Are trainee/advisor boundaries field-dependent?

Jun 03 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

FSP posted recently about the relationships between trainees and advisors, and whether or not those should affect the work relationship. I always find these discussions interesting because many PIs draw lines in the sand and take a rather righteous stand in doing so. PIs are teh BOSSEZ! Others claim to have no overlapping interests with their students and not even be comfortable around them outside of the hallowed halls.

Everyone has their style, but I seem to notice that the most strident of opinions from the Employer/Employee camp are almost always people who do exclusively lab-based work. That's fine and the model works in that environment, but must we paint all of science with the same brush? Is there A model for how the PI/trainee relationship works or, just like in the real world, is it always faulty logic to employ a single model, based on one set of conditions, to a diverse landscape?

For labs that have a field component to their work, there is a very different dynamic to interactions because so many hours are spent outside the office. Maybe you're on a boat for three months with your lab or in a tent for two weeks, it doesn't really matter. The point is that when you spend long hours in one-on-one situations with trainees under varying conditions, there is a different dynamic that develops between people. In some cases you might be literally entrusting your safety to a trainee or PI you are with. The typical "me boss, you trainee" model just doesn't translate to these conditions.

I'm not trying to justify a relationship lacking in clear distinctions as to where the buck stops, but I do think there is room to know the people in the lab in a broader context than their existence in said lab without it turning into a managerial disaster. The PI needs to be able to make hard decisions based on the performance of the lab peeps, and those can't be clouded too heavily by personal interactions, but anyone who tells you that they can judge all of their peeps completely objectively is full of shit themselves.

In the end, the person in charge is responsible for maintaining boundaries that allow them to keep the lab functioning the way they need it to. People in the lab are not confidants, party buddies or there to fill some social void in your life. Some of them will want to share things about their lives and others will not, and it shouldn't matter one way or another. But I firmly believe that there is a balance that can be reached between Boss and Person when it comes to mentoring.

11 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    At least keep it in your pants, dude...

  • JaneB says:

    Absolutely! But I'm another person with a field component to my work - spending three weeks in a field station with a trainee or two, where you are both sharing all the practicalities of life (like the laundry and cooking your own food) and doing so under tricky circumstances (working 12 hour days in a tricky environment doing physically demanding things) then I, at least, can't be aloof and PI-ish - you become almost-friends, just because, well, you do joke around and talk about personal stuff when you're sharing hazards and there's no TV reception, you know?

    I find a lot of the 'you must have boundaries' stuff hard, because it feels like a criticism of my style of running a group (which is highly egalitarian we-are-all-scientists)... but keep reminding myself that there are field differences that matter!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    At least keep it in your pants, dude...

    I've never needed the presence of a desk to accomplish this.

  • grad student says:

    I think being in a field where you do field work does shift things; it's pretty hard not to drop some boundaries when you share living space in an isolated place. Even as an undergrad profs were Firstname in the field, the field is just more informal. Really, it's silly to be formal with someone who sees you in your pajamas and covered in mud.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    Shit never heard in the field:
    "Dr. So&so, I just got bit by a venomous snake!"
    "Call my secretary and make an appointment."

    Fieldwork is different, its going to bring you guys closer together. It is what it is, you just have to manage it properly. And it sounds like you do.

  • HFM says:

    I suspect that boundaries increase in direct proportion to lab size. If a PI has a zillion trainees and can barely remember all the postdocs' names, then being buddy-buddy with everyone is impossible. Better to be distant with them all than to only pay attention to the few you're friends with (although the latter is not uncommon).

    That doesn't mean that non-metaphorical screwing of one's trainees is wise, regardless of field and prevalence of muddy pajama work within that field...

  • CoR says:

    Setting boundaries is a good idea -- screening for mature students who have worked in a professional relationship before might make setting the boundaries easier. It's good that you are cognizant of this shit and thinking through how to balance the relationship. I srsly doubt someone aware of these issues would have a problem keepin it in their pants....ahem.

  • namnezia says:

    PLS – Was it you that once mentioned that you carried a gun while on the field?

  • proflikesubstance says:


  • Confounding says:

    I think that while being in a field-research field helps somewhat - there's only so much formality that can be maintained in those situations - it's not necessary nor sufficient.

    I've had professors who I knew in informal/field settings where, on return to the lab, it was very They, In the Office, The Boss - Rest of Us, Underlings. I've also had profs with reasonable excuses - big labs of semi-transient types, no need to do field research, etc. with very close relationships with their students.

  • Mac says:

    Not having anything I could reasonably pull out of my
    pants, that's not such an issue, but yes it is different if you do
    fieldwork and the few groups I know where it isn't are REALLY
    weird. It isn't normal to spend weeks camping with someone and ask
    them to call you "Dr" or to not know anything about them. You don't
    have to share everything and I don't have the same relationship
    with students that I do with peers but since the goal is to make
    those students peers it shouldn't be so far off. I think too that
    part of the difference is that most EEB labs don't have the fiefdom
    model that seems so common in biomed - students are very likely to
    be doing projects that are their own ideas to a large extent. Taken
    together I think this creates a very different atmosphere of
    interaction in field based science.

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