Growing Pains

I’ve been very lucky to have a wonderful mix of people in the lab. They work well together and are a real team. When one member of the group has been stressed or over the top about something, everyone else has pitched in to lighten that person’s load. I don’t know if I have set this up consciously, or if it was just lucky random chance that things worked out this way. I do know that I laid out the expectation for each hire that we were going to work together as a team (yes, that is the royal ‘we’), and that we should all be considerate and respectful toward each other. Perhaps one factor that has contributed to this supportive and cooperative atmosphere was the relative absence of dominating personalities thus far. Then again, maybe not.

I realize now that with growth of my group, that the personality and cooperativity of the group may change. I admire assertiveness, but I realize that having very assertive individuals as employees may be a double edged sword. On the one side, if you want a science career, especially if you are a girl, and you aren’t assertive- your career path is going to be that much more difficult. A little assertiveness goes a long way.

But excessive assertiveness can also create problems when you expect individuals to function as a team. Excessive assertiveness or aggressiveness can make some members of the team feel continuously disrespected, and undermine morale. An uncomfortable atmosphere in the lab can make people not want to be there- they start thinking more about intra-lab politics, and less about the next experiment and how to push projects forward. Conflict follows. I’m sure almost everyone who has run a lab (or a team of any kind) has had to deal with one person who seems to poison the whole atompshere of the group, perhaps because of their aggressive nature.

So today I ask: How do you foster individual assertiveness, while maintaining the productive functioning of your research ‘team’?  Does this have to be actively taught and managed? When do you step into festering conflicts between lab members and promote fairness in the group?   I do not know of many colleagues that actively manage these aspects of their lab groups (nor have I had many conversations with other PIs about this), and I’ve seen conflict be extremely damaging to morale and productivity. I am erring more toward taking an active role to manage these situations myself. And golly- I’m practically a professional at conflict management at home (I mean,  I have two girls ..11 and 7)… but I hardly think I can put my trainees in time out when they are fightin’ and bickerin’. Or maybe I should…

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Talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

After one of my last posts, I got busy at my real job and slacked off on reading the comments at the end there. This weekend I was going back over the list, and catching up with what had been said … and I came upon this comment left by commenter KT:

I am a TT faculty, am a family-comes-first person and have been supportive for students and postdocs having problems. And I understand there is no good time to have a baby and it is not easy to wear many hats. BUT, I also think it is unfair for a TT faculty to support pregnancy and shortened work to take care of babies. TT are in the tough battle and all the lab member count, since the size of the lab is small. Losing one postdoc for 4 months for maternity leave and some decreased productivity for 1-2 years… This is a gigantic loss.

Getting pregnant is something one can choose, which is different from getting sick. So I would support my students and postdocs as a person, but there would be some “illegal” and “politically incorrect” feeling I could not suppress. I would be either a “victim” of their happiness or someone who was forced to be involved with their trouble.

Since I read this one, it has been bothering me. Let me be clear, it is not the first time that I’ve heard this kind of thing. Years ago I was at a seminar for women in science- and the presenter said something along the vein that choice projects would be taken away from the people who couldn’t devote the necessary time to them- and people with kids were explicitly mentioned.

Anyway- I’m getting away from the comment up there. I’m just going to take this apart one sentence at a time. First- I’m less interested in what people claim they are, and much more interested in how they act. Lots of people proclaim themselves to be family-friendly, hell- we’ve got a whole political party that has co-opted that particular mantra, but when push comes to shove it is really just empty chatter.  So, I see the proclamation up there in this comment- but the rest of the comment seems to me decidedly un-family supportive. Please remember, for the most part such comments, and the actions that can logically follow, affect the 50% of the population that actually bear the children.  And it is attitudes like this that cause women to run through the nearest exit from academic science.

Furthermore, working people from all walks of life and all different careers have kids! How is the situation of a TT faculty member losing a female lab member temporarily to maternity leave different from a small business owner (or any business for that matter) losing an employee to maternity leave?? We TT people are not unique in this burden. And I’m guessing that at some point in your career you have had, or will have some slacker student- who spends a ton of face time in the lab… but gets almost nothing done for whatever reason… totally unrelated to their childbearing status. How will you treat such a person… in relation to the super-productive postdoc who needs 12 weeks off to care for a child?  Is it FAIR that one of your projects be delayed because one of your lab members needs time off after child-birth (and these are almost exclusively women doing the extended leaves)??? Nope. Is life fair? Nope. Are us people who claim to be family friendly going to sacrifice a little bit to make the workplace more family friendly- PROBABLY, YES.

But it is this part of the comment that really made me sit up and swallow hard:

Getting pregnant is something one can choose, which is different from getting sick. So I would support my students and postdocs as a person, but there would be some “illegal” and “politically incorrect” feeling I could not suppress. I would be either a “victim” of their happiness or someone who was forced to be involved with their trouble.

