View Full Version : Quoted: Lab issues
10-16-2007, 07:09 PM
I'm posting this per request. This type of problem is common and we can see what perspectives people have. I will try to respond as well over the next few days.
Hi, I'd like to send a question to confidential consult.
I'm currently a master's student at X university doing a thesis degree. As such, I'm guessing it will look strange if I don't have my major professor write me a letter of recommendation for my medical school application (summer 2009), particularly when I want to apply to the university that I'm currently attending!
1. I get the feeling my major professor doesn't much like me. I don't think she hates me, but I think she kind of finds me annoying. Which might be even worse than hating me.
2. Even though I'm in lab about 40-50 hrs/week, I don't interact with her much because I'm intimidated by her and haven't found her very helpful. The other 3 graduate students in the lab have been 200 million times more helpful than she has been. Life has currently been stressful in the lab because she expects me to come up with a thesis without any funding and without any guidance. She pretty much summarily rejected my first three proposals. Basically, at this point I have a somewhat unoriginal, uninteresting thesis about lima bean growth that can be COMPLETED, but only after a lot of struggling on my part.
3. My major professor's writing abilities are AWFUL. She writes rec letters for probably upwards of 100 students/year and I've SEEN her previous letters -- unoriginal, uninspired, and uninteresting. Her grammar is terrible. I have no doubt that many a medical school has seen her same old canned letters for every applicant.
4. My major professor has admitted to me that she doesn't find herself very intelligent. And I agree. (Well, I didn't TELL her I agree. I just DO agree).
5. I find my major professor self-absorbed, petty, and a gossip.
Yes, I DO wish I'd known all of this *BEFORE* I'd started the degree.
What on earth can I do to get out of this situation? I'm sure University X will call her to find out her opinion of me at the very minimum and I suspect interviewers may ask why I didn't get a letter from her. She's a glaringly obvious choice. If I explain my true feelings about my relationship with my major professor, medical schools may think I'm a total idiot for having worked in the lab in the FIRST place which brings me to my next point.
Quitting the lab entirely doesn't seem like a feasible option because I'm more or less being paid to work as a tech for her and I signed a two-year contract. I've seriously considered quitting the lab, but as of right now, I'm not going to commit to quitting this lab. The pay is decent and considering my student loans, I think it would just mess up my whole plan of applying to medical school if I had to simultaneously come up with an entirely new project, new major professor, and possibly an entirely new department.
10-17-2007, 01:02 PM
It sounds like you are very unhappy with your situation. As such, you really need to just grit your teeth and have a frank discussion with your PI (I'm going use PI, as it's easier for me type!). In a calm and diplomatic way, let her know your concerns in an objective manner that gives her options on what to do. I don't know the specifics of how the lab or program is setup, so ignore anything that doesn't apply. Just saying "I'm unhappy" or "You need to be more supportive" isn't very helpful. Instead, something more like "I'm going to be here for awhile and I'd like to discuss my future in the program and afterwards" is a bit more helpful. Ask to have a set amount of regularly scheduled time that is just you and her to talk about experiments and your progress. You still have awhile before you need to get a letter out of her, so worry about that crisis when it happens. You can always offer to write your own letter for to edit and sign, while very calmly and rationally explaining that med school is competitive and you need great letters. I point-blank asked everyone who wrote me a letter "Can you write me an outstanding letter?" I wrote one myself, which someone edited and signed. After that, I offered it to any letter-writer who I thought needed to see an example. Basically be calm, friendly, non-hostile, diplomatic, etc etc.
If after all that, things still aren't working then get out if you can! Eject! Eject! Eject!
Again, you're in for the better part of two years so there's no reason for you to suffer unnecessarily. That's what med school's for! ;)
10-17-2007, 02:19 PM
As another MD-PhD student who has recently finished the PhD portion, I wanted to share my thoughts as well. I agree with xanthines. I would add a few things:
1. At this point, you are unsure of where you stand with your professor. You definitely need the frank sit down xanthines suggested. I would set the stage by emailing or approaching her and saying you would like to make an appointment with her for about an hour discuss how things are going and plan for the future. This allows her to prep mentally. The first thing that needs to happen in this meeting is you asking for feedback. Ask, "how am I doing so far?" and listen. If necessary, probe for specifics, ask what you can improve on, etc. Although your rejected proposals will likely come up, I would deflect specific discussion of that by saying you would like to address your performance, etc in general and that you would like a separate meeting to strategize on getting together an acceptable proposal. You have a lot of other things to discuss.
2. Again, you need a separate meeting to discuss your proposals once the relationship itself is ironed out. When you do have that meeting, you need to bring the proposals with you and go over her thought process for rejecting them. There is often something to be learned from this experience.
3. LOR writing is the least of your worries, as xanthine points out. You can always help her with this, what you need is for her to think highly enough of you to write a good one.
4. If you don't think your PI is intelligent, then why be intimidated by her? Certainly schedule the meeting and force yourself to interact with her frequently. You may find you had the wrong impression of her and develop a respect for her intellect. If not, how can you learn from her? Would really consider moving on if this turns out the truly be the case. Though at this point, I would argue you haven't spent enough time with her to come to a real conclusion about this.
