Nurturing Trainees

January 6, 2011

Female Science Professor has an interesting post up in which she muses about how professorial management styles that might, on the surface, seem less “nurturing” to trainees frequently end up doing a better job at actual nurturing of the careers of those trainees.

It is important not to conflate a management style that nurtures the professional development of trainees with a management style that nurtures the personal development of trainees. As professors, our job is to nurture our trainees professionally. If they need personal nurturing, it is not my job to provide it, nor am I qualified to do so.

In my experience, the most dysfunctional labs are those in which the PI behaves like a cheerleader/friend/confessor hybrid, and the most functional labs are those in which the PI behaves like an NFL head coach.


28 Responses to “Nurturing Trainees”

  1. drugmonkey Says:

    Like Andy Reid?

  2. My boss will probe us for any issues that are professionally-related, not personal. Which is good, I don’t need a fucken counselor to hold hands with while I skip through a field of fucking gillyflowers. I just need a mentor to instruct on science shit.

  3. beatrice Says:


    Would you consider yourself a nurturing coach/trainer/mentor?.

    My answer is YESSSSSSS. Dude, but you’re also tough !

  4. Sara Says:

    I shudder at the thought of working in a lab run like a sports team. That was my experience in undergrad, and it worked well for the guys but tended not to work so well for the women.

  5. beatrice Says:

    IMHO, if we want to advance gender equality we should avoid even the appearance of differential treatment. Maybe Sara that lab coach was not a true nurturing one (after all). I guess that what you’re implicitly saying is that is not possible to absolutely compartmentalize the uniqueness of a person into “personal” and professional aspirations/challenges/environment. In that view, a true nurturing training should not underestimate the “personal” implications of preparing oneself effectively for a fulfilling professional life.

  6. Charles Says:

    The comment about mentoring like an “NFL head coach” is very interesting, but I’m not exactly sure what it means, perhaps in part because I’ve never played in the NFL. What do you mean by that? Strictly business? Stern but fair? Something else?

  7. andrewD Says:

    No… like Sean Payton of course

  8. No like Tom Cable. Run that lab on the holy fucking triad of coaching: Inspiration, Preparation, & Fear.

  9. Spiny Norman Says:

    The overuse of sports metaphors is one of the defining features of male-dominated culture.

  10. FrauTech Says:

    I see where Sara’s coming from, but I don’t think that’s CPP’s intention. There’s a difference between a good professional environment and an overly macho culture.

    What’s fair to women should be fair to men. A good boss recognizes we all have personal obligations in our lives outside work and sometimes these make focusing on work difficult. As in, if you have children and are the primary caregiver this is just a part of who you are. But it doesn’t mean you should be held to lower standards than everyone around you or be allowed to skip work for PTA meetings and whine and cry about your kids’ issues every day of the week. However, it should mean you’re allowed to casually discuss your children on the job much as sports or music or entertainment or videogames might get discussed by your colleagues (yes I realize children are more than a “hobby” like these other items). It means that just because you have kids doesn’t mean someone else isn’t quietly suffering from a serious health problem that takes them away from work. It’s not a fair system because not everyone will have the same level of obligations outside of work. But I am Genomic Repairmen, I don’t need my boss to hold my hand or hear my sob stories. I have friends and family for that reason and I keep the excessive emotional aspects of my life away from work.

  11. FrauTech Says:

    Sorry that’s “*with Genomic Repairmen”, hopefully I don’t have some sort of personality disorder today.

  12. beatrice Says:

    thanks frautech for putting your grain of wisodm so nicely

  13. beatrice Says:

    oops, i meant wisdom

  14. El Picador Says:

    Who is the NFL cheerleader in this scenario?

  15. anonymous Says:

    What do you do with a poisonous lab member like the situation described by FSP? Do you call them out on it and ask them what their problem is? If so you’re getting involved with them personally more than you seem to advocate. If not, you’re allowing the persistence of a poisonous lab environment.

    It’s not possible to completely avoid discussing people’s problems, nor is there typically a clearcut line between personal issues and professional ones.

  16. tideliar Says:

    “What do you do with a poisonous lab member like the situation described by FSP?”

    You take ’em outside, work ’em over with a baseball bat and then put the boot in. Metaphorically of course.

