Establishing a healthy relationship with your PI

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Forget everything you know about boss-employee relationships. This one is unique, and should be treated as such. First off, many of the hierarchical workplace rules we’ve come to know and love are the same. For example, you should always be courteous, say “please” and “thank you”, respect your PI’s wishes, and understand that they are in a position of power because they are capable and wise…not many people are just handed a research laboratory.

Historically, the student-PI relationship has been similar to that in many other occupations. The PI gives orders, the graduate student obeys. No questions asked. The PI always prioritized the success of the lab, there was rarely a personal relationship between the PI and the students, and, most importantly, if the student was even thinking about leaving academia for industry, the PI must never catch wind! All this is anecdotal, of course. I was not getting my Ph.D. in the 1960s or 1970s, but from talking to other PIs and reading a few articles, I’ve become familiar with the evolution of this relationship over the decades.

Luckily, all this is changing, and it’s for the best. However, there are still PIs who have not jumped on the train yet. So, for incoming graduate students, or even current students having issues with your PI, here is a guide to establishing a healthy, colleague-like, dialogue with your PI.

Be transparent from the beginning

It’s important to remember that when you’re choosing a lab, you’re also choosing a mentor.  This mentor will guide your growth as a scientist for the next 4-5 years. At that, make sure you’re evaluating the PI just as much as you’re evaluating the science in the lab. From your first interaction (this includes when your choosing to rotate through a lab), you must be forthcoming about what you hope for in a mentor. For example, when I was choosing a lab, I made it clear that I really wanted a PI that was around, but not someone who was always looking over my shoulder…but also would reel me back in if I was digging too far into the experimental weeds! I had one PI ask me to rotate in his lab, but when we started talking about the type of mentor I wanted, he too was transparent. Specifically, he said that he travels so often that he didn’t think I would be happy in his lab. His mentoring style didn’t match with what I wanted, so I didn’t rotate. Simple as that. Honestly, I really appreciated this PIs transparency as I’m sure he appreciated mine.

Ultimately, I ended up finding that “Goldilocks PI”, not overbearing, not too distant, but just right, and I did so by being honest, and being myself, from the first interview.

Work hard to establish a colleague-like dialogue

So, let me break this down for you: Some people really don’t like it when you inquire about something they say. I like to think of this as the “because I said so” attitude of the workplace. In a professional workplace, people higher on the food chain sometimes don’t like subordinates inquiring about their claims. In my honest opinion, it’s because they’re insecure about their ability to support their claim/opinion; so in defense they become offended…like I said, the “because I said so” of the professional workplace, but digress. This is NOT the type of PI you want as your mentor. As scientists, WE ARE INQUISITIVE PEOPLE! Asking questions is how we learn, and how we grow as scientists! You can’t be afraid to ask your PI, or senior lab mates, questions. Question about protocols (Why do we do it this way?), questions about theory, or even questions regarding funding, as it relates to you, are all acceptable. I think what you should strive for is a colleague-like dialogue. I say “colleague-like” because your PI may never see you one hundred percent as a colleague, nor should they be expected to, but there must come a point where both you and your PI can fluently exchange ideas, propose experiments, and ask questions. This is where growth happens. Here is where you can observe the thought process of an expert in the field, and who knows, maybe you end up teaching your PI something every now and again.

But a lot of the responsibility also falls on you. It is extremely difficult to have an inquisitive exchange with someone who isn’t familiar with the topic, and the more time your PI has spent in the field, the more YOU have to catch up on. I speak from experience. I longed for such an exchange with my PI. Although my PI is always welcoming of questions, until recently there was such a huge knowledge gap between us so the exchanges never lasted very long, and I was often kind of useless in offering up novel ideas or recalling specific papers. That’s when I decided to really dive into the literature. Low and behold, a few weeks ago my PI and I discussed a controversial paper in our field for over an hour. I was ecstatic. No egos, just pure thought…and all the while still respecting his position and experience. Ready yourself with knowledge and chase after this experience with your PI. I promise you will not regret it.

Your well-being and future aspirations are important, and should be treated as such.

As I stated earlier, historically the success of the lab was often put before the success of the graduate student, (which when you think about it, doesn’t make much sense because most labs are driven by graduate students) but this is no longer the case. It is well-accepted throughout academia that the well-being and career goals of the individual graduate student should be valued within the lab and by the PI. Again, this is where transparency is important. If you want to go into industry, but this specific PI doesn’t know the first thing about industry jobs, maybe that’s something you consider. This topic specifically, academia vs. industry, has long been an issue. I’ve heard stories from PIs who said when they were in graduate school even mentioning a transition to industry was blasphemy. For the most part, this quarrel has been squashed. Most PIs realize that the pool of Ph.D.s is growing and the number of tenure track faculty positions is shrinking, so it’s only natural that more students are going to be interested in industry. This is a topic that came up in one of the first conversations with my PI. I do not foresee myself as a bench scientist long-term – I am interested in going into Life Science Consulting. I shared my aspirations with my PI; his answer was perfect, “as long as you plan on becoming the best scientist you can be and fully commit to being a graduate student during your time in my lab, I will support you in whatever you decide to do.” Awesome. Support from a mentor is a great feeling, but can only be established if both parties are willing to work for it.

Ultimately, there is a lot to consider when choosing a lab and choosing a mentor. As a scientist, it’s important to realize your inquisitive nature, and to choose a lab that will allow you to exercise it as a growth tool. This isn’t a call to be confrontational, although in some cases you may have to have to tough conversations, but rather a call to choose for yourself an environment that promotes and encourages your curiosity.

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