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bsharpe269

Bad First Rotation - Advice?

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I am struggling with my first rotation as a PhD student. I am coming in with a masters degree and had a terrific lab experience during my masters. I had a hands off yet supportive PI. There were weekly meetings scheduled (that were canceled about half of the time) and otherwise, I never saw him. He let me work how/when I wanted which was great and enabled me to do terrific work. I chose to work way more than was expected and since it was never forced and there was so little pressure, it never actually felt like work. I got multiple papers (2 first author) in great journals and excelled in the environment.

In my first rotation, I am having such a different experience. The PI is always around. He isn't "monitoring" when we are in lab but he definitely notices. This makes me feel like I should be in lab longer hours then I want to. I do computational work and am used to being able to mix up my work environment. Since I have very bad ADHD, this is actually important to me. If the lab is loud and I am struggling to focus there then its helpful to have the freedom to go to the library or work from home. Since he is always around, he regularly pops in to ask how things are going. I hate this... I really hate it. He asks because he cares and wants to help but I feel like I can't do my own thing for a minute. He'll ask if I have new results multiple times a week. Because he asks for updates so frequently, I feel the need to churn out results as fast as I can, at the expense of taking time to read or full understand something. Its clear that his favorite student in the lab works like that... comes into lab from 9-6 and codes nonstop during that time. He goes to the PI with every result and they interpret it together. He goes to the PI anytime there is a problem and they trouble shoot together. It seems that this is what he sees as an ideal student.

I've gotten to the point where going into the lab feels completely miserable. I know the PI will be in and out and people will be talking and I'll be distracted and get little done. I've slowly been pushing the limits on when I get there and leave, trying to work elsewhere when I can so that I can go a day without giving updates and have some quiet time to do and enjoy science. I guess what worries me at this point is that I don't know what is "normal"? Was what I experienced for my MS more normal or should I expect to work like this in science? I feel so miserable currently. Ive been trying to be flexible and work in this environment but no matter how hard I try, its like every day I dread going in more than the last. There are other labs that I plan on rotating in too but I feel ridiculous for being so miserable in the lab, especially when plenty of other people have horrible lab stories. I have a super nice lab and super nice PI but the PI is just SO constant.

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There is no "normal". Scientists are complex beings that are also known as humans and although some scientists like to pretend that we're all dispassionate and unbiased researchers, that is obviously not the case! So, being humans, each of us have different working styles, different personalities and you can't expect two people to be compatible. In fact, I think it's more likely that two collaborators are incompatible than compatible.

You probably already know this but I'll say it anyways: it sounds like the friction in the working environment is caused by the conflict in working styles. It's not your fault. It's not the PI's fault. I don't think there is any one "right" advising style because it's just a matter of students finding advisors that they can work with.

I'll be a little vague on the details but what you described here sounds very familiar to me. My first few research experiences had advising styles similar to what you described in your past and I felt like I really thrived under those circumstances. I was very productive and happy with my work. Then I had one experience when I started a PhD program (kind of a rotation too) where the advisor was not a good match at all for me. I felt miserable. I also thought that I was screwing up somehow, like now that I'm in a PhD program at a research-focused university, I'm way out of my league and didn't belong at all. Now I realise that many students have similar feelings and it's part of imposter syndrome. But anyways, I was miserable working with this advisor and even after I moved on to a different "primary" project, I was still trying to finish this old one up and it wasn't fun. 

Since then, I've worked with 3 other advisors including my thesis advisor. In my program, we aren't "tied down" to a specific group or lab and students are encouraged to be working on simultaneous projects with multiple advisors, so I'm working on 3 projects at once, not that I've changed advisors three more times :P ! My working style goes really well with my main advisor and decently well with the other two. But all three are much better than my first advisor. Also, my first advisor has other students that are thriving there and doing really well because that's the right style for them.

So, don't let this first bad experience make you think that there's something wrong with you because that's just not true! It's perfectly okay that you will meet advisors in your lifetime that you will just not gel with. I do think that as young scientists, we should first be flexible and give new challenges a chance but eventually (as it sounds like in your case), we will just have to decide whether or not we can make a relationship work. And if it doesn't work, it's usually not either of our faults, just an conflict of personalities. I don't think the way your current lab operates is the "standard way" that most of science operates. My advice would be to learn from this experience and use it to help you pick a more compatible lab for the future! :)

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It sounds like there's a lot of stuff going on inside your head - Does my PI expect me to work longer hours? Is my PI upset/angry that I'm not producing results fast enough? Are other people judging me? - that is not necessarily connected to what onlookers are actually thinking. It means that you're getting even more unhappy in a kind of downward spiral as the rotation goes on. 

I've now worked in several different labs, with PIs at every stage of the hands-on/hands-off advising spectrum (plus different group management styles and personality traits). A few times that I've started in a new place I've experience a kind of disappointed comedown or mini culture-shock. My last PI was so great, why is this PI so different? I really liked my last PI, I don't think I can stand my new one. There's no lab out there that can exactly replicate the one you came from - be glad that you have a great former PI (certainly keep in touch with him), but accept that everybody does things differently. Be open to the new PI's style. You can just say "Things are going fine," and leave it at that if you feel he's being too persistent. 

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@bsharpe: I also had a similar sort of PI for my master's degree and really thrived in that kind of environment. The current lab that I'm rotating in has a similar sense of constancy which is mentally draining IMO. However, I feel like this experience has taught me what kind of mentoring style to look for with my subsequent rotations. While I like the PI a lot, I will most likely not join that lab. So my advice would be to not stress over it too much and understand that even if you like the science the mentoring style will play a significant part on how productive (and driven) you are as a grad student. 

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