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I am an undergrad who was recruited to join a lab by this PhD student and help her with her thesis, but since working with her I have come to the conclusion that she is incompetent and probably not going to finish her PhD. I often question her judgment especially related to safety and her research. This is my first research job, so sometimes I am unsure if this is normal, but at the same time I don't want to pick up bad habits. Some of the highlights include:

  • Lack of safety awareness. No gloves/splash goggles when working with (hot) concentrated acids and bases. Some of these experiments are run outside the fume hood, and sometimes on the floor when there is no space on the lab bench. Lab bench is a mess and when I mention cleaning up she says it'll take too much time.
  • When I ask her about her research proposal, she seems confused and is unable to answer basic questions about previous results. Previous experiments all seem inconclusive, need to be rerun, or she can't remember. One of the major part of her proposal is to investigate a particular mechanism, but when I ask what tests she plans on running, she has no idea.
  • I will talk to her about papers that I found, sometimes exactly matching the experiments we want to run, and she seems surprised. I will mention things from papers we've both read or thesis of previous students and she has no clue so most conversations about research is unproductive or she offers very superficial, obvious observations. Conversations with other group members are much more productive.
  • She (and I) have very little to share during group meetings because experiments are sometimes poorly designed and she does not plan them out. She will have a rough idea of what she wants to do, but no procedures or plan so lab time is spent planning the experiments out. She seems to have a very bizarre attention to some details but not others. For example, when running some high purity experiments she doesn't want us to wash the beakers with soap due to fear of contamination, but then she'll proceed to run these experiments on the dirty lab floor.
  • She has poor organization and samples are sometimes lost or results are not written down.
  • She has very rudimentary technical skills. I have watched her use the computer multiple times and instructions on how to use simple programs need to be written down step-by-step with very specific instructions on which button to press... etc. Sometimes she wants me to write a program from a paper, but she is so inept that she is unable to offer any assistance/advice, and after I'm finished writing the program she will have no clue how it works.

At times, it seems like I'm doing all the literature search, running the experiments, writing the programs, and coming up with new ideas while she grades homework. She says she is going to graduate this year.

Our PI is a very hands off person. I spend a lot of time reading literature and have ideas of other experiments we can run related to this research area in general. I would like to run these experiments myself. Since we're working in the same research area, however, sometimes when I discuss these ideas the grad student will mention wanting to include it in her thesis (even though it wasn't in her proposal). And because of how unproductive she is, I would prefer not to work with her anyways. I'm also concerned that the PI will think that these are good ideas and that I should work with this student to test them, particularly because I am an undergrad.

How can I politely distance myself with her and start doing some independent research?

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    Let me guess, the PhD student is not from your country, right? I am saying this because many students, who probably had great academic record back home, struggle to maintain the kind of research and academic standards demanded from a grad student abroad.
    – Noob
    Mar 15 at 9:11
  • 4
    @incrediblesulk Does that goes both ways, though? Or is it usually one-way -- like someone from a "more productive" country fitting in just fine whereas someone from a "less productive" country might struggle more?
    – ManRow
    Mar 15 at 11:39
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    Looks to me like you should be a PhD student there, and someone's taking your spot. The whole situation is ridiculous. How can you even know, at this point, that the lab environment isn't contaminated with something toxic/carcinogenic? If the enforcement of policies is so lax, then what other equally out-of-touch students have been doing their "work" in the same room? That seems like a disaster waiting to happen. You should talk to someone who deals with occupational safety at your school. Mar 15 at 13:38
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    The number of issues goes beyond the need to handle this politely. This person is recklessly endangering others, and has been counselled by environmental safety. If they continue to do it, there might not be a way to politely say "you're going to kill someone, probably you, maybe me" I'd take it up with occupational safety.
    – Edwin Buck
    Mar 15 at 17:31
  • 5
    Use the fact that it is unsafe to back away. Cite university OH&S policies, report dangers, and move away. Mar 15 at 21:14
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No gloves/splash goggles when working with (hot) concentrated acids and bases. Some of these experiments are run outside the fume hood, and sometimes on the floor when there is no space on the lab bench.

