Jun 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The exhalted Goddess Herself Isis posted a poll for the masses asking how often PIs should meet individually with their trainees, divided into grad student and postdoc levels. As implied by her initial separation, the poll respondents feel PIs ought to meet with their grad students more frequently than their postdocs. Of course that's not surprising. Presumably you've learned something as a grad student. Though, I've seen enough in my time to know that's not 100% correct. It's also notable that people seem comfortable relying on the postdoc to bring issues to the PI's attention.

All of my PIs up to this point in my life (5 of them to be exact) have generally been of the "when they have new issues/data to dicuss" variety. Only my very first lab job, 17 years ago (*headdesk* that f'ing long, really? Seriously?) was more directly supervised. Perhaps a bit too supervised, now that I think of it. Let's just say you shouldn't walk up behind me, rub your hands together and say, "So are you at loose ends?" You're liable to get a glass pipette stuck in your neck.

Every other person has had a hands off approach. In fact, I have more formalized meetings with my current PI, though I suspect that's simply a function of sheer lab size. But that's works for me. Gimme some time to try and figure it out on my own, to muddle through for a bit. Chances are I'll get there. Sure, I might waste some time in the short term, but it will be something I never forget. As the old saying goes, nothing instructs like failure.

Classic example: Nat is a fresh faced graduate studet (well part deux grad student, more on that later perhaps). I was recording currents from nociceptors, and I was giving multiple stimuli with the intent of averaging the currents. You know, reduce the noise by 1 over the square root of # traces, that sorta stuff. But the currents were changing rapidly sweep to sweep, which made the average currents look weird to my naive eyes. I thought it might be the solutions, unhealthy cells. whatever. I spent a few weeks trying some different approaches, but never really got anywhere. Finally I went to my advisor. His immediate response, "Well, increase the interstimulus interval, and it's ok to just average fewer sweeps." And of course that worked like a charm. The currents weren't quite as pretty, but they were more meaningful. And it let me get on with the intent of the experiments.

You might say  I wasted those few weeks. But there were important benefits. First, it seared the importance of stimulus rate into my brain. It's something I'm always cognizant of in my own experiments, or in critiquing others'. And secondly, it led to two projects that explicitly examined why there was so much use dependence to the currents in the first place. Turns out the sodium current and the potassium currents both have a lot of inactivation, which strongly influces the cell's firing pattern. So really that time was only "wasted" in a very narrow analysis.

On the other hand, you don't want to let your trainees flounder. The fine art of balancing benign neglect with overbearing control freak is why you PIs get paid the big bucks, amirite?

Speaking of control freaks, who are these assholes saying that post docs should meet weekly with their PIs? What the hell for? "Well, you've been here another week, how much closer are you to that Nature paper? You're gonna need that to get job you know." Yeah, that's pretty damn helpful. I guess that's what I've been missing all these years. There's nothing for the creative spirit than being reminded of your failures weekly. Hell, let's make it thrice weekly. You wouldn't want any shred of self confidence to stick around, right?

18 responses so far

  • Arlenna says:

    Dude, don't underestimate the need for PIs to know what the heck the postdocs are doing and be reminded of it from week to week. I didn't talk to one of my postdoc PIs often enough (I had two at once), and the result was s/he never knew/remembered what I was working on and didn't care, thus never talking about my work to others, etc.

    Now as the PI, yeah, *I* need the weekly update so I know what's going on. I even have to take notes because otherwise it flows right on out of my head as soon as the postdoc leaves the room.

    • Nat says:

      Note taking good. Very good.

      Feeling the need to re-justify your overall project aim every time you chat? Not as good.

      I accept part of this as my job though, trying to manage my PIs. And it's one of the many things I find I'm not doing as well as I ought.

  • Isabel says:

    "The exhalted Goddess Herself Isis posted a poll for the masses..."

    Oh gag me.This isn't high school. What is this even supposed to mean? Is it still supposed to be funny after three years? Are you just sucking up? It's nauseating. Please, get a grip. We are not even on Science Blogs.

    "Gimme some time to try and figure it out on my own, to muddle through for a bit. Chances are I'll get there. "

    Agreed. I like a combination of time to muddle through on my own, while thinking a lot about the overall question, coupled with at least occasional accessibility of the PI and willingness on their part not to freak out with my sometimes stupid-sounding or repetitive questions when I am first learning something, especially if a lot of new equipment and computer software is involved, or while I am trying to wrap my head around the "question".

    Eventually I speed up, sometimes dramatically, and I always get drawn in to the problem even if it's not my own thing, and enjoy refining the goals of the research and improving techniques or even developing new ones. So PIs (and bosses in my earlier freelance art career) who may have been a bit concerned about my relatively slow, obsessively methodical start, are ultimately quite happy. Partly based on this uneven approach of mine, I am afraid that regular meetings with progress reports would feel intrusive and judgmental.

    • Nat says:

      The regular meetings do feel a bit intrusive, and it's very common for people to have a bit of a creative 'hangover' after them. But given the size of the lab, I certainly understand they're mainly for the PI, to help him keep up with the wide variety of stuff going on.

      If those are bad, you should see our data clubs. Because people only rotate once every six months or so, and some people have one or more technicians working for them, the unspoken expectations are very high that you'll be talking about some nearly finished project. Which IMO is besides the point of a data club in the first place.

      Oh, thanks for your first paragraph, and I <3 you too Isabel. By your very response, it seems we ARE still in high school.

