Repost: Being a PI ain't all unicorns and rainbows...just like most actual jobs

Mar 10 2016 Published by under Academics, Careerism

Commenter shrew suggested I repost this on the basis of

it is the time of year where people are gearing up to accept, or have already accepted, their shiny new TT offers.

This post originally appeared 19 Jan 2011


Hoo boy. Dr. Becca has a live one over at Fumbling Towards Tenure Track.

I am got the dream got at a Tier 1 institution. It is what I expected but in reality it sucks. want to find a way out. Be careful what you wish for.

Ouch. Well, upon further probing this DisgruntleProf lets us in on the problem. And it smells to me like we can chalk this one up to RealityCheck.

I think its a combination of worrying about grants, science not going as fast as I want it to, dealing with annoying staff at my institution, not much help from other faculty versus what I had been told there would be, grad students not working as hard as I think they should (don’t people work weekend anymore?)

Yeah. Stuff gets real in a big hurry once you start your own independent laboratory doesn't it? I'm half surprised this person didn't mention the magically disappearing space or major equipment that appeared to have been promised in the recruiting phase!

I'll indulge myself about the trainee issue and repeat my constant refrain- If you won a tenure track job, chances are very good that you were a much better than average postdoc and graduate student. Consequently, the trainees that work for you are overwhelmingly likely to suck worse than you did. Get over it and learn how to make do.

I had so much love and energy for the Science when I was a grad student and post-doc. Being the PI is just a very different business, with business being the important word.

Yup, you have a job now homes. The thing about jobs is that they aren't always unadulterated joy. Our business is a pretty good one, because we have lots of opportunity for it being Teh Awesomez. But never forget, in your vocational fantasies, that this is still a job and a professional one at that.

Look, no offense but I'm smelling a certain type of career arc here. Excuse me if I'm over assuming but this seems like a type of person that had it unusually good in training. S/he mentions being in a "top tiered graduate school". Probably the research all went pretty well in a stable and well funded lab. Setbacks were probably minor. The PI shielded the trainees from the mundane stuff and s/he never manged to clue in to what was going on behind the scenes. Publications came. More of the same for postdoc, no doubt. Because after all, if this person is recently appointed at a top institution, odds are good that the CV looks very good indeed.

I've said it before. Having it too good in training is crappy preparation for being a PI. It is even worse selection for being a PI. IMO. I'd rather hire someone who had to struggle and overcome some adverse consequences than someone who had a cushy ride to three first author GlamourPubs. Any day of the week.

Having an easy time of it during training sets up unrealistic expectations. Which, IMO, leads to a big old let down when the going gets tough as a newly minted Assistant Professor. And potentially a lack of mental fortitude to buckle down and overcome, as opposed to whining.

I used to love coming into lab everyday. I was the person you hated in your department who always had some really cool idea or experiment to talk about. Not sure how to get that back.

I do feel a little sorry for this commenter. Who would not? It is a bit sad, really. But I have confidence that things will look up. S/he will get through the local paperwork, get some usable data out of a graduate student and land some grant support...eventually. And things will look one heck of a lot better after these successes start to roll in. The trick is to SaqueUppeTM and make successes happen.

How do you get your joy for science back? My opinion is that you have to be gratified, at some fundamental level, by the proceeds of having your own lab. That means that the amount of data crossing your desk, data that you can in no way generate with your own hands by yourself, balances out all of the headaches. If seeing the results of science that you directed, influenced and supported is not enough then there is no point in wanting to head a lab in a professorial level appointment.

43 responses so far

  • jmz4 says:

    I wonder how that guy ended up doing? I remember reading that blog post as I was just about to start my postdoc. I figured he was a lone wimp, and being a drama queen. Now that I'm getting ready to go looking for jobs, and I've seen how my cohort of postdocs has fared, I think I understand he/she a bit better, and that you were spot on. So many of my colleagues so show little interest in very important parts of the PI job they supposedly want. I've talked to PDs who don't know what an R01 is, or how study sections work. I've heard people say they hate mentoring students, or writing papers. I wonder why they even want the job/or what they think it takes to be successful.

