The cool professor

Apr 14 2014 Published by under LifeTrajectories, [Education&Careers]

When I started my lab I had a very distinct idea of the type of PI I wanted to be. I had experienced some different styles and observed many others. I knew what my needs were as a graduate student and a postdoc and recognized gaps in what my mentors had provided for me. Above all I thought I could navigate that line between friend and boss where all my trainees would both respect me and want to hang out with me.

Oh, and I wanted to ride a unicorn to work every day.

I'm soon to finish up my sixth year as a PI and have mentored two cohorts of students at this stage. I'm hardly a grizzled vet of the mentoring game, but I've had enough experience to change my views on my role. There's been a discussion on twitter recently about whether someone is a Mentor or a Boss. It's a false dichotomy. An effective mentor is both. Sometimes you can spend your time leading your people in the general vicinity of water and sometimes you have to hand them a cup and tell them to drink.

When I say that I often hear people tell me "Well, my advisor was totally hands off and it helped us be independent and successful!" Whereas I won't dispute that many people can do well in that environment, it's often convenient to leave out the long list of those who flounder in those conditions and spent years of their life without advancing their career goals.

There are times when certain things need to get done for the lab and trainee alike, and there are times when the fostering of independence yields tremendous results. To pretend that a PI never has to act like "a boss" to make sure the bills get paid and the science gets done is a ridiculous view of how a lab functions. If a student comes in with all their own funding, then they can be free from the lab's reporting, publishing and proposal writing needs. Otherwise, as the lab goes, so does one's opportunities.

I still care that I have a good relationship with my people. I still hope that they like me and that we can sit down over a beer and enjoy the time spent together. But I'm far less concerned about blurring the line between the personal and professional relationships. I want to put them in the position to succeed at doing whatever it is they want to do, while advancing the lab's overall agenda. If that sometimes means pushing people to get certain things done, so be it.

9 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    My position has always been that a PI is a boss. But good bosses have "mentor" as part of their own job goals and personal priorities. But the PI runs the lab, and decides who works there and who doesn't. That's a boss, no matter what word we give it.

  • Dr Becca says:

    These are things I think about all the time, PLS. One of the things that I took away from the discussions last week is that there is a wide range of expectations and preferences for what a PI-trainee relationship looks like. I think part of our job as PIs is to figure out as quickly as possible what the ideal level is for each of our trainees' success, and do our best to adjust accordingly.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Absolutely to both points. I think it takes some time seeing the job from this side of the desk before one appreciates the need to maintain some clear authority. Without being a jerk about it, obvs.

  • Verna Safran Tomasson says:

    Hello all you medical people,

    I was told by the Assistant Principal my first week of teaching, "It doesn't matter if the kids like you or not; they've got to respect you. And the best way to build respect is to be a damn good teacher."

  • Anonymous says:

    "Well, my advisor was totally hands off and it helped us be independent and successful!"

    You know, it's been mentioned before on the intertubes how the academic game mirrors success in sports. Have you ever heard an athlete --for example, a runner -- say: "Well, I moved half way across the country to train with X. But so far, all he's done is given me some great running shoes, shorts, pointed me to the track and said, "The truly talented runners figure it out on their own." I mean, can you even imagine such a scenario? I'm pretty sure most people would tell that would-be professional runner, "Get the hell out of there and go somewhere where you can get some actual training!" But in academia, not only is this "training" model accepted, it's glamorized -- witness the quote above. What is wrong with academics that they can't see what is obvious to most people with a dollop of common sense? Seriously, can they not google "Stockholm syndrome"?

    Those who think they did just fine with little to no guidance from their mentors are not only ignoring the many who suffered as a result of this, but also how much further they themselves might have gotten if only they had been able to "stand on the shoulders of giants." That, after all, is the way science makes progress -- not by everyone having to figure out every damn thing for themselves.

  • Anon2 says:

    I like your post and I'm glad you're thinking about it. As a recent graduate I wanted to add my 2 cents.

    Don't strive to be friends with all of your students. This is an invasion of privacy. It is also a good way to invalidate the feelings of your students. Instead, strive to be friendly, and let students choose you to be their mentor. If they don't choose you, then just be their boss.

    I can speak for experience - as a graduate student and as a post doc - that sometimes your personal life values simply do not overlap with the person that you work for. For better or worse, academia is a job that requires substantial integration of your personal and work life, and many of your personal decisions, for instance on how you value balancing work and life, will be on display. If you have someone who is trying to boss you and be your friend, but their values on how to make these personal decision is quite different from yours, this can be a living hell.

    I know it seems "cool" to be friends with all your students and for all of your students to be friends with each other, but there is no reason this is practical or makes sense. Is it like this in any other profession?

  • Wowchem says:

    You can try and be their friend, but the first time you demote some to the MS track it won't matter. The rest of the group will see you as a boss. With that power differential, they won't feel it proper to tell you anything that is not to their advantage or puts them in a good light. And there is the tough part, getting enough info to figure out why their expt isn't working. Not something I've mastered.

    But worry not, they still admire you and they want to succeed so its of little matter if you "have beers together"

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I am friendly, but I'm not trying to be anyone's friend in the lab. It makes the dynamics too difficult for everyone to parse properly and leads to way more issues.

  • […] Substance lets go of his desire to be “the cool professor”. (via Isis the […]

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