Propter Doc had a visitor to her lab, a potential post-doc looking to join the lab. From the sound (or should I say read) of it, the visitor is clueless, a deer in the headlights. As Propter Doc discusses asking the right questions to the right people is key in figuring out if a lab is right for you. The other part of the equation is trusting yourself (i.e. having the confidence) not to go with the stellar name but rather what is the best place for you not just scientifically but also as a person. As PD puts it:
"And make damn sure before you turn up to an interview that you’ve removed from your little brain any nonsense about being ‘grateful for the opportunity to work with professor X/happy just to get a postdoc’. That’s just bullshit, and a pretty quick route to a very unhappy postdoc."
This of course is easier said than done. What if you have had a poor graduate school advisor who slowly eats away at your confidence? An advisor who makes your feel like you barely are getting by and are not working hard enough? How can said person really go into an interview for a post-doc position without feeling grateful for the opportunity? These are the ones who will get stuck in similar situations for their post-doctoral training.
In theory, thesis committees are supposed to protect against such advisors but in practice this doesn't happen nearly enough. There is no real incentive in the system for committee members to intervene other than being good people. In many respects, the system at research universities actually encourages them not to. If there is a problem, it takes effort to do something about it and time. Most PIs are exceptionally busy people. Most of them are not spending the time they should to be great mentors for their own students & post-docs and definitely the time to be good teachers in the classroom. Professors have to be writing grants, papers to get grants, dealing with university administrative duties along with duties for the general scientific community and giving talks. Add having a family on top of that and you do not have a situation where stepping up on behalf of a student in a bad but not horrible situation isn't easy to do.
How do you get around this? At the end of the day it will require money whether it is lessening the need to publish or perish, hiring faculty for different purposes, training PIs to be good mentors/teachers (& rewarding those that are). In addition though it will also require a change in the culture of science. Selecting for hard workers has to go. This encourages those most willing to endure long hours (not necessarily producing anything more with those extra hours) who don't have as much of a life outside of lab. Those are not people who will make good mentors for most people in graduate school. You would be amazed how many hours in lab are just wasted because the incentive is to "work hard" as measured by hours spent in lab.
Another change that must occur is that mentorship and teaching have to be greater components of getting tenure at research universities. They are places of higher learning. If said scientist doesn't want to teach & mentor then they shouldn't be professors at such places. Go to a research institute. Work at a company. Unfortunately, top tier research universities despite being school are all about churning out research to draw in grants. Their isn't a selection against poor mentors and teachers. You have enough of them, it isn't like graduate students really have a choice then on only joining labs with good PIs. The climate is to encourage students to join "hot" labs doing "exciting" science-the prestigious labs. Basically students get pushed into situations where they basically get used to generate data to keep these top labs going which brings money to the university.
Enough make it through the system, who are very grateful and drink the Kool-Aid to keep the cycle going. Graduate students and post-docs will have to stand up more and let it be known joining a lab has to be more than just the science.
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