27 and a PhD

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Daily Archives: July 23, 2012

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Does my PhD PI make me look fat?

Not really. The fat part is totally untrue, though she does have a nice shape. I’m wondering out loud (in a written manner, anyway) about the impact (if any) the choices made my our PhD mentors have any bearing in out future (job-wise).

Forgive me for not being specific enough, but I only have bits and pieces of the story. I have a lot of respect and admiration for my PhD mentor. I admire her tenacity, her drive and work ethic. We got along pretty well during my years in her lab and I’d like to think that there’s good chemistry there. But in the last year, some weird things have been going on.

My PhD mentor seemed like a sane person up until last year. We had what I thought was great communication, except an event in our past kinda shook me up a bit. I’m not as bitter anymore, but I still think the guy is a douche. Oh excuse me, Assistant Prof Douche. Anyway, before that I’d written to my PI to say thanks for being a good mentor and yadda yadda yadda, and also to forward her my new mailing address. She was to sent me some reprints and needed my contact info. I went to my graduation, spent some time with my PI. Everything cool. Then last year, all sort of communication ceased. I mean sure, we weren’t working on the same stuff anymore and I was hanging out with a different crowd now, but I was back to the same field, just with different people.

Then all of a sudden a bunch of rumours started circulating. Trouble in paradise. The PI was making some drastic career and personal decisions. Of course, since I’m not in the lab anymore, let alone the state, and I’ve been back in my field of training for only a few months, I have no idea of what’s going on. Suffice it to say that the PI has undergone some major changes, that while exciting, have burned bridges that may never be re-built. Lots of bridges. People are actually questioning her sanity!! But even before that she became rather distant, thus I concluded we had some sort of unspoken breakup.

Since the world of structural biology can be quite small, all these rumours get to me, and people start asking my opinion. Not only that, they start asking me what I know and whether I was aware of what’s going on. I’m obviously in the dark, and I’m not going to speculate on what’s going on in my ex-boss’s life. While I love gossip, I can’t bring myself to say anything about her, especially if she’s undergoing all these changes. I ache a bit. I know things must be hard for her, on some level, but I can’t bring myself to mention anything, as it would feel … disrespectful? Intrusive? I’m not her trainee anymore, it’s not my position to help, unless she asks, right?

While on a personal level I’m  empathetic, on a professional level I’m wondering how her actions (burning LOTS of bridges) affect me, if anything. Talking to some of my beloved professor tweeps (profeeps?) I know that a PhD mentor (and postdoc also) should always be part of your recommendations, and while I’m trying to make a bit of a name for myself, even as a staff member, should I choose to go back to academic (not likely at the moment) or switch labs at some point (yet stay in the same discipline), I wonder if her decisions and actions will have any bearing on people’s opinion about me. I mean, the quality of her work is intact and I had great training, it’s just that her behaviour is prompting people to ask whether she’s sane, or if this is just a phase and if it will be over. If so, then will that have any effect on me? On how people judge my previous work? Will my current boss’ (and coworkers) recommendations be enough from now on? Do evaluation committees dismiss her current actions and weight in my publications and relationship with her during the years I was in grad school (when she seemed to be at the peak of sanity)? Hell, is she sane enough to write a positive letter of recommendation or is she so far off that she’ll remember the month I came in late every day and highlight that instead of the half dozen publications? I don’t know what to think. Part of me would like to write to her and offer my support, but then she’d know that rumours have reached NY (which has a decent community of very respected PIs in our subfield of research, some of which have come to my office to ask or drop email, WTF??) and could perceive me as nosy. I’m not planning on going to any local or national meeting where I could catch up with her, so that’s out of the question. I also haven’t written to her since the start of the year, and probably won’t until I need to (for a letter of recommendation or invitation to a local meeting). A part of me feels sad about the rough spots she’s experiencing, but the other part worries about my future and how her burning bridges could (if at all) impact things on the job/science front.

Ever encountered this? I know my fears are probably silly and I should just shut up and keep working, but I’m honestly curious about what happens when the boss you trusted, and liked, goes nuts.

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