‘Is the PI a jerk?’ Key questions to ask when you’re moving lab

‘Is the PI a jerk?’ Key questions to ask when you’re moving lab

00:09: Adam Levy

Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast.

In this series, we’re looking at a crucial step that many scientists take multiple times throughout their careers, moving labs.

We’re looking at all aspects of this question, from dealing with new cultures when moving abroad, to the challenges facing scientists with disabilities when they move labs.

There’s plenty to talk about, and so we’re bringing you six episodes to investigate.

In this, our first episode of the series, we’re taking a look at the most fundamental question: how to choose a lab that you want to move to in the first place.

Later in the episode, we’ll hear from two academics on how particular factors, the age of the lab and the size of the institution, influenced their decisions.

But before we get to them, I spoke with Joanne Kamens. Joanne worked at the Impact Seat based in Boston, Massachusetts, which performs diversity, equity and inclusion consulting.

This work has given Joanne unique insights into what researchers should look for in a lab and crucially, what they should avoid.

But before this work, Joanne was a researcher herself. I started out by asking how Joanne found the lab that she wanted to be a part of.

Joanne Kamens: 01:48

I got lucky. One of the reasons why I talk a lot about being mindful and intentional about this choice is that I don’t want science trainees to get lucky.

I want them to be able to make a choice and not be stuck in a damaging or unproductive graduate or postdoc experience.

So I rotated three times. My first lab was a big giant academic lab with a famous PI. And I never really, I only once met the PI. I really worked with a postdoc in the lab as my mentor.

And it was an extremely competitive lab, and that different postdocs and grad students were working on the same questions, but not always together.

I really didn’t see that as jiving with my, like…I like to work on a team. And so I didn’t choose that lab.

And then I rotated in a very small lab with about four or five people. And it was great, actually, I really loved it and I loved the science. But that lab was very quiet.

Like, every time I asked a question, I felt like I was disturbing people. And I’m not a quiet person.

As much as I really enjoyed the science and the PI was supportive and seemed like a good mentor, that did not work out for me.

And then I went to a lab where I was only the second grad student. It was a brand new lab. There were a couple of postdocs and the Pi was very present, was in the lab, a lot of hands on mentoring, coaching, teamwork.

And that really like, that’s the kind of place where we were playing hearts at two o’clock in the morning.

And that worked out fantastic. My advisor was a fantastic mentor and extremely supportive, even when I had a baby during grad school. So it worked out great for me.

Adam Levy: 03:29

So yeah, that was, I suppose the right lab for for you. But of course, different things are going to work for different people. And when you’re considering a lab, how much should people think about, I suppose, the headline statistics about a lab?

Joanne Kamens: 03:44

So I would say item number one to pay attention to is: “Is the PI a jerk?” That is the number one. It does not matter what kind of science you do. If you end up in a lab like that you will suffer.

And so I don’t think we should be giving our work hours and paid ridiculously low (the way that grad students and postdocs are paid, given their level of experience and education) to people who don’t deserve it.

And then there’s a lot of factors, I think you do want to consider the size of the lab. How present is the PI? Do you like to work on your own? Do you like someone kind of over your shoulder?

Do multiple people from the lab publish papers together, which means that they’re working as a team, in groups? Or is it just one author on the paper?

And the great thing is with the internet now, you can really talk to alumni of the lab and ask a lot of questions that they might not have been willing to answer while they were in the lab. But you can get a really good idea by talking to alumni.

Adam Levy: 04:35

Now, you mentioned the scale of the lab is a factor there. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a bigger lab versus a smaller lab?

Joanne Kamens: 04:44

You know, in a bigger lab, if you can’t advocate for yourself, sometimes you can get lost, you know and if you feel that you can, you know advocate and get what you need, you know you’re going to be vying for attention of a very busy lab head, and so, you know, you have to decide.

If you want to compete with 40 people for attention or you don’t care. Maybe you don’t care about attention. You just feel like you can get enough of the training and the mentorship that you need, and the support that you need, then, then that’s fine.

And maybe like, have a lot of choices for projects and learn from a lot of different people. It can be super fun to be in a big lab, you know. Just like, it’s fun to be in a big company. You have more more people to learn from.

