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Employment

Is your adviser a micromanager? When to take your experiment undercover

Chemjobber weighs the pros and cons of doing your science in stealth

by Chemjobber
October 10, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 41

 

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Whose science are you really doing?

It’s often said that in graduate school, whom you select as your Ph.D. adviser is one of the most important decisions you will make. A supportive adviser can inspire you, teach you, train you, and recommend you for a job or other opportunities, while a micromanager can sap your love of science, isolate you, and make you wish you didn’t work in chemistry.

I’ve heard stories of some advisers who do multiple walk-throughs of their lab a day. That level of scrutiny doesn’t offer their graduate students much time for deep thinking, or even just taking it easy for an afternoon. The student becomes the dreaded pair of hands, and young chemists who are subjected to this kind of routine micromanaging lose their sense of independence and passion for their work.

In fact, this kind of micromanaging can lead to what some call “submarine chemistry.” I’ve heard stories of graduate students who, under such a stifling environment, begin performing experiments counter to their adviser’s instructions, or they don’t tell their adviser about the experiments they are working on. This surreptitious science probably goes on all the time, but it happens more in some labs than others. What’s the best way to deal with disagreements with your adviser on the direction of a project? If you’re considering taking your research undercover, should you do it?

If you’re new to a lab, I suggest avoiding doing your work in stealth. Once you get settled in the lab, I suggest talking with your adviser and expressing your desire to have more control of the experiments that you’re working on. While your adviser likely has specific project goals related to publication and long-term research plans, ask what it would take to offer you more freedom and what conditions you would need to meet.

What if the conversation does not go well? Find out how other, more senior students have learned to work with the professor. How have they earned your adviser’s trust or worked out compromises? Are there other professors at your institution who work particularly well with your supervisor? Seek out their advice on how to communicate most effectively with your adviser.

If you’re considering joining a research group, find out if your potential supervisor is someone whose work style might clash with yours. If you enjoy working independently, you’ll want an adviser who will give you space and let you take the reins on your research.

Under what conditions do I think running experiments contrary to the adviser’s wishes is a good idea? I am reminded of the laboratory adage “Never talk yourself out of a simple experiment.” If you think there is a simple experiment that has scientific justification, doesn’t take up a lot of time or resources, and would solve a difficult problem­—and your boss would be none the wiser—go and do it! When time, resources, and materials become scarcer, these decisions can be harder to make. Have only 30 mg of a key intermediate left, and that’s enough to run only one or two more experiments? Is this a key result for a grant or a publication or a presentation? That’s when going off on your own will become riskier and may incur the wrath of an adviser who was waiting for that data.

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This dance between what the boss wants and what you want to do as a student is going to be repeated many times throughout your career, with different bosses, different projects, and different desires on your part. You don’t have to either knuckle under resentfully or furtively pursue your own experiments. You can speak your mind, offer your data-driven opinion to your boss about where the project should be going, and negotiate a compromise that builds trust and meets both of your needs.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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Comments
Ronald Kluger (Wed Oct 10 14:03:17 EDT 2018)
As an extreme concern, consider that some very serious and even fatal accidents have occurred with students not heeding the advice of their advisor by conducting dangerous procedures. If you really don't like working on what you agreed to work on when you signed up, discuss it as politely as you can and explain your concerns clearly with evidence that might not have been considered previously (or consider switching advisors). If you have a really great idea that is not related to your project, keep a notebook or personal blog with ideas for the future - when you can present them as proposals for a position. If you want to share them with your advisor as part of your degree requirements, get the advisor's opinion. If you and she concur, ask if you should present the idea to a meeting of your advisory committee so that you can get further support and/or criticism. Remember, getting the degree in a reasonable amount of time is an important goal.
Linda Wang (Wed Oct 10 15:28:26 EDT 2018)
Very wise advice, thank you so much for sharing, Dr. Kluger!
Kelvin Okamoto (Wed Oct 10 14:08:16 EDT 2018)
One of the primary goals of obtaining a PhD degree is to learn how to think independently and to put together a research plan. Learning how to do a specific analysis or reaction is important but not the end all be all since most PhD candidates may never work in the specific field of the doctoral research again though they will often continue doing research. Thus, an advisor that micromanages is doing their doctoral students a disservice. If an experiment or research plan is planned out properly and safely and can be justified, then the student should be able to try the experiment. It should be noted that many of the largest chemical innovations have been unexpected results from experiments. From my own experience, a four-step planned synthesis was failing but a deep literature search found a somewhat similar target compound produced in one step; modifying the starting natural compounds from the literature reference, the four-step planned synthesis was accomplished in one step with the desired target molecule precipitating out of solution in water.
Richard Mailman (Wed Oct 10 15:01:04 EDT 2018)
A good mentor should actually want trainees to develop a sense of independence (I remember thinking that my Ph.D.'s advisors lab was going to fall apart when I graduated, until I realized that he had successful trainees before and after me). He somehow encouraged our sense of independence while making clear that certain mistakes were unforgivable (experiments that were too costly for the scientific value; using up a precious resource; dangerous; unethical; etc.). If a trainee is not willing to share with the PI what she/he is going to do, this is a fundamental problem at many levels. The trainee should either find a mentor who values input and can explain the basis for decisions, or look in the mirror to ascertain why communication cannot occur. This also is why it is important to pick one's Ph.D. committee carefully -- reasonable people who are willing to buffer mentor-trainee disagreements.
William Winter (Wed Oct 10 22:19:00 EDT 2018)
Beyond what has been said above If your research project is grant funded, the funded proposal probably defined specific goals. Those areas must be investigated and reported, if you and your mentor hope to see the project funding continue. That is your first obligation. Finishing your dissertation is important as well.

But, there Is a long tradition of doing independent work on your own time, and even some industrial labs encourage the practice. Francis Crick’s work on the DNA double helix structure was such a project, his actual PhD study, completed after the DNA breakthrough, involved protein structure.

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