Hard Things a PI Must Do

Aug 19 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I had to terminate a student working in my lab. The work this student, call her Jane, did was good. When she worked, she worked hard. She was committed to the project, and thought about it carefully. She made contributions. Why did I let her go? She lied on her time card. My problem? At this point, it is not whether I was right to let her go, but when is there enough information about the problem to let someone go. The problem was how long it took me to do this.

My super-tech found problems with Jane's hours and time card about several weeks ago. Tech spoke with Jane and explained the problem. Jane swore it was an honest mistake, and it wouldn't happen again. Tech started keeping informal track of hours Jane was in the lab, and found more discrepancies between time card and hours. Our building has a ID swipe-in system, and we  got security to give us the exact time she swiped into the building. Lots more differences between swipes and self-reported time card. Tech and had long walks discussing the problem. Tech and I had many cups of coffee debating what to do. One of the smartest things I did was involve Tech, because she thinks clearly about this kind of issue (not to mention thinks clearly about data and experiments and implications and the lab in general). So on a Thursday about two weeks after first discussion, Tech and I sat down with Jane to discuss issues with Jane's time card. Jane again said "honest mistake". I explained carefully and in some detail that if she was in the lab, with medical supplies, life animals, and critical data, I needed to know that she was absolutely honest about everything. I explained that I needed to trust her on all accounts, and that lying about the little things (like hours worked) made it difficult to trust for the big ones. I next said "what do you think we should do next?", we being me, Jane, Tech. Jane looked at me like "huh?". I prompted again, "what happens now about the hours you didn't work?".  Jane said, with this nudging on my part, that she would take the hours in question off of her time card, and she did that afternoon.

I was uneasy. How many chances? How likely is this to be honest error, as opposed to someone gaming the system? What is the value of her work, does an extra 30 min a day matter? Or is honesty about this a binary thing, either you're pregnant or not?

On Friday, after the Thursday talk, Jane said she was going to work on the weekend to make up the hours she had to lose for the hours she had to take off her card. There was certainly enough work to make this valuable. Besides, as Tech pointed out, this gives her a chance to either do it right or do it wrong.

On Monday morning, we saw Jane claimed about 6 hours on Sat and again on Sun. Tech was suspicious because it didn't seem like there was that much work done. So we got the swipe/ time of entry records. Jane had come in 45-75 minutes later than she put on the time card. This baffled me and Tech. We had shown her on Thursday that we were cross-checking her time card with swipe data. Why on earth would someone do this? So Tech suggested, and then insisted that we look at the security videos that our police keep of cars coming & going from the parking lot. I hesitated (more work for more people), but Tech said "more data will be more convincing". This is possible at our small university, and in fact, security didn't mind doing this. The records showed that Jane had been at work for about 1.5 hours each day.

This made it easy on Tuesday to call Jane in and say "pack up your stuff, we are terminating your employment. Right now". In retrospect, we could have terminated her after the first instance and saved ourselves lots of time by. But, I didn't know at that point. Maybe it was an honest mistake. That's the hard part in this. As @BatesPhysio sez: managing people is often the hardest part of being a PI. By the end it was clear that Jane was cheating. Period. I really wanted to ask her: what the heck were you thinking? I didn't. I just said "go".

What astounded me was her response. No apology, no explanation, no reasoning.  All she said was "did you think my work was ok, and would you still write me a letter of recommendation that says so?". No remorse. No acknowledgement of wrongdoing. I got a subsequent email that said (and I am quoting here):

I forgot to ask you upon termination if we could discuss the standings of any future employment references regarding the quality of work I did while I worked for you. If you are willing to be a reference for me in the future, I would request that we mutually decide what information could be shared with any potential employers.

Mutually decide? I wrote back:

Jane, I am willing to be a reference, if you wish. But the contents of a letter of reference are not something that is negotiated in advance. I would and will answer all questions about you honestly. Potnia

I have not heard further from her.



21 responses so far

  • lurker says:

    I know I'm stereotyping here, but as a GenX'er mentoring millenials and younger, it seems all of these "kids" are still clueless about what it takes to act like an 'adult'. Clueless about accountability, consequences, and career hierarchy. Like it or not, a mentee/employee should have a clue that it is in their best interest to keep a reasonable supervisor happy, not the other way around.

    So I will guess that this "attitude" came from how these "kids" were brought up, where parents fawned over them, and were more worried about having their kids like them than to raise them right even if the discipline made them cry. No crying, no fuss, only privilege and leniency, and then they think the world serves them when it should be the other way around.

    Gahd, how did I get so crotchety as a GenX'er? Well, at least the venting on this blog was useful. And maybe a few conscientious millenials will read this blog post and learn something. It's not just the boomers who say this, but the generation below.

