Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Update on Lab Politics

So, last post I told you about a student who is dissatisfied with his project and the lab and his struggles. I had told him that he should consider joining another group.

Since that time, he has had almost two weeks to think about things, and he has decided to stay with us, at least for now. The whole process of dealing with this student has been rather interesting. First, it would be easy for me to ask the student to leave the group or strongly suggest that he join another group, but given what I know of him, that would be the easy way out. I think that his unhappiness stems more from not knowing what he wants than from knowing what he wants and not achieving it in my group. If he joined another group and then later decided that that wasn't he wanted either, I would just be pushing my problems off on some other PI. Mentoring, true mentoring, would be to help this student figure out what he wants and how to achieve it. It is spending time with him and helping him understand the PhD process.

Second, it has surfaced that some of this student's dissatisfaction results from what I like to call the "3rd year valley of death". In your first two years of your PhD you are taking classes, training, and repeating research that others have done. Your adviser and senior students can help. But at some point, usually during the 3rd year, you find that you have advanced beyond all that has been done before, and there may not be *anyone* to ask questions of. You are on your own. As you might expect, experiments typically don't go well at first. But then, as you develop more aptitude, things start to work and suddenly you are defending. The "3rd year valley of death" can be depressing and demoralizing, especially if you don't understand what is happening to you or how it fits into becoming more scientifically mature.

To address these issues, and help this student, we are now meeting weekly. We are going over his work. I am helping him to remove roadblocks. He is not very assertive, so pushing others, especially those senior to him, to get data, equipment time, etc. is difficult. I am trying to teach him how to go about this in a polite yet insistent way. And, it is working. He has said that he is feeling better and things definitely seem to be improving, but...it is taking a lot of my time. On the other hand, this is my job, to teach students to become independent researchers. So even though it would be easier to dismiss the "problem" student, I am doing my best to make the investment and help him become the researcher that I know he can be.

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