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I'm currently an undergrad who has been working at this lab for 1 year. In the beginning, I was pretty slow with research and I still make mistakes sometimes. For instance, it took me 4 months to get a western to properly work and 1 month to properly clone something. I'm not as bright as the other interns, but I learned a lot this 1 year about techniques and scientific knowledge. Granted, I don't know if I'm 'competent' enough for research.

Anyways, my research mentor (post-doc) left for a new position, and now I'm pretty much without a mentor. I emailed my PI for a new mentor assignment if possible a week ago, no response. My former mentor emails my PI and gets no response. Now, I decide to follow-up with him yesterday - still no response. So in total, 3 emails (2 from me, 1 from my former mentor) sent to my PI about this topic in the last week.

I'm not the closest to my PI. He seems always busy and I haven't spoken to him very often. However, it's unlike him to take a very long time to respond to emails, as he usually responds within 1-2 days.

Does this mean I've been ghosted by my PI/given a boot from lab? My former mentor told me that my PI would be willing to let me continue working, but I don't know if he was just saying that.

I'm not sure if I should reach out to other post-docs/grad-students in the lab and ask them if they can be my new supervisor mentor. So far, I haven't had much work to do so I've been staying back home and reading papers the lab has published/to see if any of interest. The other people in the lab familiar with my name; I hope they're not thinking about how stupid I am since I did make lots of dumb mistakes. I know the lab manager doesn't like me that much (one time I was giving a lab presentation and she was shaking her head), and usually she's the de facto person people turn for conflicts such as these.

What should I do? I've been in a state of rumination about this for a long, long time. I'm really interested in the work of this lab.

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    Are you still getting paid? – Austin Henley Aug 2 '18 at 1:14
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    Why not just visit them? If they're your PI, you should be in the same institution, and you can just go to their office. – Allure Aug 2 '18 at 1:19
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    @Allure I've never knocked on my PI's office before, I feel kind of scared/awkward doing that since he has a very cold, direct manner and rarely do post-docs/grad students knock without a meeting (and he hasn't been seeming to respond to my emails). Also, I don't know what I would say and how I would take it if I told to my face rejection. – wonderfulgalaxies Aug 2 '18 at 1:23
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    I don't know what I would say and how I would take it if I told to my face rejection. Say "thank you for the opportunity!". Then walk down the hall and start knocking on doors to find another position. – Austin Henley Aug 2 '18 at 1:28
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    Relax. Probably your PI got hundreds of other emails in the past week also asking him to do things. He might not be able to answer them all. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 3 '18 at 0:36
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Go and visit your PI. Knock on their door when they're in, and ask them everything above.

You write in a comment above that you feel feel "kind of scared/awkward doing that since he has a very cold, direct manner". Being scared should not be a deal breaker. Courage comes when you overcome fear! It's much more admirable to face what you're afraid of than to hide from it. Nothing critical will happen to you, and to have done something like this before is a great help if you have to do it again in the future, in less protected environments. As for how others don't knock without a meeting, you could knock and start with "are you free?" If he says yes then you're good, if not then you can arrange a meeting.

Finally you write that you don't know what to say or how you'd react to a rejection, which shouldn't be a problem. For the first, write down everything you want to know, and rehearse it beforehand. For the latter, if you are rejected, you're going to know in the near future anyway, and you might as well know now so you can make plans for what to do next.

It's better to be addressing your problems than to sit around waiting for the PI to respond. Go and visit your PI.

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This doesn't sound like an issue that you can solve with email. A face to face with the PI seems warranted. But before you schedule it, gather information about what you have done and why it hasn't been successful. You need to be completely honest with yourself so that you can be also with the PI.

None of your actions seem to advertise that you are very much interested, nor that you are a hard worker. It may not be true, but it seems to have that signature. If it isn't the case, you need to figure out how to project a more active image.

Waiting is your worst action and it only makes you look disconnected.

One thing you can do with others in the lab is to explore their experiences. Are they similar to yours or quite different. If different, try to figure out why. Some of what you have experienced may not be your fault at all, but accept that some of it may also be.

But you don't need to call yourself dumb. That is a mistake that can only work against you. Everyone makes mistakes. Work not to make the same sorts of mistakes in the future. There is a thing called Imposter Syndrome (look it up). It is fairly common even among highly qualified people. Don't let it overtake you.

But the meeting should be soon and it should be face to face. Let him/her know that you are concerned about your place and how you can improve it.

  • None of your actions seem to advertise that you are very much interested This is a failing in the management (both the postdoc and the PI), not the undergrad. I wouldn't expect an undergraduate to have to tell their mentor to do their job. – Austin Henley Aug 2 '18 at 1:17
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    @AustinHenley, nor would I expect it, but the student needs a solution and no one else seems to be breaking through the jam. If the student withdraws from participation it may be interpreted (fairly or not) as disinterest. Break that jam. Continuing to do nothing makes it worse. – Buffy Aug 2 '18 at 1:24
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Your situation does seem stressful. The most you can do is to give the PI a chance to reply to your emails (maybe another week?) or make a visit to their office.

