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The confusing road to my dissertation

I’m very lost at the moment about what the next step would be in my degree. I mean I know what the next step is, my dissertation proposal, the problem is that there’s now a rather large wrench thrown into the mix and I’m not sure what to do. Honestly it would be so much easier to just give up on my degree and go work like I’m doing now, it really would, but after three full years in the program and a decade of schooling to get to that point, I don’t want to stop short. Which means once again I’m faced with an impossible choice and no matter what I decide I feel like someone is going to get hurt.

For those who aren’t aware, I am about to do my dissertation proposal defense. It’s the next step in my PhD and the last until I do the actual dissertation defense (in about two years if I’m lucky). I’m very excited to do it, but my situation has made things quite a bit more complicated than I would’ve liked. The problem is hospital-PI and school-PI can’t find common ground, or rather both are in charge and have very different views on what I can and cannot do (you can read about that whole mess here). This would be so much easier if I didn’t like one of them or didn’t think highly of one of them, but I can’t chose, they are both great people who want the best for me, they just don’t agree on what that looks like.

Hence the choice I need to make. Option one is to go back to my school-PI and work part time with hospital-PI. Hospital-PI has already mentioned that he could cut me down to 60% pay and that would give me two days to do my PhD and school-PI would have to pick up the cost difference (ideally). This would screw with a lot of my benefits from work, because being full-time means I get nice benefits that you forget you even get because you’ve been in school for so long and they don’t care to give you basic things like health coverage or paid time off (just to name two). So this is far from ideal!

Option two is better and if it were a few months ago I would do it. This option is to do my dissertation fully in my hospital-PI’s lab, meaning it would be a project he specifically approved and would be directly and firmly related to his labs work. Now my “super secret” technique, that does relate to his work, but only tangentially so it may be hard (or at least not straightforward) to get him on board with the full extent that school-PI wants to explore it. It does mean I have access to super cool options, like experiments in the operating room, or even animal models (I’m not a fan of experiments with animals, I fully support animal experiments and the benefits are huge, but it makes me feel bad so I’m hesitant to do that one).

Unfortunately option two only would’ve made sense if it came up months ago. Since my hospital-PI was on the fence about staying at the hospital he is at, well it wasn’t even an option a few months ago so we never had that conversation until now. The problem being I was just awarded a (for me) large sum of money to pursue my “super secret” technique for the next two years (here). Okay, I wasn’t awarded directly, my school-PI was awarded and the project was my project (since it’s my technique). So I’m all but committed to the project. If I abandon it, my school-PI would have to find someone else to do the work and I feel like that would look bad for me from a professional standpoint.

On one hand hospital-PI holds my paycheck, on the other school-PI holds my degree. Both of them have significant sway and I’m sort of stuck in the middle needing to choose, but it’s not an easy choice. Since I don’t think option two is even a real choice at this point because of the funding we got, I need to figure out option three. Option three would be the one that I thought we originally had agreed upon, but maybe not. In this case, school-PI and hospital-PI (or maybe surgeon-PI on behalf of hospital-PI) would come up with a contract, as in a legit legal agreement, which would outline my time in school-PI’s lab (the amount of work I need to do for the project) and school-PI would pay hospital-PI (through surgeon-PI since surgeon-PI is on the funding proposal and hospital-PI is not) for my time. Meaning I would be full time, but subcontracted out to do my work toward my PhD.

At this point option three is a pipedream, but I’m going to try to smooth things over with hospital-PI, then discuss this with school-PI. There has to be a way to make this all work and I really want to find a way to make it happen, but I’m just not sure at the moment. I don’t want hospital-PI to feel like I’m taking advantage of him, but I also don’t want school-PI to be upset if I abandon the project so soon after the funding was awarded and the interviews happened. I just don’t think that would look good for me and because school-PI is very connected I don’t want that kind of reputation early on in my career.

