I am having serious problems with my current laboratory. I attend a research institution and am in my second year of graduate school. Our PI was recently awarded a large research grant. Because of this award, the PI was able to hire a postdoc researcher. We thought this would be great because the postdoc would have skills to help us complete our projects. However, we now have less face time with our PI, and the postdoc oversees our work as well as conducting their work. The PI rarely visits us in the lab, and all lab results are filtered by the postdoc. I feel as though our PI has abandoned the lab.
Recently, the postdoc added some protocols to the lab manual. However, they seemed to be missing some controls. When I asked about the “missing” controls, the postdoc said that those controls were not needed because the protocols always worked. I included the controls in my experiment, and when I showed the results to the postdoc, they asked me why I did not follow their directions. I had except for the controls. This conversation degenerated very quickly to being called out in front of the lab group as incompetent. Two other students were recently asked to leave the lab, in part, because they were not making progress on their projects, in addition to having run-ins with the postdoc. I came to this institution because I wanted to work with the PI, not with a surrogate.
Is it time to say goodbye?
Dear Feeling Abandoned,
Laboratory cultures are not always what we expect and can change over time. There seems to be a failure in lab leadership. The postdoc has been given responsibilities they may not have been trained to take on. Presumably, they chose the lab for more training in research but are also tasked with training and mentoring new lab members. They have been thrust into a new environment, and they may feel challenged or overwhelmed by the additional responsibilities of this new position. It is not their lab group, yet they have responsibility for it. The postdoc may lack experience providing extensive training to less seasoned scientists and perhaps has no experience as a mentor. Somehow the PI needs to be made aware that the current culture and organization of the lab are not sustainable. You must speak to the PI about the nature of the interactions between the postdoc and the lab members. You can request that the PI call an all-lab member meeting to clear the air and establish clear guidelines for each lab member’s roles and responsibilities.
This should not be an exercise in “he said/she said” but rather a means to reestablish communication among all the lab members. Yes, there may be some “I was not aware” or “I did not mean” types of remarks made, which will give the lab members a clearer understanding of each other. If this does not change the atmosphere in the lab, you may need to reach out to the director of graduate studies (DGS) in your department and perhaps the ombudsperson. The postdoc may be directed to the teaching, learning, and mentoring office to help them become more effective instructors and mentors. We can all get better in our positions.