input on the professional and administrative aspects of your field. ask him or her who to network with other scientists. how to find the time to make progress on your research project, not some tangent of it, but the real project. and, after a couple meetings of building rapport with this prof, then approach your dilemma regarding your working relationship with your advisor. DON'T frame it as wanting to leave (because, at this point, you shouldn't), but ask for advice on how to improve your work with your advisor. how should you go about prioritizing your own research experiments without dismissing your advisor's needs? when should you defend your intellectual position and when should you acknowledge that you're still learning and perhaps your advisor has something to teach you?

people often mistake advisors for mentors. many wish (and sometimes get) an advisor that also acts as a mentor, showing a student how to get through grad school, how to deal with other professors and students, etc. while your relationship with your advisor sounds absolutely less than ideal, that's on both sides of the equation, not just yours. neither of you see each other as ideal. seek out a mentor you can trust and ask for advice on how to improve that situation for BOTH you and your advisor.

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I think by far the most worrying thing is that your PI doesn't seem to have a good reputation. Is he tenured?

It's.... unusual for a PI to only have two PhD students and no post-docs in the lab sciences, especially a young PI. It also screams of poor time management to me that he's *not* reading and writing more, but is instead spending so much time in the lab. It's something that might be passable the first year or two out of a post-doc when you're really trying to get your lab to take off, but a PI will usually spend the balance of their time reading, planning experiments, and writing grants, not at the bench.

Mostly, it just seems like your work style doesn't mesh with that of your PI, which is something I try to repeat often on these boards- you need to mesh working styles with your PI. Some PIs seem to view grad students as extra appendages (as yours does) and just want them to run lots of experiments without really explaining why. Others really want to see independent researchers that they can pretty much let work on their own- it seems like you'd prefer the latter style, but are in the former's lab.

As with StrangeLight, if you weren't so far along, I'd recommend that you try to switch labs- not so much because of your lab environment, but if your PI has as bad of a reputation as a scientist as you've portrayed, he's not going to be the best PI to be coming from going on the search for post-docs, etc.

Strangelight: In the lab sciences, your advisor really *is* supposed to be a mentor. They have much tighter control over every aspect of your graduate education, and usually only have a few students under them to work with. It's not always the case, and you can mitigate it by finding other faculty to work with and go to with questions- but your primary mentor is supposed to be your PI.

Edited by Eigen
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Unlike StrangeLight, I don't consider your advisor "normal" by any stretch of the imagination.

You should be reading a fair amount of the literature. A good advisor would recommend this.

He shouldn't be hanging over your shoulder all of the time--you are supposed to be learning to work independently, which means there will be some inevitable struggling while you figure out how to make things work properly...if you do not progress as fast as he likes (or you like), tough. That is part of research. (Both of my research advisors have said as much to me!)

Is your funding from a grant he obtained or do you have a fellowship? I'm not sure I can speak to the rest of your situation without knowing this.

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Everyone, I have been thinking a lot lately and have been able to coalesce my thoughts a little more.

We've started having weekly progress meetings (after 3 years, yes), and they have all been contentious. Yesterday's was the worst of them all. My fellowship calls for completion of "Task 1, Task 2, etc." in some order which we nearly came up with in an arbitrary order, at least for the early parts. Now my report on the progress of these tasks is due next month, but since we have been working on two other publications, the fellowship (also my dissertation) project was put on hold. Now, I agree that this lack of progress ultimately boils down to a failing on my end, and I will see the brunt of the bad things that result.

Now I'm trying to move forward with it on schedule, which means buying peptides based on mutations we make in a protein. The problem is that the total quote for these peptides was 1500$, which is no small bill. He said he would not buy them, citing that the statement of work does not say we're going to purchase them all and that we could not afford them all. This is just unacceptable to me, since it was agreed-upon at the outset of the application, and since I procured the fellowship I am saving 40,000$ per year on his grants and have no say in any decisions based on purchasing. Later in the conversation he said it was not a money issue, it was that I had not completed the first task, and as such he said he needs to impose now that he has given me freedom for three years and basically allowed me to do whatever I want, citing the fact that we have not published this paper we've been working on since mid-2010. The money issue, he said, is a line I am not to cross.

He said his perception and expectation of me was high when we met and has since fallen off the map due to my lack of enthusiasm. He has told me several times that when he was a graduate student he managed to publish a JBC paper in his first 18 months, and the fact that I have not essentially boils down to my failure as a student. Certainly, I cannot defend myself in this regard. I do NOT have said publication.

