Dealing with Difficult PIs

From The NIH Catalyst, Volume 3, page 23

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In previous posts we discussed how to choose the right lab for a graduate studies and how to choose a mentor or principal investigator (PI). However, many times a PI/lab that seemed so promising turns into a nightmare. What can you do in such cases??

In this post I will discuss several strategies to help you deal with a difficult PI and to get the most out of the situation:

Is it personal?

In most cases it won't take too much time to realize that you are working with a difficult PI. It is important to determine if other lab mates have experienced such difficulties or if you’re the only one. For example, a PI can be tough and highly demanding in the first couple months as part of his/her agenda to evaluate a fresh graduate student, a behavior which will later be softened. Talking to lab mates can help highlight this behavior and help you cope with such a boss.

Communicate with your boss

Healthy communication is the basis of every good relationship. In many cases difficulties arise from poor communication or different interpretations of a certain event. Do you feel your boss offended you or pressured you or is not satisfied with your progress? Then it is time to approach your boss for a one-on-one talk in his office. It is important to process your feeling beforehand so you can explain your difficulties in a plain and simple manner once you face your boss. You might also want to discuss the situation with a close friend, family member or even a lab mate who is familiar with the boss. When you decide it's time to talk make sure you do it when you're calm and focused. Don't talk with your boss when you're still angry or agitated about something they said or did. Once you've finished telling your PI your experience and feelings about his/her behavior and how it affects your progress (it will put it in a context that will be important to him/her), let the boss react and listen to him/her with an open mind. In some cases the boss might apologize and will try to avoid repeating behavior, though in other cases the boss will refute your accusations and will put the blame back on you.

With the above in mind, you should also remember that your PI is a human being like yourself, and in most cases he will not change. This fact of life should not discourage you or leave you hopeless, but rather should make you look at the situation in a perspective of trying as much as possible to make the best of the situation.

Should I Drop Out?

Bailing out of the lab (or dropping out) is quite a common event in which the student, the PI or both decide "enough is enough". Clearly, it is easier (and smarter) to bail out on your first graduate year than on your third year, so the option of bailing out should be on the table when you realize your relationship with your PI is not healthy and nothing you've done has managed to improve the situation. Thus, the first year of your graduate studies should be dedicated in part to evaluating your PI, his mentoring capabilities and your relationship and not just making lots of experiments so you'll have an easy committee meeting. In most cases the border cases are the problematic ones. These cases in which you haven't decided whether your PI's behavior is bearable or not can easily evolve into an unbearable situation in the second or third year, which makes bailing out a more painful decision. When confronted with such a difficult decision, try to imagine and then write down in a table the pros and cons of staying or leaving the lab. Don't forget that your graduate studies are not just a career step but also an experience that can be highly rewarding in personal terms.

In my next post, I'll list 6 Types of Difficult PI and how to deal with them.