Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 4: Meet the Potentially (Dys)functional Family--My Lab


The time has come for me to introduce you to some of the colorful characters in the little game called my graduate life: my adviser and my labmates! While thinking about how best to present the cast, the idea of a functionally dysfunctional family came to mind. I am thinking about how a random and haphazard lab group is thrown together, and the functionality or dysfunctionality that ensues becomes based on the personalities of the individuals. Currently we are relatively functional, but dysfunction can happen at any time. You know, the family that gets along well enough to get by, although its members have their own special little issues with each other. In our case it?s more fun because we?re not related, so the fur may fly more easily.

So, may I present ...

Jeff, my adviser, is a 30-something guy from the Southeast who has just started his first year as a principal investigator (PI). He?s married with no kids, but a dog that wreaks havoc every now and then. In some ways he?s like other professors I?ve worked for--intensely scientific (as all good PIs should be) and always in search of answers and results. He?s not as personable or fun-loving as some, but he's no stick in the mud either. I?ve caught him singing "Jingle Bells" (and it wasn?t Christmas), and I've seen him get a little silly after 9 p.m., but I forgive these indiscretions because he occasionally brings us food (he?s a great cook). Jeff requires a lot from us, including a 50- to 60-hour week if we want to speed through the program. He puts in a lot of time, too, often working late and on weekends trying to establish himself. I appreciate that he is easy to talk to and welcomes me when I walk into his office to update him on current developments or just to chat.

Laura, the lab ?elder,? is Jeff?s first student. When I first joined the lab, I was concerned about their relationship--it seemed as if they were always at odds--and how it would affect my relationship with Jeff. Now it seems they?ve come to an understanding. It was a rough adjustment period--kind of like our teenage years. Laura is married, her husband is in graduate school too, and they're cute (yet disgusting) together. She?s been really helpful with classes, comps, and lab, but she complains a lot about her hours, her work, her cats, and graduate school. It?s difficult for me not to ask, "Well, why are you here then if you hate it so much?" But to each their own.

Next is Daphne , a fellow first-year and the group workaholic. She is working like a madwoman planning her wedding for later this year, going to class, and studying for our next comps. She is the ?I came to graduate school to get a Ph.D., not to socialize? type, and while I respect that, she can be a wee bit abrasive from time to time. At the moment, I think Daphne is Jeff?s favorite because she is so hardworking. Sometimes I think she feels like she?s spinning her wheels in the lab because she hasn?t had that much lab experience. But she?s superorganized, and she?s the one making sure the lab stays clean so that it runs like a well-oiled machine.

While recruiting for the group in the fall, Jeff felt that he couldn?t have a group of all women (apparently the other profs tease him about it ...), so we also have Tim, a ?California guy? who seems to be the antithesis of Daphne. Tim is very laid-back, an 8- or 9-to-5er who doesn?t do weekends like the rest of us. This hasn?t caused any conflict, yet, but it?s an interesting dynamic. He?s cool and confident and doesn?t seem to be in much of a hurry to do anything, but he knows what he?s talking about. I don?t hold any of this against him; I?m just trying to get out of here in fewer than 5 years.

We also have two undergraduates, Ben and Brian, although they are rarely in the lab so don?t contribute volumes to the atmosphere.

And finally there?s me, the balanced and sane one (yeah ? sure ?).

Playing the Game: Finding Your Family (Lab-wise, That Is)

As we students embark on our graduate school experience, many of us know the projects we want to work on and the ways our success will change the scientific world. That?s all fine and good, as you keep up with the journals and apply to departments on the cutting edge of your interests. So when you get there, how do you maintain your zeal for the work if you have a labmate or adviser who makes your life a living torment?

If you are one of the fortunate people who must work intensely with others during your graduate career, I suggest you choose wisely so that you don?t end up becoming a vampire, avoiding all contact with other members of your group unless it?s required at a group meeting.

If you must choose your lab group before you get to school, consult the older and wiser ones in the department (the students, not the profs) via e-mail and the phone. This goes for those who get to observe and interact with their potential labmates before choosing them as well.

I've learned that there are two sets of people that students must contend with on a daily basis--professors and labmates. Understanding what personalities you?re dealing with and what they expect (as well as what you expect of them) can help you decide which lucky family gets you.

If you despise bonding activities and socializing, be wary of the research group that looks down on labmates not spending every lunch period together. And if you need people to hang out with when the pressures of research weigh you down, the antisocial group might leave you wanting more. Of course, if you?re engrossed in your research, none of this may matter (this is why you should look at the work being done first), but make sure you can deal with all the human factors involved.

Let it be said that your research group is not the be-all or end-all of your social experience in graduate school. But it could make life a lot better.

Finding a lab to call home is a monumental task for graduate students. We must find both a project and people we can tolerate and enjoy for 5 or so years. And over time, although projects evolve and change to bring new challenges, people are much less likely to do so (depending on how self-enlightened they are). Dealing with both can still be challenging. Thus the workaholic today remains that way tomorrow, the socialite remains the fluttering butterfly, and the vampires with their misunderstood souls are seen only after 9 p.m. and are not likely to see the light of day anytime soon (except at poster sessions and conferences). With all of the personalities and projects out there, the quest for a perfect fit is much like a search for the perfect pair of jeans. (I know lots of you know what I?m talking about.)

Some of us have the good fortune of choosing advisers and lab groups after getting to graduate school, whereas others must rely on the luck of the draw as we arrive in a new place to begin our new adventure. After carefully deliberating (and attending all the mandatory seminars given by the faculty accepting students into their labs), I chose Jeff as my adviser. I thought his projects were interesting, and I liked him as a human being. Realizing that this could be one of the most crucial decisions of my graduate school career made me wary of haphazardly picking the adviser with the coolest projects or the best personality. I needed a combination of both. I have low tolerance for socially repugnant people, particularly individuals who are in constant need of a filter for what comes out of their mouths. I also tend to be a people watcher, observing the interactions between others. If a professor lacks professionalism and a little PC-ness when a group is in the elevator, even when he?s talking to someone else, it doesn?t look particularly good. Those with whom the professor already has a working relationship, meaning other students, are wonderful sources of information on how the professor is or can be in given particular situations.

It?s not that you have to love or even like your adviser (or lab group for that matter) to have a good working relationship. But for me, I need to like them enough to want to have them over to my house for dinner. Sometimes I don?t think people put enough thought into decisions that will affect their emotional and intellectual lives. You wouldn?t choose a significant other based on three interactions in the same environment, so why would you choose a lab group that way? Maybe it?s my holistic approach to life. Intellectual happiness does not guarantee emotional satisfaction and peace. Why do we compartmentalize all the time? Stress in the lab can lead to frustration elsewhere, so why have ulcers and migraines because you can?t stand your work environment? I?m trying to get out of here with my life expectancy of at least 80 years intact, and graduate school is stressful enough without having to constantly deal with insensitive people who can?t see beyond their own experiments.

So, off I go with my ragtag and currently functional lab family. Wish us experimental genius and good karma, because I don?t want to have to hurt anybody. ...

You can send e-mail to Micella at

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