Seriously, I can wash a sample without burning down the lab.
July 16, 2010 12:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm a rising sophomore in college, and I've been working in an awesome bio research lab for the past four months or so. I'm worried that I might be coming off as incompetent to my colleagues.

I know my stuff: I've been working in other labs for years and I've breezed through my advanced bio courses. Though my PI's never had undergrads work in his lab before, he was so impressed by my credentials and quick understanding of the science that he hired me on the spot. I've made some minor mistakes while learning how to use new equipment--nothing remotely machine-breaking, stuff like accidentally leaving the microscope on the 20x objective instead of the 10x--but I've since corrected those mistakes, and I've been producing reasonable quantities of good results. I'm still learning, but overall I'm really happy about the work I've been doing.

But I feel isolated from the rest of my lab. The lab is tiny, with only five other people. They're smart, funny, cool guys. Problem is, I'm super socially passive, and since they haven't been approaching me, I've retreated into an uncomfortably tiny shell. At best, I talk some science and crack (unfunny) jokes while they're wittily bantering; at worst, all I say to them in a day is "good morning" and "see ya tomorrow."

I'm worried that they're mistaking my introversion for incompetence. In particular, one grad student makes contemptuous faces whenever I say anything and, as I was working late tonight, insisted on not leaving me in the lab alone. The latter would make sense if I were working with, say, deadly high-speed centrifuges, but the most dangerous equipment I use is a nutator. At 10pm, just as I finished, I politely said, "Hey, I appreciate you sticking around, but there's really no need--I've worked in lots of labs before and I haven't blown up anything yet"; in response, she said "there's always a first time" and then berated me for scheduling my experiments to run when no one else is around.

This episode strikes me as, frankly, insulting and patronizing, but I feel like I must be doing something wrong if I'm creating this impression. How can I convince this grad student that I know what I'm doing? Or should I just keep on doing what I'm doing and ignore the crazy? More broadly, what are some ways I can break out of my reclusive patterns and get to know the lab better? Thanks!
posted by flawsekno to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Rereading this question, I realize that I'm really asking two separate but related questions. To be more clear:

1. Specifically, how do I deal with this particular grad student's distrust?
2. Broadly, how can I get to know all of my labmates so that I'm seen as a colleague? I think part of the above reaction is because I'm not really viewed as being part of the lab. (I'd like to be closer to the lab for other reasons too, i.e. being friends with awesome people.)
posted by flawsekno at 12:26 AM on July 16, 2010

Broadly, how can I get to know all of my labmates so that I'm seen as a colleague? I think part of the above reaction is because I'm not really viewed as being part of the lab. (I'd like to be closer to the lab for other reasons too, i.e. being friends with awesome people.)

Could you ask them out socially, like for a drink or something? Ok, maybe not if you're underaged, but something outside of work. Or, if you get along with one more than the others, buy him lunch someday and talk to him. Or, hell, offer to buy lunch for the guy who doesn't trust you.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:35 AM on July 16, 2010

They all need time to trust you- and as a student (undergrad going into second year?) they don't see you as a colleague, you're a student. Period.

Most likely nothing will go wrong while you are working alone, but everyone will be held accountable to some extent if it did, especially if it is the undergrad summer student in the lab. There's tons of stuff going on behind the scenes you aren't privy to with respect to accountablilty, past experiences, etc., so try not to take comments like the "there's always a first time" one personally.

I was a summer student in labs, credit during school year, currently at a university research lab, generally discourage undergrads from staying past 8pm and do not like having them work alone, no matter how trustworthy (short tasks such as inoculations are ok though). Just recognize you're lowest in the pecking order and need to build some trust with your group- hopefully someone else can give suggestions because I'm finishing an abstract and need to sleep ;)
posted by variella at 12:40 AM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Don't take it personally. They have responsibiity if anything went wrong. It doesn't mean that you're not smart and competent, but it is just the way the world works, and you can show your maturity by accepting it with grace.
posted by salvia at 12:44 AM on July 16, 2010

Oops should have included I'm finished school and am currently managing a project so I have techs, undergrads, and grads to work with and coordinate hours, acceptable practices, etc.

