Murder in the Lab (How to Deal With A Difficult Labmate)

A difficult PI is a challenge for many PhD graduate students - as discussed recently in our post regarding  how to handle difficult PIs. However, navigating tough PIs is only part of the human-element challenge students face in the lab: What do you do when a fellow student shares your bench and equipment  and is intolerable? Stay tuned for tips and advice on how to prevent the impending explosion...


Defining the problem

Defining who is a difficult lab mate is a subjective matter although usually this person is characterized by at least one irritating behavior trait. There's one common result of their behavior: Most grad students stay clear out of their way to a certain extent.

Since you're likely seeing your labmates more than your spouse or friends, it is important to find a way to get along with them. It's easy when you have considerate and fun labmates, but how do you get along with irritating types? Well, here are a couple of general tips:

Wait & observe – When a new labmate arrives don't hurry to  judge his character or behavior, even if you've noticed an irritating trait. Stereotyping might be helpful when you need to quickly judge a certain situation, but it can also be misleading, especially if the irritating trait is relatively minor. Waiting and observing the student's actions over a prolonged period of time can help you judge with certainty what is going on.

Talk – If  the student's behavior is bothering you, the first and best action is to just talk with him/her (without any offending remarks). It is true that many people are not open for criticism, especially not criticism regarding their personality. However, much like the "difficult PI", the key to a healthy relationship with your labmates is talking about what's bothering you. Make sure you find a quiet place and and a time when you're calm. Find a delicate way to deliver your feedback about his/her behavior so not to minimize resistance to your claims.In most cases an honest and quiet talk will clear up things.

Talk to the PI - In some cases with an aggressive student or a student not open for criticism, an honest talk might not help and the irritating behavior will continue to repeat. In certain cases it might necessitate the intervention of your PI though there are cases in which a PI will actually take the side of the problematic student, especially if the student generates great data and publications or even "seems" smarter than the rest of the lab mates. In such cases you will may have to accept and make the most of working under the same roof as this problematic student.

Higher Authority - In the extreme cases - for example if  the student uses verbal or physical violence, and the PI stick his in the sand, move your complaint to a higher authority within your faculty or university. There is no reason what-so-over to suffer from any type of violence and such cases should be dealt fiercely by the university authorities.

Next post we'll look at our list of '7 of the most irritating labmates'.