The Trainee that Got Away

Jan 26 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

Actually, got away isn't quite right. Left in a huff is a better representation. I usually don't lose sleep over this, nor do I feel guilty. But there is a tinge of regret that I could not get through to this person.

Just as parents who say "I love all my children equally" are not grappling with the truth, so mentors who say "all my trainees are equal in my eyes" are not doing the trainees a favor. Get over the axis that runs worst to best, whatever worst and best are. People are different. Zuska did a lovely set of Christmas memories, and this one burrowed its way into my head.

It may sound trite to say "my trainees need different things". Of course they do. But I've also been torn in thinking "I need to treat people equally" because, well, that's what we want to do. But this was brought home to me recently. There were a spate of abstracts and posters going out to a couple of meetings in the last few weeks. And what people needed from me to get those done varied greatly. The marvelous postdoc, who is really functioning as a junior faculty person, needed slight tweaks here and there. Just like I need tweaks here and there. A colleague and collaborator, moving into something new, needed a lot of help. Not with writing, but with the science.

More junior folks needed more help. But it hit me forcefully, that two, getting posters ready, needed different levels of help because of the projects, not necessarily because of who they were. One project nearly did itself, and poof, the poster made sense, needed help with layout and wording and figures for a poster. The other was tough, and had so many levels of re-analysis of data and programming that I just stepped in and did some of it. I can hear the "but trainees should do their own...". But I also think there is a point at which mentor/advisor actually doing for a deadline, when the trainee has been working hard, and there is a problem, is also a valuable teaching opportunity. It says: yes you can get help. No it is not all on your own. Yes, I, the PI, care about both you and the science. Its knowing when to help and when not to that is tough for me. Relatively.

So back to the one that got away. Or left in a huff. I went to the mat for this trainee, in many ways, the professional ones, and the scientific ones. Much energy was expended, by many people. And none of it mattered in the end. Nothing got finished and nothing got published, and a colleague was rightly pissed at what didn't happen, and a collaboration was regretfully (on my part) and a bit angrily (on theirs) terminated. The trainee was furious at me, and shoveled blame onto my shoulders. And, in fact went to another faculty to express said ire (faculty came to me and said, let me tell you all the ways I don't want this and I tried to shut it down, but you should know). Now, years later, lab groups later, I can look back and see all the wasted energy. I guess if you get to be an old farte/blue hair and you haven't had a few of these, you've not really lived.

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