In two minds about potential graduate advisor

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In two minds about potential graduate advisor

Postby Promilla » Mon Nov 06, 2017 11:28 pm

Hello everyone!

I am currently first yer graduate student doing my first rotation. I wanted to get opinion of some more experienced people about the PI of the lab I am rotating in so that I know roughly what to think about it and where I stand.
I will try to describe the situation without my subjective view of it so that I do not color the story.

To describe my experience - I ended up in a lab which seems to be doing amazing science.

The PI is relatively young so there is not much publication record but from what I have seen the people from the lab are going to submit publications to some "high impact factor" journals sometime soon.

The lab environment is okay - the lab is relatively small and, as I've talked with the PI, it will most likely stay this way.

The lab has joint meeting with another group which members are sometimes really mean. These lab meetings seem to bring a lot of stress and anxiety in the people from the group. There is a lot of harsh criticism - mostly of the science not personal but it sometimes feels like a personal "attack".

The money seems to be completely not a problem - from what I've heard they have a lot of grants and the PI is on track to get tenure.

The PI is always available (I feel that might change once they publish all the papers that they have in the pipeline).

The PI gets really excited about thousands of ideas a minute. Even though I am just a rotation student, I quite often have little idea of what I am doing as, even though we meet every week, there is no concrete plan - rather, big ideas and huge excitement about everything.

An finally, two very advanced graduate students - the first PhD students of this PI, left the lab after couple of year. They were close to graduating but both of them left. Which has not happened in the history of the program (that such advanced PhD left the lab). After talking to both the PI and one of the students about it, I am still unsure what happened. Both sides have different stories - the PI says it was misalignment of expectations (the students were considering doing "alternative careers") and some other issues; the student mentions the other lab (the one from joint lab meetings), friendship with the mentor which turned out to not work in the face of criticism and the power dynamic, and some other unresolved/unclear issues. The student was very critical and told me explicitly to not do it (very clearly) because it will be ugly. I have also heard from people around that I should think twice - generally people do not want to talk badly about others but I can sense what is opinion of a lot of people.

I know I won't find a perfect graduate advisor. But I was wondering what do other people think about this. The science is great and I have somewhat limited choices - is it worth to compromise, is it worth to take the risk? What to think about it?

Thank you all for your opinion.

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Re: In two minds about potential graduate advisor

Postby D.X. » Tue Nov 07, 2017 3:54 am

HI Promilia,

Objectively reading what you wrote, my advise is to move away. You are a Student on Rotation. The idea of Rotation is for you to get a taste and feel of a lab and the PI. Its OK to feel a bit of confustion during Rotation re: Projects, you should not be expected to have appreciation for a Projects/Research Topic at the Level of the PI or more Senior person's in the lab. You Goal is to see if you have interest in the Projects sufficient to for you to commit the next few years of your life pursuing, AND to understand if the personality of the lab, with all the Points you mentioned into consideration.

That being said, you've picked up on former students who have left the lab, some hostility in lab Meetings that is making you feel uncomfortable, I recommend you prioritize those findings and Feelings as you make your decision.

With non-tenured rising star PIs there is a benefit that you can capitiize on their rise but, a risk that you a part of their potential fall from grace. That's the risk you take. With all the other Points in the mix of things you mentioned.

My recommendation for youis to find a lab that allowes you to feel comfortable first and foremost. Its ok to trade off a rising sta PI to perhaps a more stable PI with established lab and Reputation in the field, this is not to say the PI has to be the top Person in their field. Remember you Goal as a Phd Student is to be trained in the practice of scientific Investigation and Research conduct with an system-based Goal for you to be an indepdentent pracitoner of science one day (where ever you choose to apply that is your choice in the future). The goal of your Rotation is for you to get a sence on where you want to get that Training.

Don't worry too much about high Profile Research now. If you decide to stay in academia, you can think about that more when you choose a post-doc, the post-doc will determine more your future fate in academia than your Phd studies. Don't get caught up on Need to have Hype science during the phd, slow and steady, nice and easy, get a Pub or 2, and out.

So go with your gut, ultimately it's your decision desipe my advice.

I was in a rising star PI lab at the start of my PhD - after a Rotation where I thought I would be a good fit for the lab and PI, I joined but about after a 1.5 years, thingings were not working out, so I switched labs right after I "qualified" to a lab with a tenured Professor, Young for a tenured Professor, but doing well in career with established Reputation (they got full professorship about year after I joined) , good funding and good Projects. My decision to leave the lab had nothing to due with funding, but it was the personality of the PI and environment that triggered my move. That rising star PI didn'nt make it but it certainly was not due to not being good, but being scooped at the wrong time and a Research Topic that was once hot and hype that went cold during that critcal period of non-tenure to tenure- C'est la vie, risks of the job.

The next lab I choose was not a bed of roses either, but I least, first and foremost, but was the People of the lab and eventually the PI of the lab I knew I could fall back on, at the end of the day, These People become your second Family and you will take them along with you probably the rest of you life. So, that's my other Piece of advice, choosing a lab, is like choosing a Family, so you Need to have that personal Connection and feel that personal Connection. That is really what a Rotation is about in my opinion, less the Project.

