Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
Should I Stay? Deciding whether to stay with a Lab or Mentor
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.

Last month’s contribution to Scholarly Messenger addressed utilizing limited face time during interviews to attain critical information that is needed to make an informed selection of a Lab or Mentor. This month we will address the decision to remain with a mentor or research group after you have worked there for a while and have learned more about the mentor, lab environment and yourself. Standard life pressures, such as paying bills, tuition and/or maintaining a stable living environment for new families was addressed in the previous issue and these factors also apply when making a decision to remain with a lab. Although they are critical factors in deciding to remain in a lab, in the interest of brevity, they are not re-addressed in this issue.

Some issues to assess while you are currently working with a research group and trying to decide if you want to continue your work:
  1. I don’t feel comfortable with the group. If you have only recently started working in the research environment and are not really comfortable, give it more time. There is a period of transition while the existing research staff learns to trust your abilities and develop personal familiarity. For many students, being surrounded by busy and professional people is a new (and sometimes intimidating) experience. If you have been working with the group for a long while and are still not comfortable, you may want to assess if this is the right research environment for you. However, while making this assessment, consider how other people in the group react to similar situations. For example, even in great research environments, research meetings can be particularly intimidating for students because they are anxious about being put “on-the-spot” during meetings. In addition, research settings can be unlike any other type of work environment because highly intelligent and focused people often overlook issues like courtesy or the “comfort” of students and colleagues. They are often focused on the work and spend little time considering social comfort. Assess whether your discomfort is situation specific and/or unique to others in the group.

  2. No one will give me any meaningful work to do. Many undergrads are given clerical work, data entry/processing and glass washing duties when they first begin working with a research group. These can be mundane tasks but are not unimportant. Clerical work and data processing are critical tasks and are a large part of science. Students are often surprised by the amount of time that investigators spend on rethinking and processing data. Also, sometimes these are “tests” to assess your productivity and ability to follow directions. If your work with the research group has just begun, do these jobs and do them well. Generally, once you have demonstrated an accurate and efficient work ethic, everyone will want your assistance because everyone has too much work to do. However, if you have been with the group for quite a while and are ready for more challenging work, talk to your supervisor and present your accomplishments thus far. Often, the duration of time you have spent with the group has been overlooked because time gets away from busy people. Furthermore, if you have been working hard on your assignments, your supervisor may have been hesitant to assign you more work because from their perspective, you were already quite busy.

  3. I made a mistake and am afraid to tell my supervisor. Science is conducted by humans and mistakes are made. Most mentors recognize that research comes with human error and that reporting mistakes is critical so that the research record is accurate. Before you make a poor or hasty decision to hide a mistake or leave the group so you don’t have to “fess up”, ask yourself why you are afraid. Is this your first mistake? Have you gotten in trouble for making mistakes in the past? Is the group intolerant of errors? Or, is your fear is self-imposed, because as an honors student, you seldom make mistakes? If you are afraid merely because the fallout from your confession is unknown, then take a deep breath, ask to speak to your supervisor and tell them exactly what you did wrong. Then document your mistake and work with your supervisor to create a plan to repair or redo your experiment. Furthermore, if it was an expensive mistake, propose a plan that will minimize that this mistake will be made in the future. Be prepared if it was an expensive mistake, your supervisor may sigh deeply, and shake their head as they absorb the cost and consider various solutions. Just because they understand that mistakes happen, it does not mean that they will be happy about costly mistakes.

  4. The work is mundane. Welcome to research!!! Research is about reproducible results. Conducting experiments and managing data is repetitive and can sometimes be dull (especially if you are doing it right). If you find absolutely no joy in it, then maybe you should rethink your career plans. Otherwise, continue with precision work and wear an iPod (if possible).

  5. Finally, if you learn that you are not interested in the research or do not like the work environment, then be honest with your supervisor and try to leave the group on good terms. If possible, fulfill your obligations before leaving. Most researchers realize that undergraduate and sometimes graduate students are trying to figure out where they “fit” in science. During my graduate training, a fellow grad student almost made a decision to leave our program midway through her training. In our program, you chose a mentor and research group upon entry into grad school. There were no research rotations. She was not happy with her training because there was no centralized research group and the work was largely independent. She did not function well in isolation and wasn’t happy. However, she did not feel comfortable requesting a transfer to a new research group and feared fallout if she requested a change. Ultimately, rather than wasting two-plus years of training by leaving the program, she transferred to a new group and finished the program as a much happier person. Making a decision to leave a research group, or choose a different mentor after doing a rotation is a professional decision that you have to make for your career. It is not a personal attack on the research group if you choose to leave.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.
Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.