Join 3,551 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Bad Laboratory Experiences
April 2, 2012 9:29 PM   Subscribe

How do I bow gracefully out of this volunteer project with a professor that just isn't working out? And should I even?

I'm a science undergraduate in second year in a combined biology/computer science program. Since January, I sought out a professor to do some volunteer work for because I felt that I needed more research experience. He put me to work on developing some test software for a biological server, which seemed really interesting to me at the time. However, as things have progressed, I've increasingly begun to have reservations as to whether I should really be continuing to volunteer with this professor.

The biggest problem seems to be communication. I've brought up this issue with him a few times, but I feel like my concerns have been largely ignored. He doesn't communicate expectations to me clearly, which leaves me feeling very frantic at times because I'm willing to do work but I'm unsure of what he actually wants me to do. This is compounded by the issue that he often tends to spring criticisms on me based on what he hasn't told me to do before. For instance, when analyzing the server he gave me, he just told me to "go over it"; then, when I detailed my process for looking over the server, he criticized my methods without giving me any guidance as to what to do prior. He gives me very, very general big-picture umbrella instructions, and I feel discouraged from asking about details which he rarely provides me with; when I do, he often responds with more big-picture directives that don't do very much to help my original problem and bring up more problems. He furthermore discourages me from speaking to his graduate students who are responsible for the project because they're too busy to deal with me; the graduate student that I'm working with has fairly poor communication skills too, and in the rare instances I do speak to her, she only provides me with trite details.

As a result, I often find myself doing "fluff" work just to have something to provide him in a status update while not getting anywhere, which satisfies neither of us. Furthermore, it's only recently that I have been given an actual concrete problem to work on - i.e. developing the testing software. While he told me to do "preparatory" work ahead of time (familiarizing myself with Perl, the language used for the server), I've realized the work he has instructed me to do has been grossly inappropriate to preparing me to work on this said piece of software. There's a whole bunch of extra stuff that the textbooks that I've looked over doesn't mention - CGI scripts, HTML POST functions, and so forth. I understand from a big-picture perspective what I need to do; but looking at what I know, and what he told me to learn, I just don't feel equipped enough to actually do the job.

Furthermore, time commitments are making this project just unrealistic to work on. I'm nearing final exams right now, and I had a huge amount of trouble juggling the project during midterms as well. The problem is that it's not a boxed-in research experience that I originally envisioned - that is, it's not coming to a lab for just a few hours weekly and doing work there and leaving it, but research experience that has to be done outside of the lab on my own basis. For this reason, it feels that I am obliged to think about it and work on it at too-regular intervals, which seriously poses a problem for me.

Finally, philosophically, I just don't click very well with him. He has hugely different values from me; he runs his lab very tight-knit and like a corporation, and is very profit driven. I'm into science for the sake of learning and finding out new things, and I feel very disappointed in his moralistic outlook on science.

So right now, I need to figure out whether I need to back out of this commitment or not, and whether this incident says more about me or about him. As you'd expect, I'm not feeling very good about myself after this experience: I feel very dumb and very incapable in my abilities as a worker (I've sort of convinced myself that if I only were smarter, I would know what he wants me to do), and a lot of my reservations about backing out also stem from my belief that I'm "giving up", and if I only tried harder, I could make it work. But at this point, I feel like even if I continue on this track, the very, very best I can do is generate a very subpar product that won't satisfy him or me.

If I do back out, however, there are complications:
- Research experience is very difficult to get at my university. I fear that quitting and making a bad impression on this one professor will jeopardize my ability to land further opportunities, although I am not quite certain of how founded this fear might be.
- This said professor might be teaching me in upper years, and I am concerned about what my academics would be like if I have a course with him after this experience with him.
- I'm concerned about the time and resources that I've wasted, and I don't know what his reaction would be if I just suddenly backed out considering how much time he's given to (micro)-managing me.
- I feel bad about what backing out would say about me as a person and about my ability to commit to and work on a project.


Help me out!
posted by Conspire to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, I dunno how it would be with your specific professor, but professors are used to undergrads, especially early year undergrads, flaking out on research all the time. The prof should also understand that you need to put your schoolwork first, so if you're not going to be as productive give him a heads up that your classes are getting demanding.

He seems like he's a not-atypical academic, in that he probably thinks he is communicating clearly but has totally forgotten what it's like to explain things to someone whose knowledge set is incredibly basic. I had this issue with my prof and fellow grad students when I first started doing research and I mostly just fumbled until I got into the swing of things.