For goodwill, food is always a good choice. Coffee grounds or tea if you have a breakroom, hot chocolate mix, etc. Bring in baked goods or something? Coffee cake always goes over well in my lab.
posted by variella at 12:44 AM on July 16, 2010

You're the junior person in the lab and thus at the bottom of the totem pole. The best attitude to have right now is to play by the rules, thank people for their help, and let them see that you know your stuff by the work you do, not what you say. You're going to have to lay low for a while. Don't think of it as an insult to your abilities, think of it as an opportunity to prove your stuff.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:45 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

At best, I talk some science and crack (unfunny) jokes while they're wittily bantering

Why not just talk about normal things? Walk in, say hi, ask "So have any of you guys seen Inception, yet? It looks crazy good, I'm going this weekend." Or whatever. Way less pressure than trying to be witty and funny.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:52 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

In particular, [...] as I was working late tonight, insisted on not leaving me in the lab alone. The latter would make sense if I were working with, say, deadly high-speed centrifuges, but the most dangerous equipment I use is a nutator. At 10pm, just as I finished, I politely said, "Hey, I appreciate you sticking around, but there's really no need--I've worked in lots of labs before and I haven't blown up anything yet"

Many labs have a "no lone working" policy - or a "no lab access outside normal hours" policy. Allow me to explain why this is.

At the place where I work we recently had a problem with this; normally after hours the main workshop doors were locked shut, and locks were placed on dangerous machines. Some undergraduates were staying after hours to work on a project - they said they were just going to use computers and do planning for a few hours, and weren't going to do anything dangerous. Later, we discovered they had shoulder-sufed the access code for the main office and taken a set of keys for the main workshop door, the car park barrier and (presumably because they didn't know what keys they were taking) the workshop forklift truck. They also used this access code to get keys for dangerous machines out of hours.

Now, they say they only did this for 'safe' machines that they knew how to use - but we have no way of knowing this except "trusting them to use common sense" - but after finding they had stolen the forklift truck keys, trust for their common sense was in short supply.

One reason machines are locked is because untrained users can't always accurately appraise how safe a machine is. There is a fear, in other words, that a student will see a simple-looking machine (like a crane) and think they can use it safely (the crane only has 6 buttons, all clearly marked), then they will cause an accident because of dangers they were unaware of (spinning or penduluming the load in mid-air). To avoid this problem, dangerous machines are locked and keys only given to trained people. So you can appreciate, then, why there was some consternation when it was found these students had broken into the office to get keys they weren't authorised to have.

And that key cupboard? It also contained master keys that opened every office in the building, including academics' offices where exam papers were kept.

In summary: No-one thinks you're going to start breaking into offices and using machines you aren't trained to use, but no-one thought our students would do that either, and they did; we know our placement of trust is fallible. Policies to address this include requiring that students be supervised if working out of hours.

she said "there's always a first time" and then berated me for scheduling my experiments to run when no one else is around.

I'm a nice guy, I realise that sometimes projects need extra work, so when students want to stay late because of an impending deadline, I'll stay late to supervise them.

But when those students are only turning up at noon after a long lie-in, and then they want to stay late? That's not cool.
posted by Mike1024 at 1:44 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ah yes, the question!

How can I convince this grad student that I know what I'm doing?

Could you alter your work patterns so that you don't have to stay late, and she doesn't have to stay late to supervise you?
posted by Mike1024 at 1:45 AM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

A "tiny" lab is a relative term. I'd consider a group of five about medium sized!

Of course, with these small-ish groups, all the fine edges of personalities tend to rub together more often. Everything that would otherwise be little and nagging is instead bigger and straight out annoying.

I personally believe that good personal relationships are conducive to good science. Good relationships facilitate casual science talk, painless collaboration, and lower stress level in the lab-- which translates to more mental productivity. If you've got the science credentials and you know they've seen them, my first assumption in your position would be to think that my colleagues don't necessarily find me incompetent, but rather just a distant and therefore potentially untrustworthy human science machine.

You don't need to hang out with your colleagues after hours at the bar or at a club if that's not your thing. Here's a simple suggestion: next time you go for lunch, ask around the lab to see if anyone wants to come with you. If not, offer to pick something up for them.

If things like that don't work, then maybe your colleagues are just dicks. Unfortunately, I think then you either have got to confront them about it, suck it up, or bring the issue to the PI.
posted by unidyne7 at 2:04 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's nothing personal. Let's say something DID happen when everyone else had gone. Would you, as an undergraduate, know how to rectify it?

I am assuming someone in the group has been given the responsibility of supervising you. If an accident happens while you were unsupervised you can be assured that, while you might get your ass kicked, the other people on your group would be absolutely crucified.

