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Love-hate relationship with PI, do I stick with him for MD-PhD?

Discussion in 'Physician Scientists' started by jsydc, May 29, 2008.

  1. jsydc

    5+ Year Member

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    I've spent the past year working on my Master's, and am continuing on in an MD-PhD program at the same school. I had originally planned to continue on in the same lab, but coming out the other side of my Master's I'm wondering if I would be better to seek out a less abusive environment, but it's a complicated decision to make.

    On the one hand, I have independence in this lab. My PI has great faith in me and gives me free reign and adequate resources to test my hypotheses. He occasionally brings good ideas to the table, and is very involved in my work.

    On the other hand, as it is a new lab, there is constant pressure to produce. As our work is involved in many collaborations, I find he has often pushed my techniques to other PIs before they were ready for prime time. He has a very abrasive personality and I find most of my colleagues, and other investigators don't deal with him well. He has chewed out some others for not keeping enough hours, and I've been pushed to my limits at times. (i.e. in October and November I spent 6 weeks continuous without a single day out of the lab, right now when I'm scanning on the night shift for the next two weeks).
    Several times he has really overstepped reasonable boundaries in publicly laying out other students for minor stupidity. (Although the student herself was exceptionally stupid.) Lately he's taken to calling at 6:45pm without much of an excuse, seems like it's just to see if I'm still here working.

    My wife can't stand his ego, and while he is intelligent, I find he is more of a jack of all trades than a true master of any. He also is running a startup biotech company, and I often question if he is more interested in selling my work than building a scientist. I want someone who will push me so I can be successful, not so he can be, and I'm afraid that may be the situation I'm in.

    At the same time, he is a great grant-writer, and he is a good editor for most of the work we've done together.

    Picture a PI with the personality of House, but not quite as smart as his ego merits.

    There are several other PIs here who I would consider working with, but I know I'd get a very significant project and lots of good publications if I continued in this lab. I just don't know if it's an ideal environment, and I don't know if there is enough that I can learn from him.

    I realize I have a while to decide, but he's been particularly frustrating lately, and it will be good to look back at this post in a year and a half when I'm deciding whether or not to come back.

    How high does this rank on the abusive PI scale? Can one truly have both a productive graduate career and a reasonable lifestyle, or is it one or the other? I suspect I would be equally frustrated by a PI with no backbone. Feel free to discuss and vent for yourself if necessary.
     
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  3. gbwillner

    gbwillner Pastafarian
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    Honestly it does sound pretty bad- but you're not alone. A lot of PIs are like this. They can be brilliant but have horrible leadership skills.

    On the one hand, continuing in this lab you may have a quick PhD.

    On the other, you may kill yourself first. Secondly, this is a start-up lab and you may be better off going into a friendlier or more famous lab.

    Put it this way- your PhD can take anywhere from 3-6 years. Do you want to spend it with this guy as you mentor?
     
  4. JHopRevisit

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    Any chance bringing up some of these issues with your PI might work? Sometimes even world-revolves-around-me academics are willing to listen and adjust. You sound like an independant and productive student, and those aren't dime a dozen, he or she might be willing to adjust some of their tactics to keep you in lab. Then again, they probably won't, especially over the course of six years. A tiger doesn't change his stripes, and sooner or later the same attitude will come back. But if you have time, a more honest and open discussion might be worth a shot (as long as you're comfortable you can do it without alienating your PI).

    If you feel things will stay the same after, I would consider doing a rotation in another lab. It's not that odd of a request since most programs require a rotation anyway, and you can always bill it as picking up new skills. As you spend time in that lab, you can see whether you prefer the environment, and if you do, you then have six to ten weeks, or however long the rest of the rotation is to slowly break it to your old PI that you're leaving. Or you might see that your old lab was not that bad after all.

    My opinion is that happiness and teaching are more important than productivity. A PhD is not about publishing Nature papers, its a training program. PostDocs are there to produce, you're there to learn. Put yourself in a situation to learn without going crazy. And as an MD-PhD you'll get a decent residency/research position as long as you produce even 1-2 decent papers, it might not be a top radiology program but it'll get you to where you want to be.
     
  5. jsydc

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    I couldn't agree more.
    As for confronting him, I'll wait until he signs off on my revisions. Still even if he did pay lipservice to some of my concerns, I fear that once the ball was rolling, it would be back to business as usual.
    Pedagogically there is some merit to working with him, as he does push you to deal with your own problems and become an independent investigator. I've seen a lot of PhD candidates who hardly possess either of these traits by the end of their degrees.
    Unfortunately, he expects you to work yourself into the ground, and I've seen his drive break other students. Mostly, we differ in our philosophical approach to life, and I fear I'm already absorbing far too much of his cynicism and disdain for others, which is more troubling than the hours I work.

    Basically he's a great scientist but a poor human being. I would come out of his lab as a better scientist but quite possibly a poorer human being. I'm pretty sure that's not a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Maybe it's just the 14th hour of scanning talking though.
     
  6. QofQuimica

    QofQuimica Seriously, dude, I think you're overreacting....
    Administrator Physician PhD Faculty Lifetime Donor Classifieds Approved 10+ Year Member

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    If I felt that way about my PI, I'd run like hell--even if it meant I'd never do research again for the rest of my life.

    :luck: to you, whatever you decide.
     
  7. Neuronix

    Neuronix Total nerd
    Administrator Physician PhD Faculty SDN Advisor 10+ Year Member

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    Choosing a PI depends on what kind of person YOU are. I'm with Q though.
     
  8. mudphudwannabe

    mudphudwannabe Senior Member
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    Agreed. If it were me, I definitely would not stay in that situation, but as you've (OP) said yourself are pros and cons to either choice.

    One thing to keep in mind - the first 2 years of med school were pretty grueling, and after that I've been a lot less willing to put up with being treated badly or pushed too hard. I'm sure med school doesn't have this effect on everybody, but even if you decide you want to stay with your current PI, I would put off making a commitment until you have some med school under your belt, if that's at all possible. It's also possible that your research interests may change in the next 2 years.

    :luck:
     
  9. grendelsdragon

    grendelsdragon Synesthetic
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    You're in luck!

    With starting an MD/PhD program, you will HAVE to make a clean break for 2 years. Rigors of the preclinical MD years will require the bulk of your attention, and it is not advisable to spend any time in the lab during this time. "Out of sight, out of mind," people say. You can get a lay of the land and seek out your ideal mentor. YOU DECIDE!

    The summers during your first two MD/PhD years are often spent doing research. Many programs require students to rotate through a minimum number of different labs specifically to give you a variety of research experiences and not get trapped into one situation. I highly advise you to take this opportunity to have a good look around.

    You're gonna have a blast. In going the course of MD/PhD, you've placed yourself in the driver's seat. Who knows, you may even get to like your old mentor after he marinates without you for a few years. Lots of investigators evolve depending upon their academic phase and funding situation.
     
  10. Rowany

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    Well, since there are CONS on your list, that pretty much means it's not an ideal environment right? Even if he was not so difficult to deal with, I would still lean toward switching labs, just to learn different ways of approaching science, etc. As long as you can find another PI who can give you both independence and a good leadership, why not jump ship?
     
  11. Frank Hardy

    Frank Hardy Member
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    As long as he can't make your life miserable should you decide to stay in the same department I would jump ship. But only you can make the best decision on this one.
     

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