It’s September, which brings a new academic year and a new flock of unwitting Ph.D. students leaping into the gaping abyss of grad school. To prepare you for the dangers you might find down there, here’s a welcome message from your new boss!
Hello, young researcher, and welcome to my lab. Since we’ll be working together for the next five-to-question-mark years, I think it will be useful for me to introduce myself and set expectations.
I’m your principal investigator, and not to get too direct about it, but I’m kind of the one who controls your fate. Your success or failure will depend on choices that I either make or neglect to make. My whims can not only cause you to have a good or bad day, but a good or bad graduate experience, and potentially a good or bad life. So, hi!
Let’s parse the phrase “working together.” We’ll be working together in the sense that you’ll be working, and I’ll often be proximally near. Our communication won’t be so much a give-and-take as it will be an I-give-and-you-receive. Or, sometimes, I-give-and-you-recoil.
Don’t get me wrong—I want to offer you academic freedom! I want you to blossom into the magnificent scientist I know you can be, and I know you can’t do that if I make every decision for you! On the other hand, you’re 22. I’ve seen you hashtagging a photo of a grilled cheese sandwich. My lab equipment is expensive. Just for now, let’s say we follow my directions, ‘kay?
You should also note another turn of phrase in my opening paragraph. I said I thought it would be useful for me to introduce myself, and now that’s what I’m doing. This is how things will work in our lab: I’ll think something will be useful, so I’ll do it. Or, once you’ve developed marginal skill, I’ll cajole you to do it. I’m sure you’re filled with the most wonderful suggestions about how we can do things differently, so tell you what: Take those suggestions, write them on tiny slips of paper, and bury them in a bottle in your yard. If you graduate, dig up that bottle, and you’ll have a keepsake of lovely unrealized suggestions to use in your own lab someday.
Oops, did I say “if” you graduate? I meant “when.” Yes, that is what I meant.
Believe it or not, I was also once a graduate student, and I know what it’s like to feel new and lost. The purpose of this message, therefore, is to clearly express my expectations for your time in the lab:
Most workplaces are explicit and direct about their employees’ schedules. This helps both employers and workers plan their professional and personal lives. But you know what? There’s an alternative approach—specifically, not doing this and seeing what happens. Would you like to know the hours I expect you to work in the lab? You would? Neat.
You see, much like an unhealthy romantic relationship, I won’t tell you what I want, only when you’ve failed to provide that.
Speaking of which, I couldn’t help noticing that you weren’t in the lab last Saturday. Yes, I know, you’re new, and you hadn’t even joined my lab yet. Still … .
Look, there’s only one of me, and there are … I don’t know … 13 of you? Eleven? I haven’t checked lately. I can’t be expected to know how each of your projects is coming along, so I require all members of my lab to attend regular lab meetings. Lab meetings are your opportunity to update me on what you’ve accomplished in the past few weeks—or, alternatively, what you’ve failed to accomplish, along with your most earnest excuse.
Think of it like one of those occasions where the monarch sits on the throne and all of the local peasants and serfs have a few minutes to supplicate and grovel. Make the most of this time, young researcher. Learn to present your research clearly and succinctly. But, most of all, learn to supplicate and grovel.
Remember, when you attend a conference, you’re representing our lab—and, therefore, me. When our collaborators and competitors judge you, they may have useful suggestions and critiques for you, but mostly they’re judging me. I expect you to behave professionally, present impressive results, and go easy on the free wine. Please repress your desire to approach a luminary in our field, stick your thumb in your nostril, and say, “Duh, I don’t know which end of a pipette to use because my adviser never said.”
Boy oh boy. If you think I don’t spend enough time mentoring you, wait until you see how much time I don’t spend mentoring undergrads. Every now and then, one will beg their way into the lab, and I’ll think of an appropriately inconsequential research project to assign, but after that, they’re in your capable hands. I won’t even necessarily warn you in advance—I’ll just flounce in one morning, announce “Here’s an undergrad for you,” and lock myself in my office to do professor things.
At that point, cancel whatever plans you had for the day, and trust this person who has never seen the inside of a lab to handle the equipment you rely upon. Well. Now you know how I feel.
Of course, I shouldn’t expect you to write an entire dissertation without my helpful feedback and suggestions. Yet here we are.
When compiling this gigantic tome that constitutes your first major contribution to the scientific world (or at least to the shelves in the corner of the university library basement), please know that I am a resource for you. I’m just not the kind of resource that you use. I’m more of a theoretical resource. I’ll expect to see a draft of your work at least 3 months before your thesis defense. I won’t do anything with the draft for a while, but I’ll expect to see it. Then—the night before it’s due—I’ll return it to you with extensive comments, corrections, and requests for additional experiments. Not exactly grateful for my communicativeness then, are you?
This may be what you’re afraid your adviser is expecting. Even if you’ve worked in a lab before, you’re new to this lab, and it’s a blank slate. It’s scary to trust your future to someone you’ve only met briefly.
Some advisers are excellent. Some are horrible. But they’re all human beings. Just as they have expectations of you, you have expectations of them. That’s not hubristic; it’s fair. Keeping the lines of communication open will help ensure that neither of you will fail to meet the other’s expectations.