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I am a first year PhD student. I just finished my first rotation lab and absolutely loved it. I met with my PI every week, and I never felt like she had a problem with me. Though I never had a frank discussion with her regarding the fact that I wanted to commit to her lab (big mistake, I know), I heard from other students who spoke with her that she wanted to make sure she had enough space in the lab for me and the other rotation students had we chosen to join. She also promised us that she had enough funding so we wouldn't have to compete with one another. I really thought I had found my lab home until....

I received an email from her yesterday telling me that she couldn't keep me. The reasons she gave me seemed flimsy (i.e. I wasn't enthusiastic enough....when literally anyone else in the group can vouch for my enthusiasm!) and contradicted what she told me at the start of the rotation (ie. she said she wished I had gotten further in the project, when she explicitly said multiple times that she didn't care how far we got through our rotation projects).

I hate confrontation, but I want to be a self-advocate. My biggest regret in undergrad was not self-advocating enough. I feel like I lost a lot of wonderful opportunities because of my fear to approach professors. But this time I want to stand up for myself, try to get a chance to defend myself and ask for legitimate reasons why she suddenly rejected me. And of course, try everything I can to try to change her mind. This is my dream lab, and I want to be brave enough to fight. I know I'm stepping on some annoying lab politics by doing this, but how should I go about addressing my concerns with my PI while not offending her?

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If you are in good terms with your PI and you have weekly meetings with her, it is probably best if you bring up the topic in your next meeting. If "lab politics" are really involved (which need not be the case), it is unlikely that she will provide more information through email.

If she had told you that she would have funding and space for you all, it is perfectly reasonable for you to ask what changed, so she should not be offended by the question.

Regarding how to phrase the question, I would be moderately direct but, as most "conflict management" courses suggest, prefer the use of "I-messages" instead of "you-messages". Something along the lines of:

I would have liked to be able to stay here, is it really not possible anymore? And if it is not, do you have any suggestions as to how I can do better elsewhere in the future?

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    I also generally like the phrasing “I expected x, what seems to have happened was Y. Could you help me understand what I missed?” – Dawn Jan 12 at 18:16
  • Thank you for your advice. I was afraid that perhaps I was sounding too desperate (even though I kind of am) by asking to meet with her in person to try to defend myself. But I think you're right in that it is reasonable to try to figure out exactly what went wrong. A follow up question--if she had a problem with my personality or my confidence (I have to admit there were times when I stumbled through explaining my experiments or science topics), how should I respond to this? Is it reasonable to tell her that I can (and am willing) to change? – N.N. Jan 12 at 20:36
  • @N.N. Offering to "change your personality" starts to sound a little more desperate... She will not tell you that she does not like your personality, that might get her in trouble. If she mentions something along those lines, your reply should focus on the work ("maybe I do not look enthusiastic or seem to hesitate sometimes but that does not mean I do not like the work, it is just my way of expressing myself"). You seem to be a little insecure about your personality/social skills. "Stumbling when explaining" was probably not the reason, don't be too hard on yourself for this. – wimi Jan 12 at 22:33
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I think the only conclusion that you can draw from the situation is that the PI perceived something that made her feel like she didn't want to commit to a multi-year relationship with you. I don't think it does you much good to wonder if she really has the resources for more than one student or not.

There are some hints in some of the comments you've made to other answers like

there were times when I stumbled through explaining my experiments or science topics), how should I respond to this?

That could certainly leave the impression of "lack of enthusiasm" -- though I would go out of the way not to use that language if I were turning down an applicant. This could mean anything. It could mean that she didn't feel you spend adequate time preparing, it could mean she thought you didn't understand the science, it could mean she didn't like your communication skills, it could mean she thought you would need too much extra preparation before you'd be able to be productive.

That statement makes it feel like you already have some sense about what went wrong. If I were to advise you based on what I detect, I would say that you should consider every contact during a rotation to be a job interview. Read about the project you're involved in. Before you start a rotation, read the profs recent papers, and contact the prof and ask if there's any reading you should do in prep for the rotation. Read them, and read the more important papers that are cited. Prepare for each and every meeting. Be ready to present what you're working on, and to ask the questions you have (after you've spent effort trying to answer them on your own with literature review). Write down the points you'd like to make.

Last, but not least, you tried and missed with this PI. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Move to the next, and try to use the experience to have a better experience the next time. You should consider this the first of many such misses you'll have in an academic career. We all have them, and we all need to move past them.

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