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Getting kicked out of research group?


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I made a mistake with a piece of equipment. The equipment is being successfully repaired (without needing to send it out) right now, but the boss says that this is symptomatic of lack of attention and unsafe lab practice and would like to have an individual discussion with me after he returns from a conference. Does this mean that I'm going to get kicked out?

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3 hours ago, Eigen said:

It might, it might not. 

No way for us to tell you what they're thinking, and there's no universal secret code for getting kicked out of a lab. 

Is it typical for students to be kicked out for this type of mistake? I'd think that a quickly repairable equipment mistake wouldn't be a reason to be kicked out but they made it out to be like it was huge.

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14 hours ago, SymmetryOfImperfection said:

Is it typical for students to be kicked out for this type of mistake? I'd think that a quickly repairable equipment mistake wouldn't be a reason to be kicked out but they made it out to be like it was huge.

It's not typical for students to be kicked out. Period. Echoing Eigen, there is no code word for expulsion for a research group until the PI notifies you directly. Moreover, all that we know is that you broke the equipment and that it's being repaired in-house. This doesn't give us any information regarding cost of the equipment, the potential hazards of your oversight, what protocol was ignored, etc. 

What sticks out to me is your paraphrase that the accident was "symptomatic of lack of attention and unsafe lab practice." Do you have any history of unsafe lab practices? If so, have you faced disciplinary action as a consequence of unsafe practice? 

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It sounds like - in the eyes of the boss - there's some kind of pattern of behaviour he doesn't like, and the broken piece of equipment is a continuation of that. 

The best case scenario is that the meeting will simply be a warning that you should change your behaviour. Most PIs aren't assholes enough to kick you out of the group without giving a formal warning and a chance to rectify. 

Some PIs are more willing to kick out students than others. You should have a sense of how your PI operates. Do a lot of students in your lab leave with a Masters degree, or no degree at all? Are there stories of your PI asking people to leave? Under what conditions were they asked to leave? Without knowing the PI we can't tell you what's about to happen. 

My advice for the meeting is as follows. If the boss makes a generalisation/statement that doesn't make sense to you (e.g. "your lack of attention is a problem") then politely ask for some recent examples of the concerning behaviour. Listen respectfully to what they're saying. Ask them for advice on how to improve. Keep calm. 

Don't make excuses or immediately try to explain/defend yourself if your boss brings up grievance(s). Even if you think what they've said is stupid or a complete misunderstanding (a) it tends to make people angrier when they raise a concern that's legitimate to them...only to have someone else dismiss it (b) it comes across as lacking in empathy and abdicating responsibility. For instance, if the boss says "You broke an expensive piece of equipment" the inflammatory response(s) is: "But it wasn't a major/expensive breakage! We got it fixed in-house. I don't see why this is a big deal" A better response is simply: "Yes. I'm sorry." 

 

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Just now, Familiar Heron said:

It's not typical for students to be kicked out. Period. Echoing Eigen, there is no code word for expulsion for a research group until the PI notifies you directly. Moreover, all that we know is that you broke the equipment and that it's being repaired in-house. This doesn't give us any information regarding cost of the equipment, the potential hazards of your oversight, what protocol was ignored, etc. 

What sticks out to me is your paraphrase that the accident was "symptomatic of lack of attention and unsafe lab practice." Do you have any history of unsafe lab practices? If so, have you faced disciplinary action as a consequence of unsafe practice? 

There's a few problems with the equipment, once which I knew was my direct responsibility and one which I didn't (and turned out to be the bigger one). There are no direct personal safety issues resulting from my mistake. If my personal mistake was the sole problem, it would've taken half a day to fix. In the course of the repair we found another, even bigger problem which will take an additional 2-3 days and hundreds of dollars to buy parts. 

I have never been disciplined for unsafe lab practices before although the professor has noted that my experiments are not always well designed. The professor made these remarks because in the past week alone, 2 other people have made the same mistake I did.

Just now, St Andrews Lynx said:

It sounds like - in the eyes of the boss - there's some kind of pattern of behaviour he doesn't like, and the broken piece of equipment is a continuation of that. 

The best case scenario is that the meeting will simply be a warning that you should change your behaviour. Most PIs aren't assholes enough to kick you out of the group without giving a formal warning and a chance to rectify. 

Some PIs are more willing to kick out students than others. You should have a sense of how your PI operates. Do a lot of students in your lab leave with a Masters degree, or no degree at all? Are there stories of your PI asking people to leave? Under what conditions were they asked to leave? Without knowing the PI we can't tell you what's about to happen. 

My advice for the meeting is as follows. If the boss makes a generalisation/statement that doesn't make sense to you (e.g. "your lack of attention is a problem") then politely ask for some recent examples of the concerning behaviour. Listen respectfully to what they're saying. Ask them for advice on how to improve. Keep calm. 

Don't make excuses or immediately try to explain/defend yourself if your boss brings up grievance(s). Even if you think what they've said is stupid or a complete misunderstanding (a) it tends to make people angrier when they raise a concern that's legitimate to them...only to have someone else dismiss it (b) it comes across as lacking in empathy and abdicating responsibility. For instance, if the boss says "You broke an expensive piece of equipment" the inflammatory response(s) is: "But it wasn't a major/expensive breakage! We got it fixed in-house. I don't see why this is a big deal" A better response is simply: "Yes. I'm sorry." 

 

Definitely. Thanks for the advice. I will make sure to not argue about it and I do recognize that this mistake was a significant time sink.

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We had a PhD student get kicked out of the research group for crushing up an entire array of field samples.... when he was only supposed to take off a small chunk of each sample and crush that. It's the only time I've ever actually seen someone get kicked off a research team. 

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