What can and can't you expect from your trainees?

Jan 23 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

"My trainees don't work hard enough."

Is there a PI out there who hasn't at least thought this at one time or another? Probably not, and I'm sure there are numerous cases when it was true. But, what is working hard enough? How many hours does it take per week? How many days per year? Can you take vacation from working hard enough?

Herein lies a problem of expectations, reality, perception and selective memory, garnished with a touch elitism and a hint of elderberry, blended and served over ice in a tall glass*.

An interesting discussion touched off from Dr. Becca's TT job search advice aggregation post when a commenter left a note complaining about having a TT position that wasn't all it was "supposed" to be. Drug Monkey picked this up in the follow-up comments and then in a post. The discussion there has wandered a little bit and really fallen into two camps, 1) being a new faculty member is overwhelming, and 2) the expectation PIs have of their peeps. If you read this blog at all, you know I've written more than I probably should about point #1, so I'm more interested today in delving into point #2.

I'm on the record for cutting Dr. Becca's commenter, alreadyTTandhateit, a little slack. This job will fuck with you at times and make you question why you're killing yourself for a paycheck that some of your friends were making a couple of years out of college. You spend a lot of time trying to balance your own interests with everyone else's so that you can survive and turn out trainees who will too. But when things aren't moving fast enough and you're in a tight spot, there is a tendency to whip the horses pulling the cart, and this is where I'll take issue with the comment of alreadyTTandhateit, who states "I think its a combination of worrying about grants, science not going as fast as I want it to, dealing with annoying staff at my institution, not much help from other faculty versus what I had been told there would be, grad students not working as hard as I think they should (don’t people work weekend anymore?)".

Maybe they do, maybe they don't but it's not the PI's call to make. I have no idea what kind of supervisor alreadyTTandhateit is and I'm not going to make assumptions based on a couple of comments. However, the "thou shalt work more hours than me!" phenotype is not uncommon in academia and I am always amazed that there exist PIs who demand their trainees work certain hours or a certain number of hours. I mean, for the love of St. Kern, don't we have enough evidence that imposing shitty work conditions on people is NOT going to make them more productive? The students recognize this, why don't the PIs?

So in honor of stressed out PIs everywhere, I present the PLS rules for what you can and can't expect from trainees.

What you can't expect
1) Trainees to work the hours you want them to work. Hours =/= productivity on a linear scale and just because it took you X hours to do something, it is stupid to think it takes everyone X hours to do the same thing or that they are happy to work X hours in a row to accomplish said task.

2) Trainees to crank it up when your ass is on the line. Sure, it would be nice if everyone in the lab pitched in when things got critical, but if you're a grade A douchecanoe, they are probably half curious to see what the crash and burn would look like.

3) Trainees to care about your promotion and tenure.

4) Trainees to spend countless hours helping to recruit new trainees. It's important for perspective students to get a chance to talk with everyone in the lab, but beyond a couple hours a year, your lab peeps are not there to choose the next generation.

5) Trainees to plan major life decisions around their work. If you want to do so, that's your choice, but life happens and people need the appropriate time to deal with it when things come up.

6) Trainees to be perfect writers from day one.

What can you expect?
1) Your people to work on their projects and produce results in a timely manner. Sometimes people are actually not working very hard and need to step it up.

2) Lab folk to respect each other and you, provided you show them the same.

3) Trainees to let you know when there are issues in the lab, with either equipment, interactions or protocols.

4) Everyone in the lab to take care of live organisms to the best of their ability, be they mice, yeast, bacteria or ciliates.

5) People in the lab to meet reasonable deadlines for research and writing.

This is not an exhaustive list, but can serve to start the discussion. No one is "inspired" by being forced to slave away well beyond the hours they want to spend on that task and micromanaging people in the lab only makes them want to spend less time there. As a PI, it is up to you to figure out how to get the work done with the help you have. If that is not happening then you may need better help, or maybe more appropriate expectations.

* I'll leave it to Dr. Becca to actually make this cocktail, but it might not be a big seller.

26 responses so far

  • 4) Trainees to spend countless hours helping to recruit new trainees. It’s important for perspective students to get a chance to talk with everyone in the lab, but beyond a couple hours a year, your lab peeps are not there to choose the next generation.

    This is totally wrong. The desired outcome of the lab-building process is not to have a bunch of people who are efficient at--as you put it--"helping" the PI "get the work done". Rather, the desired outcome is a self-sustaining intellectual community of scholars whose strengths and weaknesses complement one another and who synergize in pursuing scientific goals under the overarching umbrella of the lab's research programs.