Sometimes those labs also have more available funding options. So those are some of the factors on size. But definitely, if you can rotate and get the feel for the lab, and be honest with yourself how it feels.

Adam Levy: 05:38

Now, when you mentioned you don’t want to work for a jerk, my first reaction is kind of well, of course not no one wants to do that.

But then my second reaction is, well, surely that’s a very, very difficult thing to actually assess before you start working somewhere. So how do you begin to get a sense of whether this is the right environment for you?

Joanne Kamens: 05:57

Yeah, it’s literally not difficult to assess. It’s just scientists don’t bother assessing it. I will tell you that right now.

So you know, “Oh, look, cool papers, famous scientist, I want to work in their lab.” You know, and literally, you know, they’re doing you a favour.

I tell every science trainee, this: “Wherever you take your labour, you are doing them a huge favour, they are not doing you a favour.”

And so you have to be really careful to choose someone that is going to…

A: treat you appropriately. And that should be the bottom line. Hopefully they’ll treat you well.

And B, give you the training that you need to get in order to get a job.

And that does not mean to get a job in academia, because we all know that only about 10-15% of science trainees actually end up with a job in academia, but will support your whole journey.

Adam Levy: 06:46

So what are the warning signs then, that someone might not be putting the energy into you, that you need at this stage of your career?

Joanne Kamens: 06:53

There’s kind of a list of questions that you can ask that are non-threatening.

I’m not asking you to meet with a PI and say, “Hey, do you sexually harass the women in your lab?”

You’re probably not going to get a straight answer. You know, that is not the thing you do.

But the thing to do is to you know, ask some very non-threatening questions. How often do you meet with the trainees in the lab? How are projects assigned in this lab? How do you decide authorship on papers? What are the opportunities for professional development? How would you feel if I did a summer internship one summer while I’m here in the lab?

You know, there’s a lot of questions you can ask and see the response. If you’re not given a chance to speak directly to people in the lab privately, that is a huge warning sign. And ask them about their experience. Would they choose the same lab again?

That’s my favorite question. Because if they don’t enthusiastically respond yes, you should consider that a warning sign.

I would definitely do a search for any mention of harassment or bullying or anything associated with the PI.

So I would do, you know, a scan for that to make sure.

And here’s my final word. There’s a whisper network in every academic organization about who are the bullies and who are the harassers?

And I cannot tell you the number of times people come to me and say, “Well, I heard this story about this person, but I’m gonna go to that lab anyway.” Do not, do not ignore the whisper network.

Adam Levy: 08:17

Apart from, I suppose, overlooking these warnings, what are the most common pitfalls you see when when academics are choosing a lab to move to?

Joanne Kamens: 08:27

I guess I would look to see….do people from the lab, when they leave the lab, where are they? Are they successfully you know, embarking on science careers?

Are the careers that they’re embarking on very diverse? Because that’s what we need right now.

Not everybody belongs to staying in academia. So you really want someone with that attitude of supporting your development.

Adam Levy: 08:48

For some academics, the thought of effectively interviewing your interviewer might seem a bit daunting, you know, asking these questions, doing this detective work. What would you say to people who feel a bit put off by the thought of that?

Joanne Kamens: 09:02

I would say, “Are you crazy?”

You have to. You have to. You don’t have to be aggressive about it. But you should show up to your interviews with a notebook and a list of questions and space to write down your answers.

This is a huge, huge factor in the future of your life. Huge, so make your choices carefully.

Adam Levy: 09:23

That was Joanne Kamens. A lot of Joanne’s advice is about gathering evidence so you know as well as you possibly can, what the lab you’re considering would be like to work in.

But what about when there isn’t really any evidence to gather? That’s the situation facing academics joining brand new labs with brand new PIs.

While this may come with problems, it can also offer some surprising benefits. Tim Fessenden is now a scientific editor at The Journal of Cell Biology, but when he was finishing up his PhD investigating the biophysics of cells at the University of Chicago, he was looking for his next steps in research and choosing a lab in which to take them.

I started out by asking Tim: “When it came to choosing a lab in which he wanted to do your work, how much, I suppose time and energy and thought, did you put into making that choice?”