    • potnia theron says:

      I was trying to stay away from generational characterizations. In fact, the other two who worked for me this summer were incredible.

    • Katie says:

      That is utter stereotypical nonsense. Lazy dishonesty is not an invention of Milennials.

    • Dennis says:

      When growing up, you didn't look left, right or up, ever, right?

      a fellow GenXer.

    • potnia theron says:

      I'd like to point out, wrt the millennial generation, that Tech, aka SUPERtech, aka the-reason-my-lab-functions, is about 3 years old than Jane. Work ethic is not a function of generation, although some people can figure it out before they die.

      • becca says:

        "Work ethic is not a function of generation, although some people can figure it out before they die."
        Well said. Work ethic as performed in a workplace context is also subject to a lot of constraints, which are frankly impossible to take into account completely.

        In an environment where a lot of people are on salary and the intent of management is to focus on productivity, there can be a lot of fudging time cards that is just part of the environment. It's not due to dishonest people of Poor Character. It's due to the general social norm. So I applaud you not reacting to the first instance of the time card discrepancy as sufficient for termination.
        That said, you made it clear you see it as an ethical standard that matters *to you*, and I can't personally wrap my brain around why given that context, someone would continue to violate the rule.

    • EPJ says:

      Though experience counts in many issues, the problem I find with using career hierarchy as a reason to settle a controversy of any type is that when it is unreasonably based just in hierarchy it brings down a whole group of things.

      And I can only guess that it has its origin in privileged interests beyond the gap limiting what is visible to the public at large. And there has to be pretty concrete, or desperate, arguments for that privileged layer to act against even their own good (as self-defeating).

      From the public view that leads to one common thread: employment and earnings, and competition for recognition as means of reassertion and power. It is the silliest of all fights, until that game topples down everything across the society.

      If you put into the selection brew a requirement that leads to that, you find over several generations that the hierarchy is fittest at that and so in modeling that for the next generation, in private and in public.

      Social Darwinism in action.

    • jmz4 says:

      I think this has much less to do with being a millennial and more to do with being and undergraduate.
      In my admittedly limited experience, undergrads seem to have a hard time viewing an academic lab as a professional, working environment. They're more apt to see it as an extension of the school, which (perhaps increasingly, but more or less inveterately) treats them as customers, and affords them a lot of accommodation with obeying rules. Given that they are paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, this is not a completely unreasonable view from their perspective.
      Obviously our perspective differs, but we should not take it for granted that they will immediately see it this way.
      I'm taking away from this that any undergrads in my lab being paid will get a clear explanation of the fact that this is a lab, under my management, not funded by their tuition, and they are expected to behave professionally.

  • Dennis says:


    In one lab, I was constantly accused of working much less than I actually did with people having zero evidence to show, to prove it. I was left being pressured in a situation that I couldn't do anything about, by people who were holding my future in their hands.

    I wish they would have put in the effort you did, then they would have known that I wasn't lying.

    Glad to see there are still scientists that use actual evidence when it comes to measuring a lab member's performance.

  • BProf says:

    I've checked the building swipe times of lab employees as well. However, they can still claim that they got here earlier and followed someone else into the building. Checking the parking lot footage is next level detective work!

  • Curio says:

    I find this account very interesting. Do we treat students and postdocs differently than technicians in terms of hours? Does exempt status matter? I had a postdoc that took lots of days off during the year, then claimed almost no time off on her time cards. I was pretty upset at seeing this but she insisted that she was 'making up the time' on weekends and evenings. I couldn't figure out if that was legitimate, but regardless, it seemed like the kind of thing that would need to be negotiated ahead of time. In general I would rather evaluate work output than hours, but this situation didn't strike me as correct at all. I didn't dismiss the person, but it undermined our relationship for the worse. Nevertheless, with students and postdocs who can and should be working outside the lab, on reading and writing, what counts?

    • potnia theron says:

      part of the reason for FLSA... you can stop counting hours, and start counting output.

    • EPJ says:

      I think work output (quality and quantity) is a need part of individual performance evaluation for everyone involved, and for the status of the project progress. That is what the whole system is based on and driven by, isn't it?

      But the output will depend on the type of tools used, the questions asked, the status of the field, and then on the people working on it. That is a lot of variables there, and the only constant would be the time assigned to the whole thing, that likely is restricted by the money available to pay the participants in the project.

      I can tell you direct experiences on that, but what I still wonder about is why some people cannot tell that they are self-defeating themselves, at least in terms of science and projecting a bad image of their good whole person. That is mighty odd, by all criteria.

  • sudders says:

    You don't say what the status of the student was - I had assumed that they were a grad student, but your comments further down suggest that maybe they were a summer students.