5. See #4 above. If you cannot respect her in at least one dimension, you will find it extraordinarily hard to get what you need from this masters (assuming you are not just doing it to bide time and actually want to learn how to do research, etc). Also, keep in mind you are trying to get into a field awash with self-absorbed, petty, gossipy people - patients and colleagues alike. Learning how to deal with them is critical for the success of physicians and scientists alike.
You seem quite against leaving this lab, and I think sticking it out could be a great learning experience for you. But the bad stuff will only snowball if you keep your head in the sand. Tackle it head-on. We will be cheering for you and awaiting updates.
10-18-2007, 06:45 AM
F/U from the OP
Thank you for your advice, xanthines and Hard24Get. You are both right Ė this is early in my degree and thereís still a lot of time to get things ironed out. Your comments give me hope that maybe the first semester is just rough and that maybe things will get better.
Iíve definitely considered talking seriously with my PI, but I donít think that Iíd be able to talk with her privately because our lab technician is always there. Itís a complicated situation, but the PI takes every chance she can get to bad-mouth someone elseís contribution in the lab and does her primary gossiping with the lab tech. I work in the lab between their two rooms and want to just cover my ears and block it out. The people that they bad-mouth are simply trying their best! They are NOT bad people. [Mostly, theyíre just unpaid, untrained undergraduates and, frankly, sometimes you get what you pay for.]
Hard24Get makes a good point. If my PI possesses all of these horrible traits that I attribute to her, then why am I intimidated? While some of this is probably a result of my personality, I think that itís largely because I worry that sheís bad-mouthing me, too, behind my back. Actually, Iím pretty sure that she is because an undergraduate in the lab implied as much. That will REALLY do me no favors in the application-to-medical-school process. But the idea of talking to her makes me really uncomfortable when I know that the lab tech is going to hear/know every.word.that.I.say and that likely, so will the rest of my department. Part of me wishes I had some idea of what she was saying about me and part of me would far rather not know.
However, that said, there are a few things that I would like to try to express diplomatically to my PI and I just canít figure out how to say them with the needed degree of diplomacy.
We both knew that I would be starting this degree without some of the necessary background for the research. I think that there is a joint responsibility in getting me up to speed with the necessary background I need to do the kind of research we do Ė and the PI is FAR from keeping up her end of the deal. (Iím keeping this all general because I really need to ensure anonymity.) I suspect that she only accepted me into her lab for very superficial reasons (= 1580 GRE) and hoped that Iíd ďfigure it all outĒ myself. GRE does NOT = intelligence but in her estimation, itís apparently my finest (only?) virtue.
I donít want to be involved in any of the gossip that she is involved in. I especially donít want my opinion solicited as to whether or not student X is smart.
Iím being paid to work 10 hours a week but she requires me to be in lab every day working from 8-5 unless I have class. Tonight I left work around 9:30 and I definitely see some 50-60 hour workweeks in the upcoming future. Because I am preparing for the MCAT this year, I do need to have some consideration for my own time. Incidentally, I was guilt-tripped about leaving at 9:30. :-( The last thing I need on my LOR is any sort of implication that Iím a ďquitterĒ.
I have difficulty figuring out when she wants me to be involved in major lab decisions and when she doesnít. I initially assumed that she would consult me if my opinion were desired, but she hasnít done so and Iím now starting to think that my lack of input is being interpreted as a lack of interest.
Well. Ok, now I think I probably have nothing much new to say about the situation. Hard24Get gives EXCELLENT advice when she tells me Iíll probably have to deal with this in medical school/as a practicing doctor.
So Iíll definitely consider that motivation to iron out the situation. It would just be a little easier to deal with if the PI wielded slightly less power over my free time, thesis and recs.
10-18-2007, 07:19 PM
Hard24Get is right in that you will have to deal with all kinds of jerks in medicine from time to time, but it's not really the same as grad school. In medicine the steps you need to take to get form point A to point B are pretty well outlined for you. I'm not saying it's any easier, but in some ways it's less stressful. In other ways, it's a LOT more stressful. I don't know the whole story but it sounds like you have a malignant PI that abuses students and should not be a mentor. Maybe not, but I'm not getting a good feeling from what you're telling me. You should definitely have "the talk" with your PI, but just to cover your bases you should think about what to do if things don't go well. If you have any student friends you can trust, discreetly ask them about other labs you could possibly go to. I'm not belittling you in any way, but you really are just a master's student and shouldn't be expected to devote your life to the lab. Heck, I don't think PhD students should be expected to do that either but I'm biased. :) Anyway, you don't want to end up in 9-year master's program because of your PI. I've seen PhD students work their butts off to no avail because of a bad PI. In one case, this student had to get the chairman of the department and the director of the program to sign off on graduation (two years after this student's peers!) because the PI was a jerk. Don't let it happen to you! Don't be confrontational about it, but make sure everyone is on the same page about your plans. I think a lot of problems in labs everywhere could be preemptively solved by being upfront about things. Again, good luck!