  17. becca Says:

    Oddly “coach” is probably the role closest to how I think of ideal PI behavior. Though I wonder if the real hazard is trying to be *liked* by your trainees all the time. That works about as well as trying to be your kid’s bff at all times.
    I also suspect that, as a practical matter, it’s often less like coaching a team sport and more like coaching an individual sport.

    Of course the NFL, and all the sexist machismo (and not-coincidentally anti-nurturing) connotations can go fucke themselves.

    “Who is the NFL cheerleader in this scenario?”
    Usually, from what I’ve seen, the women in the lab as well as outside of it are expected to not only play the game, but also encourage everyone else in playing in a cheerful manner and pick up all the nurturing slack left by lazy-d00dly PIs like CPP.

  18. Genomic Repairman Says:

    You cut off the infected arm (poisonous lab member) to save the arm. Pin a twenty dollar bill to their collar and tell em to get the fuck out

  19. Genomic Repairman Says:

    Fuck I meant cut off the arm to save the body…

  20. Spiny Norman Says:

    Genomic Repairman has it right. Encourage ’em to leave with an M.S.; fire ’em; get ’em into law school. Whatever it takes.

  21. Pharm Sci Grad Says:

    I “third” the cut ’em off there… having worked with two real drains on the lab (who just so happened to be techs), the sooner they’re gone, the better. Even though it made more work for me personally in the short term, it was SO worth it to negate all the lab drama/negative energy at work every day!!!

    I like the coach metaphor – someone who can assess your skill level and talents thus placing you in a situation where you’re best able to use your attributes in a way which causes you and the lab to shine (i.e. someone who nurtures you PROFESSIONALLY). But, then again, I’m an XX who likes sports metaphors…

  22. Charmant Says:

    J’ai décidé de suivre mon rêve et d’aller prendre des cours de théâtre à Paris, en vue de vraiment devenir professionnelle. Si je le peux…….TOI AUSSI

  23. “the most functional labs are those in which the PI behaves like an NFL head coach.”

    Disagree. Maybe trainees in such lab have work ethic, but I’ve noticed that they also tend to be less inspired, less excited, and less inclined to branch out. More science is not always better science.

  24. No One Says:


  25. jc Says:

    To keep with the sports analogy, sigh, one advisor was more like a defensive tackle for me. He made sure that I had a clear lane to the goal by taking care of the territorial bullshit all around me in our field. I didn’t need help with the research, I could run the ball down the field fast no problem. It was the asshats that constantly interfered with every step of my success that my advisor would deal with so I could focus on the work and getting shit done. He still does that for me.

    My other awesome advisor was more of a team captain personality. We all knew our roles on the field, and we knew he had our backs. We didn’t feel managed, we felt supported. There was about a dozen of us working on similar projects, so he made sure that we were all inching toward our goals and that people who were good at one method were helping out with people who were good at other methods. At our meetings, he asked “what do you need from me” for each student. It could be tech support, paperwork filled out, clearance from fed agencies, help from stats gurus, anything like that.

    The worst PIs were highly dependent and parasitic on their students and postdocs for papers and grants. The PIs lost their mojo years ago, and were on life support from their trainees. There was no training, no support. 100% bullshit, and the students and postdocs were there to wipe PI asses. The PIs were not coaches, team captains, or referees. They were mascots.

    I agree with the cutting off poisonous members to save the team. Too many fumbles, sayonara.

  26. beatrice Says:

    Very nice experience that of yours jc. thanks for sharing.

  27. Katharine Says:

    I think jc’s description of a PI that acts a bit like a defensive tackle or team captain, depending on the lab size, if you want to use a sports description, is really good – they keep their distance and expect you to be able to do the stuff you should be able to do and do awesome science, and are also willing to go to bat for you if you can’t rightly be expected to cover the issue yourself in your position as grad student. (I’m in the process of looking at grad schools. I can go about it leisurely right now, because I won’t even be sending in applications to grad schools for a year, but I’m trying to figure out which advisors are good and which advisors are crap.)

    If an advisor wasn’t willing to do something like stand up for their grad student against another faculty member who was being an asshole, I’d reconsider working with them.

  28. physiodoggie Says:

    California your way……..there is always a beautiful dophin

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