Monday, March 18, 2013

Professor knows best, usually

At conferences and on the internetz I often come across people saying that their PI has no clue about the research or that their PI asks them to try things that have absolutely no chance of working. Yes, there are faculty out there that propose crazy half-assed ideas that will never work in a million years. I've met a few over the years, but the vast majority know exactly what they are doing. The question should be, do the PIs know the odds of an idea panning out and if they told you that there is only a one in a million chance, would you still do it?

A lot of my research involves trying things that may or may not work. Of course in an ideal world, the experiment would work, but often it involves steps that tend to fail or that don't have high yields. However, if my students were to start lying to me and just telling me that it simply didn't work, because no one can really predict if these high risk experiments will work, eventually the research would come to a complete hault and the group would fall apart. It's good to have an idea of the likelihood that an experiment will work, but just because it is unlikely doesn't mean you don't try as hard as you can.

I think a big part of the reason for this feeling is because trainees don't get enough of the story of why or how something should work. When this happens, they become technicians. Trainees are shy, and international ones are often afraid that they will lose their position and will have to leave the country. Hence no one asks questions and everyone is suspicious.

This is part of a disconnect that is in academia. I don't know if it's always been like this or if this is a new trend. A student should never feel that what they are doing will not work and not tell their advisor. There is a good chance that this negative atitude increases the likelihood that the experiment fails.

I try to have as equal of a relationship with my trainees as possible. If they think something won't work, they need to tell me so and feel comfortable doing so. Of course they also need to explain to me exactly why it won't work. This is the cornerstone of what someone with a Ph.D. should be able to do. You need to trust your knowledge enough to stand up and say this is wrong and why. PIs, for their part, need to have the time to explain to their students why it will work and potentially correct misconceptions.

Way too many trainees feel they can't tell their advisors things without reprecusions. Other PIs out there, what would you do if a student told you that your idea has a flaw in it?

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