We're a little crazy, about science!

That time I angered my PI

king's roads from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell
Navigating the right path isn’t always so easy.

I met my deadline, so now I’m going to take a short(ish) break and tell a quick story. I have been debating about telling it since it’s embarrassing and talking about failures (or really mistakes) is uncomfortable. I had enough uncomfortableness just trying to hit my deadline, but now that I’ve made it I figure I can at least tell the story for posterity’s sake.

The thing about this story is it happened not that long ago, just a few months back I was minding my own business doing work and trying to be a good PhD candidate. I was attempting to be productive and given the situation we find ourselves in (the pandemic is still raging on here in the US), I was doing okay. Since I’m the only one in my main lab doing experiments I had a plan to collect some data for my PhD.

The plan was simple, the experimental design was straight forward, and my Co-PI was not just on board with the idea, but excited. I had only ever led one experiment prior to this (with the help of some senior lab members) and so because I had no other frame of reference for how experiments were run in the lab, I followed that example.

I reserved the equipment, confirmed everything with my Co-PI, and set out to get my data. The experiment went smoothly and as you may remember from the posts back in August (I believe) I had some highs and lows, but I found what I needed. Proof that what I had was what I claimed it to be. Yes, still being cryptic, sorry.

That’s when I went to my PI to discuss the work. The experiment needed to happen prior to my proposal defense and my PI was pushing me to do my proposal defense ASAP. So naturally I thought I was taking the initiative and getting it done, something that would help show that I wanted to be in the program and didn’t mind doing work. Unfortunately that’s not how it went down.

Since I hadn’t informed my main PI that my Co-PI and I were doing the experiment he wasn’t happy. In fact, he was so unhappy that I thought I was about to be kicked from the program. I apologized profusely and promised it wouldn’t happen again. It won’t because I know better now and in hindsight I guess I should’ve made sure he was in the loop. He’s very hands off and like I said I only had one experiment as a frame of reference, I had never seen anyone talk to him about doing experiments they were doing, they just did them. I had the backing of my Co-PI, we had IRB approval, so I didn’t think it was an issue at the time, but to him it was.

In the end I want to believe it was a systematic failure and that mistakes were made on both sides. On one hand, he’s responsible for me and I should’ve realized this going into the experiment. I should’ve reached out to him and at least explained to him the plan my Co-PI and I had come up with. On the other hand as my mentor he should’ve at least attempted to give me an overview of how these things work and how I should go about properly designing experiments. Had he properly explained to me his expectations I would’ve gladly met them.

Another factor is my Co-PI. We did the experiment in his lab, under his supervision, under his IRB, the only contribution from my main-PI’s lab was the equipment. So I’m having trouble figuring out who’s in charge of me and how I should be dividing my time. I wasn’t the one who originally pushed the experiment, my Co-PI wants me to progress in my degree and because he had the time in his schedule it was his idea. I’m not used to having two people equally in charge of me pulling me in two different directions.

It gets even more confusing when we do experiments that benefit me using my Co-PI’s equipment exclusively. Does that require me to discuss everything with my main PI, or do I just need to tell him that my Co-PI is doing an experiment that would benefit me? I mean I don’t typically tell my main PI all the experiments I take part in, which would require emails basically every other day, so it’s a tough situation to navigate.

Going forward I’m trying to get clarification on how to arrange experiments between the two of them, but it’s not easy. They are literally pulling me in two different directions and while I prefer what my Co-PI is doing and would rather do those things, my main PI is the lab I work under to get my degree, there’s no degree option with my Co-PI so I’m stuck in the middle. My Co-PI isn’t oblivious to this either, he and my main PI are on rocky ground at the moment because my main PI has ideas for experiments that my Co-PI has no real interest in doing. They are supposed to be equals, but it also doesn’t really feel that way.

I’m still trying to navigate this and while I am still (thankfully) in the program I know that my PI feels like I did something behind his back, when really I was just trying to take initiative and be productive. He’s not the easiest person to talk to. While I need to emphasize that he was kind enough to take me in and has given me every opportunity to excel, I can still be annoyed at the ambiguity of it all.

He’s a great person, I’m lucky to be working for him, and to be able to learn from him. He’s just hands off so I just can’t always tell what he wants from me. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if that’s my fault or not. Which makes all this even more frustrating.


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