The PI's role as psychiatrist

Apr 29 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I suspect that over the course of one's career a PI becomes less involved with the personal lives of their grad students. In the beginning, one works fairly closely with the students in the lab because the lab is small and everyone must pitch in to get a new lab up and running. I think that this fosters a closer relationship between all lab members because the structure of the group less defined. Once the lab grows, a hierarchy has to be established and the PI (in most cases) spends less day-to-day time with the trainees and therefore gets to know them less personally than professionally.

However, as a new PI, I do know quite a bit about the personal lives of my students. I have spent time traveling with them, shared hotel rooms and many meals with them as well as countless hours in the lab and in my office, going over experiments and troubleshooting things. My students have been to my house for dinner with my family. In those circumstances, you get to know people. You find out about their lives, just as they find out about mine. I think the trick is figuring out the boundary between know about the personal lives of your students and being involved in said lives. It's a trickier distinction than it looks, as I have recently found out when one of my students had something of significance happen in their lives. I'm not the kind of person who tells someone to go to counseling services when they come into my office in tears, it's just not how I roll. At the same time, I'm only willing to advise on personal matters in a very limited sense - as in let someone know if they are doing something totally irrational, but that's about it.

So far the strategy I've taken is being supportive in ways I can, listen if the person needs to talk and encourage them to work on things that will serve as a good distraction but that aren't particularly demanding of a distracted mind. More established PIs may scoff at the notion of taking the time to address personal matters of grad students, but for me I would rather know there is an issue and help the person along than wonder why someone hasn't progressed in a month. Perhaps my view on this will change over time, but with a small group it seems like a good investment to ensure that personal set backs are addressed in a reasonable way so we can all move forward rather than have one person sink into an abyss and take their project with them.

8 responses so far

  • Hermitage says:

    Hmm, I had a student break down sobbing in the middle of the laboratory. Which was disconcerting. But was was more so was watching everyone else look at her quizzically, then go back to work. I'd much rather have PI who takes the time to go 'hey wtf' than continue talking in hushed tones, pausing for when someone's snot sobs get too loud.

  • Professor in Training says:

    I hear you. One of my best undergrads is having marital issues and has been in tears for a week (awesome timing with finals just around the corner). I don't want to play at being a counselor but just told her that she knew where to find me if she needed to talk. Just knowing she had that support seemed to help her but I'm not about to get involved in her personal life.

  • Becca says:

    I've been wondering what this would be like from the PI's perspective. Would you want to know if your grad student was depressed/suicidal? Assuming they were already seeking treatment, but it wasn't 100% successful.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I would, yes. Let me pose it this way - As a PI, would you want to find this out after something happened? Even if there was nothing I could have done, it would bother the hell out of me that I didn't know and therefore never had the chance to try to work with the student. Like I said, I am not looking to get involved with people's personal lives, but that doesn't mean that I don't want to know if something is not going right with them and it's relavent to their work in some way. Like it or not, because of the hours spent at work in this profession, one's personal life has more consequences for their work life than in many other professions.

  • tideliar says:

    My postdoc mentor had a rule; if something in your personal life is going to affect your work, we need to talk about it. Not to the level of gory detail, but I need to know so we can either adjust workloads as necessary or at least so I don't wonder what the fuck is going on when productivity/attendance drops off. It worked for both of us at least once.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    That's my point. Let me know what is going on so that I can keep the ship afloat. When I was distracted early this semester with a personal issue I let my students know so that they were aware of why things were getting done differently. I've made it clear to them that I would like to know when things happen on their end as well. A big lab would probably be unaffected by losing a month or more of one member's productivity, but not a small group.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    The best line I've found/heard/used is..."counseling can't HURT. . ." Sometimes all it takes is someone to "give you permission" to seek out help (we're all used to being pretty self-sufficient, after all). I remain convinced that counseling has helped the quality of life for several people I have known. Divorce/marital/relationship problems are pretty common during school. . .at least 3 of my class got divorced during grad school. If I had ANY inkling that a coworker or student was anywhere near suicidal I would actively advocate counseling. Both my PhD and current schools have had students commit suicide so there is a heightened awareness and there are intervention programs in place.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    PLS, I think you have a really admirable approach here. Of course you will be more involved with your trainees at this stage of your career, and it is more than kind of you to be supportive of them in a professional capacity, even when it involves their personal lives.

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