Can you ask him for more specific instructions? It helped me to kind of get a handle on asking really specific questions when I felt explanations were too broad. Explain this is background material that you're just not completely familiar with yet, so for the time being you need maybe more rudimentary directions than he's used to giving. Perhaps also say you're enthusiastic about being a part of this project and really think you could benefit by assisting one of the grad students more directly with their research.

Also--I would disabuse yourself of the notion that many, if any, scientists are able to simply work for the love of learning, science, etc. More than the corporate world, more than government, academic is a terribly cut-throat culture, even moreso now that funding is being cut from many programs and grant money is drying up. Professors simply are not able to maintain labs without focusing on the bottom line, which often means that they have to keep the profitability of their project in mind so that they can market it to someone willing to invest in them.
posted by schroedinger at 9:47 PM on April 2, 2012


He has hugely different values from me; he runs his lab very tight-knit and like a corporation, and is very profit driven. I'm into science for the sake of learning and finding out new things, and I feel very disappointed in his moralistic outlook on science.

First off, if you're thinking about going into academic research, get over this, or at least the dichotomy that you've set up in your mind. His success as a researcher is based on his ability to get grants. His ability to get grants depends on getting work done with the resources that he has. Is he selling this product? If not, no one is profiting. (If so, there are ethical issues that should make you want to RUN, not walk, from this guy.) There's nothing wrong with a tight ship in academia. If you can hack it, those are the labs you want to be a part of, because you'll get the best personal results from them.

Second, life is too short. Yours and his. If you can't do it, tell him now. You're not doing anyone any favors by wasting your time and his. Time is the scarcest resource he has, I promise. If you need resources, like expertise or guidance from his grad students, tell him that in no uncertain terms. Yes, he's intimidating, but he needs to know what you need from him to do this project. He may say that no further resources are forthcoming. If that's the case, it's simple-- you tell him that you are not in a position to continue with your current project. If he promises enough to maybe get the project done, maybe stick it out.

Honestly, it sounds like he's using you for free labor. It sounds like the sort of thing my lab has full-time research staff or paid master's students to do. The projects we give to undergrads are much more process-driven and much less goal-driven (unless the goal is a research paper). He can afford to pay someone to do this if he's as "profit driven" as you say. But why should he when he thinks you can do it for free?

How big is your university? If you back out, word may get around, but only if the prof is vindictive and the department is small. I bet he won't even care (see above about wasting time). If you're worried, find a job in another department, or another research center from the one your PI works in. He might have one or two collaborators at the school that you would want to avoid, but other than that, I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by supercres at 9:49 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know what the best thing is to do. But here's what I would do: Go to the professor's office hours, thank him for the opportunity, tell him that you've learned a lot and hope you've contributed to the project but you need to focus on your studies and will be ending your volunteer work for him. Shake his hand and walk out. Feel happy that you don't have to deal with that anymore, and don't worry about being perceived as a flake -- you did more than you expected and he wasn't willing to invest in you enough to make it worth your time.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:53 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


You don't have to be completely honest with your professor about the lack of fit here. You are an unpaid volunteer. Your professor is not your employer or your romantic partner. Your academic success is more important. So I'd tell a white lie to preserve the relationship. Explain to your professor that you need to leave the role to focus on your academics. Thank him for the experience diplomatically to preserve the relationship you have and tell him what day you will be resigning from the role. This should be a one-sided conversation. It's important not to get caught up in the drama of a personality conflict. You're clearly smart and competent in your studies, and if successful there will be plenty of research opportunities at your school or at other universities post-graduation. Also, just because the relationship between you and the professor was difficult, don't take this personally. This working relationship is not a refection of your work capabilities or intelligence.
posted by syanora at 9:53 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Honestly, it sounds like you're kinda done with working with this professor. That's fine; tell him now that you need to focus on grades for the upcoming few weeks, and then gracefully fade out.

Also: you're not a bad person or whatever. You're an undergraduate researcher/intern who got assigned really bad tasks for your skill level. This is not your fault; in my experience, it's the rare faculty member who really knows how to manage their graduate and undergraduate students as workers/mentees vs. students. If you decide you want to intern/research in the future, ask your supervisor/professor to assign you a specific graduate student to "manage" your time, and work with that student to break down tasks into realizable steps with opportunities for check-ins and clarifications.

Anywho, I just want to reassure you: you did not mess up and there's nothing wrong with you. There's an art to managing academic/professional relationships between undergrads and faculty and it sounds like this professor never bothered to acquire it.
posted by spunweb at 10:14 PM on April 2, 2012


Just because you offered to volunteer doesn't mean you committed to complete a massive project from start to finish. You volunteered to work on the project, and now it is time for you to move on, just like sometimes people have to leave jobs while their project is half-finished, leaving the project to the next person.

