Dear Molly Cule: My PI and I Don’t See Eye to Eye

Molly Cule is an Associate Professor in a medical school at a public university in the United States. Professor Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her here on the BPS Blog.

Dear Molly Cule,
I’m nearing the end of my PhD, but I am finding it more and more difficult to communicate amicably with my PI. He’s over-demanding and my work never meets his standards. We used to meet weekly but we now meet less frequently, and when we do meet we often end up arguing. I just want to finish and move on to a previously arranged postdoc position. What should I do?
Frustrated, from Florida

Dear Frustrated,
Probably like you, I have lots of friends who have PhDs. Without exception, their relationships with their PIs changed dramatically in the last few months of their programs. Some of them (and I consider myself lucky to fall in this category) became close with their PIs and have remained friends ever since. Others drifted apart. One friend couldn’t bear to be in the same US state as her boss near the end—which, as you can imagine, made finishing a little tricky.

Your case is not unusual. Many student-to-mentor relationships become strained near the end, for a number of reasons. Maybe your boss is worried about the difficulty of replacing you, or maybe you are trying to get out without finishing the appropriate control experiments? Perhaps you are disagreeing more often because you are starting to have your own ideas about how to interpret results? Maybe it’s something else entirely—likely something that you don’t even know about!

As is usually the case in this column, I don’t have an easy, universal answer. One thing that will probably help is good communication. Try to clarify each other’s expectations (number of experiments, standard of write-ups, etc.). Doing this in writing, or possibly by e-mail, would be a good idea. At least you will have something to refer to and you will also have an established paper trail in case things get worse. The other thing that you should definitely use to your advantage is your PhD Advisory Committee. They can be invaluable in situations like yours because they can act as a buffer between you and your PI. Make appointments to go and see the members and speak frankly (and as calmly and dispassionately as you can) to them about the situation. Ask them for advice and remember that it’s their job to give it to you; they are, after all, members of your Advisory Committee.

If things continue to go badly, you may need to speak to your Director of Graduate Affairs or Department Chair. He or she will listen to your case and follow established procedures to try to resolve the situation. Bear in mind, though, that the Chair in particular will be trying to protect the PI as much as he or she will try to protect you. It’s therefore in everybody’s interest if you and your PI can resolve your difficulties without letting things escalate too far. Consider asking him to meet for a coffee outside the lab so that you can get a chance to talk without distractions. Open communication is likely to be your best route to a quick finish.

Good luck and best wishes,
–Molly

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