I am supervising an undergraduate student in my lab at the moment. She is competent and keen to learn, but there is absolutely no way I would leave her on her own in the lab at night.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:33 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

For the specific episode you mention, I'll echo the posters above who've asked about your lab's out-of-hours policy. In the institutes I've worked in, there have always been policies against "lone working". The risk of the work you're doing isn't the only factor to consider: a lab is an inherently risky environment and someone else's experimental setup (unstable reagents, overnight centrifuge run, carelessly discarded sharps, etc) could go wrong and injure you when you're on your own.

While these rules generally aren't strictly enforced for postdocs, I've always seen them strictly enforced for undergrads. Additionally, the "duty of care" message about keeping students safe really gets drilled into us. I obviously don't know the culture in your institution, but the postdoc staying behind wasn't necessarily being insulting; if the setup there is anything like the ones I've seen, she basically had the choice of waiting for you and spoiling her evening or kicking you out of the lab and disrupting your work. In the same position, I'd probably act exactly as she did.

As for improving your working relationships... that can feel very tough, especially when you've sunk into a playing the role of someone who never speaks. I've actually been in a similar position, in which I was stuck in a rut of being antisocial and, as a consequence, people were much less likely to listen to my ideas when I did speak up, which turns into a bit of a vicious cycle.

All I can suggest is that you try to be more outgoing. If there's a quiet moment, try starting a conversation by mentioning what you did that weekend, asking about their plans, etc. It'll be a bit weird and stilted at first but, as you start to get a bit more integrated into the group, things should get easier. A change of context - head out to a bar, suggest going out to lunch as a group, etc - might help you get out of that headspace and into your more sociable self.
posted by metaBugs at 4:00 AM on July 16, 2010

You are a sophmore.

Get this into your head right now:

1. You are NOT allowed in the lab alone. EVER No exceptions.

2. You do NOT know everything.

Then your life will be much more pleasant. Learn to ask the person who is giving you guidance good questions to benefit from their 8+ years of experience that they have over you.
posted by koolkat at 5:05 AM on July 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

My girlfriend works in a lab as a summer job and despite her experience in other labs, the insurance doesn't cover her being there alone or using the $750k spectroscopy machine. She could operate in both of these situations just fine, however in the event that something even out of her control happened, the lab may not be covered for the damage done.

It's likely less a personal issue and more a procedural one.
posted by Hiker at 5:19 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm on the other side of this situation - I'm a grad student and I have undergrads your age working on one of my projects this summer. I've also been the high school student / early undergrad working in labs in the past, so I definitely empathize with your desire to connect and be taken seriously.

Don't push too hard on the "I want to be a colleague" front. The reality of academia is that it is very hierarchical and you're on the bottom of the totem pole. You're both substantially younger and substantially less experienced than they are, and your presence (and attempts to be viewed as a colleague) probably come off as a little tone deaf to them. You should think of your relationship to the grad students and PI as a mentor/mentee relationship, not one as colleagues yet. Over time, it'll change and you'll become more like a colleague. But it's not going to happen instantly. For grad students and their advisors that process takes 4-8 years. I'm not saying wait 4 years before trying to cozy up to these people, just that you have to give it time and a little deference. Grad students rarely have people who look up to them, so a little bit of respect and desire to learn from them will go a long way both for your development as a researcher and to your relationship with them.

The other problem is that as far as they're concerned, you're probably ephemeral. They're in this lab for many years, and odds are you won't be there more than a year. Maybe you will, but undergrads are notoriously mercurial in their decisions about where and when to work. Early undergrads (like you) are particularly prone to changing their interests. So part of their defensiveness is an assumption that you may not be worth investing much time in. That, too, will be alleviated by just being there longer.

Plus, you're just young. They're probably 5-10 years older and are in a totally different life place from you. I know you want to be considered an equal, but think about how much you would want to have a colleague who was a high school student? How might you relate to them? It's probably a little like that for the grad students and you.

Good luck! In my experience these things tend to work themselves out if you just don't push to hard. Keep your head down, do good work, look for opportunities to be social but don't force it. They'll warm up to you eventually.
posted by heresiarch at 6:26 AM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think the answers to this question are a lot like the treatment you got in the lab -- helpful, but in some cases stupidly coarse. You've been given some reasons why it's likely not personal, that's helpful and I hope a bit relieving. It's most likely not personal, or not entirely personal. However, the treatment you describe was certainly not cool. Being sniped at, contemptuous looks, etc? Childish and passive-aggressive, socially braindead.

Find out if your lab has a policy of no one working alone. That'll answer half of your question. The remaining work of social lubrication will proceed from the knowledge of whether or not you've been inconveniencing your labmates on lab policy or on their own hangups or consciences.