You will find the personality of the PI (like anyh other Boss in any other sector) will determine how you feel emotionally and that will link to you Motivation and interest with will Impact your Performance, so if you're getting signals now, well - move on to your next rotation.


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Re: In two minds about potential graduate advisor

Postby Chris » Wed Nov 08, 2017 12:22 pm

I have to agree with D.X. In my experience, students are usually the best source of information about what it is really like to work in a given lab. It sounds like those around you are raising red flags left and right. This is only your first rotation - use your next rotations to find another lab that suits you.

A couple of additional notes: EVERYONE is about to publish something in a "high impact factor" journal sometime soon. Whether they actually get around to doing it or not is another issue. If this PI has very few publications after being there long enough to have a very senior graduate student quit before graduating, I'd question whether they really are on track to get tenure or not. Of course, I don't know the full situation, but until those papers are actually published, they don't amount to anything. Also, many new faculty members have a million great ideas a minute. The thing that separates the successful from the less successful is being able to focus and help students focus to get at least one of those ideas implemented. Some students can thrive in an environment like this, others get frustrated and flounder without more concrete ideas and plans from the PI.
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Re: In two minds about potential graduate advisor

Postby D. Martin » Wed Nov 08, 2017 2:38 pm

Chris is completely right. Everyone is always thinking to publish in high impact journals. How many papers have the current and former students published.

Regarding funding, it is unlikely a new PI with poor publication record has lots of money (I know even a blind squirrel can find a nut...). Go to the NIH reporter and check if that is the case. Do the same with NSF. That will tell you if he has money. I have learn that you need to trust people but still check the facts. As Chris said, listen to the students, PIs always try to recruit students, it is part of the business, so a PI will only tell you the good and nice things.
D. Martin
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Re: In two minds about potential graduate advisor

Postby Promilla » Thu Nov 09, 2017 8:09 am

Thank you so much everyone.

To follow up - I checked on the NIH reporter and NSF grants - they recently got a LOT of money. And I mean - a LOT. With regards to publishing - they are about to publish in high impact journal - not just talking about it. Couple of stories are also being wrapped up and are considered in the department as really exciting, probably going to be published in the top journals. I also talked with admin and higher people and it is almost 100% they will get tenure (something really unusual would have to happen for that to change). And really - the money seems to be just not a limiting factor in the lab. So all this will not be a problem, I don't think.

Since the lab was established max 5 years ago, there was only one full story in collaboration with another lab (one PhD project). But as I've said, the lab is small so I don't think I should expect much more. And as I said, they are just wrapping up a couple of stories.

When it comes to independence - it is both blessing and a course. I like that I can literally come up with anything and do this but, then again, I do not know the field. I think one thing is great about the PI is that they want to know what I think about the mentorship, lab, etc. and if I have any comments they try to adapt and change. Which is nice. I just don't know whether I could, at this point, drive a project myself.

I would say - majority of people rise the issue that the two students left and this is the biggest point for me. I talked about it with the PI but, regardless of what they say (they are very clear about it - misalignment of expectations, miscommunication, etc.) I am somewhat worried.

I think I get the gist of what you all are saying - really determine how it feels in the lab, do other rotations, and then go where the environment is such that you can actually go on for 5/6 years and not be unhappy.
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Re: In two minds about potential graduate advisor

Postby D.X. » Thu Nov 09, 2017 9:01 am

Hi Promilla,

It's all good and nice that there is funding and appears to be publications and, until you have futher evidence, appears the Professor will get tenure - however becareful on the yearning for independance. Maybe that's the perfect Environment for a high-energy and super ambitious post-doc.

At your Level of traineeship, Independence is NOT in your interest, you Need structured Hand Holding with a Goal to have greater flexiblity once certain Milestones are acheived and even then a degree of Monitoring. And that goes for most Trainees. So be Aware of those promising Independence (the reality is they have other activities that are a priority). Regarding the students that left, I'm sure there is a common "root cause" - perhaps it's that Independence that was the culprit? You may want to deep dive them mis-expectations and mis-communications, there is a "root cause" there. That's for you to further examine, don't take that as face value, it's not.

PhD advisors are already remedial when it comes to People Management and perhaps some are deficient in focused Project Management (they are not trained here), add the the mix an unstructured Training under the guise of Independence and you have a nice recipe for failure - for the most smartest grad students I knew, thier success was accelerated by a structured Training with an engaged PI that was Monitoring and supporting thier Projects and work. So becareful there.

All the best,

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Re: In two minds about potential graduate advisor

Postby Promilla » Thu Nov 09, 2017 3:24 pm

Thank you D.X. I think this is what I needed to hear. I think we have a hope that maybe we will be able to discover something grand but the truth is, as PhD students, we don't know anything yet. And it is all about training.

Thank you again! I always get great advice from this forum!
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