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Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

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Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby M. Egdo » Sun May 24, 2015 2:12 pm

Dear everyone,

I really need other opinions about my current problem, because I haven't found an effective way to deal with it. Thank you very much for your care and support!

Joining a new research group couple months ago, I'm an only postdoc in the group. My PI assigned me to train and work with some students in the lab. I don't have any problems with most of students I trained and worked with. Most of them are hard-working, quick learners, and independent thinkers.
But there is a graduate student in the lab whom I really don't know how to deal with. I need to work with him and can't ignore or keep distance from him.

First of all, this student is never on time. We need to work together on some tasks. And in the last few months, I have tried to arrange our work at different times from 8 AM, 9 AM, 10 AM, 1 PM, 2 PM, 4 PM. Never comes he ontime. And in his opinion, if he comes late, he just needs to text me. If I said “you come late” he always has dozen of execuses and “I texted you”. His execuses for me it is difficult to accept: “I forgot my key” “I fotgot my phone”, “I was caught in the rain”, “it is too cold” “I can't wake up early” “I am just late 4, 5, or 10 minutes”.... It is never his fault for the late.

Second of all, he wants my help immediately. He comes to me anytime, requires my answers for his requests immediately regardless what I am doing. When he could not access me, he blamed me I'm not helpful and I don't want to help him. And here is an example of our exchange:

He: Hi Meg r u in your office? I wanted to ask you about something related to X?
Me: Can you go to our PI? I just get a new task from the PI and I need to finish it soon. The PI just left my office.
He: If I wanted to ask the PI, of course I would have asked him, not you. Every time I ask you for something, you mention that you have some task. Anyways get your stuff done. Thanks a lot.

I was shocked with this kind of reply.

This student never does things by his own. He always asks for instructions, either he works on a new protocol or an old protocol that he uses many times. He wants something optimized and he just needs to follow and nothing can go wrong.
Sometime I really ask myself if he has some responsibility for what he works on. Once we needed to stay at lab quite late because we worked on optimizing a protocol. He suggested me texting my PI and asking for a leave without concerning about our sample status and the schedule ahead. I was upset with his atitude and told him to go home, I can handle things by my own. And then he got upset too and said he just suggested.
Whenever my PI gives him any new task, he comes to me and asked what my PI wants to do! At the beggining, I offered my opinion. But then, he only followed my recommendation without thinking further on it. When things go well, all is fine. When things get wrong, he blamed me for giving him that instructions. My PI told me that he does not want to take responsibility, he just wants to have someone to blame, and he talked bad about me and my PI tried to stop the graduate student. When I confronted the student he claimed that he never blames me. Even when he said in front of me “this is just a waste of my time” when he followed my recommendation for one experiment, to him it is not a blame.

He rarely takes time to read books and scientific papers, which relate to our work. And he thinks that is my responsibility to answer all what he hasn't known yet, which are related to our work, because I have more experience! When I said I don't know something, then he tells me I don't want to help and I hide the knowledge!

A funny thing is he always think he helps me. I stated many times that he works on his PhD thesis, not to help me. But still he claimed “I help you to get your work done”. Without him around, I could finish the work way faster, don't need to explain every detail why I design experiments that or this way, and don't get distracted.

My PI says the student does not have common senses, but for some reason, my PI still wants to keep him. Time to time my PI was so upset when working directly with this student. When seeing so, I felt sorry for the student and want to help him, but when experiencing his behavior and attitude, I'm exhausted. How do I change his attitude and behavior?

- How to help him understand the connection between being punctual and the commitment? How to explain to him if he wants the trust he needs to earn it?
- How to help him understand that I have my own works to get done and I'm not his dictionary?
- What should I do to stop his laziness in thinking and his blames that I don't help him?
- How to make him think independently and become an observer?
I ask this because just few days back, I told him to come and check one instrument on Saturday and I come on Sunday. He does not want to come because there is nothing for him to learn. There are just 3 parameters needed to report in his opinion. When I was a student and I was allowed to come and check the instrument that way, I was so happy and did not refuse. Because when someone comes and checks, if she/he observes well, she/he does not see only 3 parameters. The checks are chances to observe everything related to the instrument. The observer therefore will develop an intuitive connection with the instrument. And when something goes wrong, it is faster to figure out a solution. Only when I had a chance to explain such detail to him, he then has a motive to come and check. But this is so time consuming and it is tired to explain.

Thank you very much for your feedback, opinion, and recommendation!
Meg.
M. Egdo
 
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Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby PG » Mon May 25, 2015 7:15 am

A relatively long reply. Changing attitudes and behaviour is the most difficult task that you can take on and as you already suggested letting him go would probably be the recomended path forward. If that for some reason isnt possible at this point I would suggest that you make a list of things that really needs to change for him to continue working with the group. Initially try list that can be easily measured and quantified.

For example
Always be on time

Read at least two papers / week and provide a short summary of the content and of what he thinks that it means for your work.

etc. Dont list more than a maximum of 3-4 items. Less is better.

Once you have made this list talk to the PI and have the PI agree that unless the student starts following these things you will cut him off. Then have a joint discussion ie you, your PI and the student and say the same things to him. Importantly also state that this the first step of improvements that you need to see.

