Author Topic: You're taking this very personally.  (Read 5627 times)

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LadyL

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You're taking this very personally.
« on: July 09, 2013, 05:10:04 PM »
I am a grad student in a research lab at a university. There is one other grad student in our lab currently, Amy. Our relationship is somewhere in the intersection of coworker, classmate, and friend.

Amy struggles with setting goals and maintaining her focus. She is at a point where she would like to have a more defined project and time line. She feels frustrated that every time she comes to our advisor with a problem or roadblock, he sends her in an entirely new direction. From my perspective, he is trying to teach her different solutions to problems; from hers, he is holding up her progress because some of his suggestions don't pan out (as is often the case in research). Part of it is that she hasn't communicated her desire for clearer goals and a more concrete time line to him, so he is still advising her under a training model rather than a "getting the project done" model. I experienced the shift from the former to the latter myself recently and have given her tips for moving towards a more project oriented role.

The problem is that during our last meeting our advisor challenged Amy on some of her ideas. There was disagreement about what analysis she should do next. She argued against Approach A, and he argued for at least trying it. They both had fair points in my opinion. However Amy, I think out of frustration, dug in her heels and kept insisting that Approach A won't work. Our advisor insisted she couldn't assume that and she would only know if it worked or not if she tried it. They went round and round. I think our advisor became a little incredulous after a while at Amy's insistence that it wouldn't work, when he is the expert with 30 years experience in these methods and she is a grad student whose knowledge is much more basic. At one point he sort of scoffed at one of her arguments, but the exchange was civil, if spirited.

Amy has decided based on the exchange that A. our advisor "hates" her and B. he isn't willing to help her any more. She is assuming B because she emailed him about a specific issue, and instead of responding he forwarded her email to a colleague who has greater expertise on the issue. In my mind, that is a helpful gesture, kind of like transferring a call to someone in a more relevant department, but she sees it as a brush off. It's been over a week and though I have discussed the meeting with her at least twice, reassuring her that our advisor is simply not the type to "hate" anyone, she still feels the same way.

Now she does not want to schedule any more meetings or even email our adviser. She is insisting on working totally on her own without his advice but is struggling with several steps which would be much easier with his input. She asked me for my input on an issue, and I told her it was really a question for our advisor. She insisted that she feels like he hates her and doesn't want to contact him.

What is a polite/compassionate  way to say "There is no way he hates you and you're taking things too personally?"

Given that it is the summer she very well could get away with not meeting with him for the next month or two, which I think would be really detrimental to her progress in the long term. I know I'm not responsible for her progress, but we share an office and if she is frustrated I definitely hear about it. As her friend I am also invested in her success.

Lynn2000

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #1 on: July 09, 2013, 05:41:55 PM »
I also work in a university research lab--not as a student any longer, thank goodness! But I understand the situation you're going through. One of my colleagues once became convinced that our PI (boss) had taken a dislike to her and had actually reduced her pay without telling her, because her paycheck was less than she was expecting (she was an hourly worker at that point). Turned out some new taxes or whatever had kicked in and that was why her take-home pay was reduced. I thought it was very telling that her first thought was not, "Hey, maybe this is a mistake or change I didn't know about, I should look into this," but rather, "My boss hates me and cut my pay without telling me!"

To be honest, I think you should reread your last paragraph, and try to step back from it. Like you said, you're not responsible for Amy's situation. As long as she isn't doing anything dangerous/unethical in the lab, I would just stay out of it. If she brings the subject up and seems receptive, I think you can give her the perspective you've shared here--"I know you felt like he was brushing you off when he forwarded that email to Dr. Smith, but I saw it as him trying to get you help from the best person possible." Or, "I really don't think he 'hates' you, I think you just have different communication styles, and that can be frustrating." Possibly you could even say, "You know, I think you might be reading too much into this."