    Of course, some of this is on the PIs. I've had to actually push to get my boss to talk about grantsmanship, budgeting, recruiting trainees, etc. And even then, I know that, as a full professor in an IFLAC, his situation will be very different than mine, starting out. I was fortunate to have a co-mentor who just got tenure (at 9 years in, so that in its self was a wake-up call), and who is more proactive about that kind of advice, which, from her, is probably more relevant. And yet, from the blogs I've read, I'm still expecting that the actual experience of running a lab will be more daunting than I anticipate.

    Also, as you say, it doesn't help that the BSDs who train most of the postdocs don't really inhabit the same environment that they're sending their PDs into, and so are unrealistically optimistic about a lot of things.

  • DJMH says:

    Being a recent TT--I definitely wouldn't say I hate it, but I would say that it's been more frustrating than I anticipated.
    I didn't know how much even very trivial committee/faculty commitments would chew up my days, to the point where I struggle to find experiment time.
    I knew I wouldn't be working with Mini-mes, but I didn't know what it would feel like when a trainee isn't getting anything done and doesn't seem to care.
    I didn't know that I should have ordered a different trinocular head for my microscopes.
    I didn't know that it was going to be lonely, since of course I've moved yet again and don't have my postdoc/grad friends around.

    Overall I'm still pretty happy, but I fantasize about running a small federation consisting of just me and my best buddies from my postdoc, all of whom know how to do experiments and think about the literature--and who wouldn't need "managing" as much.

  • Grumble says:

    "I didn't know how much even very trivial committee/faculty commitments would chew up my days, to the point where I struggle to find experiment time."

    Learning to say "No" is a big part of learning to be a PI.

    "I knew I wouldn't be working with Mini-mes, but I didn't know what it would feel like when a trainee isn't getting anything done and doesn't seem to care."

    Same here. I've recently adopted a policy of only taking on post-docs and students who show evidence of being smarter than I am. It takes more time to find them, but I after a run of slow/no starters, I can't afford to have more nonproductive people in the lab.

    "I didn't know that it was going to be lonely, since of course I've moved yet again and don't have my postdoc/grad friends around."

    This is what spouses are for!

  • Morgan Price says:

    Drugmonkey, I can only think of one person I know who enjoyed their first year on the tenure track, and this was a particularly driven individual. Did you enjoy your first year?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yeah! My first ~3 y were awesome!

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I enjoyed my early TT years for the most part. Of course, right off the bat I got a truly exceptional grad student to join my not yet existent lab. She's still the best student I've had in my career so far.

    Things might have been a lot less fun if I had had someone less driven/competent, and they could have been miserable if I had been stuck with people who couldn't get anything done.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    Agreed with most of what you have written, DM, particularly in the last paragraph, but with one important addition - the data itself can't be the only source of satisfaction. That's also a road for misery. Because the first that happens when you do your first sets of experiments is that nothing happens. Then you realize just how badly stuff doesn't duplicate. It takes a long time to get the data flow going. And anyone who relies on specific kinds of data for happiness is bound to be disappointed.

    So, growing your research program, watching your own ideas develop, getting psyched over a cool graph every now and then, absolutely. But you need to care about other things, too - seeing students get trained, enjoying thier successes, building academic community with your colleagues, pride in your own growth, etc., etc. That rounds out the recipe for long term satisfaction.

    My first year was beyond miserable...not from shock over what the job entailed, but from believing I would not survive, that I could not make things happen. Then one day I looked up and realized that soft measures of success were all around me. When I stopped feeling so bad about myself all the time, I started truly enjoying what I do... miraculously, papers and grants started happening then, too. It's amazing how much more productive you can be when you actually enjoy and feel good about your work on a wholistic level.

    Also, I expose my trainees to a decent portion of professional shit. Now I wonder what my former PIs were thinking in shielding me from it (is this shielding inevitable - maybe just not worth the effort to explain?). Everyone in my group that's not an undergrad gets a real deal picture of things are actually like for junior PIs. I share my frustrations and successes equally with them. Seeing my investment in this endeavor shows them what's at stake, and it absolutely amplifies whatever it was they were willing to give in the first place. They work HARD. Every single one of them. I can't even believe how hard they work, but I know a part of it comes from all of us being in this together. Nobody's decided to not be academic for that exposure, and one person did the 180 flip from being certain about industry to being certain about academia.

