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SchoolMascot

Difficult lab environment or am I not ready for graduate school?

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I am beginning my second semester in an funded engineering MS/PhD program, doing the PhD route. Unlike most programs, I was admitted directly into a PI's group who secured my funding. After a semester, I am still very confused by the culture and environment of my PIs laboratory group, so I thought I would ask the board:

  • In the fall I met with my advisor who told me to focus on classes and ease into the lab, but by the end of the semester he bluntly asked what I have accomplished and reminded me how much I am costing him (explaining that he could've bought more lab equipment instead of me). He asked me to come up with a research topic, which I am hurriedly working on. 
  • My advisor is in the very top of his field, but is still relatively approachable. However the lab culture is very stand-off-ish. The group is a mix of 7-8 MS/PhD students all doing different things, and even though we all share an office nobody rarely talks to one another. It took me a month to learn everyone's name, and I still don't know what everyone is working on.
  • Group meetings with my advisor do not exist. Others in the program describe having weekly group meetings and paper review groups and even a collaborative chat app. But in this group the students meet individually with an advisor, so it's very hard to determine what anyone is working on. I still don't know all the project in the lab, there is no lab website, and nothing is shared with me. I am completely in the dark.

Even though I am starting my second semester, I have had very little lab time, have done zero experiments and am not even sure where most things are in the lab. Other students in the group are busy doing their own things, and are difficult to approach. So my question is, am I bringing my undergrad mindset into gradschool, or is this lab very difficult to work in? How do I get started?

My thoughts about graduate school were that my advisor would pair me with a student who would help me get situated in the lab and I would help him/her with a small project during my first semester, and would then branch out into working on my own proposal. Is this a misconception, or is this how most graduate students start? Is my lab uncommon, or am I doing something wrong? At this point, how can I get the ball rolling with research? When I meet my advisor, he tells me to "go do things and show me results", and it is very clear that he is expecting something at the end of this semester, but I do not know what or how to plan to even begin research. 

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There isn't a single "common" lab experience/environment. Your thoughts about grad school (pairing with a mentor and branching out) is a relatively common way I've seen labs run but so is your current way (where everyone works independently on their own). So I don't think your lab is abnormal either.

However, that doesn't mean that there is a problem with you! There are many ways labs are run and there are many ways that students require support. Usually this means that the advice given to students is to find a lab that fits well with the type of support, mentoring, oversight, etc. that they would like from their advisor. Unfortunately, it did not sound like you got this opportunity due to the nature of your appointment.

I'm not 100% sure what the best advice moving forward for you would be though. It would really depend on what you value and what your short term and long term goals are. But here are some options.

You can decide that this isn't a good fit for you and look elsewhere for opportunities. You could do this by resigning and leaving this program and then apply for new programs that begin in Fall 2018. This may raise some questions in your profiles when you apply to other schools but if you are very unhappy with the current situation then I don't think you need to continue to suffer through it.

You can decide that you will make this lab culture work for you. This means you would need to change your expectations on the type of support you would like to get. It won't help either to compare other labs to your lab. I think you would need to identify the next few steps you need to accomplish in order to "get results" as your advisor wants. I'm not sure whether you currently have a project yet (not necessarily a full fledged one, but do you have an idea on what general research question you are trying to answer and how you might go about doing this?). If you don't, then I think the first step is to determine whether or not your advisor is willing to help you figure one out or if you should be talking to senior students, postdocs or other staff. Once you determine that, then you need to figure out what other help you need for the remaining steps and ask for it. It is absolutely important to advocate for yourself when you are in this hands-off type of lab situation. Keep conversations going with your advisor too, to let them know what stage you're at and to make sure you are both on the same page in terms of what progress is expected. 

Choosing the second option isn't permanent either. You might want to stick with it for a year and if you decide that this type of lab environment is not going to support you in your long term goals, then it's fine to change your mind. Having something completed might help you transfer to a different lab more easily and it can help you apply to different schools too. At least you'll have something to show for your time there. However, if the situation is not bearable or you have no way of helping yourself succeed then leaving the program may be the better path in the long run.

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5 hours ago, SchoolMascot said:

but by the end of the semester he bluntly asked what I have accomplished and reminded me how much I am costing him (explaining that he could've bought more lab equipment instead of me).

Did he really said that ? This is kind of rude. If your advisor is well known and he have experience supervising students that he should understand that every student work on their own pace. For God's sake it's a PhD topic...I don't think you can easily come up with the research topic at the end of FIRST semester. I think students usually take courses and then they come up with some thing.

May be talk to your other lab mates when and how they came up with research topic. What are some expectations of advisor from lab mates/PhD.

May be give him a rough draft.

May be you can gave your advisor some rough deadline to share a research topic. Summer is usually the best time to work on research topic as I believe there are less work load and you can only focus on your research...

I think the reason your advisor is pushing you to work on some research topic may be because his research funding might be determined by the number of publication/work by students...something like that..

 

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