But I wouldn't belabor it at this point. It sounds like this is just something Amy needs to work through on her own, as part of the maturation process of going from student to graduate.
~Lynn2000

LazyDaisy

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #2 on: July 09, 2013, 06:37:17 PM »
So she shies away from things that might fail, wants only one correct answer, and needs to know exactly when the project will be finished -- this does not sound compatible with research in general. It kind of sounds like she is looking for someone to shift blame to if her ideas don't pan out -- I'd stay away...far away. You won't convince her the advisor doesn't hate her no matter how you say it. I'd redirect away from the subject of personal feelings altogether, "Regardless of your feelings toward him, or his for you, you need to remain professional and focused on getting the task done. He is the best resource for your questions and your two options are either to ask him, or keep struggling on your own, which I think would only be detrimental to you in the long term." If she keeps asking you for help, you can keep repeating that he is the best resource and her two options are contact him or figure it out on her own.
"A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools." Douglas Adams

chicajojobe

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #3 on: July 09, 2013, 09:41:06 PM »
I'm a grad student in a research lab too, and this story doesn't entirely surprise me. I think your friend took it to the extreme, but I also identify a lot with her view point.
Grad students can be insecure. I've convinced myself that my PI hated me over something stupid too.
I also get frustrated by my PI continually changing direction on things. However, I'm only in my second year so he's probably, as you said, going by training model.
However, I did what you said she hasn't done...expressed a desire to him for my project to have a more focused direction.

I think the way you should handle it is if she continues to ask you questions above your head just keep telling her that she needs to ask the PI. You might also tell her as a friend exactly what you said to us. That she's taking it too personally, he doesn't hate her, and by refusing to meet with him for an extended period of time she'll only impede her own progress.
Other than that, there isn't anything you can do so just give her advice and then it's up to her whether or not to take it.

« Last Edit: July 09, 2013, 09:42:52 PM by chicajojobe »

veronaz

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #4 on: July 09, 2013, 10:02:33 PM »
Quote
What is a polite/compassionate  way to say "There is no way he hates you and you're taking things too personally?"

Your own way of saying it is fine.

gollymolly2

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #5 on: July 09, 2013, 10:50:47 PM »
I agree that you should do your best to stay out of it. Especially since I think you've mentioned that you're autistic, so you may be missing out on social cues he is sending her (ie he may actually be really strongly signaling that he hates her and you're just not wired to pick up on it).

Surianne

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #6 on: July 09, 2013, 11:30:00 PM »
I agree, I'd stay out of this one.  You're not privy to all of the information and you weren't there for every interaction they've had.  I've been in similar situations, where I was your friend, and hearing someone deny my valid concerns just made it worse. 

If she asks you for advice about her project or how to deal with her adviser, feel free to offer it, but otherwise just let her vent a bit if she needs to.

rashea

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #7 on: July 10, 2013, 09:40:45 AM »
I think you say, "You seem very convinced that he hates you, but you still have to get through this program. What I'd suggest is going to him and telling him that you would really like to focus on something for a while, and stop going off in different directions. Be extra polite and see how he responds. In other words, give him one more chance to advise you in the direction you'd like. If that doesn't work, how do you plan on completing your program?"
"Manners change, principles don't. It's about treating people with consideration, respect and honesty." Peter Post

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Lynn2000

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #8 on: July 10, 2013, 10:19:51 AM »
Just to chime in again, I've worked for my boss over ten years, and seen a lot of students come and go. The advice for Amy to look at the bigger picture--the completion of her degree--is good, because I feel like it's common for students (others, too!) to lose perspective and focus on immediate problems or small details, rather than seeing the big picture. While it's generally possible for students to transfer advisers, in my area it's a huge red flag and quite a mess to actually do; it's also certainly possible for a student to drop out of the program entirely, but obviously may not be what they really want.

So essentially, if Amy doesn't want to drop out or start the messy process of changing bosses, she needs to find a way to deal with her current boss professionally and focus on her goal: completing the requirements for her degree. If she's amenable to it, maybe you could help her map out what steps she still needs to complete and a rough timeline for them. Then she would have goals to aim for, and she could be more proactive about researching techniques and making a logical case for using method A rather than B, instead of getting emotional or stubborn about it.

