Four guideposts for navigating difficult conversations with your PI

No matter how well you get along with your mentor, there will likely come a time when you have to discuss something that is difficult to bring up. It could be anything from concerns about your progress and mentorship or asking for time off (especially for family planning, to exposing fraud or misconduct in the lab or authorship on an upcoming paper. Usually, these conversations are difficult because they might harm your relationship with your mentor or result in retaliation from involved parties. While there’s no optimized protocol such discussions, here are a few tips that might help you get started.

Seek guidance and be sure: You’re probably not the first or only person in the world to have this issue. If possible, reach out to other lab members you trust, friends in other graduate programs, or PIs whom you trust. Most universities have offices dedicated to student issues and conflict management. They may have advice, anecdotes, or just an open ear. It will help you formulate what you want to say during the real deal and might give you another perspective to consider. You might even be able to figure out a solution, or decide to not bring it up. For example, if you’re having trouble with another lab member, realizing things you have and haven’t done to ease the situation by yourself might provide some clarity. If it’s a particularly touchy topic and you have the support of another authority figure, such as your committee or department chair, consider asking them to mediate during the real conversation.

Know your goals, know the consequences: Before you go in, be sure you know what you want to accomplish from the discussion, as well as where you’re willing to compromise. Are there things that both of you can do to make the situation easier? By working toward a common goal, it may feel like a win-win, or at least not a total loss. In defining your goals, consider the consequences and unwritten rules. Are you proposing something that might cause tension with another lab mate? If so, is it worth it and are there steps you can take to ease it?

Be structured: It’s easy to get off track or avoid sharing especially emotional, but important points. Come prepared with an outline of what you want to discuss so that you hit all the points you wanted to make and have notes to refer to if you start to get overwhelmed. Make sure that your points sound collaborative, not accusational. If appropriate and available, use data or examples from similar situations, as well as available options and policies in place at your university. For example, if you’re planning a family, what is the parental leave policy of your department or funding? If it’s new territory for you and your mentor, it might help both of you to consider the experiences of others, or even to remind your PI of their past similar experiences. Plan to follow up in a set amount of time so that you both can think about the options and come to a compromise together. Also consider putting your agreement in writing. Without this accountability, it might get swept under the rug.

Have a back-up plan: Worse-case scenario, your PI is not supportive and there is nothing you can say or do to find a compromise. Ideally, you considered this possibility when talking with others and made a backup plan. If you decide to go forward anyway, make sure you are committed. Drastic action, such as going above your mentor’s head and completely ignoring their concerns could damage your relationship, so make sure it’s something you truly believe in if you go forward without their support.

Have you had a difficult conversation with your PI/mentor? What went well and what could have gone better?

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Sara Wong is the current co-Chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS). She is also a postdoctoral fellow in the Hughes lab at the University of Utah, studying mitochondrial-derived compartments.