Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Things Unsaid

Fairly soon after being a Lab of One, you will get new students to form your research group. In establishing your new research group, there are a lot of little things to consider. Many of these issues will become apparent only after some negative event occurs. You can head off many of these annoying set-backs by establishing lab policies early and communicating to your laboratory. Here, I present a few examples of things that go wrong. Hopefully others will chime in with more examples? Next post, we will discuss some solutions for these types of problems.

Example 1: The first student to join my lab was from a foreign country. Within 13 months of beginning work, he asked if he could take 4 weeks (the entire month of January) off to go back home. I was shocked at his lack of commitment to his project. I was proud of myself for not going with my reaction which was to say, “No! Absolutely not!” Instead, I told him I would have to look up the vacation policy for graduate students on RA and talk with some of my colleagues about what their policies are before I decided how to deal with it (he was obviously going to go regardless). The graduate policy wasn’t helpful because it was all based on hours worked, and that is a sticky subject in science where we pay for 20 hours per week, but expect 80. My colleagues were much more reasonable. They ranged from (A) any student can take as long as he/she wants without bound to (Z) students get 2 weeks per year, and they can accumulate that time. So, if they take 4 weeks, they cannot go on (long) vacation for another 2 years (short jaunts don’t count against this). I decided to pick the latter view, which seemed reasonable and easy to keep track of. I also explained why January was particularly bad time to go on vacation because I had January off from teaching, and it was a long time that I could be in the lab working with the student. He went anyway and quit the lab within 4 weeks of returning from vacation. Despite that student’s issues, this policy, which I actually considered and thought about, persists today in the lab.

Example 2: I got a really promising postdoc to join the lab joint with another WomanOfScience. She had a Ph.D. from a great institution and was already living in the area doing a postdoc with another professor. After about 9 months, it was clear that she wasn’t making progress on her project. She didn’t even know how to do the main assays of either lab, and she still needed guidance from the graduate students to run the equipment. Instead of working on her own project, she was “helping” another graduate student on some basic work that had a lot of downtime (the graduate student was doing that work and the main assays on the main equipment). When I spoke to her and calmly let her know that, as a postdoc, it is OK to help others, but your main priority is your own project, she flat told me that I was wrong. Whoa! How could her perceptions have been so off from mine? In my opinion, a postdoc has to do his/her own project and make progress. This postdoc left the lab after the 1-year contract was up after accomplishing nothing. (We can talk more about if she would have said that to a man, yadda yadda, but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter.)

Example 3: I had an undergraduate working in the lab for credit. The general university policy and my own policy is 3 hours per week is one credit. This student signed up for 3 credits for the Fall semester. I am sure you can see where this is going… The student didn’t show up often, but when she did, she didn’t do anything and acted like she was in the lab all the time. It was maddening to the other students who were working well and this students mentor in the lab. Although I told her explicitly the rules about credit when she signed up, it somehow didn’t sink in.

Example 4: This one is not from me, but comes from a AfricanAmericanManOfScience I know. Two students were working in the lab at different benches. Suddenly, one student notices the other student run past and out the door. Several minutes later, the student still in the lab smells something funny and it turns out that something was on fire in the lab! The student who quickly exited was likely running from the incident and subsequent fire, but neglected to inform the other student or try to put out the fire with an extinguisher or do any other reasonable thing. Now, this seems like common sense. You set a fire, you should at least tell your labmate so they don’t burn to a crisp, yet some people need to be told everything. Further, young people and scientists do not always have the best common sense. Thus, you need to tell them everything – even seemingly obvious things.

In each of these examples there was some policy that I didn’t think about, odd perception or preconceived notions that were incongruent, forgetfulness, or just plan idiocy. Despite this, fewer and fewer of these incidents occurred in my lab over time as I developed policies, materials, content, and new activities to keep everyone on the same page. Since this post is getting out of control, I will describe some of the methods I employ in the next post. Please comment of guest post with other examples or with your own solutions.

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