And, not to entirely put the blame on Amy--I don't think you mentioned at what point she is in the program, but a good adviser should be keeping his student's timeline in mind as well. In my program, getting a PhD (if you already have a masters) takes about five years. After two or three years you should be done with all your classes and ready to take your preliminary exam, and after that everything is pure research and writing with a clearly-defined endpoint. Of course it happens frequently that endpoints change, but everyone should at least be aware of them.

My point is that if Amy is, say, in year four of five, of course she's getting antsy about how this thing is going to get done, and doesn't want to go off on tangential techniques that don't pan out. But if she's only in year two of five, maybe her adviser has a point that she still needs to learn a different mindset, and has time to do so. Then there's always the idea that Amy is strongly hoping to be done in four years, while her adviser has been assuming six, or something like that. Basically they need to communicate and share their ideas about her timeline.

If Amy can write out a timeline based on her own assumptions, she'll have something concrete to share with her adviser, and they can see how well their ideas match up. Then she could say, "As you can see, I feel I only have 1.5 to 2 years left, and there's a lot left to be done. I would really like to work on streamlining the research process so I have a complete story to write up in my dissertation."
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chicajojobe

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #9 on: July 10, 2013, 12:37:37 PM »
And, not to entirely put the blame on Amy--I don't think you mentioned at what point she is in the program, but a good adviser should be keeping his student's timeline in mind as well. In my program, getting a PhD (if you already have a masters) takes about five years. After two or three years you should be done with all your classes and ready to take your preliminary exam, and after that everything is pure research and writing with a clearly-defined endpoint. Of course it happens frequently that endpoints change, but everyone should at least be aware of them.

My point is that if Amy is, say, in year four of five, of course she's getting antsy about how this thing is going to get done, and doesn't want to go off on tangential techniques that don't pan out. But if she's only in year two of five, maybe her adviser has a point that she still needs to learn a different mindset, and has time to do so. Then there's always the idea that Amy is strongly hoping to be done in four years, while her adviser has been assuming six, or something like that. Basically they need to communicate and share their ideas about her timeline.

If Amy can write out a timeline based on her own assumptions, she'll have something concrete to share with her adviser, and they can see how well their ideas match up. Then she could say, "As you can see, I feel I only have 1.5 to 2 years left, and there's a lot left to be done. I would really like to work on streamlining the research process so I have a complete story to write up in my dissertation."

This is another excellent point!

Academia is a funny thing. Different programs at different schools (even if they're the same field) tend to have different energies.
For example the Biochemistry program at University of X may be a very driven and energetic environment, while the Biochemistry program at University of Y may be more laid back.
And within those programs advisors have their own energies as well.
Some are very concerned about graduating students quickly because it looks better for their stats should they have to interview at another university. They tend to feel like 5 years is the absolute max, 4 would be better, and 3 would be their dream!
While others feel that because you'll be specializing your whole career, graduate school should be a time when you learn as much as you can and expand your knowledge within your field, they tend to feel like 5 years is a general time-line and if it takes a little longer that isn't a big deal so long as they have the funding to pay for the student. The student, though, may feel differently in which case, yes, that needs to be communicated.

LadyL

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #10 on: July 10, 2013, 12:47:45 PM »
And, not to entirely put the blame on Amy--I don't think you mentioned at what point she is in the program, but a good adviser should be keeping his student's timeline in mind as well. In my program, getting a PhD (if you already have a masters) takes about five years. After two or three years you should be done with all your classes and ready to take your preliminary exam, and after that everything is pure research and writing with a clearly-defined endpoint. Of course it happens frequently that endpoints change, but everyone should at least be aware of them.

If Amy can write out a timeline based on her own assumptions, she'll have something concrete to share with her adviser, and they can see how well their ideas match up. Then she could say, "As you can see, I feel I only have 1.5 to 2 years left, and there's a lot left to be done. I would really like to work on streamlining the research process so I have a complete story to write up in my dissertation."

Amy is in an odd position because she transferred programs to join our lab. It's her 3rd year of grad school, but she has only been in her current program for 1 year. So she is done with classes, but still has to pass her comprehensive exams. By her current program's time line she has another year before she's expected to propose her dissertation, but by her time line she'd like to do it sooner. Our advisor is on the fairly extreme end of laid back and hands off - he is tenured and the director of a busy research facility so he expects students to be very independent. If she comes to him with a defined time line, in my experience, he will approve it. He has never said no to me when I felt I was ready to move forward - he has trusted me to make those judgements.

