I was recently asked to train a new undergrad research assistant in the lab I work in. I was then told this new lab member is my assistant. He has no experience working in the lab before this, but I had been there for about a year before he came in. We have been working together for a few months now, but I am stuck.

I did have the chance to talk with him more, and he told me that he is only doing research to get a paper published. After all, if you complete research and do not get published, what is the point? I was a little bit taken back when I heard this, though not surprised. Of course almost every researcher dreams of being published, but me personally, I truly want to learn. I am not boasting and trying to make myself look better, but I personally believe my experience as a researcher will serve me well in my future career. If I do get published, all the better! I do strive to have enough data for publication, but I put my learning first.

After hearing this, my opinion of John changed, though I try very hard not to make it personal. I try very hard to focus on the research, and put all of my energy towards making my project successful. He always mentions to me how his schedule is very full, that he is always busy, but at the same time, I also struggle in giving him work to do. I do not want for him to take credit for something I did (in the long run), but I am afraid that because I may appear weak to him, this will most likely happen.

We had a meeting with our PI a few weeks back, and though John had mentioned to me he would be available for work that morning... once our meeting concluded, and several alarms later (that the professor subtly hinted his annoyance with the constant going off of his alarms), he mentioned to me that he has to get going. He gave me one idea that we could do to improve our project, but then as he walked away, said that his schedule is starting to become busy. I am busy too, I am overwhelmed sometimes, but I simply cannot stand the complaining anymore. I would like to tell him in a nice way, that if we are to work on this project together, he must put in the same amount of work that I do. However, the professor has mentioned he is to be my assistant, so I am not sure if he does have to put in as much work as I do?

I am really stuck on how to stand my ground and not appear weak, but at the same time, I do not want to be mean/a jerk. I am also wondering whether I am just putting John in a negative light because I see him as competition? Any thoughts?

  • 14
    I think there is a good question here, but there is way too much text. Can you edit out the information about your personal research goals and remove some of the identifying information? Even with that, I don't think we can give you any insight into your personal psych and why you don't like your new lab mate.
    – Ric
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 16:15
  • Meet with the person and lay out ground rules and expectations.
    – MikeP
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 19:01
  • Seems very related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/75096/…
    – user812786
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 20:59
  • 1
    "Of course almost every researcher dreams of being published" I don't understand this statement. Being published is a fundamental part of being a researcher but you talk about it it as if it's some lofty goal that's unachievable for all but the very best. "Almost every researcher dreams of winning the Nobel prize" makes sense; "Almost every researcher dreams of being published" is like saying "Almost every doctor dreams of prescribing medicine." Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 22:28
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby: Publications for undergraduates are not so ubiquitous, are they?
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 5:13

3 Answers 3


Disclaimer lable: 100% organic locally grown opinion

I think there are a few aspects you need to reflect on.

First, it's fine for different people to create a joint effort with different motives. As long as the motives move the main goal forward. In addition, just because he wanted to publish a paper does not imply that he does not value learning. If his saying made you assume that he is just on for a free ride, I think that can be too premature a conclusion.

Second, learn how to manage people. Don't expect them just to fit in perfectly with your schedule and work style. Set up ground rules, lay out tasks, and negotiate on the ways of reporting. A very good feature about this case is you know his Achilles' tendon (or hanging carrot if you're a glass half-full kind of person): Name on the publication. Lay out all the works or tasks or learning for him and demand him to complete them on an agreed time or his name will not be listed as an author, but in the acknowledgement. Be civil about it and listen to what he says.

Third, sort out your own conflict. First:

How do I tell him to help out more without being rude?

And then:

but at the same time, I also struggle in giving him work to do. I do not want for him to take credit for something I did

Actually do you need an assistant or not? If yes, then make sure the terms are clear and he followed through. If he did, and ended up in the paper, he will eventually take some credits of yours AND you will also take some credits of his. This is what collaboration entails, at the end we have a general idea who did what, but it's inevitable to have some shared credit. If you're completely possessive about your work, and you think that he is taking advantage of you, then you should consider if you need an assistant or if you should decline this responsibility assigned by your supervisor.

Lastly, strengthen yourself up. Listen to this:

I am afraid that because I may appear weak to him, this will most likely happen.

What about you that is weak? Why do you just label yourself weak from the get go? Personality? Physique? French? The only thing you need to be stronger than him in this case is your knowledge in this project. All others are side matters and you should not place yourself in the victim seat. An effective manager does not have to have strong personality, he/she just need to be fair, just, and remain clear and open in communication.

Lastly lastly, you should also talk to your supervisor for advice and tips. Work on it to create a happier collaboration experience.

  • Very nice answer. Mine would have been shorter if I had seen it before.
    – Mitra
    Commented Sep 15, 2016 at 18:22
  • "French" as in Napolean? As in, has a nuclear stockpile? As in, Algerian War massacres? Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 15:04

I was about to comment but then it got too long and even as a post it is quite long.

Speak with your PI

However, the professor has mentioned he is to be my assistant, so I am not sure if he does have to put in as much work as I do?

I suppose this is the first time you have an assistant and in that case, it seems fair to ask your PI what is the scope of tasks and the amount of time you are entitled to ask your 'assistant'.

I know that the amount of work/time really depends on your country/university/field/department and lab.

Your PI should be able to give you at least general guidelines and what it is the minimum expected from an undergrad assistant in his lab.

Then stick to it at first and see how things go.


