Friday, June 25, 2010

Treating others as we wish to be treated

I sometimes find it frustrating that people justify a history or traditional method of doing things as a reason for why it is best.  There are many historical events that we now find repulsive, Japanese internment, slavery, etc.  Yet some PI's choose to run their labs as though it were the 18th century.  If they are famous and well established, they may still be able to recruit a cohort of students that is willing to put up with harsh conditions in exchange for working in Dr. X's lab.  However, there is a growing subset of the student population that will no longer tolerate these conditions.  It is Dr. X's prerogative to choose how he runs his lab, by and large.  However, it does become an issue when Dr. X want to eliminate major part of the graduate program to fit his methods.  As many graduate programs in engineering and the sciences incorporate research rotations prior thesis mentor selection (as is common in the life sciences) this starts to become an issue, when students get to see first hand what life is like in Dr. X's lab before they officially join the lab.  I can't argue with Dr. X's success, which is undisputed, but I wonder in 10 years if there will be anyone left willing to work in the sweat shop.

I take a different approach.  I focus on results and progress.  I want students who are self motivated and work toward a goal.  I don't like to micromanage and everyone is happier when I don't.  (I get a little high strung when I am in micro mode, just as my first grad student.)  As long as you are making progress and communicating problems, I'm happy to let you run loose.  I don't worry about your hours (my students often are using equipment on other parts of campus).  I try to lay out deadlines ahead of time (reasonably) and then let you figure out when to get it done.  If you choose to go on vacation for 1 week during the 2 week period, you might be working some late nights to finish.  But that is your choice, as an adult.  I also encourage students to plan their own calendars for thesis writing and determine a reasonable defense date.  It generally works.  My lab is more laid back, but the students still publish a 3-5 papers from their thesis work.  It's not for everyone and there have been students that switched labs or quit graduate school.  But all in all I works, and it fosters the type of people I would like to have as future faculty colleagues.  In general, it may be less efficient than micromanaging, but in the end getting a PhD is about learning to be an independent researcher, not a work horse for the PI.  I used to think I lived in a department of people who agreed with this statement, but after some recent discussions, I'm not so sure any more.  Your thoughts on lab cultures and mentoring styles and how to shape those with positive departmental policies?


  1. "But in the end getting a PhD is about learning to be an independent researcher, not a work horse for the PI."

    Well said. Personally, I can't imagine any other way of doing things.

    That being said, I am occasionally envious of my colleagues in megalabs who are part of a large cohort of people working on the same project. They end up leaving with far more publications at the end of their time than people in my group. On the other hand, we are always first author, and are always initiating our own research. So in the long run perhaps we are better equipped for leading research in the future (either in academia or industry), though I have no idea if hiring committees see it that way.

  2. Can I redo grad school and come work for you?

    I was definitely in a lab similar to Dr. X's. At LargeU, any groups not run like X's were seen as soft and unproductive-- even if papers were in fact getting published.

    I'll be interested to read other comments, to see if my experiences were similar to others'.

  3. I've had two professors in grad school (essentially co-advisers). The primary one has the first style you described: the conditions can be harsh (although not as bad as some things I have heard), but people always tolerated it because he is so famous and having his name and the training of his lab behind you when you are trying to get a job will make a big difference. I notice the same trend, however. People are becoming less tolerant of it. Morale is plummeting and productivity will soon follow it.

    My secondary adviser has a style very similar to yours. He lets the students do their own thing, and as long as they are getting stuff done, he doesn't care beyond that. The lab maintains a high productivity, everyone sets their own hours, and it was in this lab that I truly learned to be a scientist. The independence and guidance were perfectly balanced, and it created an atmosphere that I and many other grad students could thrive in. His lab is expanding quickly. He will be very famous, very soon, and will have an awesome legacy to follow.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. When looking at applications for faculty positions, I usually focus on first author papers. This is evidence of the person's own work as a graduate student or post-doc. In big collaborations it is hard to determine the contributions with many authors (>6). This is particularly important for people from big labs.
    I should also say that I worked in a lab that was a big lab by the time I graduated. However, by the time I arrived the PI had made his name, so he was very hands off. He gave you an idea and money, and you did the rest. Those who liked independence did well and those who did not do a good job finding other day to day mentoring/advice floundered. It was a great place for me.