Holy Cow. I’m normally pretty mild mannered- but this comment actually made me mad. I mean WHAT THE HELL!!  First, pregnancy is not always a choice. People have unprotected sex or birth control failures from time to time. These things happen, and assuming a ‘choice’ was made, and putting the blame on someone for being in a circumstance that might be temporarily inconvenient to you as the PI changes nothing and helps no one.

Secondly, I very much doubt that people who have this attitude are applying it equally to the men who work for them as to women who work for them (and it would be similarly disturbing if all people who had a normal life including children were discriminated against by employers… )- simply because comments about caring for babies that follow in the comment itself up there- and this disproportionately still falls on women.  Men have kids and families too…Perhaps folks with this attitude  don’t realize, although it seems bloody obvious to me, that comments like this are screamingly discriminatory toward women.

Third, you as the employer can have any ‘illegal’ or ‘politically incorrect’ feeling that you like. But, you had better learn to suppress those feelings, just like you can control all different kinds of urges, or you may find yourself the subject of a lawsuit. That lawsuit and it’s downstream events will probably cost you a lot more time, productivity, and damage to your career than doing the right thing in the first place.

What is our “duty” to those not on the TT track?

Drugmonkey reposted an older post about the ‘hierarchical nature of the modern academic bioscience labororatory’, and this repost has generated quite a long comment thread which I have been following loosely. Part of the discussion has revolved around mentorship of trainees- including trainees who choose not to pursue an academic career.

Comrade Physioprof commented  …

I would be committing malpractice if I were to attempt to advise my trainees about how to succeed in industry, SLACs, high school teaching, or anyfuckingthing other than the tenure track.

Yikes. While on some level I get where this comment is coming from, I think it’s a cop out on an important responsibility that we have as mentors- a role, which I might add is not rewarded AT ALL by the traditional methods of reward in academic bioscience ($$, papers). While I’m reluctant to get in a blog fight with  C PP (whom I otherwise adore, just so you know), but things have been a little dull lately so  I’m going to face the fear and do it anyway.

Why is this a cop out?  Well, first- we admit and train vastly larger numbers of Ph.D. students than there will be tenure track positions to fill. Let’s save ourselves now and not feign ignorance on this please. I do think that once we admit someone, we have a responsibility to the student beyond just sayin’ ‘I’ll help you if you choose/or are intellectually capable of the TT track, otherwise leave your lab coat on the chair on your way out after your 6th year…’, just as the student has a responsibility to learn and work to the best of their ability for their mentor and for their own advancement on whatever track they choose. Getting a Ph.D. isn’t like going to the police academy… an example mentioned by some of the commenters… where you spend maybe 2-3 months of your life. We are admitting people to a 5+ year program, we will spend huge $$ on their training in exchange for a big chunk of their effort and life. To me, admitting 10x more students than we know that there are TT positions for with the idea that we are only going to mentor the single one that will choose this track, essentially throwing 99% of them to the wind, is ethically wrong.

Why does this attitude bug me so much? Because it’s not just about telling them about alternative career options, it’s deeper than that. I’ve encountered PIs in my career who felt that they couldn’t mentor trainees who weren’t interested in the tenure track- those trainees became viewed/treated as labor for hire. I guess my feeling is, that if one of my Ph.D. students tells me that they want to be a teacher, that doesn’t give me permission to abdicate my responsibility to teach that person how to do experimental biology. It doesn’t give me permission to just give them a list of experiments that need doing so I can analyze their data. And it doesn’t give the student a pass to stop tryin’ to learn what there is to be learned in a Ph.D. program either.

It gives me an extra opportunity though- to try and supply additional training experiences for that student when its possible- maybe monitoring PBL sessions or teaching a lab for undergraduates or medical student’s once in a while. Hopefully this allows  that student to leave with a leg up on the teaching position that they want when they finish their degree, in addition to having learned to be an experimentalist and having made a contribution to the field.

As for mentoring people interested in other careers where they might use their biology expertise, say law or industry. Let’s face it, how difficult is this really?  I surely can’t recite the required prerequisites for law school to a trainee, they are going to have to figure that out on their own. But I can put them in contact with people that I’ve met throughout my career that DO know about this as a career path that might be able to give them a leg up. And man, don’t tell me that you don’t know any such types- if your Ph.D. class was anything like mine, you are the only one of the class in academia- the other 9 are either in law, teaching, or industry- and only an email away.

Fiinally, to come around to the ‘we’re training more than we can put in TT positions’ again- I have a colleague who only rarely takes Ph.D. students, and primarily hires post-docs. This mentor makes sure that all the postdocs that work in his/her laboratory- get teaching experience during their time in the laboratory. Why? Because this mentor has problems training too many people for too few positions, and then having put them out there with no skills to fall back on if their TT ambitions should not come to pass…

Just a thought.

P.S. Isis also has a post up about DM’s post and C PP’s comment that I didn’t see until after I wrote this post. You can find it here!