You don't need to take any shit for your place as a sophomore. In terms of your work, the difference is nothing and means nothing. Don't think of yourself as a sophomore, think of yourself as a person and a scientist (stateless, ageless categories) and aspire to be great at being those things, instead of aspiring to exceed all things sophomore. It will give you a different sense of who you are, because it does not automatically place you in a heirarchy with a bunch of pissant college kids/grad students.

Grad students feel a tangible superiority to undergrads. But many of them are, frankly, lonely, depressed, immensely frustrated people "trapped" in a sick system. Read the threads tagged gradschool here to see what I mean. It won't make you feel better, but it may give you a sense of the hell they live internally, which may in turn give you a means of forgiving them when it leaks out.
posted by fake at 6:27 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're, what, 19 or 20 years old? It's not your fault or anything to be ashamed of, but these grad students in their mid- to late-20s or older think of you as a kid. They don't think of you as incompetent because you're shy; they put you in the same category as their younger siblings or kids they used to babysit for a few years ago. As well, you're a summer intern in a place where everyone else works full time and knows one another. I hate to say it, but you're not going to be a part of their social circle.

There's really nothing you can do about it. Do your job as well as you possibly can while you're there, be friendly and helpful, and learn as much as you can. They'll remember you as "that kid who was a great intern" and give you good recommendations when it's your turn to go to grad school and have 19 year old interns to boss around.
posted by decathecting at 6:28 AM on July 16, 2010

You've been there four months and you've just finished your freshman year of college. When you say stuff like "worked in lots of labs," and "for years" um, I think I'd roll my eyes too. For years? Like in high school? That's just not the same level of "working in labs" as doing graduate-level work. (If it helps, imagine that you're in their shoes, working with a high school rising sophomore.)

Your writing and the way you've asked this question demonstrate that you're obviously thoughtful and mature in many ways. You're absolutely right that you've got to get out of your shell and start relating to your lab mates better if you want them to start thinking of you as a colleague.

As for your lab competence, you're gonna have to show them, not tell them. You can be thought of as a colleague, but you are going to have to defer to your more senior colleagues throughout your career.
posted by desuetude at 6:36 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have not read the comments above, only the OP, and have these two things to suggest:

1. Don't take it personally, but some older people can not stand younger people, especially when they open their mouths. You think you're smart and witty, they think you're adolescent and idiotic. You may start to appreciate this as you get older, especially as your tastes (culturally, politically, academically) continue to mature. Some older people are better than others at masking this disdain and just being nice.

2. Don't take it personally, but from the perspective of an older person like a grad student or a professor, a "rising sophomore" may not even be close to mature yet, and may not be trusted alone with anything, much less expensive lab equipment.

Think of it this way: how mature did you think you were when you were 18? How about 17? 16? At your age, each incremental year brings HUGE increases in experience and maturity. For someone older than you to treat you like you are immature may be rude but also may be prudent.

Again, don't take it any of it personally. I'm just pointing out their possible perspective. I'm sure some above have posted some good, productive coping mechanisms. Just don't expect to change minds.
posted by intermod at 6:54 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, for one thing, some labs just have a bad vibe and everyone is miserable. They might do great science, but unfortunately this type of lab is more common than it should be.

To make yourself more comfortable and have a better relationship with your labmates -the relationships you develop along the way are very important for your future scientific career. I would recommend figuring out when they have lunch and tagging along - everyone has to eat, and its a nice time to enjoy some science mentoring, or just regular friendly talk. If lunch is out of the question due to your schedule, invite one of the more friendly lab members for a coffee and to discuss his/her scientific career - most grad students and post-docs would be more than happy to be put in a mentorship position.

Try to schedule your experiments around your labmates - it is a liability to have someone with an assumed low level of training working alone. As an undergrad, you are unfortunately assumed to be in this category, but you can use it to your advantage to ask all sorts of "stupid" questions that may be obvious to everyone else. Figure out what hours people are usually in the lab, and try to work around that - this will also help you fit into the lab social scene better.

Finally, try to take criticism as constructive, even if it's not said as nicely as it could be. By correcting yourself, you are learning the lab culture, and possibly learning to do better science.

Good luck, and I hope the rest of your internship goes better.
posted by fermezporte at 7:24 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'd tend to go along with the idea that while you need to get along with everyone in your group, and there may be policies that prevent you (or any undergraduate) from being entrusted with the lab alone at night, the treatment that they're giving you -- if that's what they're doing -- is not cool. It may not be "personal," but it sure as hell feels personal.

