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PI Letter issue

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raf1ki

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I know this thread crops up from time to time, but I wanted to get input on my situation. I hope that's okay. I'm entering my fourth year of undergrad (I will take a fifth year, but I will take the MCAT and apply to medical schools in Spring '17.

I have been in a very demanding neuroscience lab for a year now. I joined through a competitive summer program and worked 40 hours a week. When school started, I averaged upwards of 20 hours a week. However, the lab is becoming too demanding. It is a Drosophila lab, and requires daily attendance for care of personal fly stocks, collecting virgins for genotype crosses, and IHC brain dissections are quite time intensive as well (a very tight 2-day schedule of changing incubation solutions often). Despite putting in my best effort to meet these demands, most of my experiments have been fruitless, and lab is becoming joyless, and a chore. I have tried my best to have a good attitude, and dis-attach my ego from my experiment results, but I can feel the PI losing faith in my abilities. In addition, the PI is a whip-cracking workaholic whose methods of encouragement are to browbeat everyone into submission. Our lab manager of many years has just moved out of state, and the lab is becoming more disorganized and stressful to be in. She only has (rare) praise for students who spend 60 hours a week in the lab. Many of her students spend 40 and are constantly tiptoeing around, and always scared to meet with her.

My question is a common one. After spending a year in her lab, and likely having much to say about it in my essays, will it be odd not to have a letter of rec from my PI? There is no post-doc in the lab. During our last meeting, the PI asked me to put her lab as first priority, or consider quitting. I plan to stick out this last summer, show a final burst of dedication, and then thank her for the opportunity and tell her that I don't want to underperform because I can't commit what she needs me to. I will ask her for a strong one when the time comes, but if I don't feel comfortable with her response, then I'm afraid to use her letter.

I can count on a strong non-science letter from an Art History professor (not joking lol, he takes pride in having the hardest liberal arts courses at my school, and I have taken many of his). I am confident and outgoing enough to collect what I believe would be strong letters from science professors this semester, but I am afraid that the short-duration of the relationships could count against me (single semester).

What do you guys think?
 

floured

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That's a tough situation. Are you working in that lab this summer? If you are, are you still unable to commit the time necessary? What kind of role do you have in the lab? It sounds like you have your own project and unfortunately that kind of responsibility does come with a huge time commitment. Do you work with your PI directly? I know a lot of undergraduate students commonly work with post-docs to lighten the work load while also gaining meaningful research experience.

If meeting with the PI and expressing your concerns isn't productive, it sounds like your current plan is the right way to go.
 

bananafish94

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It is a Drosophila lab

most of my experiments have been fruitless
I see what you did there.

I don't think it will be a huge issue. Many, many premeds hardly even interface with the PI, instead working directly under a graduate student on a certain project. Furthermore, they understand that not everybody has an excellent working relationship with their PI. It's far from unusual!
 
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raf1ki

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That's a tough situation. Are you working in that lab this summer? If you are, are you still unable to commit the time necessary? What kind of role do you have in the lab? It sounds like you have your own project and unfortunately that kind of responsibility does come with a huge time commitment. Do you work with your PI directly? I know a lot of undergraduate students commonly work with post-docs to lighten the work load while also gaining meaningful research experience.

If meeting with the PI and expressing your concerns isn't productive, it sounds like your current plan is the right way to go.

I worked alongside another undergrad student, who was difficult to work with, and did not want to share the limelight. I am supposed to be a contributing author on his manuscript, but I am not sure how steady that position is, considering the politics of the workplace, and his attempts to block me out. My lack of similar results to his and his unwillingness to provide feedback has been very frustrating. The PI recently gave me my own spinoff project (identical to his project, but with a different receptor), and I was foolish enough to accept it thinking I could continue to work at the same pace. Most of the other undergraduates merely assist. I'll give it my best shot for the rest of the summer to maintain my position on that original manuscript, but I'm prepared to give that up for the sake of my mental health and grades (and getting more clinical experience). I would work with the PI directly, but meetings with her are terse and rushed, because she meets with most of her students directly, and the low expense of a fly lab means she can have very many students. I did at least get several poster presentations out of it.

@bananafish94: Thanks for the input, that is a relief to hear!

Third edit: I am getting paid during the summer, but the position only finally came through. I haven't been able to meet with the PI as much this year due to increasing my clinical involvement and this has increased tensions.
 
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