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Dr. O

After a frustrating year on the tenure-track job hunt, my eyes are still on the prize, and I've learned that sheer will might be the most important quality required for this career track.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

So there's a new PI around these parts, and, at first glance, he seems to have a pretty sweet operation running. He's a young, strapping assistant professor with a brilliant project, and he started this position with a nice little chunk of NIH change in his pocket. The other thing going for him? He poached who had to be the best technician these folks have seen in a long time as soon as he started. To all who were watching, it appeared this n00bie prof had it made in the shade. Productivity from the technician has been phenomenal, and the NIH gravy train has allowed him to avoid dipping into the oh-so-precious start-up funds this past year.

But something seems to be going off the track these days. While his technician is working 14-hour days to complete experiments on which he has insisted, he seems to be working, well, not quite as much. IMHO, his less-than ideal work hours are completely understandable, for reasons that I won't go into here. But it seems that the graduate students in his lab aren't getting that much done fact, it appears his technician is being made to pick up their slack, ensuring the data machine continues to hum. The result? A very bitter technician with a lot of talent, potentially (and understandably) thinking of walking out the door.

Now, it's not clear to me how much of this situation is the result of A) a blind slave-driving PI or B) a whiny tech allowing herself to be abused. But the PI doesn't strike me as a blind idiot, and the word "whiny" has never really struck me as fitting for this tech. I think it's more likely that the technician hasn't taken the time to talk to her PI about the situation, while the PI, due to outside-of-work distractions, isn't quite as in tune with his lab dynamics as he should be. After all, two-way communication is a must in any employee-employer relationship. No matter the cause, I really can't blame the tech for being so unhappy. I don't know how long I could sit around working my ass off, while everyone around me seems to be in vacay mode. If things don't change, I fear this PI may suffer the consequences of losing an incredibly valuable resource in his lab, right when he needs it the most.

So my questions for the PIs out there (as well as those who hope to become PIs)*: If you're not around the lab as much, even if for completely understandable reasons, would you still expect those in your lab to be working these kinds of hours (I'm talking 70-80 hour weeks from a tech)? Regarding the double work standard in the lab, how would you correct the situation, or prevent it from happening in the first place, especially if you're aware that you may have to spend some extra time away from the lab?

*General comments from the peanut gallery are also very welcome. ;-)

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I don't expect my techs to work those hours any time. Techs (at least here) are paid to work 40 hours a week. The good ones often work more, but you can't make them.
Comrade PhysioProf

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How many hours a PI is in the lab has absofuckinglutely nothing to do with how many hours other people spend in the lab.

Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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I have to agree with PP here. Isn't that the whole point of being a PI? Keeping your own hours and managing a team? That said, I would never expect a tech to work that much. Like you note, where this PI is failing is in communication, which I don't think requires a certain amount of face time.

Dr. O
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Should've been clearer - the double standard I'm concerned about is that between the tech and the other grad students in his lab. The students are getting a free ride while the tech is doing all the heavy lifting. The PI's work hours aren't as big of a deal to me personally, unless they're making him oblivious to the situation in the lab.

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A tech working 70-80hrs/week had better be getting 70-80% overtime pay too. That's fucking ridiculous.

The grad students, if freshlings, need a fucking slap and to be told what's what.

The grad students, if no longer freshlings, need to be taken outside and given a sound thrasing about the head and neck with a stout oaken rod.

And someone needs to clue the PI into the issue because A) although science ain't no carebear's tea party, slave-driving your tech is shitty. and B) the tech will walk and then he's fucked, and C) his students are wasting their learning time and will be fuck-ups in the future.


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As a tech, I would've already walked away from this situation. In addition I would tell everyone else in the department about the situation, which would almost guarantee that the PI would never get another tech from the department if not the entire university (Keep this in mind TT and future TT). I have no problem working overtime* on a project if it's necessary, but I sure as hell am not working overtime because someone is just too damn lazy to do work. I, personally, would have brought this up with the PI the first 14 hour day I worked, which came about because of someone else not stepping up to the plate, and would have insisted that the situation be fixed. But really, that's not the tech's job, that's the PI's job to be aware of the situation, even if it's weekly meetings, emails, or monthly reports, all of which does not require someone to be in their office or lab a great majority of the time.

*Overtime at my workplace is actually comp time, which because of my responbilities maintaining a bunch of whole organisms, means I don't have time to take the comp time, so essentially I get no overtime.

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I swear to god, I foresaw CPP's exact comment!...and I totally agree with him on this.

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As a tech, I would've already walked away from this situation. In addition I would tell everyone else in the department about the situation, which would almost guarantee that the PI would never get another tech from the department if not the entire university

That's pretty harsh dude. We're all only human and mistakes happen. A few weeks in the grand scheme of things is not a lot of sin off your nose. I agree that saying something to the PI is important, but going on to try and derail his entire career is out of order.

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Yeah it is harsh. However the way I'm reading this, is that the situation will continue indefinitely OR happen again. And remember the part where I said I willingly work some overtime for basically no compensation, so it's not that I'm unwilling to work more than 40+ hours. 60-70 hour work weeks of a limited duration, with compensation, would not make me walk out. Making my life hell without compensation and no respect (which is how I'm seeing the PI and the graduate students actions) will make me walk out.