    Biggest piece of advice I'd give to anyone starting out is do not compromise on the people and to find a way to enjoy training. The first sensation is panic - need data, need data, need data - but, instead, WAIT, find the right people, invest in them, and watch your returns come in.

  • Dave says:

    I've said it before. Having it too good in training is crappy preparation for being a PI.

    Damn. Fucking. Right. This is a topic for another day.

    It's important for new PIs to understand that they will find happiness in other ways. Yes, bench work was instant gratification......sometimes (rose-tinted glasses?), but as a PI I look forward to seeing new data come in from others and analyzing that. I get an awful lot of joy out of training grad students and post-docs and in seeing them succeed, in finally submitting a manuscript as a senior author etc. I don't love the process of grant writing per se, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing your plans come together on paper.

  • Newbie PI says:

    My first three years have been pretty good as well. I actually like writing grants and papers, and making beautiful figures is something I love to do. My students are not as good as I want them to be, but looking back, I was pretty clueless in my first few years as well, so I try to be understanding. The hardest part of the job is the seemingly arbitrariness of the NIH grant system. I must have an R01 to keep my job, but my scores get worse with every resubmission, even as my publication record gets better. I've often wondered if new PIs should avoid publishing anything until they have their R01 so that they don't have to change aims as they publish parts of their grants. The other more shocking thing about this job is that I never imagined I would have to deal with mental health issues as often as I do. People snap a lot more often than I ever realized!

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    Newbie PI... yes... the R01 system is crushing me right now. I believe, finally, that it will be possible for me to maintain funding for my lab in the long run. But do I WANT to? It's exhausting. It's insane that everyone acknowledges the certain fraction of randomness in the process, and yet we still champion the approach as survival of the fittest. To stick with this, we just have to be OK with the fact that a significant fraction of our work [grants] will be thrown away as useless byproduct. And OK with the fact that most of what makes something valuable or byproduct (assuming the science is up to snuff) is up to the randomness of reviewer assignment.

    I'm stuck on the anger stage about that one.

  • Microscientist says:

    Best things my Post doc PI did for me:
    Put me in charge of ordering and budgeting supplies for her entire lab. You plan experiments entirely differently when you really know how much those antibodies cost.
    Made me write and manage all my own animal protocols, as well as grants etc.
    Handed me an undergrad to mentor. I got a great one, but it was a good mentoring experience as well.

    She taught me science stuff too, but it was the management elements (particularly the budgeting and ordering) that put me way ahead when I started my TT job.

  • Draino says:

    My PhD prepared me to be a postdoc, because it was a BSD lab with lots of postdocs for me to look up to and emulate. My Postdoc prepared me to be a PI, because it was a small lab with a very open and transparent PI who loved mentoring and also loved to complain. His transparency showed me how a real lab operates (not a BSD lab) and his complaining opened my eyes to all the crap that comes along with the job. Now six years into my independent career, I must say it has been a joy on the whole. Yes, publishing and getting grants is a struggle, but it was the same way when I was a student and postdoc. Yes, none of my people are as stellar as I was, but I work with what I've got and keep my eye out for better minions (and collaborators) to sweeten my data stream.

  • MoBio says:

    My first several years were exceedingly difficult:

    >promises for protected time not honored (department went bankrupt)

    >promised start-up funds vanished (department went bankrupt)

    >promised lab space did not appear (chair decided there was little chance I could bring in sufficient indirects to pay for overhead on space)

    >could not recruit students (in a clinical department; basic science chairs discouraged students from even rotating in lab)

    >RO1 trashed multiple times

    >PO suggested strongly I consider 'another career'

    Along with all of the above-mentioned 'learnings'....perhaps I was a glutton for punishment but eventually received an RO1 (third submission).

  • DJMH says:

    MoBio, WOW. You just put my year in perspective big time.

  • DJMH says:

    "I didn't know that it was going to be lonely, since of course I've moved yet again and don't have my postdoc/grad friends around."

    This is what spouses are for!

    Yeah, but part of what I meant is--when I went into my lab as a postdoc, I saw my friends. When I walk into my lab as a PI, I see my trainees. I am friendly with them, but we are not friends. I see colleagues/spouse/etc at other times, but for most of the day, I'm not around friends. It's really different.

