The research is cutting-edge. The publications are top-tier. Funding is abundant. But this lab has a toxic secret that will make your life a living hell.
Hidden in Plain Sight
This week, we answered a question from a first-year grad student who found himself in a lab that felt more like the gladiator’s arena than an ivory tower. The PI created an adversarial environment where it was every scientists for himself.
This summer (my first lab rotation) was in an HHMI lab and the PI was both non-existent and absolutely poisonous. Furthermore, their caustic attitude bled into the rest of the lab. It seemed like the rest of the staff withheld information so as to throw you under the bus during lab meeting. This experience has led me to reconsider my position as a grad student as well as a scientist. How do you handle a bad lab/mentor?
Thankfully, this was just a rotation, but it raises an important question about how to detect the subtle signs of disfunction. We share one simple tip that helps you discover the hidden drama before you commit to joining.
And it’s not just advice for grad students on rotation – you’ll want to take the same advice if you’re choosing a postdoctoral lab because the stakes can be even higher!
Cutting on the Bias
We also took some time to answer listener mail about our recent gender bias episode. Josh and Dan take the implicit bias test semi-live and on the air, and share their results. If you haven’t taken it yet, go find out how biased you really are. Jerk.
And we get the giggles about the fuggles with Ad Astra Ale from Free State Brewing in Lawrence, KS. It was sent in by some listeners at the University of Kansas, so thank you to all of our Jayhawks friends!
During his first week as a postdoc, James was excited. He stayed late to set up cultures and read a stack of papers. The second week, he was surprised to notice he was the last one in the lab at 6PM – in his undergrad lab, you could expect to see people working past 10.
Over the next few weeks, James left earlier each evening, pushing off the next experiment until tomorrow. By the end of six months, he wasn’t making progress and had lost some of his energy and passion for the project.
Embracing the buzz
Is your lab buzzing with activity at all hours of the day and night, or does everyone clear out before dinner? It should come as no surprise that the work ethic of people around you can affect YOUR productivity. Ignoring the subtle nuances of lab culture is an all-too-common mistake.
This week, we respond to a listener question about culture and productivity:
Hi Josh + Dan,
I would love to hear a discussion about the work culture and differing work ethic at different tiers of institutes. I visited Boston over the weekend and was struck by the urgency all around, which I miss at my institute…wonder how much more productive I would be surrounded by a “hive” mentality. What do you think?
We start by exploring those powerful phrases about urgency and a hive mentality and how they can motivate you to work harder. But in the end, we have some doubts about whether you’ll only find that work ethic at certain universities. In reality, it can vary by department or lab, so it’s extra important for you to know what you’re looking for and choose based on your own personality profile.
Ninja Cowboy Cat Rides Again!
Also in this episode, we celebrate fall with the new Pumpkin Spice Agarose from Fisher Scientific. Don’t be surprised when you find your e. Coli wearing Uggs and a Northface jacket!
On the beer front, we continue to enjoy some beers sent to us from a listener in Wisconsin. We do double-duty with Spotted Cow Ale from New Glarus Brewing Co. (New Glarus, WI) and Fantasy Factory India Pale Ale from Karben4 Brewing (Madison, WI).
The label on the Fantasy Factory is nearly indescribable:
Some labs feel like a party – there’s music playing, post-docs chatting, and grad students running from bench to bench setting up experiments. But what if you land in a spot that feels more like a morgue than a living laboratory? Co-workers keep their eyes on their benches, every ear is covered by headphones, and you end up eating lunch alone in the break room.
Silence is Au
Working in a lab environment where everyone maintains monk-like vows of silence can be alienating, but it’s also bad for the science. Researchers who aren’t talking aren’t teaching or learning, and your training as a student or post-doc can really suffer.
“Quiet Lab Syndrome” was the problem we faced in this week’s episode. “Sue” (name changed to prevent her lab-mates from finding out they’re boring…) asked:
I just started in a research lab, and I have an issue. The lab I joined is super quiet. For most of the day, people just do their experiments, sit at their desks, focused on their computer screens, and there is very little conversation and communication. I’m new to the lab, so I’m finding it very difficult to learn about what’s going on, hear about people’s projects, etc since there is very little informal conversation going on. Not to mention, I feel a little jealous that some of my peers joined labs where people play music, go out for beers, and are generally pretty social with one another. I think the science is interesting, and I really like the PI, but the silence makes it difficult to pick up on things, and makes the lab generally a less pleasant place to be all day. What should I do?
We’ve got tips for understanding the cause of the quiet, and some advice for helping you break the ice.
Is there a doctor on the plane!?
Also in this episode, we talk about whether flaunting your PhD on hotel and airline reservations earns you better treatment. If you’ve ever put “Dr.” on the reservation and they rolled out the red carpet, let us know so we can exploit those businesses ourselves!
For ethanol, we enjoy the rich, caramel goodness of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale and discover both the violent and adorable origins of Toxoplasma gondii. Here’s a picture of the fuzzy little vector known as a Gundi.