Do not work in this lab. Do not even go in. It could kill you. Obvious safety problems are often accompanied by even worse, hidden problems.

Consult your university's safety policy to determine if you can/should/must report this situation.

The other problems are insignificant by comparison. Find a new PI.

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    At universities I am familiar with, if the safety staff found out about this, everybody would be banned from entering the lab. Mar 14 at 23:12
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    Holy cow, why wouldn't you report this? If she's been reported before, why is she still there? Mar 15 at 1:29
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    If its in the UK, there's normally a lab manager or similar - there should be notices around on who they are, or they are the person who gave you a safety demo when you joined. Go and find them, and talk to them about this. Please don't think of this as getting someone in trouble, but of protecting the lives of yourself and those around you. This is terrifying. I'd also go and talk to the head of the department (again, assuming this is structured like a UK university) - make your safety concerns known, and work out how this won't hurt you academically
    – lupe
    Mar 15 at 12:00
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    When my mother was in college, she took a basic lower-division chemistry lab class and was paired with someone similar to the PhD student being described. One time, she had to tell him, "I don't think we're supposed to boil the sulfuric acid in that flask." He ignored her, so she stood back and repeated, "I really don't think we're supposed to boil the sulfuric acid in that flask." He ignored her again. She was ready; so when the flask exploded, she made sure he was okay. OP, you don't want to have to be responsible for someone else's safety like that. Report her, right now.
    – Ozob
    Mar 15 at 19:08
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    I'm going to add another plea here, not just for your safety, but for the poor soul who may come after you. You recognise the aweful safety risks being taken, the next undergrad may not, and may pay for it with blindness, permanent disability, or death. It's not a question of if someone is going to be harmed, it's a question of when. Mar 16 at 9:01
25

This person's incompetence is endangering the safety of themselves and others, as well as the laboratory environment and integrity of experiments being conducted there. Report these safety violations to the appropriate authority immediately, and refuse to work with this person any further out of regard for your safety.

As an academic, you have a right to be safe and an obligation to keep yourself and others safe, even from themselves, and even if doing so is liable to have negative repercussions. Someone this slapdash is unlikely to find commercial work anyway due to their lack of adherence to basic procedures, so you are actually doing them (and the world) a favour by preventing them from getting any further before their disregard for safety is addressed.

Do not feel guilty about doing the right, safe thing. Feel good about preventing harm to others.

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  • "As an academic, you have a right to be safe and an obligation to keep yourself and others safe" The idea of an obligation to others isn't really fair to undergraduate students. I teach my students that if there is a fire, they are to leave (keep them selves safe) and not try to put it out (keep others safe). Mar 17 at 1:53
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I took that comment to mean you have an obligation to take reasonable steps - kind of like how as a motorist you have an obligation to stop at the scene of an accident and call emergency services, but you certainly aren't expected to climb into a burning wreck, or to use your example, there's an obligation to trip the fire alarm. There truly is an obligation to report this behaviour even after you've removed yourself from harm - it borders on negligent to not report it and let others potentially come to harm
    – Phill
    Mar 17 at 3:51
  • OP is lucky to be early in their career and that the unsafe scientist is a PhD student rather than a senior professor. Unless PhD student has powerful corrupt friends, OP has only limited repercussions to fear.
    – gerrit
    Mar 17 at 13:28
  • That was exactly my intention, @Phill. You are obligated to be a good human being by reporting things that are wrong, not by endangering yourself trying to fix said things.
    – Ian Kemp
    Mar 17 at 13:33
25

How can I politely distance myself with her ... (emphasis added)

You can be fully honest without using judgmental terms such as "incompetent". You can also approach the situation as though having a PI who is "hands-off" does not mean that you have a PI who is unwilling to fix safety violations.

The safety concerns, as noted, can be grounds for you to leave immediately. Certainly, with any indication of an immediate, dire threat to your safety, leave the lab with no hesitation. In those cases where you feel inclined to report such violations to higher authorities, keep in mind that you have an obligation to inform the PI as the first responsible authority in the chain. By example, an emergency phone call to your campus equivalent 911 number must be followed directly by a call, text, or email to the PI. In the US, academic laboratories are now required to have those contact points visibly posted on the outside of the laboratory doors.