Be a bit ceremonial in how you move on -- put in your notice in a somewhat formal way. Maybe set up a meeting time with him to tell him. Put in a certain amount of notice, and then ask him how he wants you to wrap things up. Offer to write up all your notes and leave any pieces of code (?) that you did develop. Offer to train the next volunteer if there is someone else he has in mind. Clean up your final notes and put them neatly in a folder for the next person. Hand them in on the last day with a flourish. If he doesn't create ceremony (e.g., offer to take you out to lunch on your last day), possibly buy him something small, like a box of chocolates or just a little card. (Never mind that it should be the reverse.) It can be extremely tiny; it's just that someone should create a small symbolic moment that honors your time together and thanks him for the opportunity.

Forgive him, and especially yourself, but yes, move on. He doesn't know how to train and supervise people like you on a project like this. He didn't have time to really work on this with you. He didn't know if it'd work out, but it was free to him so "why not?" And if you'd been programming Perl after school in high school, then maybe through luck, it would have worked out well for you both. He didn't know it wouldn't. But it makes complete sense that you don't have time to learn a new programming language and run a project like this yourself, particularly without more guidance.
posted by salvia at 10:24 PM on April 2, 2012


This sounds like a horrible experience, OP, and I would go with some of the great suggestions above as to what to say to your PI.

As to some of your other complications:
- Research experience is very difficult to get at my university. I fear that quitting and making a bad impression on this one professor will jeopardize my ability to land further opportunities, although I am not quite certain of how founded this fear might be.

To be honest, it is really not uncommon for undergrads to not finish or disappear (and in your case, I really think the problem was with your PI and not giving you the tools to succeed). But if you didn't finish or rotate into another lab, it is not a big deal.

If you are really concerned, then get other recommendations (from other profs or even from TAs that get to know you). You can even get experience in another department.

It may seem hard to get research opportunities, but I'm sure you can do it. Go to the faculty pages. Read what they do.Email many faculty and setup appointments and read their papers and come in with questions.

- This said professor might be teaching me in upper years, and I am concerned about what my academics would be like if I have a course with him after this experience with him.

There is no way to know for sure what happened in this case, but there are faculty who either 1) have very limited time and/or 2) undergrads are not their first priority. To be honest, I doubt that this will have any repercussion on a future class. Just do well in the future class and that's that.

- I'm concerned about the time and resources that I've wasted, and I don't know what his reaction would be if I just suddenly backed out considering how much time he's given to (micro)-managing me.

This was a learning experience, not a paid job. I really don't believe this was wasted (more below).

- I feel bad about what backing out would say about me as a person and about my ability to commit to and work on a project.


OP, you are beating yourself up. I'm saying this as a former grad student and former lab tech-- sometimes students/employees are not given any tools at all and sometimes it is a clash of learning styles and sometimes there are probably only 1/20 who could succeed in some of these lab situations. I've seen grad students kicked out of labs (as in they lose their funding) and both undergrads and grad students provided with absolutely no guidance. I've also seen lab techs not be given any training and then- boom- a few weeks after starting the new job (with no training) they lose their job. In many cases, it was not the students or employees.

Use this as a learning opportunity for the future. What do you think that you would have needed to succeed (an available grad student? a PI who was more available? Text books?) Make a list of those things.

Next semester find a new lab. However, don't just grab a learning experience (they should all offer this). Interview the other grad students. Talk to current and former undergrads. Ask what previous undergrads have did (did they publish a project? Did they stick around for years? Or was there a continuous flurry of undergrads in and out each semester?)

I've actually seen a few faculty who were known to continuously lose grad students every.single.year.

posted by Wolfster at 10:26 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the advice, everyone! I think you all really helped put things in perspective for me about both my role and his.

To clarify: I totally do understand the idea that research will be done for profit much of the time. However, I feel uncomfortable with this particular professor because of just how far he takes this idea. For instance - he actually does chair a for-profit corporation in addition to his professorship. Running a tight ship is one thing; viewing all projects for their commercial potential first and foremost and beyond all other value is another, and that's why I say there's a philosophical difference between him and I.

I think I had better get started on drafting a letter informing him on my decision to drop the project.


Thank you!
posted by Conspire at 12:09 AM on April 3, 2012


Just sent out the email. I feel completely refreshed now. This was the right decision, thanks!
posted by Conspire at 1:26 AM on April 3, 2012


You did the right thing.

This sounds like a lot of Scope Creep. Here is just one article from Tech Republic, but there is no shortage of advice out there to combat this. It is a very common thing and something to be vigilant about in any working situation.
posted by lampshade at 2:11 AM on April 3, 2012


« Older I desperately need to reset. ...   |  I've noticed that my threshold... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.