If the student doesnt deliver on the items on the list say goodbye and stop his PhD training. If he delivers make a new list of the next items to improve. At some point you need to start adding softer items such as attitude ie dont blame anyone else, try to think yourself and find information in some other way before asking etc but these are much harder to measure and less likely to give you a clear outcome so I would recommend starting with the things that can be easily measured, quantified and cant be argued about.
If you decide that he should be in the lab ready to work at 9 am and he comes in at 9.30 immediately point this out to him and dont accept any excuses. If I have an important meeting at 9 I aim at being at work at least 30 minutes before that to make sure that I have time to spare if anything happens. Give immediate feedback and set a very limited time before he needs to show an acceptable beahviour on your listed items.

Make sure that your PI agrees with the path that you chose since he is the only one that can actually make a decision about stopping support for the student. If you give an ultimatum to the student and your PI doesnt support you when the student doesnt do what he is told you have made the situation a lot worse.

Also be prepared that the student is likely to try to blaim you or someone else for anything that he is unable to do. If needed put your agreements in writing ie continuing the example from above list that the student should be in the laboratory every morning at 9.00 am ready to work and have him sign this agreement. This may seem stupid now but avoids the risk of the student telling your PI that in reallity you did agree on 9.30 and you are just trying to set him up for failure.
PG
 
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Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby M. Egdo » Mon May 25, 2015 7:25 pm

Thank you very much, PG, for your share and suggestions,
I see the list and written form of agreements will be very helpful.
You make me recall a situation. Once he asked me a question regarding data analysis that the PI wanted him to do. I answered and explained to him, then forced him to write down what I just said. Few days later, he asked me the same question that I answered him. I said that I answered but he strongly claimed that I did not tell him about it. When I asked him to show me his notes, and pointed out to him what he had written down, only then he admitted.
M. Egdo
 
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Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby PG » Tue May 26, 2015 3:10 am

Make sure that your PI agrees with your plan before talking with the student and let us know how it works out.
PG
 
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Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby Katherine Lee » Tue May 26, 2015 7:53 am

I think the suggestion PG gave was great. It sounds like this student lacks maturity and that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Is this PhD student past the qualifying exams (comprehensive exams, or whatever your institution calls them)? If not, this would be a great way to force this student out of the lab if he does not become a more mature, adult. It could also be an option to have this student leave with a masters degree if things don't change. From the story you gave, this student does not seem to have the ambition to complete a PhD program successfully.

I am sorry to read that it has become a burden to you to deal with this student. The PI needs to help take some action in this situation because now the only post-doc (you) and a graduate student are not able to work to the best of his/her abilities because of a student's maturity issues.

I wish you best of luck! I hope PG's suggestions help!
Katherine Lee
 
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Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby M. Egdo » Tue May 26, 2015 8:17 pm

Thank you very much for your share Katherine.

The student is not lazy for the exams and gets the very good grades.

The first month when working with the student, I thought he has a culture shock. Stories from my PI tell me that the western culture of working and interpersonal communicating at work is completely new for him.

In his culture, coming late for meetings seems to be acceptable; asking senior persons or supervisors before doing any thing of his works in the lab seems the norm. But he moved to the US more than 2 years ago, so I am very surprised that he hasn't adapted with the new culture at work.

My PI also had talks and recently a serious talk with the student about coming on time, so I don't want to bring this problem to the PI often and would like to look for a way to deal with the student.
M. Egdo
 
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Joined: Thu Jan 19, 2012 2:21 pm

Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby M. Egdo » Tue May 26, 2015 8:18 pm

PG wrote:Make sure that your PI agrees with your plan before talking with the student and let us know how it works out.


Sure, I will update. Thanks!
M. Egdo
 
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Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby Rich Lemert » Tue May 26, 2015 9:15 pm

M. Egdo wrote:In his culture, coming late for meetings seems to be acceptable; asking senior persons or supervisors before doing any thing of his works in the lab seems the norm. But he moved to the US more than 2 years ago, so I am very surprised that he hasn't adapted with the new culture at work.


Many international students, unfortunately, never really make the adjustment to our western ways. They're used to their ways and they plan on returning to their homelands, so they don't see the need to adjust. This attitude can be exacerbated if they come from the upper classes of certain cultures where they feel an innate sense of entitlement and superiority.

The problem is often made worse if there's a large contingent of their countrymen at your institution, as these people tend to associate with their countrymen more than with the 'natives'. You can often see this in their limited ability to speak the local language comfortably. The students do get forced to use the language to communicate in their groups, though; their spouses (if any) often don't even get that much practice.
Rich Lemert
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Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby M. Egdo » Tue May 26, 2015 10:11 pm

Rich Lemert, your opinion wakes me up! Thanks for pointing it out. I will take your comment with me whenever I work with him.

The student told me he wants to come back his homeland after his PhD and build his research group. And whenever I pointed out his behavior or attitude, which don't get along with the western culture at work, he borrowed stories from his previous labs in his homeland to argue against my points. By then I thought he was inexperience and had difficulties to adapt the new culture.
But if he really does not bother to adjust, then perhaps I found some ideas how to deal with him.

Thank you all very much again!
M. Egdo
 
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Re: Working with graduate students when you're not a PI.

Postby P.C. » Wed May 27, 2015 2:47 am

Politely tell the guy that you are busy and send any questions via email.
Then do not respond.
Somehow, cease dealing with this failed personality that needs to learn how to work with people, but on without you.
Tell him he needs to figure things out on his own.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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