How do I bow gracefully out of this volunteer project with a professor that just isn't working out? And should I even?
posted by Conspire to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
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!