Sunday, June 22, 2014

Is my PI out to get me?

I've been delving more into the world of science blogging lately, and it is a wonderful place, with many exciting voices, both young and old. Among the younger crowd, though, I sometimes see these negative comments towards PIs, usually along the lines of “All my PI cares about is getting her papers published and grants funded and not about training me with real skills that I need or helping me get ahead in my own career”. Essentially, some variant of “PIs only cares about themselves and not about me and the incentives in science are all wrong in this regard, etc.”

Hmm. As a PI now (still feels weird to say it) I think it's worth making a couple points. First, by far the majority of PIs that I've met care deeply about their trainees and want nothing but the best for them. They are acutely aware of their successes and failures and want to maximize the former and minimize the latter. As in any relationship, I think some degree of conflict/frustration with your PI is totally normal and is in fact productive. Indeed, I think one of the most wonderful things about being a PI is working with younger people who have a healthy disrespect for experience, including my own. That said, thinking you know better than your PI is one thing, thinking that they don’t care about you is something else.

Another criticism I often hear these days is something along the lines of “My PI didn't teach me anything, so why is it called graduate SCHOOL?” I think this gets to the heart of what graduate school is about. Is it developing tangible skills? Yes and no. Yes, you will learn some specific skills along the way. But going to graduate school for a PhD is decidedly not the same as going to a trade school. Or at least it is one of a wholly different sort. To me, the most important thing you learn in grad school is critical thinking, which is hard to quantify but is very, very real. I was just on a thesis committee of a student who is about to wrap up her PhD. In the last year, she did a ton of work, and made fantastic progress–which, by the way, everyone on the committee was happy to see. And it was also clear that she had changed as a person. Perhaps a bit weary, maybe a bit less idealistic. But at the same time, it was clear she had developed tremendously as a scientist–and, by extension, as a professional. She handled criticism with aplomb, projected authority on her research field, and presented her work clearly and effectively. In short, she is a now a trained, mature scientist. It is this aspect of training that is the hardest to objectively describe and so gets ignored the most, but is far more important than any particular skill in the long term, no matter what career path you choose to follow.

So if this is the point of grad school, then how does the PI help make this happen? Partly to provide an exciting and vibrant environment for doing science, and make no mistake, this is a lot of work–something I didn’t appreciate as much until I became a PI. And yes, partly to provide some technical scientific skills. (I actually think this includes the elusive notion of “creativity”, which is a skill that can be taught, in my opinion.) But another big part of it that is much harder for trainees to appreciate is that we bring experience. Experience in navigating through the ups, downs, twists and turns (the “cloud”) as you struggle through a research project, experience in how to deal with failure and rejection, experience in how to deal with success. We have learned from many mistakes, and the point of the human learning is to try not to repeat mistakes others have made before. At the edge of knowledge, where the path is by definition not clear, this experience is invaluable.

I think we also have something valuable to share with students just based on the fact that we’ve typically been alive a bit longer. I think this manifests itself most often in the common belief that “My PI is not letting me graduate because they just want to get another paper out of me.” I’m going to just speak for myself here, and I’m sure there are many counterexamples, but I don’t think I’ve met any PI who’s done this. In fact, far more common in my experience is the opposite thought for the PI, along the lines of “How am I going to graduate this student who just has not been productive?”

Where does this notion of the PI holding back the student come from? I think it’s the Luke Skywalker/Yoda dynamic. You know, when Luke Skywalker wants to face Darth Vader and Yoda says “Complete is not your training” (or whatever Yodaspeak, leave me alone Star Wars nerds), but Luke leaves anyway, gets his hand chopped off, and then returns, at which point Yoda says “Complete your training is”. Students are young, with that energy and the aforementioned healthy disrespect for inexperience that tells them “I’m ready to get out there and do my thing!” PIs have a bunch of experience that says “Wait, why be in such a rush? Life is long, there’s more to learn here, and it will serve you well.” You know what, I think they’re both right. At some point, the student is ready to get out there and develop their own experiences–they, like Luke Skywalker, will be faced with a new situation, rely on what they have learned, perhaps make some mistakes, and then their training will be complete. I have often found myself now encountering situations where I think to myself “Oh, now I see what my advisor was talking about…” I think it’s just the natural cycle of the mentor and the trainee.

Again, though, I think it’s important not to mistake this for the PI acting against the best interests of the trainee. I would like to think that when faced with a choice, I would choose to act in the best interests of the trainee, and I believe that to be the case for myself (although perhaps some might disagree :). To be frank, though, I don’t think these choices come up all that often anyway–most of the time, I think the interests of trainees and mentors align quite well. Yes, PIs have their own career to think about, and I’m not going to say that it's not a part of one’s thinking as a PI. But consider this: if the interests were so misaligned, why is it that junior PIs, who face the most career pressure and uncertainty, typically make the best mentors for graduate students?

Anyway, I guess my point is that for the most part, PIs care about their trainees, and usually a lot. Sometimes PIs make choices that may not initially seem to trainees to be in their best interest. And sometimes PIs make mistakes, or sometimes we all fall victim to just plain old bad luck. But, for the trainees out there, please don’t feel like your PI is out to get you, because they probably aren’t.

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