  • Were you given an assistant for the sole purpose that you were too busy? OR
  • This new research undergrad had to be trained and since you have taken care of it, you can now 'be paid back' by his work to compensate the time you had put in his training?

If you don't know you should also figure this out with your PI.

I do not want for him to take credit for something I did (in the long run), but I am afraid that because I may appear weak to him, this will most likely happen. I am also wondering whether I am just putting [him] in a negative light because I see him as competition?

This should not happen as long as you keep your PI 'in the loop' about what everyone has done.

Keep a log of everything he has done and the things you have done. In a matter of fact and professional way.

This is also good to find out what is the contribution of each author/co-author in the final paper.

It is a good practice to keep your PI up-to-date by e-mails (particularly if you have a busy PI) of the progression of the work. (CC everyone involved in those emails). Even if your PI doesn't really read these emails. The purpose, here, is to keep track in a more formal way.

Speak with your "assistant"

He is busy, you are busy, everyone is busy.

There are several points to consider here:

  • Is your assistant still studying?
  • Is he 'doing research' in your lab as a full-time job? As a side?
  • As a requirement of his curriculum?
  • As to gain more experience for later so basically for free and his own volition?
  • Is he earning some financial compensation or reputational one due to this position?

And same questions about yourself?

The way to handle this situation is going to depend on his and your situation.

In any case, you can ask in advance how many hours per week he can give you and when: even if he is very busy, he should be able to give that much information before hand. Make him then understand that not being able to keep his words on what he promised is very unprofessional.

However, do give him a bit of time to figure this out, he looks pretty disorganised to me, so he might need a couple of weeks before he can give you a proper figure.

I also struggle in giving him work to do

That would help you to figure out what to give him. Particularly as you seem to do wet-lab work for me (chemistry I would guess if there are many alarms going off). It is hard to plan on the spot.

I would like to tell him in a nice way, that if we are to work on this project together, he must put in the same amount of work that I do.[...] but I simply cannot stand the complaining anymore.

Depending on the amount of time he can give you, you should be able to tell him something like:

OK, based on your schedule, you can only work 10h on this project per week, while I put 35h and X is putting y h., which means that would be only 2% of the total work per week and then I was working on this project from XX months and X,Y,Z from MM months. You do realise that won't be enough for a proper contribution to the paper

The guy might be truly very busy and just didn't realise what he was committing himself to. You don't expect the same thing from an intern and an assistant. You don't expect the same amount of work from the technician and the PhD student either. They also won't have the same priority on the final authors list.

Try to keep in mind that he is unexperimented and maybe he doesn't realise what is the normal amount of work he should be doing. And maybe he is not fitted for it. What you think about his opinion about research is irrelevant to the problem; how much time he can spare is.

You should also assess why he tends to trigger the alarms so often. If it is because he doesn't apply the best practices, ask him to do so. Teach him again if necessary.

Safety matters are not a joke. These can also block you to land future positions.

(In a former lab I was working in, one of the post-doc was a real danger and wasn't carrying about anyone health and safety but himself; he created different bad accidents - at the end, he had to go to teach in one this 'after school' complementary school for high-schooler as nobody was allowing them in their lab anymore).

Alarms might be seen as a nuisance to some people, but in the long term (life long-term) there aren't.

Speak with other people of the lab/department

If you can't have a clear idea about what to do from your PI, look/discuss with the other people from the lab about general politics of the lab. No need to complain about your assistant to other as it might be perceived as unprofessional.

Just figure out what is an assistant suppose to do, and how you are supposed to manage them, if there was any other undergrad assistant, etc.

About the publishing part:

If you do science, it is sad to be the only one to know about something, so please consider publishing in any case. ;)

And when you are publishing a paper, everyone is not required (and most of the time they are not) to put the same amount of effort and time. However, the contribution of everyone should be clearly stated in the final paper.

As long as you communicate clearly with your PI, you will be fine.

  • 2
    The context in which the question used "alarms" suggests to me the sense of an alarm clock, most likely an audible reminder from a cell phone of a meeting/task/etc. Maybe the notification of incoming email or text message.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 5:17
  • @BenVoigt I didn't think about that. While I am working fully in silico now, I was working at the bench before and nobody was bringing their phone in the lab (too dangerous for the phone and the experiments). And as everyone was writing in the office, nobody would have even dared to have their phone even pinged. I remember several undergrads being frowned upon as their phone vibrations were strong! The apps that change the led colours based on the notifications are very handy in such environment.
    – Mitra
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 9:56

You need to tease him in a slightly edgy way, e.g.:

(Monday morning) Hi, Manny, how's it going?

(Answering your own question, pretending to be or speak for him, so you'll have to change your voice slightly) Spent the whole weekend working! (Now speaking for yourself) No rest for the weary! Come, let's get started so we can get out of here in good time. Do you remember ... [and now quiz him on some safety procedures you taught him last week.] Do not humiliate him under any circumstances. Just tease him in a friendly, cheerful way.

We want him to get the idea that complaining, and not doing his job, is ludicrous.

Edit: If you're a grad student, and he is an undergrad, then you can expect his number of hours in the lab to be much less than yours. However, you needn't have to put up with constant bragging, complaining, whining, etc. Deflate his airs of self-importance by poking fun. Gently.

  • "tease him"? People do that, but it's not really professional. What's next, speak to him in baby voice? The only good thing in this answer is the suggestion not to humiliate him.
    – user21264
    Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 9:39
  • OP is in a difficult position, as a quasi-peer of the new undergrad assistant. Anything remotely stalinesque is not going to come off well. Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 13:31

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