  • Grumble says:

    Ah, yes. You mean the lab camaraderie that you're missing out on because you're the boss now. I sometimes miss it, too, but it's also fun to walk into the lab and hold forth. No one used to listen to me when I tried that as a post-doc. Now everyone stops what they are doing. It's nice to be looked up to! And of course it's fun to facilitate young people's careers. These are different highs than camaraderie with peers, and take some getting used to.

  • Luminiferous Aether says:

    "The first sensation is panic - need data, need data, need data - but, instead, WAIT, find the right people, invest in them, and watch your returns come in."

    This is crucial advice. Especially, the WAIT part. It is easy to panic and hire the first person that knocks on your door. That's when it can really start to get slippery...

  • AcademicLurker says:

    It is easy to panic and hire the first person that knocks on your door. That's when it can really start to get slippery...

    I was caught unprepared for the first genuinely incompetent person I hired, and let them disrupt the progress of the project more than I should have.

    By that point I had had 3 graduate students and 2 postdocs, all of whom had done very well. I think I flattered myself in believing that I either had some special eye for spotting good people or was especially awesome at mentoring*, but in fact I had had a run of good luck.

    *Of course, I am awesome at mentoring...

  • new PI says:

    I'm still trying to figure out how to manage trainees given this advice.

    A few of my students have better technical skills than I did at their stage. I got carried away fantasizing about how much we would accomplish. What I've discovered is that they don't have as much vision or intellectual independence as I did at their stage. It scares me that they're not trying to master the literature, find the holes, figure out the right questions. It's really depressing... I'm in theory and don't have much need for techs. In an effort to encourage them, I initially avoided saying *this* is exactly what you need to do--and it just led to big delays. I'm now being more direct, but as a consequence, I feel I'm now micromanaging ("Have you found a paper showing X? It would inform this point we're making in the discussion. Please go look." and then "Did you check to see if their measure assumes Y?"--and rather than saying "What data would need to test this hypothesis? I wonder if it's out there," I go looking myself and don't bother to involve them in meetings with bench collaborators). Maybe after another year or two of this, they will start thinking, but I don't know. It's so different from the labs in which I was raised.

    It's fine if they don't want to be independent scientists someday. What bothers me most is that I grossly misjudged how much oversight and constant vigilance they require. I can't trust them to have much common sense or think deeply about their problems. Consequently, I feel like I've bitten off more projects and problems than I can chew on my own. I hope it gets better.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Draw a normal distribution of trainee competence. Place the dot for yourself. Do you see the problem?

  • Dave says:

    Place the dot for yourself

    That's impossible to do for oneself. Can't be objective.

  • Banditokat says:

    Sabbatical and gin

  • jmz4 says:

    "It is easy to panic and hire the first person that knocks on your door. That's when it can really start to get slippery..."
    -Hmm. How much do you guys think building a reputation helps you attract good trainees in the first couple years while you're still at the bench? Like is it worth it to devote a lot of time to move along your first couple trainees projects so that the other grad students/PDs will want to move to go to your lab because your people are publishing? Or should you let their projects move along at their own pace (which will be slower than yours, likely) while you work on generating new leads and expanding the scope of the lab?

  • DJMH says:

    What I've discovered is that they don't have as much vision or intellectual independence as I did at their stage.

    Sometimes this is the issue, other times they have too much vision and keep wanting to expand the scope of what should be a simple task.

    Also I have yet to find the Magic Decoder Ring that tells you if a particular trainee is going to be good or bad or what. Most of them are somewhere in the middle, and that doesn't particularly help you decide if they're going to be good for the lab or not worth your time. So the advice about "don't hire just to have hands" is always inadequate...what IS the threshold? Impossible to know in advance.

    What bothers me most is that I grossly misjudged how much oversight and constant vigilance they require.

    Agreed.

  • Grumble says:

    "other times they have too much vision and keep wanting to expand the scope of what should be a simple task."

    Yeah, but usually this is a problem you want to have. I think it's easier to rein someone in - to show them that they need to constrain their project or they aren't going to get anything done - than it is to keep pushing someone whose heart and mind aren't in it (or who isn't capable of the work, really) to do better and do more.

