Sink or swim: In theory I'd be all over it

May 14 2012 Published by under Ponder, Postdoctoral Training

@Neuropolarbear opined:

Now that my lab is collecting data, I think my students would be more productive if I leave and stop pestering them for 2 months.

Stop pestering and stop helping them. And maybe I really mean postdocs rather than students. But I often think this.

Trainees would in many cases be better served if the PI said "Hey guys, I'm taking off on sabbatical, see you in six months or so."

I've never had the nerve to try that one out though. I can't see my way to risking my precious projects that way. Either that or I can't bear the thought of having a trainee really bollocks up their training stint with me to the point that it is an abject failure...and think I could have been more involved in oversight.

I worry, however, that this hovering weakens them.

So how about it, PI-tariat? How long would you let your trainees go without having any decent idea what they were up to? More than two weeks? More than a month?

....Six months????

17 responses so far

  • Murfomurf says:

    Having been a PI without a PhD in a non-lab science research area, this seems like a non issue! We used to recruit our research assistants (NOT giving them part of the project for a post-grad or post-doc at the start, as required in Australian government grants), tell them what the project involved behaviourally on their part, train them on data gathering & entry, supervise some real-life sessions for a period, then let them loose. We also scheduled face-to-face meetings for one afternoon per week where we looked at/heard what they had done, sorted out any difficulties & discussed where we were up to on the project time-line & if we were ready to assign literature/ reading/writing tasks around the research group. Later we thinned out the meetings if all seemed to be going to plan, but always met at least once/fortnight just to keep ourselves consistent. Of course this was in an area where we had several PIs with different training & specialities working together, not just one, but the co ordination usually fell on one of 2 PIs. We kept this up in several projects running concurrently over 12 years. If an RA seemed keen & it was appropriate we allocated a small sub-project for them to read up, analyse & be first author. Some RAs just worked like 'sheep' but others contributed really good intellectual input & were acknowledged with authorships. Everyone always agreed on what order authors should appear on papers, some RAs later stayed on after interviewing successfully for different projects, others went on to do Masters/PhDs in other institutions. This was a good system for us- I don't know how it would work for your group, but it might be worth a try!

  • Arlenna says:

    Maternity leave: 3 months with virtually no contact. They grew up fast.

  • Namnezia says:

    I think prolonged absences have very little effect, either positive or negative. I don't think it helps them, but a "mature" lab can run itself quite smoothly without the PI.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    At this stage, it depends on the person and project. But I'm generally not meddlesome as a PI (IMO), and mostly let them come to me.

  • Ewan says:

    Varies massively. I just finished a feedback/assessment exercise w/ my lab, and there was clear bimodality between the folks who were (i) self-motivated and (ii) loved the freedom vs the ones who wanted more direction and daily management; those latter tended to also need that management, recognition of which was my spur to both do the exercise and force myself to be a more active manager in some cases.

    [Should I let the ones who would sink, sink? Maybe. I've pruned undergrads aggresively, but feel a sense of responsibility towards the grad students.]

    Anyway, to answer the Q: a year or so for the good ones. A week for the bad.

  • I tell my first-year grad students not to bother me until they have a fucken thesis written.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Wait....then who polishes the Bentley?

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    My undergrad PI ditched me for a 4 month sabbatical and since I constituted the entire lab (small primarily undergrad institution) I had plenty of time to beat my head against a wall but I did learn how to self-motivate and troubleshoot, two skills that I think are lacking in many grad students. I'd vote a month to force people to think independently but not so long as to let any project get too far off the rails.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    DM, I polish the Bentley and by the way its Bentleys, you don't think CPP just roles in one like some kind of damn pauper.

  • miko says:

    It completely depends on the student (if you have a postdoc who can't function better without your constant meddling and prying, you've made a bad investment). Some students need to be left alone for sure, but most need some close attention early on and then have the apron strings cut. Also: never leave it up to a postdoc to train/mentor a new grad student. It's not that we can't do a good job at it, it's that we don't actually give a shit about your grad student, unless you are willing to assign them to be our slave with no will or ambition of their own. Postdocs care about 3 things: the horrible fucking job market, the horrible fucking job market, and the horrible fucking job market. Oh, wait, 4: not having to move somewhere ridonkulous because of the job market.

    The worst cases are the students who will do everything their PI tells them to, but ONLY what the PI tells them to. They are double-screwed: they waste 90% of their time doing hare-brained PI experiments that were thought up between tweeting buzzwords or were based on some bullshit the PI misremembered from a conference. They never learn to think of anything on their own -- failure caused by your own stupidity (or at least your own ideas) is the only science mentor that matters. If you can blame Dr. Plenary for your horrible project, you will not not learn. It's about independence, so you either have to have a PI who forces it on you or you have to take it for yourself.

  • anon says:

    As a grad student, I was left alone for a year when the PI went overseas for sabbatical. I had a great time - developed a new method, collaborated with another student and got enough material to publish 4 papers. With electronic communication so accessible these days, who cares. The PI's presence really shouldn't make a fuckin bit of difference.

  • Lady Day says:

    For the love of all things holy, please, please check up on your postdocs and grad students once or twice a month. They don't have to show you all your data, but some people think they are making progress when they aren't, and a good PI should be able to catch that and help redirect energy in more productive directions. At least, this is true for my area of science.

  • leigh says:

    i came from a sink-or-swim environment, and i think it did me a remarkable amount of good. going out and learning new techniques, acquiring troubleshooting skillz, networking, etc were all expected, without having my hand held by my grad mentor. this taught me independence and built up a lot of confidence in my abilities that i probably would not have had otherwise.

    i do rely pretty heavily on those experiences now that i've moved forward. given how independently i have been expected to function in my current position from the start (a value which is still increasing by the day), i would have floundered heavily at best and perhaps failed altogether at the worst without having learned to swim as a grad student.

  • Wait....then who polishes the Bentley?

    You think I let some hapless grad students near my fucken ride???

  • hn says:

    My PhD advisor took 1 year sabbatical out of the country. My postdoc advisor took a 6 month sabbatical out of the country. Lab was just as productive, if not more so, without them around.

  • M says:

    I think it depends on the research being done.

    In my PhD lab, I was totally happy to work on my own without my advisor meddling (and I believe I was productive - but I am also generally competent and independent). It WAS useful to get purchase requisitions signed and the occasional feedback on data or drafts of papers (sometimes too much to ask), but I could generally handle the day to day science (this assumes a strong support network of other grad students with experience to draw on when planning/troubleshooting experiments). Also, I say this from the perspective of a senior graduate student. I can't say that it wasn't important to have frequent discussions about the goals of the project and the current literature, etc, to help focus my research, especially at the beginning of my studies, and in part, toward the end. I think it would have been tough to find my way in this regard (contextualizing the problem and the science) totally on my own. But this only requires weekly/monthly meetings or discussions. Running the "lab" is fairly straightforward as long as there is some reasonable infrastructure to work with.

    Now, however, I am a postdoc, and am trying to manage several projects around a unifying theme. I think we are much more productive as a lab with frequent meetings and daily interactions so that everyone can stay on track and juggle everything that needs to get done. We are trying to build a lot of equipment, setup a lot of complex experiments, make sure multiple studies done by different people are coordinated together, stay organized with multiple collaborators, etc, etc. It's a very different environment than my previous work where everybody just did their own thing, and there was much less need for overarching organizing and planning to keep things going. We work a little bit like industry, just with more fun science in the mix (and less money).

  • anon says:

    This reminds me of a good story I heard once. I don't think it's fully published anywhere so I'll assume the names aren't for public consumption. The PI ran a lab focusing on X sensory system primarily with a specific tool. A new grad student wanted to study Y sensory system with the same tool. The PI didn't have funding or much interest in the other sensory system & didn't think the tool would work there so said, "No."

    PI leaves for a month or so. The graduate student sees a chance & works around-the-clock in system Y. The rest of the lab provides support in figuring out how to get the tool working in Y. The PI comes back & asks about project progress. The grad student shows the PI some beautiful results from the lab's tool. The PI praises the data quality and asks which types of cells in system X were they recorded from. The grad student responses that they're actually from system Y. After some interesting discussion, the grad student gets to study system Y & is now a respected professor on system Y.

    The fun addendum is that I heard this at an event honoring the PI many years later. The PI knew what the grad student had done while he was gone, but didn't know that the entire lab had conspired to work on the project too.

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