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Ungrateful entitled prick with his head in the clouds? Or exploited lab rat with legitimate concerns? You make the call!
August 17, 2010 8:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm having trouble dealing with dissatisfaction with my first post-college job, which makes me feel more than a little over-entitled. My frank impression is that the workplace is in shambles and that I'd been lied to in the interview process; more charitably, I'm wondering if perhaps this particular posting just isn't for me. Given the details, what's the best way for me to go about readjusting my mind for the position, readjusting the position for my mind (i.e. closer to what I was told it would be), or giving up the ghost and going for something different?

I am a recent college graduate with background in a clinically-relevant field, and have been working as a research assistant in a lab at a prestigious academic institution (not my alma mater). Thus far, I've really hated my work. I feel like a bratty, snotty prick for feeling this way; at the same time, I feel like I've been had by the higher-ups in the lab.

Even though it's somewhat possible I could have gone straight to graduate school given my undergraduate experience, I didn't do as such. I wanted some time away from thesis/manuscript writing and the pressures of graduation to discover whether the academic life was truly for me, to hone better what precisely I wanted to specialize in, and to get some additional professional experience that would be valuable for both my personal growth and for graduate school admissions. I focussed on getting my current job as it (allegedly) entailed working with a disease in which I have significant personal and professional interest. In all four interviews I did for the position, I was promised the same set of things, which included particular responsibilities and tasks that genuinely excited me, and particular hours to go with those responsibilities.

After accepting the job (in the process turning down two others, which I feel ridiculously stupid for doing now, even though I made the right decision at the time), I get a call from the PI asking me if I would be OK with having some weird hours for a month because he wanted to "train me" on a particular project in the short-term. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I agreed, because, hey, I don't have any reason to distrust the person who just gave me my first post-college job, which seems so wonderful and awesome and, wow, golly gee, life is just beginning!

Except: the job, as practiced, is almost entirely different! The disconnect between the prospectus and the actuality seems almost dream-like in its illogic. The hours are unrelenting and irregular, leaving me feeling drained/unhappy, and unable to plan the rest of my life in a coherent manner. The project, bizarrely, has little-to-nothing to do with the subject matter/disease I was hired to help investigate (which, more perplexingly, is the signature disease of the laboratory, highly regarded in its study). It's severely understaffed, which seems to explain why they've thrown me on it, but this seems in many ways to be not my problem... chief of which being that I wasn't hired (on my end, at least) to do this project.The significantly clinical portions of my job description are almost entirely absent. At first, I chalked it up to being a greenhorn and not getting assigned certain things as I needed to grow into the position. As time progresses, it seems more and more that this is the order of things around these parts, rather than a temporary situation accompanying my being a new hire.

Dishearteningly, everyone I've spoken with at the lab seems to dislike it as well to varying degrees, informing me that my sense of the situation is both legitimate and not especially unique. They are more-or-less resigned to do whatever is asked of them with the hopes of getting a pay-off of a high-impact recommendation at the end. I haven't seen any evidence that this actually takes place (even if I wanted to switch to this cynical-but-pragmatic mindset) and, given my feelings of having been deceived, I don't have any reason to trust that this would occur.

It's not that I can't do grunt-work—I did grunt work as an undergraduate in a research lab—it's just that it's both unexpected in its exclusivity (e.g. lacking in the clinical portions) and devoid of any connection to the larger picture of the lab. As an undergraduate, even when I was super-low on the totem pole and just doing basic data collection, I would go to weekly meetings where the PI would let us know how the project was doing, what the interesting data trends were, why they mattered, why our work mattered, et cetera. In comparison, if I hadn't sought out the material by my own prerogative on my own time, I wouldn't have the fucking faintest clue of what this lab is even doing. If I had any connection to my work, or if it was what I was told I would be doing, I could probably bear the weird hours. As it stands, it's uninteresting to me, and seems set to get me nowhere either intellectually or professionally.

Environmentally, another major thing that's been getting to me is that I've discovered that few members of the lab know why they're doing why they're doing certain things or even what they are doing, which horrifies me, as we're dealing with human subjects in research that sometimes involves pharmacology. If you're giving someone a drug, even if you know many professionals were involved in developing the protocol for giving this drug, I think you should at least have a basic idea of what the fuck it does, no? But, that's the environment that this place inculcates—do your micro-task, and don't ask any questions.