Tim Fessenden 10:20

I put in a lot of thought and a lot of worry. It was, as I think, for a lot of people at the end of the PhD, a fairly rushed time.

But I did try to think really clearly and hard about whose labs I was aware of and who were doing work that was interesting to me.

Adam Levy: 10:45

Now, one of the factors that I know you took into consideration when you were choosing a lab was the age of the lab. Why did this matter to you? And how were you thinking of it when you’re approaching this question?

Tim Fessenden: 10:57

I had come from not very old, but a fairly large lab that enjoyed a pretty well-known stature in the field, in this case, cell mechanics and biophysics.

And some experiences in that lab were wonderful. But some experiences had me a little bit frustrated and a little bit impatient with the dynamics that go in a larger and more established lab.

And so partly, it was reactionary. It was also with a view toward my own enthusiasm towards starting a lab myself someday.

And real curiosity about watching that unfold, sort of with a front row seat. And I should point out, this was not my only criteria, I did apply to larger labs. This was in the balance of many factors.

Adam Levy: 11:51

And when you actually chose this relatively new lab, what were the benefits you did see from its young age?

Tim Fessenden: 12:00

Upon joining, there was really the just wide open horizon of new projects being launched, and the funding to do so.

So it was an exciting and a fast time. And I did really enjoy that.

And it was a lot of fun to think about and start to launch projects that were really brand new and needed to be tested. So it was kind of a really fun and exciting time.

Adam Levy: 12:29

I think when a lot of people think about new labs, or maybe new anything, one of the things they think about is the fact that it’s relatively untested.

You don’t quite know what you’re going to get. Did any of these concerns hold up in your experiences with new labs?

Tim Fessenden; 12:46

You don’t know what you’re going to get in terms of new project and in terms of mentorship style, necessarily.

Those things are untested in a new PI. And you’re joining that new PI on that kind of journey or developmental path.

Adam Levy: 13:00

Were you surprised by any of the aspects of working in a new lab?

Tim Fessenden 13:03

I think the biggest surprises for me were in understanding how my PI was responding to the pressures that were put on her, and how they were then hoping and expecting their trainees in the lab to behave and to carry out their projects.

And so the unexpected thing was to kind of confront that. It’s kind of a hard thing to adjust to, a mentorship style that you didn’t necessarily expect,

Adam Levy: 13:33

If you were to give advice to someone in a similar situation to your situation when you’re finishing your PhD, and you’re kind of rushing to find where you’re going to continue your career, what pieces of advice would you hand over?

Tim Fessenden: 13:48

Find a way to give feedback to someone who is becoming a mentor for the first time. There needs to be a mechanism in place. And that’s not something that’s the PI’s job alone.

And it’s not something that’s the mentee’s job alone.

It’s a relationship that needs to work and both sides need to make it work.

Adam Levy: 14:07

Do you have any tips on choosing the right lab for the right person beyond, of course, this, this question of old versus new?

Tim Fessenden: 14:15

Making sure that you’re excited about the institution, and the department in which you’ll be embedded. I can say that that was a huge boon to me. And I think that that would probably go for anyone.

Make sure that, you know, it’s in a place where the people you see walking down the hall will be friendly people and they’ll also be working on projects and science that you find really exhilarating and exciting.

And to the best of your ability, ensure that your project and the tools that you’re going to be marshalling towards that project, are exciting tools for you to work on, that you will be self motivated to work on that project with those tools.

That was certainly in place for me and that made obviously a huge difference. That was like a huge, huge bright spot for me, in looking back over my time in that lab,

Adam Levy: 15:08

Tim Fessenden there. Being excited about an institution is advice that psychologist and neuroscientist Kim Gerecke would also offer.

But there are lots of different things to look for in an institution. And Kim cautions that bigger isn’t always better.

She’s at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. I spoke to her about how her decisions have evolved over the course of her career.

Kim Gerecke: 15:36

A lot of what has influenced the decision has often been things like: “What’s available?”

So, for example, when I was initially applying for tenure track positions, I had one tenure track offer.