    The way to deal with the ones who are always coming up with new ideas is to respond with excitement and keep talking to them about it. Use your experience to help them refine what the next great project could look like. This is what being a scientist is - having great ideas and coming up with ways to test them in consultation with your colleagues. It's FUN. Keep it going for days and months, on 10 different topics if need be. But always, always bring it back down to concrete reality - "So how's your work on the X project going?" - and make sure they know what the priorities are. Keep an eye on the possible, and when the current project is done, they will be excited about the next one because they came up with it themselves and have already spent a lot of time thinking about it and refining it with you.

  • Grumble says:

    "I have yet to find the Magic Decoder Ring that tells you if a particular trainee is going to be good or bad or what"

    Indeed. However, I've started to be a LOT more critical of students who interview for our program, students who rotate in the lab, and prospective post-docs. They need to convince me they are something special. Of course, even the "special" ones can be fuckups. But the worst are those who need to be led by the hand to a project, who don't think their way through it, who don't jump in on their own with figuring out what experiment needs to be done and how to do it. The "special" ones usually don't have that problem; that's how they got to be special.

  • enginoob says:

    "I have yet to find the Magic Decoder Ring that tells you if a particular trainee is going to be good or bad or what"

    One challenge starting out for me was figuring out if it was me or them for trainees not working out. In my case it was a bit of both. But the rewards of fixing my management and those relationships are coming in and are pretty fantastic. The other stuff, budgeting, teaching, looking for fundable and publishable research topics, dealing with disappointment - I think I felt prepared because my advisers were hands off and I was almost always on new and non-pet projects. That doesn't mean I don't still get that knee jerk 'I want out' feeling somedays.

  • Luminiferous Aether says:

    @jmz4 "How much do you guys think building a reputation helps you attract good trainees in the first couple years while you're still at the bench?"

    'Good' is more a subjective matter than objective. Reputation is huge, but one can get plenty of decent trainees as a new PI too (a reflection of the talent glut). Importantly, as a new PI, one needs to identify the applicants' qualities that best suit their *own immediate* needs.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    Maybe I'll find this statement obnoxious down the road, but I think I'm good at managing my group, and I don't think it's all chance. I look around at my colleagues, and the people who don't have good management skills are still succeeding, plenty of them way better than me (the experiments eventually get done!), but, (1) it takes a lot more effort and difficulty on their part to get what they need, and, (2), their trainees are not developing professionally as quickly.

    My feeling on choosing people is that it's all about motivation. I have found, time and time again, that motivation (which speaks to work ethic) is the critical personality trait that determines success. That's a trait you can pick up on in the first 30 seconds of a meeting; people either have it or they don't. I agree there is such a thing as being over-eager, but dealing with over-eagerness is a management problem with lots of good solutions... there are many ways to fuel the energy of an over-eager student. In contrast, lack of drive can't be managed back in. So I pick people who I know will work hard, people who want to be part of a team (with an involved PI), and the rest gets trained in along the way.

    Management skills are really critical in science. It takes a lot of mental effort, every day, to think about the composition of your group, who is doing what, and what you can do to get them to do more. That takes as much effort as planning experiments on some days, but it's a good way to get the pyramid functional. You have to balance people work and science work, but people work is one way to get more science work done. It's reciprocal, too: they've seen me invest in them consistently whether it directly benefits me or not. So when I need something, even if it would otherwise be the lowest item on their own to do list, they're on it. Not out of fear, but out of feeling genuinely valued and respect for the team.

    Last comment. I've been at several kinds of institutions, prestigious and not. The students at the prestigious institutions aren't necessarily *all* smarter and better. I think they just tend to be more driven. Now that I don't have access to that more reliable pool, I just have to be patient and wait for the outliers - there are plenty of them anywhere you go.

  • Grumble says:

    "motivation (which speaks to work ethic) is the critical personality trait that determines success. That's a trait you can pick up on in the first 30 seconds of a meeting;"

    In hindsight, this is true. I've definitely learned this lesson the hard way!

    "The students at the prestigious institutions aren't necessarily *all* smarter and better."

    True - it's more that they have a *higher probability* of being smarter and better.

    "I just have to be patient and wait for the outliers - there are plenty of them anywhere you go."