Do you think it would be worthwhile to pursue my concerns with my supervisors? (That's an issue in itself. I don't know if I'm asking for too much, but I've barely spoken twenty words to my PI, and he's been physically around. Just... extremely unavailable, which I'm told is typical. Any report to him seems invariably like it must be A Big Thing, as the norm is no communication between him and his laboratory staff.) It seems manifest that there's a lab-culture that I alone can't change (i.e. intellectual detachment of non-PIs from the work being done), but maybe I can get something done for myself? I'm considering: (a) faux-innocently pressing the claim that I'm "training on a project" even though it seems I'm really on it for the long haul and asking when I'll get involved on the projects I was sold during the hiring process, (b) making inquiries as to whether my hours will change, and (c) asking whether any of the clinical connections in the job posting and from our interviews will actually come to fruition. Is any of this worth it, do you think? Any tips for going about this in a way that's the least likely to trigger a catastrophic response? (I suppose I must accept the possibility that This Will Not Go Well, regardless.) How do I make requests or inquiries of an employer like this? I'm worried about damaging my reputation here (even by doing things that are to all appearances reasonable), and thus hurting myself for future jobs/graduate school. (I've never had a worse sense of a boss, even on jobs I disliked.) If I end up having to stay with this position, what can I do to best keep my sanity and sense of self-worth? How can I make the best of this job?

(Part of me is considering quitting if it doesn't get better, but the option terrifies me for a host of reasons... one of which being that the only other subject-relevant jobs in the area I've moved to and can't move away from for the short-term are probably also in this same academic institution. That seems like it'd be awkward to fly and manage, heh.)

I apologize if I seem whiny or ungrateful, or if the question seems all-over-the-place... it's entirely possible that I am indeed being whiny or ungrateful. (I mean, hello, record-high unemployment rates for my age range!) I figure, though, that if I want to get as honest and accurate an appraisal of my situation as I can, that in turn I should be as honest and accurate about how I feel. I feel like a bit of a failure for finding myself in this situation, and I'm not sure what the proper channels are for dealing with these concerns. In the past, I've been the type to get steamrolled and martyr myself as needed. Instead, I'd like in this present situation to do right by my own self, for once.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Do you think it would be worthwhile to pursue my concerns with my supervisors?

YES. Definitely. And quit worrying about seeming entitled. You *are* entitled to pursue meaningful work that doesn't make you hate life, even in a bad economy.
posted by hansbrough at 8:38 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I *hated* my first post-college job, too. It was not at all what I expected it to be when I accepted the position. It started off well enough. I was in a two-person local office for a national non-profit. Then, just a few weeks after I started, the regional boss came in and fired my direct supervisor. They then proceeded to leave me, by myself, in an office to do two people's jobs (planning large events, taking phone calls, doing public health education talks).

I stuck it out for eight months, applying for many other positions. I took the first one that came up, and have now worked in that office for over 16 years.

I still think leaving my first job was one of the best decisions I ever made. This, of course, is all anecdotal to your specific situation. But I think if something big in your life is making you miserable, you should take action to change it.
posted by MorningPerson at 8:39 AM on August 17, 2010


It's hard to answer the questions without knowing if you've been at the job for a month or a year. If it's been less than six months or so, try and stick through it and wait a bit to talk to your supervisors. If it's been longer, I can't see what the harm would be in going to the PI and saying, "I feel like you've trained me on that project and now I really need to be working regular hours. Also, when can I expect to be doing the work i was hired to do."
posted by stoneweaver at 8:40 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, and as for how to pursue it, I'd suggest asking your boss/bosses/whatever for a meeting to discuss your progress and how things are going -- like a 6-month (or whatever) review. Then come prepared with concrete questions and issues, trying to keep the attitude of working it all out.

It's beneficial for employers to know what is and isn't working for employees. Happy employees do more and better work.
posted by hansbrough at 8:41 AM on August 17, 2010


You're hitting a wall that most of us hit when the post-college/post-grad school world hits us in the face, one hard punch.

The most important thing you need to learn in your current workplace is how to get along in any work environment. If they don't think learning the drug or what it does is important, then don't be a preacher and tell them how they should be approaching their jobs. Many of them probably have tons of responsibilities.

What you should do is learn how to make friends in the workplace and make people like you, so that they can be moved to help you. You should also get some hobbies after work and learn to socialize and network. It's not about the work. It's about making money, getting experience, and making friends.

I was just like you in my first job. I was bored to tears, frustrated, and thought I knew how things should be run. Everyone goes through that because of the amount of freedom we have in undergrad and grad school. I learned from that experience that it's not all about me and what I want, it's about learning how to be part of a bigger picture.
posted by anniecat at 8:42 AM on August 17, 2010


I don't have good advice for how to address your current situation, but if you are still planning to apply to graduate school, this is exactly why you need to be sure to talk to the other graduate students about their experience, definitely without faculty present and ideally off campus or in a more informal setting (it's a huge red flag if a school doesn't facilitate you doing this, imho). This is probably the best way to avoid something like this happening again. Lab cultures vary (as you're discovering) a huge amount in how they organize projects, share information, and evaluate students/workers, and the PI (or anyone else interviewing you for a position) really won't/can't be able to provide this kind of information.