Amy actually has a timeline mapped out and I've been telling her for weeks that she should show him it and have a conversation about her goals. I don't know what's holding her back. It's just hard watching her get in her own way. I feel a bit guilty because I spend less time and energy on my projects than she does and yet I am still further ahead than her (passed comps, had my pre-proposal meeting with my dissertation committee, and am proposing in 2 months).

Lynn2000

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #11 on: July 10, 2013, 01:10:04 PM »
Amy is in an odd position because she transferred programs to join our lab. It's her 3rd year of grad school, but she has only been in her current program for 1 year. So she is done with classes, but still has to pass her comprehensive exams. By her current program's time line she has another year before she's expected to propose her dissertation, but by her time line she'd like to do it sooner. Our advisor is on the fairly extreme end of laid back and hands off - he is tenured and the director of a busy research facility so he expects students to be very independent. If she comes to him with a defined time line, in my experience, he will approve it. He has never said no to me when I felt I was ready to move forward - he has trusted me to make those judgements.

Amy actually has a timeline mapped out and I've been telling her for weeks that she should show him it and have a conversation about her goals. I don't know what's holding her back. It's just hard watching her get in her own way. I feel a bit guilty because I spend less time and energy on my projects than she does and yet I am still further ahead than her (passed comps, had my pre-proposal meeting with my dissertation committee, and am proposing in 2 months).

I can see how it would be tough watching her struggle, as a friend, but it sounds like she really has to take the next step for herself, if she can. Re: the bolded, I've felt that way about colleagues, too--I try to help, give advice, but at the end of the day, they're trying to get an advanced degree, which theoretically shows not just their knowledge but also their ability to think and act with some independence. It sounds like you've said all the right things to her. So if Amy can't make that leap on her own, well, maybe that means she isn't ready for the degree yet, you know?
~Lynn2000

Jocelyn

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #12 on: July 16, 2013, 11:26:17 PM »
Do as one of our professors did: print her a nicely formatted sign that says 'How will this help me graduate?'

Because grad students often lose the focus that the goal is for them to get out of the program, not stay there forever. Whenever she complains, point at the sign.
She needs to realize on her own whether refusing to talk to her advisor is really going to help her graduate.

Surianne

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #13 on: July 16, 2013, 11:30:00 PM »
Do as one of our professors did: print her a nicely formatted sign that says 'How will this help me graduate?'

Because grad students often lose the focus that the goal is for them to get out of the program, not stay there forever. Whenever she complains, point at the sign.
She needs to realize on her own whether refusing to talk to her advisor is really going to help her graduate.

But isn't that what Amy's asking for?  She wishes her adviser would help her with a defined focus and a timeline toward her finishing the program.  He's the one who keeps asking her to try out different methods.

Lynn2000

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Re: You're taking this very personally.
« Reply #14 on: July 16, 2013, 11:57:18 PM »
Do as one of our professors did: print her a nicely formatted sign that says 'How will this help me graduate?'

Because grad students often lose the focus that the goal is for them to get out of the program, not stay there forever. Whenever she complains, point at the sign.
She needs to realize on her own whether refusing to talk to her advisor is really going to help her graduate.

But isn't that what Amy's asking for?  She wishes her adviser would help her with a defined focus and a timeline toward her finishing the program.  He's the one who keeps asking her to try out different methods.

Yes, but it seems like Amy hasn't stood up and pushed for a conversation with him along these lines:

Amy actually has a timeline mapped out and I've been telling her for weeks that she should show him it and have a conversation about her goals. I don't know what's holding her back. It's just hard watching her get in her own way.

If she doesn't feel she can talk to her PI, I hope there's someone she feels she can go to for advice, like another professor on her committee. Maybe they could convince her to talk to her PI, or facilitate a meeting. Does the departmental structure allow her to have a meeting of her committee members, including her PI, at which she could talk about her timeline and goals? That would get it out in the open without the pressure of it just being the two of them.
~Lynn2000