Some grad students have the social skills of a box of hair. Some don't. Sounds like the ones in your lab fall into the former category. If they're so smart and cool and witty they could afford to be a little less assholish with someone whom they are trying to apprentice.

It sounds like you're being plenty deferential. It may be that you are an introvert and that they are making the very common extrovert error of confusing introversion for standoffishness, aloofness, or something else. Sounds like some people in these comments are making that same mistake.

As far as how to get to know them better, I don't know the answer to that. Shyness -- which appears to be what you term social passivity -- is something that can be overcome or at least worked around, but it takes time and effort, and most of all, it takes consciously pushing yourself beyond a zone that you currently consider comfortable and doing things that make you break out in a cold sweat, repetitively, until they're less uncomfortable. I still haven't figured it out.

I don't think most of the answers in this thread (ask them out, "try to be more outgoing," even while it feels like they're snickering at you behind your back or whatever, and even though you shouldn't expect to change any of their minds about how "immature" you are!) are going to address the primary situation, which is that you're probably constitutionally shy and many outgoing people disdain shy people by default unless given reasons not to disdain them.
posted by blucevalo at 8:28 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a chem grad student, I have had an undergrad working for me. She worked for me for two years. She was never allowed to work alone, ever, not even at the end of her two years when she was fully trained and had experience.

When she had to work late, as in past the time I wanted to leave, I was not happy about it, since it interfered with my already overtaxed schedule and routine. I made a rule that she had to plan her work at least a day ahead of time and clear it with me, and if she needed to stay super late we could work something out as long as it wasn't frequent.

Maybe you can work out something similar with one of the five grad students (does one of them usually stay late for his own work?).

But you really shouldn't take it personally, it's just usually not allowed (for good reason) for anyone to work alone in a science lab, chem or bio. In fact, I'm surprised this wasn't a clearly stated ground rule told to you by the PI when you joined the lab.
posted by rio at 8:38 AM on July 16, 2010

The grad student is peeved with you because she sees you as someone who has the potential to screw up her academic career (that fear may or may not be justified).

Let's say you're working on a project she will eventually use the data from to publish her first paper. If you mess up the data, that sets back her publication timeframe. That's a huge deal when you're trying to crank out a couple papers in five years so you're ready to apply for professorships. One incompetent undergrad could cost her a job if you are in a top 10 program.

You need to respect that the stakes are higher for her than for you. You get to put the experience on your resume unless you totally screw up enough to be kicked out. She does not benefit from your presence until she's sure you're running experiments at a grad student level. Until then you are a liability to be managed to her. This is not an unreasonable view for her to have. Keep being nice, follow lab protocol to the letter, be there when others are there only, and eventually they'll let you be independent.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:08 AM on July 16, 2010

I politely said, "Hey, I appreciate you sticking around, but there's really no need--I've worked in lots of labs before and I haven't blown up anything yet"; in response, she said "there's always a first time" and then berated me for scheduling my experiments to run when no one else is around.

You say the lab's never had undergrads, so these grad students may have never been in a supervisory position before - they (and possibly even the PI) might be very nervous about this new responsibility, and they might be trying to do things strictly by the book as a result. While, yes, you probably do a lot of stuff, and everyone ends up working late/alone in the lab occasionally, it really is not a good idea to be working in the lab alone at night, period. If something does happen, the grad students will feel like it's their fault. Plus, if you've been working for the past four months, much of that was during term, right? Which means you were probably in and out of the lab a lot due to classes. If the grad students have only seen you working full-time for a month or two, they might not yet have a good feel for how competent you are. Be patient, play by whatever rules make the grad students comfortable, and let your labmates see you doing things right.

Broadly, how can I get to know all of my labmates so that I'm seen as a colleague? I think part of the above reaction is because I'm not really viewed as being part of the lab. (I'd like to be closer to the lab for other reasons too, i.e. being friends with awesome people.)

Honestly, you may or may not be able to fit in with the lab, socially. Smaller labs are more stressful that way, in my opinion, since it's easy for them to become pretty insular. Also, "normal" lab behavior can vary a lot, lab to lab, and people can sometimes act weird if you fall outside of their particular norm - working hours that differ noticeably from the rest of the lab, for example, though socialization styles, non-lab interests, etc. can affect this too. Depending on the lab demographics, you may be a lot younger than the grad students/postdocs (19ish?) and in a different part of your life (not thinking of getting married and having kids any time soon, can't go out for a beer if you're in the USA, etc.) Would you be apt to hang out with a high school sophomore? Finally, some labs do great science and are horrible toxic place to work, and you may have stumbled into one of them.