    Accordingly, it is very important for this that existing members of that community play a major role in vetting possible new members. There is going to be orders of magnitude more direct interaction among the members of your lab than is going to occur between the PI and any one of those lab members. Someone who comes across very well with you in your office may turn out to be a spanner in the works of your lab community. (This also goes the other way, which is that your sales spiel in your office might sound very appealing to the candidate, yet the reality of life on the ground in your lab might not be what they are looking for.)

    For all of these reasons, I expect my trainees to participate substantially in the interviewing/vetting process for potential new members of the lab. Because they are very aware that things do work in the way that I described above, they are very happy to do this. They understand that it is a high-leverage activity for them.

  • Jen says:

    An important key here is communication between the PI and trainee. This is easier said than done, I know, although it sounds like you are making a concerted effort. My PI never said out-right what he expected of grad students (communication is not his strong suit), and I was too chicken to ask. However, through observations and keeping my ears open, I quickly fell into the mindsight that I had to be in the lab at least 6 days/week, preferably 7, since that was my PI's schedule. I heard rumors that he wrote letters to previous grad students, saying they weren't working hard enough and that it might be best it they left. I became paranoid and went to a full 7-day schedule. I made very stupid decisions, like choosing to go into the lab instead of joining my grandmother for lunch on her birthday (which I still regret very much, since she passed away only a few months later). All because I was trying to please my PI and be a good grad student. Now that I'm on the job market, I have learned from conversations with him that I probably needn't have put so many hours in the lab. I should have just grown a spine and asked him about it much earlier in my career.

  • GMP says:

    I don't know about all of the things you mention as "you can't expect"...

    I think it's reasonable to expect some overlap in the work hours of all trainees and yourself in order to be able to have meetings and simply not work in vacuum. I have had a couple of students who insisted on working at night, claiming they were most productive then. In reality, (a) they ended up being sick markedly more often than everyone else because of crazy work hours/never sleeping at night/immunity screwed up and (b) were really not very productive as they were never around to actually talk to other people when they were stuck. So I had to put my foot down and require that they show up in the lab for at least a few hours between 9 and 5. I now also regularly "preach" to my group about the importance of keeping regular work hours and staying healthy (meaning actually sleeping at night, not having blood replaced by coffee, trying to get some exercise in, and staying home when sick for everyone's sake). I am going to say that the PI certainly has the right to require that trainees spend some time around the lab when everyone else does. I don't think that's draconic at all. But I also agree that people do have lives and you cannot really mandate working late nights or weekends; however, you have the right to require a certain level of productivity.

    Also, I think trainees actually do care that their PI gets tenure. Graduating in a group of someone who didn't get tenure does not help one's future. For normal and humane PI's (and I really think most are), most trainees (save for totally useless lazy ass ones, and yes there unfortunately are some) understand that the PI's career goals and theirs are inseparable and will pull their weight when proposals and similar time-sensitive shit is due.

  • Cherish says:

    You're absolutely right: being a douchecanoe (love the word!) often inspires the opposite reaction that is desired. I think the problem here is there is an expectation that the PI be reasonable. Unfortunately, I've seen a decent chunk of unreasonable people herding grad students.

  • LadyLobo says:

    Should the rules be in honor of stressed Trainees everywhere? The list seems to clarify the disconnect between them and PIs not between PIs and PIs.

    oh and douchecanoe is becoming an official part of my vernacular

  • Bashir says:

    I very much agree with writing, and would add to that presentations. Communicating science though writing or speaking is a very difficult and very important skill. Most new student's aren't' particularly good at it.

    Regardless of hours put in or productivity, do you think there should be an expectation of "caring about the work"? I mean this in a general sense that the trainee isn't just going through the motions and aiming for the bare minimum. I've certainly seen trainees that appeared to be doing this. It seemed very unsatisfying for everyone involved.

    Why wouldn't trainees care about their advisor's tenure? If my advisor hadn't gotten tenure I would either have to leave with him or switch to a completely different area with another PI. Neither of which were appealing options.

  • CoR says:

    I am in complete agreement with CPP above. So many damn times we interviewed total douchebags and yet the faculty had *no clue* since the people were somewhat adept at hiding their douchebagginess. For example, one year a doode offended a gay member of our group, and tried to *score some pot on the interview*..... this all happened while out on the town. No way the fac would have known what an imbecile they almost brought in...

    I've been thinking a bit about how to train my grad students to be good grad students...post coming soon...

