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The Apportioning of Blame

Dear Supervisors, Students and Postdocs,

Chemistry can be a fickle mistress at times (make that 90% of the time) and sometimes reactions don’t work out how we thought they would or should. Sometimes they work perfectly 15 times and then stop working for no apparent reason. These are common experiences of lab researchers the world over.

At a time when results mean papers, papers mean money, and money is the difference between having a large research group and being “that guy” who works on his own in a cupboard at the age of 53, tempers can get easily frayed. Impatience and frustration lead to The Apportioning of Blame and what I refer to as “The Showdown”. To try and make sense of a problem with no obvious cause, or deal with the fact that a paper which was ready to be published suddenly really isn’t, people look for a scapegoat. They look everywhere at first; the purity of the chemicals (damn you lying chemical companies!), the failings of the analytical resources (take that, rotten NMR machine!) etc, etc. But when the problems continue and patience wears thin, the easiest person to blame is the student.

This is a plea to all PhD supervisors: think before you shoot them down. Here’s a handy quiz.

1)      Is the student normally reliable and hard-working?
         Yes – in that case, don’t shout at them! It’s unlikely to be their fault.
         No – bah, go for it.

2)      Is the student a)nonchalant or b) as pissed off and stressed about this as you are?
         a)      Fair enough (see No above)
         b)      Don’t make it worse, they clearly care, so it won’t help them or you. Ok well it might make you feel better       temporarily, but will they ever go out of their way for you again?

3)      Is it the end of the world? Ie. is there a large grant riding on this?
         Yes – still don’t attack them. Some people respond well to being completely laid into, but funnily enough, not   many. It may backfire. There may be tears. You may hear the heavy knock of the Head of Department at your door.
         No – well then, have a cup of tea and plan the best ways to solve the issue.

And a little guide to the PhD student who finds themselves in this mess.

-  Know when to argue and when to keep quiet. There’s no point burning bridges with the person who is going to  be writing your reference when you finally get out of this place.
-  Explain things clearly, try not to get confused. Confusion and stumbling lead to irritation.
-  Don’t be drawn into a petty argument.
-  Ignore “satellite arguments” about the state of the lab, or how expensive things are. These are irrelevant points designed to expel all that Supervisor Frustration and make you feel even worse.
-  Remember that it will come to an end eventually. And if it doesn’t, you can always run away and join the circus – there are no jobs in chemistry anyway.

Of course, supervisors come in many different shapes/sizes/anger management levels. If you’re lucky enough to have one that sits you down with a cup of tea for a chat when the going gets tough, then well... enjoy it. For the rest of us, life is more about walking on egg shells until it all blows over.

Regards,
Polly
(From her hiding place under the table.)

Posted by Polly-Anna Ashford on Jan 6, 2012 7:24 PM GMT

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