Should you wish otherwise to continue with the current PI, a potentially workable alternative would be to ask that you have your own workspace physically separated from the student in question. When you would want to do this, you have to address the PI in an opening request. By example:

  • Since I have been working in the laboratory with (student's name), I have been confronted with situations that I feel are violations of safety protocols. I no longer feel comfortable working in the same physical laboratory space as (student's name). I would like to meet with you to discuss my concerns and to understand how they should be properly addressed.

Independent of the immediate, dire safety violations, you can also decide how far you really want to get involved in the longer game to make changes to the underlying violations that you see. When you decide that you must/will report such violations, do so in writing. Email the student. By example:

  • I came to the laboratory today at 9am. An open container of what appeared to be concentrated acid was sitting on the bench top. I had to leave the laboratory out of safety concerns and could not do my work. Let me know when you have cleaned up so that I can get back to my research work.

  • I had arranged with you yesterday that I would need to have the fume hood clear for my research work. I came to the laboratory today at 9am. The fume hood was not cleared. I had to leave the laboratory and could not do my work. Let me know when you have cleared the fume hood so that I can get back to my research work.

You can consider the balance of copying the PI or not on these emails. If the graduate student seems receptive to email as "polite" reminders, you may do better to avoid essentially spamming every complaint that you have to the PI. Alternatively, you may want to copy the PI for good reason, for example if the violation that you are reporting is extremely serious or is something that was raised in a previous group meeting and yet still remains unresolved by some agreed upon time at that meeting.

If you must report violations to the department head/chair or to the safety officers, you should do so without going around the PI as your first step. Collect your message with date stamps. Send them in bulk to the PI.

  • I can no longer work in the laboratory because (student's name) is not providing me with a safe, effective work space. I am enclosing a record of messages to (student's name). They show that, over the past weeks, I have been able to complete any research activities because (student's name) is not doing her job. I would like to meet with you to determine how best to proceed.

At some point, a growing collection of non-critical safety violations can become dire and immediate in their own right, especially when they go unattended despite due notices. When you would wish to raise such a case to an even higher authority beyond the PI, it helps to have the written records (emails) in order. Do the respect to give due notice also to the PI, for example

  • We have discussed a range of safety violations at our group meetings. Because the violations continue to happen, I can no longer continue working in the laboratory. As I leave, I am also sending the attached list of my records of reporting the numerous safety violations to the (chair / safety office) because, unless corrected, these violations can pose an inadvertent danger to anyone who might enter the laboratory without advanced notice.

... and start doing some independent research?

From the rest of your report, it sounds as though you already have a good grasp of how to start. Your obligation going forward is not to the student. It is to the PI who has given you permission to work in the laboratory with the student. Perhaps you should re-orient your research goals accordingly. To this end, your next step might be to ask for a meeting in an email to the PI. By example:

  • I have been working with (student's name) for the past few months. At this point, I believe that I have a strong grasp of the research goals and a good set of workable ideas in order to achieve them. I would like to present a proposal for a research project that I can undertake independently of (student's name). Are you available for this meeting?

Before you do, create what I might call a "Proposal for Independent Undergraduate Research". Outline how you will work on a topic that can be done entirely separate from the goals of the PhD student. Address how your results are truly able to be done separate from those being studied by the PhD student. Basically, structure your proposal such that, if your work is never done, the PhD student is not harmed and, if your proposed work is completed, the PhD student can REFERENCE the results but not include them as though they are also her own work. The "polite" return on this investment is likely that you may correspondingly have to REFERENCE results obtained by the PhD student to the degree that they support or enable your research to proceed.

Finally, you are not responsible for whether the PhD student does or does not complete her dissertation successfully. Your observations of her work habits, skills, aptitude, and motivation are part of lessons in life-long learning on how to cope with others who are not as organized or as able to perform in the same ways as you can. Disengage from the emotional responses these observations bring and make sound, non-judgmental, professional decisions on where you want to go next for your own success.