  • leigh says:

    there's a difference between presenting a handful of serious candidates to the lab for vetting, vs parading every halfass job-seeking imbecile who inquires about the position in front of the entire group. there needs to be some preliminary screening. as a trainee, i felt that was a pretty major disrespect of my time. there are effective and non-effective ways to involve the lab in selecting new members.

    also, in my own experience, a PI who demands productivity (science done, no matter the results- even if troubleshooting progress is the main output of the week) is going to get far more out of students than a PI who demands strictly hours. we all work differently- some people really have their shit together and can crank out a ton in a 45-50 hour week. others fuck around a lot and don't get anything done until there's nobody left to talk to, and then brag about their 70 hour weeks (without much productivity differential).

  • I agree with most of your points (the exception being GMP's point about enforcing some overlap hours). I run my own group this way--my students come and go as they please, take vacations, and don't come in often on weekends. I think they are hardworking, and I am happy enough with their progress. What I do expect is (that isn't on your list):

    1. They tell me when they won't be in on a "normal" workday.

    2. They give me at least a few weeks and preferably a month's notice when they will be gone for more than a few days unless it is for an unforeseen life event.

    3. That they do things when they tell me they will. Even if the results aren't coming in as planned, they should have at least done the experiments they said they would do so we can figure out what new things to try.

    I don't expect them to care about my tenure on a personal level, but I am pretty sure they care about how it will impact them!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Fair points on the interviewing and some overlap during a "normal" day. I agree that it is important to have trainees interacting with the candidates, for both the candidate and the potential future lab mates. However, some labs take this to an extreme depending on the turn-over. Again, I'm referring to things that should not be expected (as in required) without benefit to the trainees. In a well functioning the benefits of being involved in the hiring process are large.

    On the timing front, I was more thinking of the "you must be here from X o'clock to Y o'clock", not being around at some times when it is possible to meet with the PI.

    With regard to tenure, I think most trainees should care that their PI gets tenure, but I don't think you can EXPECT them to care. If they have other career plans or are looking to switch fields, their motivation to be concerned with the PI's tenure are not so high. Especially if the PI is an asshole.

  • FSP says:

    You worded your Can't Expect Pt #2 in such a way that it's hard to disagree with you, but regarding expectations, I think that Can Expect Pt #5 should go further. This is along the lines of CPP's point about expecting group members to helping recruit new people. A research group is a community, and sometimes we all have to crank it up to meet a deadline. I guess it depends on how you define "reasonable" whether that falls into your Can Expect group or crosses the line of into Can't Expect. It shouldn't depend only on whether the PI is a jerk, though, because there are other group members to take into account.

    I agree that we can't expect our grad students and postdocs to care deeply about our promotion and tenure; at least, not in the sense of their having to work an insane amount and focus obsessively on it, but current and future advisees do benefit in some ways if their advisor gets tenure/promoted, so I think it would be better to qualify Can't Expect Pt #3.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    IMO, one can only expect trainees to care about their PI's tenure in relation to how it will affect their own careers. In particular, if trainees have non-tt plans they may have little motivation (unless their PI would have to leave during their degree) to be concerned about the ultimate fate of the PI.

  • GMP says:

    I don't know about this one really... This actually sounds pretty selfish on the trainee's side. I would say that if a student does not care about the PI's career well-being, then perhaps the PI should not be obligated to provide funding or training or professional development opportunities that would enable the student to succeed in a non-academic job; then one could argue that the PI is justified in only looking out for his/her own interests.

    I think the advising relationship is a symbiosis: each side should be aware of and sensitive to the other side's career goals, otherwise it doesn't really work. If it's OK to have every trainee care only about his/her career goals, then I don't think there's much of a team dynamics anyway or much reason for one to expect the PI to be particularly caring either.

  • Inseparable? says:

    I'm curious about this idea of the PI and trainee's career prospects being inseparable.

    I am about to graduate , and for the last year or two, my PI has been desperately trying to get me to churn out grant proposals, annoying incremental papers, extra thesis chapters that s/he wants to use for lecture notes, etc. for the group which (because I deeply respect all s/he has done for me) I have obliged for the most part.

    However at this point I would rather not give all my ideas away, and I am sick of writing g.p's for which the money will never help me. Also from a purely Machiavellian perspective, I can't help but think that my career will be easier to navigate if my PI leaves my area of specialty.

    I know common wisdom is that one should please the PI to obtain the best possible rec letter/future career aid/ However, seeing as how I already get virtually no career advice from my PI, my publication record more-or-less speaks for itself, and my PI is not really a hotshot, I'm starting to wonder if receiving an absolute stellar rec letter vs. just a good is really worth all the extra effort (it didn't matter for my postdoc search AFAIK).