Plus, thanks to this experience you will be able to ask much more informed/targeted questions to the students :)
posted by heyforfour at 8:45 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's not that I can't do grunt-work—I did grunt work as an undergraduate in a research lab—it's just that it's both unexpected in its exclusivity (e.g. lacking in the clinical portions) and devoid of any connection to the larger picture of the lab. As an undergraduate, even when I was super-low on the totem pole and just doing basic data collection, I would go to weekly meetings where the PI would let us know how the project was doing, what the interesting data trends were, why they mattered, why our work mattered, et cetera. In comparison, if I hadn't sought out the material by my own prerogative on my own time, I wouldn't have the fucking faintest clue of what this lab is even doing. If I had any connection to my work, or if it was what I was told I would be doing, I could probably bear the weird hours. As it stands, it's uninteresting to me, and seems set to get me nowhere either intellectually or professionally.

If you learn how to get the PI in your current lab interested in mentoring you, then you'll probably have a better chance of being happier. Also, if the PI doesn't care for mentoring, at least forge a positive and friendly relationship with him/her. I want to emphasize that having friendly relationships with your coworkers really helps the boring and frustrated feelings go away, and you can leverage that for networking and opportunities in the future.
posted by anniecat at 8:48 AM on August 17, 2010


This sounds like it may be a Bad Lab. I've been there. The bait-and-switch is troubling, as is your description of your labmates' (are they other research assistants, postdocs, grad students?) fatalistic attitudes about the project, which is not an uncommon situation in labs, but it's not universal or inevitable.

How long would you imagine being in this job, and how long have you been there already? If you're four months into a position you only expect to hold for a year, it may be best to stick it out, regardless. If you've been there less time or are expecting to stay for longer, it might be best to cut your losses.

How subject-relevant would another job have to be for you? If you're mostly interested in how you would fit in with academia in general, you might want to consider broadening the range of diseases/systems/whatever you're interested in studying. You may be super-interested in studying ALS, or breast cancer, or whatever, but realistically in your academic life you are going to study a lot of different things, and a positive experience in another lab might be better than the negative experience you're having studying the thing you want to study (which you're not actually studying anyway).
posted by mskyle at 9:02 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


. You may already know some of this, but a few ideas (this may or may not apply to you, depending on whether you are in a hospital, university, etc., so that will determine whether these things are available):
• It sounds like you went there so that you could follow a passion that you wanted to learn more about (eg, disease state X), right? You probably have lots of tools and resources around you that you would not have at other places of employment. If you are in a hospital setting, ask if there are weekly case study presentations, etc. Also find out of there are lectures related to your topic of interest I was bored out of my mind in my lab tech job post-undergrad degree, but weekly case studies were so interesting and made the job tolerable
• This sounds like a large lab – is it only your PI or are other PIs involved? If there is another PI (or perhaps a postdoc), take interest in what they are doing. Ask questions. Tell them your interests (ie, I’d like to learn more about disease X, I’d like to learn the clinical aspects, etc.). I did this and was able to worm myself into another lab for half my hours and was able to learn techniques that I wanted to learn. If a postdoc thinks you have potential, they may train you for other projects, etc.
• Are there any journal clubs in your department? Ask grad students if there are some– this may really help you connect to “how your project fits in with everything else” – it is also interesting because you may learn about hot areas in your field or others/this may help you find out what is going on in other labs, which I think you should do for your own sanity
• You may want to consider one conversation with your PI – I think b or c are worthwhile questions depending on your goals (b for the work life balance, and c if you plan to stay there and meet your needs in learning those pieces of info); you can state b in a polite way but give your limits (I’ve adjusted my schedule to start the job, but I have other outside obligations and can’t work these hours forever – is there a timeline as to when it will be changed? Etc)
• As you are learning about other projects in other labs/observing how things are run in other labs, etc., you may want to consider changing labs and seeking employment there if you hit it off with another lab/PI. This may sound horrible to you, but I’ve seen it done quite a few times – techs, grad students, etc. Yes, it may not feel great seeing your PI but you could find a great lab and do the projects that you want. There may be a 3-month period – check into what it is. Your PI has the right to get rid of you in that time, but you also have the right to find a better fit and leave. Be very careful politically if you do this/but if it is a lab that is not managed well, sometimes other PIS are very aware of it
• Be careful and think about this very, very carefully. Are you working far beyond 40 hours a week and are you an hourly employee (vs salary)? There may be rules against that. I did have a friend who was able to successfully change this in her lab; basically, she and other dissatisfied techs went to HR and stated “we are working round the clock, our boss threatened to fire us if we leave before midnight, etc” (there were other problems, too) – HR stepped in and changed this immediately – that particular lab had a very high turnover rate and years of problems. She was able to continue working there and conditions did improve

Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you are unhappy and ultimately decide to leave. Labs in particular can be horrible, horrible workplaces depending on the PI. Go there to learn what you set out to learn; if not, move on – anyone who worked in labs for any length of time understands that there are labs and PIs like this.
posted by Wolfster at 9:34 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Dude, go to grad school.