Once you have been accepted someplace, and once you are under contract, there are many things that you can do in the negotiating process, to then really shape that position in that lab to be what you need it to be.

Even at a small liberal arts institution, like where I am now, there are opportunities to negotiate for startup, for equipment.

Adam Levy: 16:10

Now, what about early in one’s career, when you’re not looking at setting up your own lab and choosing the kind of physical lab you want to set up, but the lab that is run by someone else that you want to be a part of?

Kim Gerecke: 16:24

So I had experience of this when I was in graduate school. At UAB, the first year, you rotated through different individuals’ laboratory spaces. And the criteria there initially was, “Are they doing the kind of research I’m interested in? Are they asking the kinds of questions that I’d like to investigate?”

But one of the things that I realized came through very clearly was the most important criteria, was “Are they going to mentor?” You know, especially at the graduate level. You know, are there opportunities for really good mentorship?

Adam Levy: 16:59

Yeah. So are there ways that you can, I suppose, get hints of that before joining a lab and get some sense of what mentorship might be like in a particular lab.

Kim Gerecke: 17:10

You know, you just talk to other graduate students, and you find out a lot, certainly a lot comes through sort of the grapevine, and graduate students just sort of talking with each other.

But in the interview process it’s really important to ask questions. And especially, like, when I was a postdoc, and I was looking for a position, I asked very pointed questions about the environment and the culture in the lab.

And it was easy to get a very clear understanding of what it’s kind of like, especially if you talk to grad students or other postdocs, and just sort of say, you know, “What’s it like working with so and so?”

“Is it a really positive collaborative kind of arrangement? What are his or her expectations in terms of autonomy?”

So, for example, there was one that I looked at, that I was really interested in. But it became very clear that this individual had a grant and they wanted somebody who was going to come in and do the experiments in the grant, as opposed to the position that I took, where it was more like, “Here are the kinds of questions that I like to answer. And these are the kinds of models that I have.”

And anything that you want to do, sort of in this general area, like, let’s talk about it. There were very different cultures and very different mentorship styles.

Adam Levy: 18:26

Now, when a lot of people are choosing a lab and choosing the institution they want the lab to be to be in, I think often people think kind of big is better.

You know, the the bigger the institution, the more support you’ll have the more networking maybe.

Now I understand that’s not been your approach, can you can you explain how how you think of the size of the institution that that you choose to be a part of?

Kim Gerecke: 18:51

I distinctly remember the moment that I decided to be a college professor. I was standing at the bench. I was pipetting a 96 well plate, which is very tedious work.

And I somehow just reflected on the fact that my PI, I’d never seen him at the bench in all of the five years that I was working there.

And I thought “Why am I learning how to do all of this high end research, if I’m never going to actually, like do it? If I have to sit in my office and write grants all the time.”

And that’s when I thought, you know, I’d rather be in a position similar to what I was in, in my Master’s program, with a PI who was primarily a teacher and also did research had a very small lab, but was very involved with mentoring and training those students. And that’s just a better model for me.

Big institutions have the advantages of lots of equipment, lots of money. But there’s also, then, I think for the PI, less availability in terms of time.

And so that mentorship aspect is much more valued, and much more facilitated at smaller institutions.

Adam Levy: 20:12

Have you then, since making that decision, encountered any disadvantages, any things where you think occasionally, “Oh gosh, this would be easier if I was at a place 10 times bigger.”

Kim Gerecke: 20:24

Of course, unless you have external grant support, you don’t have graduate students, you don’t have postdocs.

And so the pace of research at these small institutions can often be much more stretched out than it would be at larger institutions.

But there are other things. So for example, where I am now we have a summer undergraduate fellowship, where those students are paid to do research in your lab for eight weeks.

So you have these sort of small bursts of really intensive opportunities at some institutions,

Adam Levy: 20:59

Kim Gerecke there. So from working out whether your new boss is or isn’t a jerk, to deciding between new and old labs and large and small institutions, there are plenty of parameters that need optimizing when choosing a lab.

But what about when there isn’t just one single variable? This is the dilemma faced by academics who are in relationships when they decide to move labs, and we’ll be discussing this notorious “two body problem” in the next episode.

This has been Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *