A reflection on some "encouraging" techniques

In the past month or so, I've been thinking a lot about how PIs encourage students to work and how sometimes it feels more like pressure. As a student, pressure is always a constant: pressure to publish (this is not unique to being a student, but in academia in general), to finish your thesis, to ask for scholarships. Sometimes I wonder why so many PIs seem to use fear instead of encouragement to get results from their students. What is worst (IMO) they tend to use this more often with students that are already working to a breaking point.

Telling your student that the funding of the lab depends on their experiment working does not help the experiment nor the student; the more stressed you are, the higher the chances you will have of making mistakes. Implying that your student is not working hard enough when she/he is already spending 6 days a week in the lab, doing more than 10 hours a day of experiments alone, is not going to make the experiment suddenly work; the more tired the person is, once again, the chances of making a mistake increase and in both cases the chances of the student just burning out are just going up the roof.

I've seen students get sick because they do not take any time off, not because they don't need it, but rather because the director has hinted that this is not the moment for rest. I've heard directors being mad about student's taking an hour to have lunch...PIs being demeaning to their students while they are presenting their results (very good results I might add) and not even acknowledging the work that is being presented.

At what point do PIs forget (or do they actually forget?) how stressful doing a PhD already is? How is it that so many of them think that pushing students beyond their limit actually works for the best or in the long term? If they were treated like that, did they find this technique constructive and that is why they are repeating them or is it that they just haven't questioned themselves about some other way?

I don't know guys, I am writing here on a Sunday, while in the lab, tired as hell, with a lovely snow storm going on outside my window, looking to at least 4 more hours to go here. When I started working in science I knew it implied long hours, going to the lab in the weekend...but somehow I always thought that the effort you would put into your research would be at least appreciated. But all the situations I have mentioned today came from students that I know work so hard and yet no encouragement comes their (our) way but mostly fear.

I am not saying that PIs should be all cuddly and give you a golden star for just trying. But treating your students like they don't deserve some time down or family time or even a decent lunch hour, when they are already working hard, is not going to make them deliver results any faster. Please don't forget that, especially in science, the amount of time that you spend working on an experiment does not correlate at all to the quality or even the quantity of the usable results that one might get. Acknowledging people's hard work once in a while goes much farther than making them feel guilty, or saying that they are not working hard enough. Sometimes, it is not the person working on the project that is not working, it is the project itself. Repeating the experiment 10 times just because it doesn't work is not going to make it work all of the sudden, and just saying that another lab published it working with other cells, or other conditions, does not mean that it will work with your conditions.

Remember that we can break. 

What about you? What the worst type of "encouragement" you have received? Leave me your story in the comments. In the meantime, keep working on good science.

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