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    All good advice, though I'd suggest CCing the PI on all the emails to the grad student.
    – Ben S.
    Mar 15 at 19:06
  • @BenS. ... I thought of this. However, on the other side, I also thought that the PI should not have to hear about every complaint. Hence, my suggestion to do a bulk email if the OP decides that the situation has reached that point. It also promotes the good old school ... talk about it first, send email as the last resort ... approach. I will add a follow up thought. Mar 15 at 20:57
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    In most cases, I'd agree with you, but this is an immediate threat to the PI's ability to keep their lab open. If safety violations like this happened at my old university, the lab would be completely shut down indefinitely.
    – Ben S.
    Mar 16 at 21:13
  • @BenS. Certainly true. Having an immediate threat does not remove the student's responsibility not to bypass the PI, purposely or inadvertently. A responsible PI should not have find out only through second hand sources (from above) that he/she had been in violation of safety protocols. I'll amend once more to respect this thought. Mar 16 at 22:48
  • The word incompetent seems to be a perfect non judgmental fit here. She lacks the basic competence to do her job. No judment included
    – Hakaishin
    Mar 17 at 6:50
6

I am afraid to say that this "hands-off" PI of yours is a common type in academia. They tend to be charismatic and great at pulling in money for what is often spruced-up boilerplate research which industry has decided to outsource. They are "busily important" and smile a lot. They have droves of bushy eyed youngsters working from them. They have a lot of time available for those who deliver, and those who cannot swim are left to sink. Your unfortunate PhD student is just one of them.

If you are one of those rare ones who can swim all by themselves, and deliver the goods that will make you golden in the eyes of this PI (who, I warn you, will cop the credit), then by all means proceed. But you are low in the food chain. Any conflict with the PhD student (despite your best intentions) will play out badly for you.

All in all, I have to second what someone else said here: get out of there, get away from that PI.

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    This answer isn't wrong, but I find it a bit too cynical. What you describe does happen, but it doesn't have to be that way.
    – gerrit
    Mar 17 at 13:31
-1

Simply change labs so you don't have to deal with the politics of working in a lab where you have changed mentors.

-1

Be cool. It is not the end of the world. Explain your concerns. If things don't improve, escalate it.

-6

A person that disregard safety so much must, even after receiving warnings, must be fired and it is almost your duty to promote such consequence.

She may became homeless, she may lose her student visa, her magnificent career's prospects will crash, whatever, at least she will be alive (and she would not put in danger the lives of others).

[disclaimer: I say this even not knowing the other side of the story, I do not care, this is much more serious than sexual harassment, which is an issue that get people fired with one-sided stories, at least in theory]

Regarding you: you are undergrad, you now have enough experience, change immmediately PI/lab/project.

Do not worry about the ideas you had now, you already demonstrate critical thinking and, when exposed to literature and state-of-art science, I can assure you will have other sparkling ideas to follow.

Plus, an idea is not a good idea if developed by only one person. If your actual PI will "steal" your ideas, much better, 1-2 years down the road you can apply for fundings to develop the ideas with the backup of reference and citations (maybe even a reference letter) from PI's publications, providing you solid ground to further the work in the field: science is not about who is first having the idea, it's about the first that publish the idea (or the last, since science is an incremental business ;), you know, standing on the shoulder of giants and all that motivational crap that you can find in Linkedin&aphorisms from Abraham Lincoln [1]).

New research topics/ideas are 10% intuition and 90% implementation, if you had these novel ideas just by reading literature and by being exposed to that toxic (in the real meaning of the word) lab, for sure these ideas are circulating and coming to the mind of the professional of R&D (i.e. other PhDs and PostDoc working in other labs and preparing their proposals to get funded ...).

Each person is unique, but ideas are not. We often celebrate the faster person having some ideas and developing them (and we are deeply wrong in this), do not neglect that person was not the only one and his/her ideas would have nil-value if he/she was the only one working on those ideas.

