Sad students :(

Feb 16 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

So, I had to own up and deal with one of my other freshman mistakes today. I *WAY* overcommitted myself to rotation students at the beginning of the year. I don't mind having lots of them come through my lab, and besides it's always a gamble: how do I know which and how many of them will want to join? How do I know which and how many of them will do well on our science? There's no formula for predicting that, so I gambled with a big hand (kind of like how I did with my startup money) and flushed the lab with students to see who would pan out. I also EXTREMELY naively thought it would be FINE to take on 5-6 students, after all, lots of people have groups that size. What I forgot about was all the students who would be joining the program next year, and the year after that, and so on--typical noob mistakes.

These noob mistakes wouldn't bother me so much (I have no shame and just bonk myself on the head for being dumb), except that they affect the aspirations of some of those students. That I feel terrible about. Today I had to tell the two rotation students who are still to come through the lab that there just isn't any way I can hold a spot for them. I decided I had to let them know now instead of later, so they have the option of rotating somewhere else that will have a spot for them in the end. It is heartbreaking and makes me feel like such a bad PI for putting them in this situation. Particularly because one of them had deliberately saved my rotation for last with the hope that they could just keep on working here through the summer to get started on their graduate project. I know we have to learn to say no, and that overextending the lab and my own personal resources would not help anybody around here, but I still think saying no to hopeful students is one of the suckiest, craptacularest aspects of this whole job.

I've played a risky hand this year, not knowing how things would pan out. Most of my gambles have been paying off, and in a way this one did, but I can't feel victorious knowing that these students will have to settle for something that wasn't their first choice when they'd been really hoping that my lab would end up as their home.

5 responses so far

  • ScientistMother says:

    I think its sweet that you feel bad about having to say no to prospective student, its a reflection on you. I think you had to take a big lot of rotation students, especially as a New PI, for the reasons that you listed. The extraordinary thing that you did was realize that you can not take anymore and told the students in advance, enabling them to make alternate arrangements. I am sure that a number of PI's do exactly the same thing you did, only they don't tell the students until the last minute, leaving the student scrambling. You put the students first.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    I'm sorry you feel badly, but really, you are doing what you have to do to put your lab in a great position. You're doing a good job of selling your science, and the result is that a wide variety of students are interested in sticking around. The result, of course, is that some people will be disappointed. Really, it's the same as universities having to deny admission because there's just not room for everyone, or hiring committees having to pick only one person to hire. I don't think anyone would suggest to you that you should appear kind of interesting, but only interesting enough to entice exactly two students per year into your lab.

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    Don't feel bad. I'm sure those students--if they are good--will all have successful graduate training experiences in other labs within your program.

  • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) says:

    I honestly would not call this a "noob" mistake.... I see this all the time, even with experienced PIs. I have the tendency to make the opposite one -- for fear that I may run out of money or resources, or even that I may not be able to place all of those students where they wish to be in the next stage of their careers, I take fewer than I could, so that in the end I find myself with unspent money, which is actually probably even worse than overcommitting.I mean, we are no psychics, we make the best determination that we can, on the basis of the information that we have and our ability to predict the future (because that is what we are talking about, in the end)... more than that is unrealistic, I think.

  • quietandsmalladventures says:

    i had this happen to me as a rotation student at the end of the 6 weeks in the lab. i definitely would have appreciated knowing that it was possible that the PI wasn't going to take on a student, but ultimately it worked out for me. your rotation students will find something that might first appear to be a second choice, but could ultimately make them a better scientist.

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