Even if you don't become friends with your labmates, however (and I admit that I generally don't make friends in lab), you can still have good and even enjoyable working relationships with them. To that end, I'd suggest you try to make sure you're on the same schedule as the rest of the lab (+/- an hour or so), try to be as independent and self-directed as possible (but ask help when you need it!), make sure you do any boring lab chores (e.g. cleaning glassware) without being asked, offer to help (share reagents, care for cells, etc.) if there's an opportunity, do your best when it's your turn to give a group meeting presentation, try to work on your small talk a little (keeping vague track of pop culture can be useful here, as can having a few good anecdotes from past lab experiences and so on) and yeah, bring in food every now and then, because all students and postdocs loves free food. I'm sure you're already doing a bunch of these things, but the basic message is that you need to show (rather than tell) your labmates that you're a good coworker and an awesome person yourself.

Please don't take any of this harshly - I started working in labs partway through high school too, and I really know where you're at.
posted by ubersturm at 9:18 AM on July 16, 2010

I have to respectfully disagree with the people who say you should bring food to lab or offer to pick up lunch for others. You're not the gopher, and this is no way to be seen as a colleague. (I understand what folks are going for is: act collegial.) I do agree, however, that you can invite them to go to lunch or go for coffee with you. Also, I believe you are female, and I think women have to be really careful about bringing goodies to work if they don't want to fall into the role of nurturer. It's enough of a struggle to become a professional.

I am supervising undergrads in the lab this summer. They are doing great. In fact, I've seen some long-term undergrads who are every bit as valuable as lab techs. Doing excellent science is what you want to strive for, and it sounds like you are already on that path. Keep at it. Here are some tips:

Have regular meetings with your PI to make sure you are getting data that s/he wants to use in publications or grant proposals. If your project is a part of a grad student's project, meet with that person regularly.

Ask intelligent questions. Read the literature.

If there are journal clubs for the grad students, ask if you can attend them.

If your lab has regular meetings where data is presented, make sure you get into that rotation, and don't let them tell you that you don't have to present because you're an undergrad.

Good luck!
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:41 AM on July 16, 2010

You're a sophomore in college, which means you're probably working under a grad student or postdoc, right? At my school even the 4th year honours students have someone keeping an eye on them; I can't imagine you'd be doing completely independent work as a sophomore.

Everyone's already said some very good advice above, but one more thing I want to add: if you have a supervisor, it may be that their attitude towards you is carryover from their attitude toward your supervisor. I went into research the summer of my first year under a very chatty, friendly grad student; for the longest time, I couldn't figure out why the rest of the lab was so cold/distant toward me, even though I kept my mouth shut, was there 10+ hours a day, took notes on procedures, and did everything I was supposed to do and more (I even regularly washed my supervisor's glassware). Turned out at least part of the attitude was that unbeknown to me, my supervisor was actually a real douche to work with (see: asking me do stuff for him while he goes to the gym/go out for dinner with friends, was never around to actually supervise, etc.) and that by virtue of him being the one to bring me in, they didn't have the best opinion of me. (Plus the whole 'stupid little undergrad wasting our time' notion.) It wasn't until they actually noticed that I may be the stupid undergrad, but I genuinely tried; even one of the grad students who never took to me remarked once that "Why are you still here, it's 7 pm, you've been here all day and [your supervisor]'s not even here. GO HOME."

This may or may not apply to you, but I thought I'd mention it. For me, nothing else but time, effort and being exceedingly polite wore those guys through. Eventually one of the grad students (who unofficially supervised me since my official guy was never around...he said hi and wandered by sometimes to make sure I didn't blow myself up) warmed up to me enough that I preferred to ask him for advice than my real supervisor, and we struck up an almost sibling-like relationship where I could comfortably ask him for homework help all the way until he graduated. But that took a lot of time.

You sound like you're on the right track, so keep it up, good luck, and don't take it personally. I find a lot of academics have all the emotional finesse of your average rock, and sometimes it really is just a case of it's been too long since they were the clueless student.
posted by Hakaisha at 12:12 AM on July 17, 2010

It's possible that your university or lab has policies that student workers must be supervised, and they could get in big trouble with HR or their safety officer if something happens when you're alone.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:08 PM on July 17, 2010

« Older I want to get my old old car REPAIRED after an...   |   if you say "Hy's" I will just have to smack you... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.