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I am a postdoc at an european university and for the most part get along very well with my PI. However, one issue that can be challenging to deal with is her complete lack of organization. Very often she schedules meetings with people, me included, and then simply does not show up. Or shows up almost an hour late saying that things got in the way. It would be fine if it were something that happened once in a blue moon, but it is more the norm rather than the exception. I understand she has a lot to do, but I like planning my activities (lab work, writing, student supervising) and when I am told we will have a meeting, I adjust my week accordingly and when this happens it is very annoying to have to keep rescheduling everything to make time for the meeting that she herself had scheduled and missed.

When we do meet, we make decisions for analysis or experiments moving forward and then in the next meeting she forgets completely all that was decided and changes her stance on these things based on her mood I guess. Often she tells us doing analysis X is of utmost importance and it should be the number 1 priority. We do that and in the next meeting she says doing analysis X is not important at all, that we wasted our time and we should have done Y.

Having said all of that, I think it might be good to address this issue. However, I think it might be a bit of a delicate subject, so any tips on how to go about this would be appreciated. Or do you guys think I should just grin and bear it and not address this at all?

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I was in a similar position with a very encouraging, very kind PI who did most of the things you mention. I still work with her and these are a few tips I've found on the way:

  1. Take a more formal approach to documenting meetings. Write down key decisions with reasons when you agree what's to be done in the next week. If your PI changes her mind the next week you can ask what changed. It maybe something or nothing but will help clarify expectations.

  2. Take control of meetings when PI no-shows. If the PI is going to be late get the stuff done which doesn't need her first. It's not a waste of time if you are being productive. Then when you have her attention be selfish and acknowledge to yourself that things are likely to overrun too. The flexibility may not come naturally to you but will help in future - academics are not known as a group for their tight organisational skills! Taking control of the meeting is good experience for you in your leadership development too.

  3. Do bring up no shows. It is rude to no-show; especially if no apology is sent. You can ask if everything is okay and offer help. If you know that you cannot attend, make sure you tell everyone.

At the end of the day, this sounds a lot like a clash of expectations. To answer your direct question of whether to grin and bear it or address it - I think two good choices would be (you could also do both!):

  • Take things on a case-by-case basis. Choose your battles carefully. If your timetable is not too packed and you can be flexible, that can really help you get the help/advice you need. If meetings are missed can you suggest catch up meetings? These mainly involves changing your behaviours/expectations.

  • Talk to your PI and reset her expectations. If you go in all guns blazing, this could end in tears, but a carefully-considered, constructive approach could really help. Maybe the PI thought the meetings were not so important. Maybe the PI thought she wasn't really leading the meetings. Maybe the PI didn't really see the problems she was causing. This will hopefully result in a better match of behaviours/expectations.

I now get along much better with my old PI but there are still times when things go wrong. These expectation settings, both individual and together, have helped a lot.

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  • Thanks for all the suggestions, I think they were all very helpful. You may be on to something concerning the expectations issue!
    – Setzer
    Jul 15, 2022 at 12:51
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I think its important to separate your two issues here.

  1. No-shows without a message or apology is rude, whoever it is that is doing it. Stuff that is more important coming up does happen, and, as long as it is occasional, is just something we all have to put it with, but you should be informed in advance (even if it is, like 5 minutes before). Again, most people forget things from time to time, and as long as it's only occasional, and there is an apology, then its something we all have to live with. If both things are regular occurrences, and there is never warning nor apology, then that is a problem.

  2. The PI forgetting about the project between meetings, and having differing opinions on different occasions is just the way it is. Most PIs mentor more projects than anyone can be expected to remember the details of, and its probably unrealistic to expect things to change so that they do remember them, irrespective of what you might say to them. There are various ways to deal with this. I know that running things via formal documentation/project management systems is one way. Another I've seen students use is to never do anything their supervisor says until they've said it on at least two consecutive occasions. The final solution, which is probably more appropriate for later-stage students is to listen carefully to the supervisor's opinion, consider it carefully, but in the end make up their own mind about what analyses are important etc.

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  • Yeah, the no-shows usually come with no apology or warning. Concerning the second issue I will probably take the third option you mentioned, I think it will be smoother that way. Thanks for the suggestions!
    – Setzer
    Jul 15, 2022 at 12:54

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