      • Isabel says:

        Sorry but class-based accolades rub some of us actual lower-class people (who Isis has enjoyed mocking in the past) the wrong way. Perhaps we could praise her alabaster-white skin while we're at it?

        • Nat says:

          I guess I don't see a whimsical comparison to a fictional character as being class based, but apparently you do.

        • Isabel says:

          Yes, apparently.

          And you have to admit, it's getting old. Just like jumping up and down with excitement over Physioprofs swearing.

          This kind of in-jokey, adoring, cliquey behavior is alienating enough, without references to your buddies lording it over "the masses".

          Science Blogs is classist enough. I thought Scientopia was trying to be more inclusive?


          Or is it just that I am "too sensitive" about Isis' anti "redneck" commentary? That must be it.

  • Nat says:

    Well, if you think I'm a cipher for Isis, Physioprof, DrugMonkey, and other clique bloggers, then don't read me.

    Whatever issues you may have with Isis don't interest me, nor am I particularly interested in parsing the offhand way I introduced this post.

    And god that Heffernan piece was tedious.

    • Isabel says:

      I never said you were a cipher. Jeezus, calm down.

      But classism is a serious issue here (see Ed Brayton's recent mockery of a poor West Virginian teenager, for example, that included references to "banjo music" and unsubstantiated hints of bestiality and other stereotypic slurs, and included a link to the boy's picture), so you might want to be more sensitive about the issue.

      "nor am I particularly interested in parsing the offhand way I introduced this post. "

      Believe me, I am familiar with the overwhelmingly lack of interest in and sensitivity about class issues and cliqueiness on the blogs.

      • Nat says:

        Go bother Ed Brayton then. Or somebody else. Anybody. Cause this is really fucking boring. Classism is important. If you want to talk about it, why don't you start up a blog to discuss it.

        • Isabel says:

          "Go bother Ed Brayton then. "

          Giving me orders now? I will bother who I want. If you are overly "bothered" don't respond. How hard is it to just ignore someone? Do you really need to be obnoxious about it?

          "Classism is important. "

          Except when it's boring apparently, which is all the time on the academic/science blogs.

          "If you want to talk about it, why don't you start up a blog to discuss it."

          Imagine saying this to someone who brought up a concern about racism.

          You would be immediately branded a "teabagger".

          Yes, classism is important. But it is routinely swept under the rug by the so-called progressive community. It is NEVER mentioned except 1)briefly in passing or 2) attached to the term 'racism' as in "we are oh-so-concerned about issues of race and class" always followed by a discussion of racism. I don't think I've ever encountered a discussion of class, and only (or at least primarily) class on the science blogs.

          So, when you say "classism is important" are you really being sincere? Cause it doesn't sound that way.

          And before you shoot off another dismissive response, why don't you consider simply not responding?

          • Nat says:


            You crack me up!

            Maybe take your own advice, and don't respond. Especially when you're not the blog author.

            Like I said, go get your own blog. Then you can talk about whatever you like.

          • Isabel says:

            "Like I said, go get your own blog. Then you can talk about whatever you like."

            You seem petty clueless. We already covered this point. You can write whatever you like and I can respond however I want. If it aint broke why fix it?

            I reach my target audience here. If I got my own blog, everyone who disagrees with me would simply ignore me.

            And I enjoy arguing with arrogant assholes in an environment where they can't just ignore me. It's fun. And satisfying. I really have no idea why people are so uncomfortable with a good argument. They just want to preach to the choir and find a community or some shit based on common perceived enemies.


            You crack me up!"

            Really? Sounds like nervous laughter to me. I mean come on, it wasn't THAT funny.

  • Nat says:

    Nope, see you're wrong. Your responses here, while I'm the guest blog author at least, are under my discretion. Besides, how do you know people will ignore your blog if you haven't tried it?

    Do tell though, what of what I've written smacks as classist (or any -ist for that matter) to you?

    • Isabel says:

      Well, I guess the other reason is I don't have time or really any desire to have a whole blog. I have to force my self to post a status on Fb once a month or so.

      I had no problem with the content of what you wrote. But a privileged white woman, with an oversized ego, who looks down on people she calls "rednecks" is not exactly charming to me, is not someone I want to read about. I was just expressing my disgust for your opening line and the cliqueness it represented. Why can't you just say "Isis posted about x"? You dismiss this as not a real issue, so obviously we disagree. I was interested in your post, and having to read that first was just incredibly annoying.

      So I expressed myself. 🙂

      • Isabel says:

        You are certainly free to ban me, as Physioprof and Brayton have done. I have no problem with that at all.

        • Nat says:

          I don't want to ban you, as I liked reading your initial response. We have a similar outlook in our approach to a scientific problem.

          • Isabel says:

            Well there you go, common ground. 🙂

            Back to the topic, one arrangement that worked out great for me during one semester's RA job, especially because the PI was out of town for much of the time and it was a smallish project I was doing on my own, was making and updating a powerpoint pdf (though not on any set schedule and closer to monthly than weekly) and sharing it online with the PI .

            It was fun as it was more informal, especially in the early stages, than an actual presentation for the lab and anything could be thrown in - graphs and other figures, spectra or microphotographs, bits of writing, and I would add lots of comments and questions and compose them creatively. It helped me to keep track of and organize everything as well.

            The current version was always there on-line to reference, and it gave us something to go over when an opportunity presented itself for an in-person meeting, and in the end we had something tangible to build the paper on.