  • S Seguin says:

    GMP- I think you are describing what everyone wants, but not what everyone can expect. I see that is would be good for me if my PI continues up his promotion ladder, but now that he has tenure, it's kinda hard to get worked up for the bid for endowed chair. Yes, I wish I could be more emotionally sensitive, but I've got this big defense to look forward to, and then the horror of a job search. If my boss wants to go balls out for a fancy title change, that is his prerogative. For his part, I expect him to be supportive during the dissertation process (read a draft, gives comments etc) since that does reflect directly on him, but I don't think I can expect him to be excited/helpful about me moving on. But he hasn't given me much trouble about spending some time at work writing fellowships either (even if he won't read them).

  • proflikesubstance says:

    GMP, I think you're missing the meaning of "expect". In this context, I mean it more in the "demand" sort of way. Yes, in an ideal world both sides of the coin work with one another for mutual benefit, but this is not something that is going to happen all the time or that should be assumed. I think both trainees and PIs can be selfish, but whereas it is part of the job description of a PI to help the trainee's career (even if it doesn't always work out that way) the inverse is not true.

  • Confounding says:

    Couldn't agree more with much of this - the least productive time I've spent as a trainee was when I more worried about putting in the required number of hours, being around when I needed to be seen, status updates and the like.

    The most productive? "I'm paying you to do this project, and it needs to get done. Also, please show up for the Friday lab meeting - there's snacks."

  • how about the freaking PI that expects their TA to help develop the course material. I'm currently dealing with this. On a daily basis, I am reminding the PI that s/he only gets 12 hours of my time, completing my research is more important than developing problem sets for her. That it is her job, not mine to develop the course material. It is my job to help the students understand that material - for 12 hours/ week max.

  • [...] An interesting post from ProfLikeSubstance about trainee expectations.  I’m sure bossbug never feels this way about us… [...]

  • antipodean says:

    If your name is on these papers/grants you can claim them. That's good for your career. If you don't get names on the grants it's not the end of the world as you can still try to claim them as the grantwriter. And even if that doesn't work its good practice for your postdoc.

    However, if you are writing all the papers and not getting first or second authorship on them your advisor is a massive arsehat...

  • TheGrinch says:

    PLS, I wonder what else can describe PIs job description
    and responsibilities vis-a-vis trainees other than to advise and
    support them in their research and write letters for them when
    necessary. Doing anything extra (helping them with their career?)
    is in principle equivalent to trainees giving consideration to PIs
    goals and deadlines. I am really not sure.

  • GMP says:

    This sucks, I'm sorry. If she's unreceptive to you cutting back on TA duties, you should at least insist on getting extra TA support ($ for the extra TA time over 12 hrs/wk) and explicit credit for the materials (so you can turn it into "teaching materials development" bullets on CV).

  • anon says:

    While I generally agree with most points, I wonder if others have some advice on the following: the issue of hours becomes sticky when experiments simply take long days. I have worked those hours (mid-morning to mid-evening, say 10-12 hours several times a week), continue to work those hours (though less frequently), and frankly am looking forward to having trainees take over doing them. Part of my thinking is, I put in my time, why shouldn't they? This means trainees working into the evenings after I am (most likely) gone for the day. I wouldn't ask trainees to work hours I don't work myself, except there's no other way to do the science. So far my undergrad trainees seem to think nothing of it, which is a good sign. I suppose the answer is to not worry about the time but the results, but it can be difficult to get results when one doesn't put in the time.

  • MattPatt says:

    Anon, it's one thing if you're in a field where this is the norm because experiments simply take as much time as they take. Myself, I've often been in the position of having to work extraordinary hours because the equipment needs baby-sitting while it runs, whereas other times it's safe to push a button and walk away for a while because nothing's going to be gained by watching spectra slowly tick onto the screen.

    On the other hand, "I did it, so you have to as well" is nothing more than hazing, and it's a terrible attitude in any field. If there's no actual reason for a certain practice beyond putting people at the bottom of the ladder in their place, then it needs to go. I'm starting to become to convinced that this is why good people leave academic science.

  • GMP - if I actually had extra time to give for the extra $$, I would. Unfortunately, I have a ticking time bomb in my tummy 🙂 Which means, science first, family second, TA last. She just has to deal. I have the support of my PhD PI so I"m not too worried. Just extremely annoyed at the time suck.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    If there are experiments in your field that take a long time, there is nothing wrong with expecting that people will do them. But, if they're in the lab until 2am, it is stupid to expect them in and productive at 8 or 9. If they are, fine, but it shouldn't be demanded.

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