Working in a setting like this, the only difference between you and the student workers is that you can work ANYTIME.

Get out.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:39 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


it's just that it's both unexpected in its exclusivity (e.g. lacking in the clinical portions) and devoid of any connection to the larger picture of the lab. As an undergraduate, even when I was super-low on the totem pole and just doing basic data collection, I would go to weekly meetings where the PI would let us know how the project was doing, what the interesting data trends were, why they mattered, why our work mattered, et cetera.

For what it's worth, at my university it is a requirement (on faculty) that undergraduate RAs have the opportunity to learn about the larger picture/goals of the research they are involved in. So it isn't at all unreasonable to expect this. On the other hand, the fact that they wrote it down as an official requirement suggests to me that it used to be common here to not involve undergrads in anything bigger picture.
posted by advil at 10:58 AM on August 17, 2010


I work in an academic setting, although it is not a lab. Prior to becoming a design teacher, I worked for many years as a graphic designer and creative director. I definitely experienced some culture shock coming out of college, because as anniecat says, I was switching from the freedom of college to the expectations of a job. They are different cultures and they take time to acclimate.

I have no idea if you are being entitled. Your writing voice doesn't betray any obvious signs of being spoiled or entitled. You haven't complained about anything basic or necessary, but then again you haven't complained about anything too specific either, other than odd hours and clueless coworkers. My guess is that you are not being entitled, but that the dissatisfaction you are feeling is at least compounded by the transition from undergrad to working life. Now they call it a quarter-life crisis apparently.

In any case, no matter what is going on, it IS an important job skill (or student skill, or teacher skill) to be able to ask important questions of other people without putting them on the defensive. Try to set aside your frustration and stronger emotions and set up a meeting with your director or PI or whomever. Just ask them some of the questions you have asked here in as neutral tone as possible.

Some ways I would frame it would be :

"Hey, I am really excited that I have a chance to be working with [disease X]. Do you think my role here could be expanded or changed to get more directly involved in [process Y]?"

"Also, I am really happy to be learning more about [disease X]. Do you think there are other opportunities here in the lab for me to get a bird's eye view of the work we are doing?"

If your PI reacts horribly to this, I would say they are either "personality-challenged" or they are aware that they are abusing you and upset that you have realized this fact. I have no idea if they will react negatively, but if they do just remember to stay calm and keep yourself under control. You are only in charge of yourself.

Also remember that there are actually lots of opportunities in life, especially for those of us who live in industrialized nations. I see way too many academics get really screwy about the job because they lose sight of the fact that there are always other jobs and opportunities out there. Don't let this one person cause you to lose sight of your career's big picture.
posted by Slothrop at 11:09 AM on August 17, 2010


I am a recent college graduate with background in a clinically-relevant field, and have been working as a research assistant in a lab at a prestigious academic institution (not my alma mater). Thus far, I've really hated my work. I feel like a bratty, snotty prick for feeling this way; at the same time, I feel like I've been had by the higher-ups in the lab.

A lot of this is tl;dr. I skimmed your writeup and didn't see much of your future plans. Lab-tech jobs tend to suck. The sort of labs that hire fresh-out-of-college 22-year olds for these positions are not going to treat their employees like this job is a "career." They pretty much expect you to only hang around for a year or two before leaving. And it's an academic institution likely being paid off of grant money, so they don't have very much money to spend.

The funny thing is that those jobs don't pay better and the treatment tends to be worse than being in a PhD program. So the question is, why are you there? Most people take these jobs because they need a year or two in order to get their paperwork together for an application to med school or grad school.

I get the impression that you thought you were getting a "prestigious job" based on the brand-affiliation with the university you're working at. You don't really work for the university. You work for the lab. The lab likely has very few long-term employees, most of whom are grad students, post-docs, and you, all of whom are expected to be "just passing through." The best you can hope for is that the PI likes what you did for him and will be willing to give you a reference for grad school, med school, or another job.

Or you can find another lab-tech job for another lab at this university or a neighboring one. It's not that hard: you found this one, you can find another.
posted by deanc at 8:46 AM on August 18, 2010


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