[1]

not everythin' ya read in the Internet is true (Lincoln, 1884)

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    why is most of this answer rambling on about ownership of ideas?
    – Chris H
    Mar 16 at 10:23
  • @ChrisH because ideas ownership it is the only point deeply relevant to OP: not the supervising being dangerous, but the " start doing some independent research?" OP is worried that ideas will appear in grad thesis: ideas alone are worth (almost) nothing.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 16 at 10:29
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    Hm, I suppose I can see how you might read it that way. By my reading OP's worry isn't about their ideas being stolen, but about being instructed to keep working under (in terms of rank and authority, given that they say they were hired to help the PhD student) somebody they consider unproductive, incompetent and unsafe.
    – Chris H
    Mar 16 at 10:44
  • exactly: extending your line of thought, I see the OP is worried about the unproductive, incompetent and unsafe (UIU) claiming ownership on the ideas he has, if he goes public with them. This is not an issue, obviously the UIU will claim ownership on the ideas and put them in the thesis, but the OP can work on them, because 3 years down the road there is no way the UIU will have any say or influence on the OP stating "these are my ideas ...".
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 16 at 11:01
  • I must admit that I did not read the whole answer. I paid attention to the safety issue. I used to work on a safety critical system. If the system crashed, there would be a headline news on every news media around the world. Safety was on my mind when I reviewed the Low Quality Posts flag against this answer. I gave it a "Looks OK". The reason is simple, if the lab is burned or blown up, you could lose lives. This is more important than anything. And this is mentioned in the first paragraph. Therefore, it looks ok. You can say I am biased. So be it..
    – Nobody
    Mar 18 at 13:00
-7

I am sorry, but I find it very hard to believe the above.

Getting payed as a PhD candidate involves grants, and thus great effort by PIs or postdocs to get funding etc. If your candidates do not graduate, you can not get grants easily, your reputation as professor is a bit damaged, so it is not something to be taken lightly.

I find it hard to believe someone so incompetent is hired, let alone continue 3 years without anyone noticing or doing something about it, and all of a sudden an undergrad reveals this.

If that was the case, statistically some accident/ other catastrophe would have happened.

Does she have any results under her belt already or something?

PIs have great experience on this (literally decades), you can address to them for this.

Well if the situation and chaos is that bad all across this lab, you made a poor choice.

Either continue for a bit together with the shenanigans and graduate and never look back, or get the big decision and restart all over.

However, again, rethink on the whole situation a bit. It reminds me of when I see a footballer on tv and comment that I would do better.

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    While I agree that an undergrad is likely to be much less able to judge the many factors at play than a PI, points 1 and 5 listed by OP are very serious indicators that this PhD candidate is unqualified to work in a lab. They are certainly sufficient reason to refuse to work with the PhD candidate, and it would be wise for the undergrad to document these instances and bring them to the attention of whomever they report to.
    – Servaes
    Mar 15 at 16:19
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    I totally agree with you. However, we are hearing only one part of the story here. I find it better thought to discuss it with people if you have an issue with them, than posting it on stackexchange. My guess is that either the lab is left in the mercy of God, or the undergrad does not really know what they talk about.
    – Paramar
    Mar 15 at 16:23
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    @Paramar we may only be getting one side of the story, but refusing to clean the lab bench after use and then running experiments on the floor is hardly open to multiple interpretations. Frankly it's hard to read the opening of your answer as anything other than accusing OP of lying.
    – Chris H
    Mar 16 at 10:29
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    "I find it hard to believe someone so incompetent is hired, let alone continue 3 years without anyone noticing or doing something about it, and all of a sudden an undergrad reveals this." -- you don't know in which country this happened (this is very relevant because different countries have different policies regarding grants and hiring PhDs), in which institutions nor who were the people involved. Therefore your conclusions are far-fetched.
    – Blazej
    Mar 16 at 12:45
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    @Paramar If you this hard to believe, you haven't spent enough time in academia. I've been in research departments at seven different universities (Tier 1 and Tier 2) over 35 years and, while not common (for which I give thanks), it certainly happens from time to time. Certain researchers had the reputation of being careless to the point of being a danger to themselves; certain ones were just plain not going to make it. Either of these will end a career and most of them end in their 3rd year. The courses of action recommended above are both prudent and rational.
    – JulieGeek
    Mar 17 at 17:32

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