I haven’t spoken with my Co-PI about this yet because I’m angry. Like fist balled, white knuckled, want to scream into some endless void angry. This was not the post for today, but I’ve learned a long time ago that I should get things out instead of bottling it up and letting it eat me alive. It’s the reason I’m still here today and one minor step to my success in not falling into the abyss that is depression. I am angry and I need to chose my next words carefully, because as you’ll see, I have no power here.
If you’re lucky you can do a PhD in as little as four or even three (in very rare cases) years. Mine will take between four and five… that is, if I’m lucky and if I finish. Currently I’m a third year PhD candidate in neuroengineering with a BS and MS in mechanical engineering. This blog is my daily notes about that journey and I’ve been doing it faithfully for almost two years now. Sometimes I teach (like my know your spinal cord series), some days I talk about my horrible mental health, like how I tried to kill myself and spent over two years after that attempt trying to find solid ground again (like, but not limited to, this post). Today is probably a rare intersection of mental health and my PhD. Okay, not rare, but perhaps the most egregious example in those categories.
I was excited yesterday. I had a meeting with my Co-PI to discuss my PhD and the takeaway was he was ready for me to do my thing. We had thoroughly designed the experiments, we determined the number of subjects, and we collected pilot data (for that R21 grant I wrote a while back) so I knew what to expect. We were ready and my Co-PI was just as excited to start as I was. We even talked publications and how to make both my main-PI and my Co-PI happy, which I proposed a solution to if my main-PI wasn’t fully excepting.
We were ready to talk about this with my main-PI, so I tried to arrange a meeting between the three of us (here). That was when things started to fall apart. Which I guess deserves a bit of background information before you understand the full gravity of what happened. The R21 grant caused a significant strain on an already strained relationship between my two PI’s. In a perfect world they would be the ideal Co-PI’s both having equal say in the things I can and should be doing. In reality my main-PI who is very senior in the field isn’t used to being told no. To the point that he had a position that was offered to him pulled because he wanted to take control of the program and that rubbed the program manager the wrong way. He’s not a bad guy and he deserves the recognition for the work he’s done, but he’s also a strong personality and that can be hard to work with.
I knew it was bad news when I got the response email from him. He responded to me directly instead of responding to everyone in the email. It simply asked if I wanted to meet with the two of them because I was changing my dissertation topic. I explained that this was not the case, that we were ready to start my data collection, and that we may not get the chance to do it in my Co-PI’s lab for some time if we don’t do it soon. Soon after, he responded that it was not going to happen. The short version is he set out some tasks that I need to complete before I can do any of the work. That would be perfectly fine, fair, and understandable…. but.
He made up the rules. He’s the boss and yes, he can do that if he wants. My problem is he literally made up new rules about what I can and cannot do until I complete the things he’s asking for. I know this for a fact because some of the rules he set up were rules that others have demonstrably never followed. We’ve had one person graduate and another about to defend his PhD who I know right off the top of my head have never had such rules apply to them.
I believe this comes back to the friction between my Co-PI and my main-PI because in the email he also included that I should be able to do the work in his lab and not my Co-PI’s lab. Who has newer hardware, a more refined setup for what I am trying to do, and has custom built equipment for our experiments. Things that my main-PI does not have and was part of the reason for my co-appointment at the research hospital. Never mind the fact that the school has put a halt on human subject testing while the hospital is allowing it. The subtext is that my fellowship funding runs out in the fall, so I’m genuinely wondering if he isn’t just trying to run out my fellowship in order to be able to be the one in charge again.
So I’m angry. Not about the rules, I can live with rules. I’m a Marine, I’m used to jumping through hoops to get to where I need to be, that isn’t the problem. My anger is from how they are being unfairly applied. How I somehow have special rules that keep me from doing what I need to do to graduate because he decided I should. Arbitrarily applied or fully made up rules are not something I’m okay with. Either they apply to everyone or they should apply to no one, there shouldn’t be an inbetween where some are favored over others or worse, I’m being punished because of the tension between my PI’s. I’m angry because I get no say here and even if I point out the issues with the rules, it’s his lab so he can do what he wants, which includes letting me go if he thinks I’m being disrespectful.
The only thing I can do here is do what he wants and hope that the goal posts don’t get pulled back even further. I’m not sure how my Co-PI will take this, but I’m sure it won’t end well for him either. He may be my Co-PI, but he has only slightly more power in this situation than I do, which is to say near none. Such is the life of a PhD candidate I guess.