    Right on. Another lesson I learned the hard way! Where was this advice nearly a decade ago when I first started??

  • DJMH says:

    You mean the lab camaraderie that you're missing out on because you're the boss now. I sometimes miss it, too, but it's also fun to walk into the lab and hold forth.

    At this stage, when I try to hold forth to my lab, I get a lot of deer-in-headlights stares. Maybe they're still too new to know how to respond, or maybe I'm doing it wrong. Either way, I miss my friends, who would listen to my wacky ideas and then tell me, bluntly, how deranged I was.

    Agreed that over-eager is way, way better than under-motivated, but the over-eager ones take a massive amount of attention so that they actually get something done, instead of failing to get something done in twelve new ways.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Do you gesticulate wildly when you are haranguing your lab, DJMH? I hear that high energy stuff helps with rapid vertical ascent.

  • new PI says:

    Does anyone have advice on how to increase trainees' motivation, curiosity, ambition? Any turnaround stories? When I went through periods of low motivation and poor productivity in grad school, it was because I felt hopelessly dumb and incompetent with no prospects in academia. My adviser never gave pep talks, and I eventually resolved just to keep working while feeling dumb because hey, I was learning and maybe making progress, even if the pace was 0.001% of what I thought it should be and I hated it sometimes. Even my first few papers felt like irreproducible flukes.

    I could deviate from my trainers and start giving unsolicited pep talks. Maybe that's what holding people back, and maybe the fastest way for them to grow is to have someone else believe in them first. But maybe they're held back by other things. Maybe they just pretended to care about the field during interviews, or they really did care, and they've since been turned off.

    I have a senior colleague who has the opposite mentoring style of my advisers. He asks very personal psychological questions, acts very paternal, tells people they'll get a PNAS publication when they've managed to plot something, etc. His trainees do not clearly do better, and I question their intellectual independence. But maybe this is the way to go.

  • DJMH says:

    I make sure that I haven't brushed my hair that day, does that count? It's working for Sanders!!

  • MoBio says:

    @new PI
    "Does anyone have advice on how to increase trainees' motivation, curiosity, ambition? "

    What works for me is to engage with them to find a project which they would love to work on.

    A standard question is to ask them (before taking them in the lab): "If you had unlimited resources, what would you like to study?"

    If I can see they get excited when answering this (and the project is close enough to something my lab does), then we work together to see if this can fit in with ongoing stuff I'm funded to study. Of course, if they are really excited about something we have no expertise/funding for, then they wouldn't be a good fit for the lab.

    Another thing I do is to try to find out where their talents are and then to work with them on a project which would resonate with these nascent abilities.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    new PI, I'm not parental by any means, but I'm very involved and I am not afraid to get personal about *my* struggles, including personal aspects of them (not like, hey I broke up with this guy and man science sucked for a while... but, I was really struggling with a personal issue at home, and it made it so hard to focus on my work; here's what I found I could do to keep my momentum up).

    One of the first questions I ask anyone is - why are you here? Why do you like science? What things do you enjoy the most? (e.g., planning studies, reading literature, being a part of a team, visual tasks like microscopy, fine motor tasks like pipetting, data analysis, etc.). Part of my job is figuring out what motivates them so that I can set them on a path to get me lots and lots of data 🙂 I have some people in my group who thrive on management - giving them undergrads is the ticket to the fast lane. I have others that really enjoy the bench work and want a nicely organized task list so they can hum along independently. Others that are best left to drift among the literature before finding their own internal inspiration. So some people need to be left alone. Some people need to be roped into the team. Every person needs to know why they are important.

    I make sure, no matter what they are contributing, they know why it matters and also how they can keep doing better. This involves a conscious effort to give positive and negative feedback, to make it very individualized and sincere, and to slip it into normal conversation so they know it's genuine (not awkward). E.g., when considering a new undergrad, I ask the grad student first what they think, commenting "You've done such a great job with John Doe, thought you might be interested in this person - what do you think of this CV? Would you want to work with them?". Or, in front of the undergrad (this is key), "You're lucky to have Jane Doe as a mentor; she is our expert at **insert technique, give specific reason why the person actually is good at it". When I give negative feedback, I'm direct: "Gotta tell you. That was a bad decision". Pep talks just don't last... they need to know their value and believe in it, and part of that is believing that you are giving them real, balanced critique.

