Choosing trainees

May 08 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Real Life Interaction from yesterday. I got the following email from Interested-in-your-Lab:

Hi Potnia,

We have met a few times before [list of times].  I recently moved to the middle-of-nowhere, where your almost-MRU is located.  I left my PhD program 5 years ago, and have been teaching since, but the itch to do research is coming back (I also need to get my PhD).  Do you have time to talk with me?

My immediate answer is always "sure". It almost never hurts to talk with someone.

But I emailed someone I know at the place from which he had not finished:

Hi Deb,

Should I run or not? I don’t remember much about him at all. Potential student? Or potential disaster?


Her response was succinct (no greeting, even):

Run. Fast. Very fast.  Sent from my iPhone

My reply:

Well that solves that.

Followup from Deb this morning:

Hey Potty, Re: ... if you want more info on his potential as a grad student, I'm happy to provide it. I was on his MS cmte and have been asked to write letters for him for grad programs. I have told him repeatedly they would not be positive but he still wanted me to submit them....go figure.  He has applied to a couple of our non-tenure track jobs and we won't hire him.  And it is not a bias against hiring one of our own. Deb

Me to Deb:

Thanks for the clarification, but really, your first email to me was sufficient.  I've had enough issues and do not need anyone who is not 110%.


Well, he "needs" to get his PhD so why shouldn't you facilitate that? 🙂


 I am not in the business of filling needs of people with itches

And that, my friends, says it all. While training is an important part of what we do. And training is by large without reward, thanks or remuneration. The rewards, as the joke* goes, must be internal. But picking trainees is still something over which we have control. Do not take people into your lab because they have an itch to do research. Do not take people into your lab because you think you need someone. Choose your people carefully.


* early morning joke:

What does Dali Lama say to the hot dog vendor in NYC? "Make me one with everything".

The Dali Lama hands the vendor a $20 bill and looks expectantly for change. The vendor replies "change must come from within".

6 responses so far

  • crystaldoc says:

    I would elaborate on the "internal reward" concept, that as mentors we take on trainees for our own reasons, and will come out of the interaction disappointed if we expect thanks or gratitude. But depending on career stage and environment, there can be somewhat intangible rewards beyond our own internal sense of accomplishment and contribution. For our own careers, speaking as a relatively junior faculty member, it is worth something to be able to claim to have graduated a PhD student, for example. In an environment where PhD students are few and many labs have none, there can be some institutional prestige associated with being a PhD advisor. It may not be a huge factor, but nevertheless these benefits get tallied up in the cost/benefit analysis, and can offset the costs of dealing with a pain in the ass student. I agree though that some trainees should probably be avoided at all costs!

    • potnia theron says:

      you hit many nails on many heads with this.

      I'd argue that the "expectation" part is one of the most important - don't expect that the environment is going to reward you either. Its nice if it does.

      Just like its nice if your kids make it to an age where they can thank you for bringing them into the world.

  • SteveTodd says:

    Are you still going to talk to him? Perhaps give him some feedback on why he isn't getting any hits? It sounds like this person may need some brutal, honest feedback. Or he could be one of those people who never listens to feedback. Changes in scenery and time make a person grow up some times. Of course I say that not knowing any specifics.

    • potnia theron says:

      Haven't spoken with him yet. I need to see how the conversation goes. I am suspecting it won't get that far.

  • Ola says:

    Yep. Get a few of these every month. About 2-3 years ago I just woke up one day and decided "hey, you know what? I'm better than this. I can afford to be more selective". Shedding the imposter syndrome and the confidence that comes with the shed, is a big part of making the switch from hiring warm bodies to actually hiring people you will do great science with.

  • eeke says:

    I took on an undergrad whose previous lab complained to me about him. They did have positive things to say about his as well, so the review I got wasn't terribly negative. I asked the specific problem and confronted him with it in an interview. He was very receptive, appreciated the feedback, and responded very well when he came to work with me. This young student ended up getting into a grad program and is doing very well the last I heard (he also did great in my lab). Your candidate sounds much further advanced in his career track though. I think sometimes a second chance is deserved, especially if the person was naive about their performance and is given a chance to respond.

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