In the case that the PI doesn't get back to you soon, you can't let that ruin your opportunities to do research. Start looking for other potential research positions at your university. Of course, this may not seem ideal, but it sounds better than not doing research at all.

  • Okay, would it be unwarranted to email other members of the lab if they need help/would be willing to take on an undergrad? I'm not sure how this would look considering that my PI isn't directly involved in the conversation. – wonderfulgalaxies Aug 2 '18 at 1:33
  • That really depends on your position and the lab structure. Would you still be getting paid? It seems like you're going rogue if the PI hasn't approved something like that, and could be a liability issue. – Austin Henley Aug 2 '18 at 1:35
  • Pay is unclear. Should I reach out to the lab manager? One of the former lab techs in the lab told me she reached out to the lab manager for new arrangements when her supervisor left. The thing is, I feel like my lab manager looks down upon me. – wonderfulgalaxies Aug 2 '18 at 1:45
  • @wonderfulgalaxies Definitely reach out then. I can't imagine your situation would get any worse. – Austin Henley Aug 2 '18 at 1:48
  • Just emailed my lab manager, she said she'd help me find a mentor within my field of interest! She scheduled a meeting for me next week. If this doesn't work out, I have a list of other labs I'd be interested in on campus. – wonderfulgalaxies Aug 2 '18 at 2:52
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Don't give up! PIs are often busy, especially now since it's the summer and they might be on vacation/conferencing. Even if typical response time is 1-2 days, sometimes the PI just won't be available to respond, especially if it's an issue that cannot be addressed with a one-line email.

I would start contacting other lab members to see if they have projects you could help with. The fact that you've been in the lab for a while and are enthusiastic about the research already make you a valuable asset (plus they don't have to start training you from scratch). Then, if you find someone you can work with, contact the PI again. If not, wait till the end of the summer and reach out then.

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There are many other great answers, so I'm just trying to do a bit more introspection with you. :)

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The project appeared to match your passion or interest to a very great extend, even though you're still quite new to this field of research, but you're full of beginner's energy (Page of Wands). Yet, for yourself, you suffered from a lack of overall organization of different components in the job (Reversed Magician). On top of that, there were a lot of fast-to-react situations thrown to you. Yet, as time went on, it diminished (8 of Wands, Reversed).

Tuning into now, the project overall is not reciprocating your love. If anything it's refusing to act out its displease (Knight of Cups, Reversed). And yet, from your own perspective, you are feeling contented (Nine of Cups), somewhat unaware of the overall situation. Perhaps you thought you have improved enough, or even you did, the project staff are not seeing it.

In the middle of all this, someone is doing something illogical or betraying. It could be your supervisor did not leave in a good relationship with the team, or there are negative stories going on behind you (7 of Swords); the situation you're facing now may not be just about your performance, but more of a system of issues.

Either way, in my opinion, the next key player would be likely be a person who has abundant control of the system, or likely a female (Queen of Swords). This seems to point to your lab manager. The outcome of the event is simply a guess, but a 3 of Wands indicates you'd gain a better balance in terms of your passion and interest. But either way, it's a strong "new journey" card so my guess is you'll join another lab, realizing that the good fit was not there.


Overall, my blanket thought is that you may have some distorted sense of where you're at and what you skill level is. You might be using very small signs (like the manager shaking her head) and extrapolated that into some opinions without merit. From the spread, and from the story you told, the lab manager is logically the next person to talk to, and you'll just have to prepare for a potentially harsh review. Use this conversation to i) get an overall evaluation for yourself, and ii) ask for recommendations on research/career paths. In any case, you'll grow; and if they end up letting you go, this would be a great opportunity to let them know that hanging people dry is not a good way to manage human resources.

It's just a little thought practice of mine so if I misspoke please don't mind me. But I hope this helps, and I wish you'd be able to get the positive parts from whatever outcome that would unfold!

  • Thanks for the insight! I've never had tarot cards read before. I'm interested by your statement, "Overall, my blanket thought is that you may have some distorted sense of where you're at and what you skill level is." Do you mind elaborating? – wonderfulgalaxies Aug 7 '18 at 0:54
  • That's purely inspired by the cards, and I just suggested that as another thought exercise for you. It could be that you think you're getting a good hang of the lab techniques and such, but in fact there is still some distance from achieving a good level of mastery. I'd suggest try getting some objective evaluations from someone who has no vested interest in this issue. The lab manager could be a good point to start; she may still be too involved, but she seems less so compared to the PI and your ex-supervisor. If they do let you go, make sure to find some areas to improve on. Good luck! – Penguin_Knight Aug 7 '18 at 18:57
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You cannot expect a response from an email to a PI. That is a given.

A PI potentially gets (without hyperbole) 1000 plus emails EVERY DAY at peak season. If you need something done, email is not the approach.

Visit in person, even if that visit is only to schedule a discussion.

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