Monday, February 8, 2010

Hindsight -or- Choosing a Research Mentor

The single most important choice of graduate school is choosing your adviser/research mentor. Your adviser affects nearly all aspects of your career:
  • Science - Not only will your choice in mentor shape what projects you work on, but part of the job of the mentor is to train you in both scientific thought and methods. A good mentor will be able to train you to recognize the difference between good research and bad, when to stick with something or give it up, when to publish, and how to produce quality data.
  • Continuity of Research - Your mentor will provide partial or total funding for your project through her grants, depending on institutional policies. It is critical you have the funds available to complete your thesis project; without them, there is no project!
  • Writing - Your mentor will also guide you to learn scientific writing for meeting abstracts, thesis preparation and publication. It is crucial to learn good written communication skills; they are the bread and butter of science. Without quality publications, your hope for getting a J-O-B is practically nil. A good mentor will produce easy to understand, quality publications and help you to refine your own writing skills.
  • Visibility - Related to the above, your mentor can determine how seriously your communications are taken, and whether they are even in existence. A good mentor will encourage your participation in national meetings and timely publication. Your mentor can provide you with contacts to people who work in your field of interest and can advise you on which academic societies are worth your time (and money!)
  • Leadership - Your mentor also serves as a model for how you might run a lab in the future. She may also provide you with leadership opportunities within the lab so you can start to develop your own style. Leadership styles differ greatly; try to pick a mentor who is similar to the style you would like to emulate, but not exactly the same. You might learn something from the differences!
  • Graduation - Your adviser should always have your graduation in mind. A good mentor will make sure you stayed in school long enough to get the skills necessary to do a postdoc, but not so long that they're taking advantage of cheap labor. They will press you to make progress, without demanding too much or allowing you to fizzle out and get a terminal Master's.
Given how very important your Ph.D. adviser is to your future career, choosing one can be very daunting. You might ask yourself, how do I rank potential advisers? Funding? Science? Personality? Success graduating students and placing postdocs? These are all important; only you can decide which is the most important for you, given your situation. For me, all the mentors I rotated with had interesting science with established projects, so I could eliminate that from my final decision making process. I made my initial decision based on appearance of funding (more on that) and leadership style.

But as you may be aware, I encountered some bumpsLots of bumps.  I chose my first mentor poorly and had to switch labs. My purpose, chickadees, is to prevent future baby Ph.D. students from choosing poorly.  Given my methodical mentor-choosing process, where did I go wrong?