    When something comes up in lab meeting that I know one person has expertise in, I turn around, point out that person, and broadly query what they think. In one on one conversation, when we are making decisions, I ask them what they think, even if I'm still going to make them do it my way (though I am usually genuinely interested in what they think).

    When I fail, and I am aware of what I might have done to contribute to that, I acknowledge it. When I have successes, I am explicit about what my group contributed: THAT graph, publication, idea, whatever.

    TLDR; I show them respect so they feel valued.

    You asked for anecdotes. I can't say whether a truly unmotivated person has ever turned around, because I just won't work with people who don't feel some kind of fire when they start. However, I have definitely seen people sink to the depths for long periods of time (months) and then turn it around to get back to where I expect them to be - caring about their work and completing it to a high ethical and scientific standard. It *is* up to them to dig themselves out of a scientific/personal rut. It has to come from them. But I do think providing them an environment where they understand their value helps more people get through the tough times.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I have two, likely entirely useless, thoughts.

    1) I think it is clear that the thing that I am least competent at (and this is not a high bar) is motivating my staff. I have no idea how to manage for productivity, even after a fairly substantial number of person-years as a boss of others' work.

    2) I was a trainee (and am currently a PI) that goes through fairly substantial intervals of non-motivated uselessness. As a PI, of course, there are certain things that have to be done, which keeps a certain level of productivity going. But as a trainee? I'd go for months without accomplishing a damn thing. The only motivators that got me back around to work were a) panic and b) success.

    I try pretty hard as a mentor and lab head to keep stark panic off the table for my people. I just don't think it is healthy. I also try to keep the successes rolling- whether this makes me play too much small ball and not reach for the stars enough...well that's a discussion for another day.

  • Grumble says:

    " the thing that I am least competent at ... is motivating my staff."

    My impression was always that anyone who would choose academic science as a career needs no motivation from on high - doesn't choosing such a punishing path require an enormous amount of self-motivation? Which is why I never really gave much thought to how to motivate people - I just expected them to bring their own motivation.

    But I've learned that not everyone brings it. I don't know, maybe it's because getting a PhD is free and in fact students get a stipend - so there will be some fraction of slackers who are doing it because they don't want a real job. Whatever the reason, I've decided to only accept people into the lab who demonstrate self-motivation.

  • Luminiferous Aether says:

    @DM "I was a trainee (and am currently a PI) that goes through fairly substantial intervals of non-motivated uselessness"

    I wouldn't call it useless per se....I mean all (most) of those blog posts of yours are usually quite useful to a bunch of people! 😀

  • DJMH says:

    2) I was a trainee (and am currently a PI) that goes through fairly substantial intervals of non-motivated uselessness. As a PI, of course, there are certain things that have to be done, which keeps a certain level of productivity going. But as a trainee? I'd go for months without accomplishing a damn thing. The only motivators that got me back around to work were a) panic and b) success.

    This is one of the most reassuring things I've read in months. It's not just me!

  • Dr Becca says:

    I think about that original commenter all the time, and wonder if he hit his stride or found another path.

    There is still so much I love about this job, but I was not at all prepared for how mentally exhausting it would get.

  • JC says:

    "other times they have too much vision and keep wanting to expand the scope of what should be a simple task."

    Grumble: "Yeah, but usually this is a problem you want to have. I think it's easier to rein someone in - to show them that they need to constrain their project or they aren't going to get anything done."

    You haven't met many physics students then! I have one recent example who is convinced he can "solve biology" after a few EM I lectures. Reductionist to the extreme. He's an undergrad at least, so I dropped him immediately. Grad students are a bit harder. Unsurprisingly, I'm recruiting from departments other than my home now.

  • Luminiferous æther says:

    "You haven't met many physics students then! I have one recent example who is convinced he can "solve biology"...."

    Not to generalize, and a little off-topic - I can't even tell you how many times I've heard physicists talk like they could have solved biology a century ago if only they weren't too cool for it. Don't be surprised if you get significantly >1 physics students with that attitude. And usually it's the students who act like that until reality slaps them across the face and shows them their place.

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