    Getting rid of a Grad student here would be a Big Deal. First there would be meetings with the head of department, and improvement plans drawn up. If that failed then there would an escilation to the university' "Unsatisfactory Progress Committee", with a hearing and the such. By the time you can actually throw them out, they could have finished and moved on without the hassle.

    In general however I tend to tell my students that the hours they keep are their own business as long as the results keep coming. I tell them I prefer them to be there 10-4 so that we can form a community, but if they want to put in the other hours before, or after at the weekends, that's their business, and I won't track the hours they work. I hope this means that they don't try to hide things from me, or exaggerate how hard they are working. In fact the only time I've ever had words with a student is when they've obviously been working so hard that they are starting to go to pieces. Obviously if the project wasn't working out we might have a discussion about how hard they were working.

    But obviously the problem here is not so much the hours worked, but the fact they lied to you. I try to engineer a culture where they wouldn't feel the need to lie, and as I pointed out above, I don't think the university would allow me to sack a student if they were progressing well, but it would certainly sour trust in the lab.

    I only take summer student who have found their own funding, and to be honest then I am effectively getting free labor and am grateful for whatever they do for me.

    • sudders says:

      Okay, reading your last post, this makes more sense, and most of what I just siad doesn't apply.

      • potnia theron says:

        I got a lot of similar comments on the tweets. To clarify: the student was an undergrad, likely pre-clinical of some sort (premed). They had already gotten "research credit" in another term, and I offered a fellowship or hourly to them for the summer. Fellowship means no tracking of hours, but likely less money in the long run. Hourly is more $$ but more rules. The rules are from my HR. Student hourly is just like any other non-salaried, non-exempt part time employee. They have the legal benefits of an employee (as opposed to those accruing students), but a reduced overhead (no sick leave for part-time, and I don't want to get into an argument about that, here).

        HR requires me to keep time sheets on them to get paid- it's how the amount of their paycheck is determined.

        And, the be absolutely, entirely, etc'ly clear: This is not how I, or my uni, deals with graduate students, medical students, or postdocs.

  • EPJ says:

    Dear Potnia, after thinking about the issues people tell and one survives through, that makes no sense at all because they are damaging, you have to wonder if what a PI/manager is facing is just an Eco of events happening somewhere else in the whole society system.


    -Yes, you may actually be providing the tangible means for a given person/family to have a living income and a future, yet you can be harassed/threatened, even shortly before going to deliver a baby. Yet "they" don't get any aspect of the situation, even their benefits, just somehow they deliver a performance. As if their goal is to cause confusion, pain, suffering, chaos, or get a 'job' done. It is disgusting!

    -Yes, the issue of references is played over and over, as if that were the normal by now, and it has somehow morphed into independence of actual work/contribution/produce/significance/etc. It somehow is being used for psychological warfare and attrition efficiency, and it is unnecessary and cruel, actually as seen from all angles. That's why, as unusual as it seems, people in internet are reporting supernatural beings that feed now from others energy generated from suffering all kinds of assaults.

    -It also may have to do with the underlying issue of the need to document discrimination to the needed threshold for law and justice to take place.

    -And also, count in the limits of jobs availability and the actual work needed and passed on through the hierarchy, and money to sustain the system of extreme wealth and poverty.

    So, what to do about that? go somewhere else? well, maybe as long as the reference is provided. By now, it reached the full circle, and the head is eating the tail. And I' have nothing to do with masonry.

  • EPJ says:

    Would it seem too wild of an interpretation to say that you are living in modern time population management:

    -certain groups are assigned to a program and its manager, and everything in that program is actually programmed; that is what is presented in the movie matrix in a high tech fashion.

    If that is the aim, people need to reject it. Keep in mind that most people are not innately mean, but it rather looks like it environmentally made. So time to change things via a different method.

  • DJMH says:

    I would like to know why you thought it was appropriate to involve the tech in this. You're the manager, and you put the tech in the uncomfortable situation of possibly ratting out a co-worker.

    Having dealt with a similar situation, I discussed it and researched it using the help of several colleagues, but never brought it up to any members of my lab. That felt unethical, particularly in case one of them knew something about the student and had been asked to keep it secret (eg, sickness or pregnancy or whatever)....asking them about the situation would have put them in a very uncomfortable position of picking sides.

    Props on the parking lot thing though.

    • potnia theron says:

      DJMH: good point. It's about how the lab is run and the individual tech. In fact, as I think on this, it's worthy of a post of its own. Keep your eyes on this space. It's up.

  • […] why did I involve the tech in the problem of Jane? Firstly, it was Tech who brought the problem to me. She is the one who signs off on the time […]

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