Hence being stuck in this very complex, very frustrating, situation. I’m going to have to figure something out for sure, but I just don’t know how it will all work out in the end. Since all three PI’s (school, hospital, and surgeon) are on my dissertation committee, I need to keep everyone happy. School and surgeon PI are both on the grant we wrote so I’m not sure how surgeon-PI would feel if I abandoned the project either. It may be time to get him involved in the talk too actually now that I think about it since he has a better relationship with both school-PI and hospital-PI.

So now that I have this all laid out, I need to think of what would be best for me and the people I care about (all three of my PI’s since I apparently need that many).

Oh hell, maybe I need to crowdsource this. My dear readers I love all of you very much. You’ve all been supportive and I hate to ask more of you than following along, but if you have any advice, suggestions, or feel like I need a good kick in the head because I’m an idiot (trust me I know I am!) feel free to leave a comment. Maybe some outside perspective will help.


4 responses

  1. I’ve never had to deal with something like this, or seen anyone else deal with something like this. Never wrote any grant proposals, never had two labs or jobs fighting over me. It also sounds like at least part of the trouble is social rather than practical, and I don’t know any of your PIs personally. So I think what I have to say here is less “advice” and more “thoughts.” I certainly don’t have anything expert or authoritative to offer.

    If it were me, the thing I hope I’d do first is figure out what my real obligations were. “Would this actually be bad” over “would this look bad,” because things that just look bad can sometimes be explained, and personal integrity > professional reputation. What do you straight-up owe to people, vs. what might just make them feel disgruntled? Are everyone’s expectations normal/justified given the situation, or is somebody being unreasonable?

    If school-PI did have to replace you, how much of a hardship would it be? Are decent graduate students in this field easy or difficult to find?

    Is everybody involved fully aware of the strained personal circumstances that got you into this dilemma in the first place? Do they appreciate the fact that it was hard to fully commit to school-PI’s lab while your funding was running out, and hard to fully commit to hospital-PI while there was a possibility of him leaving and he wasn’t offering you a degree option? In other words, are they accepting any part they played in creating the current mess, and if not, can you coax them to?

    If you were under the impression that Option 3 had already been agreed to … then maybe they made some commitments which you can hold them to now. Even if the commitments were unintentional (e.g. miscommunication), if something they carelessly said impacted your decision-making, then I think it is fair to hold them partially responsible.

    Surgeon-PI sounds like a stakeholder here, so I absolutely agree with getting him involved as quickly as possible, and making sure that he is fully communicated with. And I do think Option 3 sounds like the best one, if you can manage to get it.

    Lastly … I know this is a tangential point, since you barely seem to be considering Option 2 … but I would suggest you follow your instincts and stay away from invasive experiments on animals. Full disclosure, I’m generally opposed to those … but in addition to it being bad for the animals, I’m thinking it could be bad for you. You are the last person who needs any further stressors on your mental health. So getting involved in anything that could be ugly or traumatic, or promote feelings of sorrow, guilt, or cognitive dissonance, is maybe not your best choice.

    Hopefully that stirs something useful into the mix instead of muddying it up further. A lot of what I put down were rhetorical questions, weren’t they. I’m just not close enough to the situation.

    I’m sorry you have to go through this. Best of luck, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 8, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    • Thank you, you brought up some really good points that I hadn’t really considered. Sometimes you’re too close to the situation to see the full picture and considering I’m in the middle of the situation, it’s hard to see anything at all.

      You’re right, option two isn’t the best option. I don’t think I would go the animal model route if I did go with option two, but it was offered. I agree avoiding the stress would be for the best. Our lab will sometimes incorporate our equipment with other animal studies going on, but I’ve always been left out since I’m not a fan.

      I do like the points you made about integrity vs. reputation and the commitments that were agreed to by everyone. I have a meeting today with hospital-PI so I’m going to have some things to think about before then.

      In any case, thank you! I always value your opinion and this helps tremendously!

      Liked by 1 person

      November 9, 2021 at 9:20 am

      • You’re very welcome. I hope the meeting went alright today.

        Liked by 1 person

        November 9, 2021 at 8:09 pm

      • Thank you, The meeting… uh… went. Basically I need to make a choice now and it’s a little frustrating.


        November 10, 2021 at 9:09 am

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