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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One or two hours over time for Technician may be OK. But, those many hours is too much . Grad students should take responsibility, after all its for them to learn. And it doesn't matter too much even if they work 80 hrs a week.

biochem belle
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It seems the real problem is that the tech has been picking up the students' slack, which is bullshit. The PI's primary focus is probably just getting data, and he may not realize what's going on, especially if the students are presenting work done by the tech as their own. IMO, the tech needs to talk with the PI to establish her responsibilities in the lab (e.g. does he know the hours she's working or what precisely she's doing for the students?), and she needs to establish boundaries for the students-as in "I will help you if I have time after completing my primary responsibilities". If the tech really is overworked due to slacker students, then "their" productivity will start to slide, and the PI should step in and light a fire under their asses.

Dr. O
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@CPP, Venkat, Dr. Becca: While I agree with y'all, in that how much time his workers spend in the lab shouldn't be dictated by how much the PI is there, I do think the PI needs to put a bit more time and energy into actually managing his lab. That's a huge part of his job, and he's just not doing it right now.

@darchole: I agree with Tiddles about the harshness, especially since the PI and tech had a good relationship before things went awry. Because of this, the tech wants the PI to succeed and has been picking up slack while biting her tongue for a while. I do hope that she talks to him (and soon), instead of resorting to just trashing him to others.

@BB: The PI is aware that the grad students are slacking and even asked the tech to handle a couple of expensive experiments that couldn't be put off (animal work). But I don't think the PI knows how much extra time the tech has been spending in the lab, trying to handle her own work as well. As I mentioned in the post, I think this is a combination of the PI sticking his head in the sand, as well as the tech not speaking up for herself. I also think a young PI, only 1 year into tenure-track, should be much more aware of what's going on in his lab.

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I'm just talking about worst case scenario in that the situation doesn't get fixed, as a warning what could happen. I've been warned away from certain PIs and I do the same to other techs and graduate students. I've seen the fallout from PIs who couldn't get their shit together due to various reasons and everyone (post-docs, graduate students, and techs) got hurt in the process. And I'm talking bad shit here, from graduate students not getting PhDs, to someone ending up in the hospital because of rules not being enforced. Most cases like this can be fixed, you just have to get better communication going.

Nancy Parmalee
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There's only one issue here, and it's a simple one. If the tech doesn't want to work those hours, he or she needs to establish those boundaries with the PI. If the tech is trying to move on to another stage (such as applying to grad school) and wants a rock star letter of recommendation, it might not be such a bad thing to keep running the show. But that depends on that person's priorities.

What the grad students do or don't do is completely irrelevant to the issue. The PI and the students are the ones with a vested interest in the success of the lab. If the work isn't getting done, they'll figure out how to get it done (or heads will roll). The only thing the tech needs to do is leave when the work day is over.

It may well be that the PI is unaware of the time needed to complete the tasks given, in which case there should be a discussion. But as to division of labor, it's not the tech's concern at all what the grad students are doing.
Tom Levenson

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In the documentary film biz, overtime rules are strictly enforced, (at least once you get past the "hey Mickey, hey Judy, let's put on a show!" level of production. But any producer with a brain knows that its foolish to push the crew through much overtime. Days, when the subject you are covering requires it (think an observatory shoot where you are doing a sunset-sunrise narrative, e.g.) that's ok: you pay, everyone understands why the effort is required, no one goes home mad.

But do it often, and especially do it because you are unprepared/disorganized..and crews hate it, stop pushing the extra mile for you, and worst of all, begin to make mistakes.

Not out of malice -- but just because it is hard to do physically demanding and precise actions at a sustained pace when one is exhausted in mind and body.

If the goal here is to keep the data pumping, my question is how well you're going to be able to trust the data (or simply extract meaningful measurements at all) after a 70 week.

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Tom, you've hit another side of the nail on the head here (my new mixed metaphor)

But do it often, and especially do it because you are unprepared/disorganized..and crews hate it, stop pushing the extra mile for you, and worst of all, begin to make mistakes.

Not out of malice -- but just because it is hard to do physically demanding and precise actions at a sustained pace when one is exhausted in mind and body.

If the goal here is to keep the data pumping, my question is how well you're going to be able to trust the data (or simply extract meaningful measurements at all) after a 70 week.

I hated the fact that as a postdoc I was supposed to be in the lab 14-16hrs/day, 7 days a week, just for appearances, and I fought it tooth and claw. If you're working much beyond a natural limit you start to make errors. If you can't trust your data because it was generated when you were mentally or physically exhausted you are wasting everyone's time and money, and the risk of accidents increases exponentially.

Dr. O
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Thanks for stopping by, Tom. I agree with you and Tiddles completely on this point...I can't tell you how many times I've screwed up my science while pushing too hard. I know some people who can be productive when working those kind of hours, but not many. And even those guys end up hitting a wall at some point. Forcing someone to work those hours when it doesn't work for them is very counterproductive.
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