After that he was telling me that if he was working on this paper he had given me, he would have had it published by now, which rendered me flabbergasted. Obviously, the research is hush-hush in the open forum since we don't want to get scooped, but suffice to say the initial observation by mentor found has been published before, and he keeps hammering the point to me like it has not been. So I have tried to take the project in a direction that is novel, of course asking other professors for advice and direction in that regard. I feel it is moving forward, but it is very slow. The problem, I have come to feel, boils down to my advisor's lack of knowledge in the field, though I can't say for sure. I don't watch him like a hawk to make sure HE'S reading, but he makes it obvious that with respect to this paper we're trying to put out, I have put in a lot more effort to reading than he (the evidence being that I'm the one showing him 7-year-old experiments and decade-old papers that would have saved us a lot of work had I known about them sooner).

Another issue seems to be that he doesn't trust the literature if it goes against his assumptions about a problem. If it seems odd, we have to go down a time-consuming, challenging, confirmatory path of research instead of just trusting that the previous researchers did the experiment correctly. I can agree with this line of thought that all experiments should be independently verified, but suddenly we're in fast mode, and this feels like a waste of effort. He does the same thing with my lab's data. My lab partner has repeated the same experiments over and over (n of something like 7 by now) because her results don't line up with the initial observations the boss got. Her's are reproducible, and his are not. Her's are still wrong, it's just that she hasn't gotten it yet.

I apologize for the long rants. I just need some advice from someone who understands this kind of life. Grad school is not supposed to be easy, I realize, but a good ear would be nice. I can't quit at this stage, and my obligations to the fellowship and my department preclude me from switching labs. What would your advice be given this difficulty? What can I do to press forward in a useful manner?

Edited by Deadally
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Deadally, it seems like there are two separate issues: 1) the fellowship and your progress; and, 2) your relationship with your advisor. Now, I'm not in the sciences so take all of this with a grain of salt.

Re #1: The progress reports are not a huge deal. No one is going to cut off your funding if you haven't done everything you said you would have done by that point. People know that things go wrong with research, that projects morph, etc. That said, you need to make some progress so you can demonstrate that you're not just wasting away someone's money.

Re #2: To me, it sounds like you're in a bad situation in that you're unhappy and don't see a way to meet your advisor's expectations. But, all is not lost! I think you need to communicate more clearly with your advisor, including in these weekly progress meetings. Here are some ideas, based on things people I know have done.

1. Before the meeting, set an agenda via email. With that agenda, you could include a summary of what you've done and what you expect to be doing in the upcoming week/month/semester. A short, bulleted list would work, with citations (and brief summaries of the main point of what you're citing) to support your course of action. This should help keep meetings on the topic at hand (what you're doing) rather than getting sidetracked into a conversation about what your advisor thought you would do.

2. Pay for the peptides you need out of your research funding. Sure, it's a sacrifice but the rest of grad school is too.

3. If there really is a problem with your advisor not reading the literature, why don't you stop spending all your time reading, finish the article, and submit it? I say this because, if the lit is really a problem, the article will either get rejected or get R&R with the reviewers saying that. Maybe hearing it from his peers will help your advisor understand.

If you have independent funding, I don't understand why you couldn't join another lab by framing it as moving to a place where your research is a better fit...

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Thanks for the advice, SuperMod.

Unfortunately, my fellowship basically relieves my boss's grant of personnel costs for 3 years and provides a travel allowance. The money for that would have to come out of my pocket, and with the wages I make it is simply not possible to spend 1500$.

The project for which I am funded is definitely tailored to the current lab I am in. I can think of no PI who would be interested AND has funding to pursue it AND would want to deal with the politics that ensue from me doing something like that.

I like your other pieces of advice. I should work to improve my communicativity. Submitting the paper might be useful, too. The problem there is that the direction he wants to take it doesn't seem to be meshing with where I would like to take it. My perception of that situation is that he thinks he's treading new ground and is establishing something very interesting, when in fact the "big finding" will not be surprising to anybody who follows the literature closely. Therefore my focus on finding something truly novel is as unbiased a way as possible does not really gain much traction and ends up meeting the aforementioned friction of questions.

I am moving to change myself more than anything so this paper can go out (hopefully), and I can move on from that.

Thank you!

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my monthly paycheck is less than the cost of your peptides. put it on a credit card. pay it off slowly, even if it's only $50 at a time. i mean, if you NEED this for your research, and your advisor WON'T pay, you'll just have to make that sacrifice. credit cards are for emergencies, and this sure sounds like one to me.

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