You might notice, dear reader, that I did neglect some of the above list when choosing my initial mentor.  I did not look too closely at my first mentor's publications to see if she had a good writing style and I took for granted that any mentor would ensure graduation.  This was a critical mistake, but not my only one.  The other was naivete.  There are several things to look for and other things to avoid when choosing a mentor that may not be as obvious as the above list:
  •  Be wary of someone who is trying to sell their project to you.  If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.  There are two big dangers of a PI who is constantly trying to sell their project to you.  The first is that they probably aren't going to be able to be objective about their own research - they are likely viewing it through rose-colored glasses.  The second is that you will probably get stuck with their pet project, prohibited from taking your project in your own direction.   Physioprof has more to say on this subject.
  • Pay attention to whether the PI has a good working relationship with everyone in the lab.  If not, find out why not.  Sometimes personalities just conflict, but in my experience this is the exception not the rule.  Generally if the PI has a bad relationship with one or more subordinates, that's a red flag for a difficult PI.  Does the PI yell and scream?  Is her advice nonconstructive?  Does she harass employees for taking vacation or sick time?  Does she call her subordinates names or insinuate that she doesn't respect their work or intelligence?  Does the PI say one thing to you and another to someone else, that is, does she lie?  If you can answer yes to any of these questions, RUN AWAY FOR THE LOVE OF DOG!  These are huge red flags of an abusive and/or manipulative boss.  This person does NOT have your best interests in mind.
  • Another red flag is if the PI initiates a relationship that falls outside of the bounds of "professional, working relationship."  Your PI is not your buddy.  Your PI is not your mom or your dad or your aunt or your crabby gramps.  AND DEFINITELY NOT YOUR LOVER.  EVER.  Sure, you can have a friendly relationship, but your boss is still your boss, not your friend.  A PI who is trying to initiate a close personal relationship is distracting you from the work at hand, and failing to lead.  They may even be trying to manipulate you into compliance; this was certainly the case of my first advisor.  She would claim she thought of me "as a daughter" and "had my best interests in mind," thus mollifying me into thinking that she really, truly cared so I should take the abuse as a show of concern.  I remember toward the end thinking "If you treat me like your daughter, I want CPS to step in...."  Both Physioprof and Dr. Isis have many wise things to say on this subject.
  • Lastly, be wary of the appearance of funding.  I rotated in three labs.  The first had 3 postdocs, 3 students and 2 techs, a small microscope room, a bench for everyone with a couple of spares, and a small tissue culture room.  The second had 3 postdocs, 2 techs, 2 students, space enough for 2.5 benches per person, a large tissue culture room with 4 hoods and 12 incubators, a dedicated animal room and a small microscope room.  The third had 2 students, 1 tech, just enough benches with a spare for equipment, a small microscope annex and a small tissue culture room with 2 hoods and 4 incubators.  Which would you guess were the richest and poorest labs?  The first was the best funded, with an R01 and several other indirect grants.  The third was next, with an NCI (R01-level) grant and a couple small indirect grants.  The poorest funded was the second lab, the one with all the fancy space and equipment.  That lab had only an R01.  In addition, the PI's in the first and third labs applied for every grant which they even halfway qualified for, whereas the PI in the second lab only applied for (and did not receive) renewal of her R01.  However when I was rotating, I did not know any of this.  I assumed that the second was the best-funded lab, because it appeared to be so.  In reality, it was the worst managed.  Not knowing this was my fault.  Ask potential PIs about their grants and their philosophy on writing grants.  Seek opportunities to apply for your own grants.  Further, look it up: the NIH offers a search on all grants, searchable by PI name, which gives you the grant use, duration, whether it's been renewed or not, when it expires, etc.
In conclusion, it behooves a baby Ph.D. student to think about more than just science and personality when choosing a research mentor.  Because your Ph.D. adviser can affect every aspect of your career in grad school and your career after grad school, you must look deeper.  Further, the world is a big scary place with big scary people, and it helps to know how to avoid them.  My last bit of advice is this: if ever you find yourself in a bad situation during Grad school, talk to someone.  Talk to your deans, your department head, your HR rep, your committee members.  Sometimes us wee grad students don't know what is and isn't normal, and we're under a lot of pressure, so we have a tendency to accept things at which our more wizened colleagues would balk.  Your institution has support networks there for you, take advantage of them. But most of all, good luck young padawans padawani padawae whateverthefuck is the plural of padawan.

1 comment:

KainintheBrain said...

Im so glad I found this.
You obviously know your way around the world of research- (unlike everyone I know). I'm an undergrad working with a new professor at my university. He doesn't really have a clear idea of what he wants to do with me, which is becoming a problem. I have some research experience, but not in his field, so I don't really know what I"m doing, and the whole point of this apprenticeship was to learn, but I haven't really done anything. I don't know if this is acceptable or if I should expect this kind of wishy washy-ness out of a new prof dealing with a noob. Also, after running an "experiment" (ehem.. bull@%@5) last semester, I e-mailed him the results and said my goodbyes before leaving for the summer and he never replied. I don't even know if I'm invited back to his lab this semester and I don't really know how to ask him what he wants to do with me. Keep in mind that I've been offered several other very competitive and otherwise great opportunities for research this semester. I just don't know how to handle this situation and don't want to do anything in bad form. Help out this young padawan? PLEASE. thanks!