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I am a undergraduate student working with an awesome lab director from whom I've learnt a LOT. He is a very knowledgeable and energetic person, and is generally available for help. The lab atmosphere is full of helpful grad and PhD students.

Even though I have been working for over three years with him, he is unwilling to give me the key. Says that I should contact the other senior lab members, and ask for them to open the door.

An issue that came up today that made me vent off some steam on the Academia StackExchange. Instead of going home, I stayed after my morning class so that I could go to the lab and get some research done. However, no one was in the lab. I called my lab mates, but they either had work, had their key taken from them, wasn't answering, had gone on a trip... You get the idea. I ended up investigating the lab equipment of an adjacent lab.

This isn't the first time either. One time I had arranged with two people to come the next day: neither came nor informed me. This is especially inconvenient when the lab is on a remote section of the campus.

I have explained the situation to him, more than one. Once, he said that he would give me the key, but only if I came to the lab more often. I explained that as a human I do get tired and need rest: as much as I love research, I don't want burnout either. I'll add that several times I wanted to go to university, but since no one answered the phone, I headed off to another university to study. In the evening, I was able to contact him, but he called me lazy and only doing stuff that wanted.

How can I approach my professor about this? And more importantly, what is it that I am doing wrong? I don't need the key per se, but I do want to perform research. And for that, the lab needs to be open. While the lab mates are helpful, I do understand that they have a life. I cannot force them to come at 7 in the morning only to open the door for me, can I?

I'll add that my work has led to two conference proceedings and both me and my professor are optimistic that it will lead to a high-impact article. This wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for my professor's help and guidance.

closed as off-topic by Ric, Brian Borchers, RoboKaren, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, henning -- reinstate Monica Oct 16 '16 at 11:01

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  • 2
    When he said "come to the lab more often" did he mean more often than you have been trying to get to the lab, or more often than you have been succeeding? – Patricia Shanahan Oct 15 '16 at 20:38
  • Alas! It all boils down to a high impact article XD – Polisetty Oct 15 '16 at 21:02
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    Clearly your supervisor doesn't want you getting hurt or intoxicated or braking stuff in the lab when unsupervised. Maybe that's even something he's obligated to do. Maybe he only has a limited number of keys and chose to give them to his more senior researchers. Anyway, you asked and he said no. What kind of advice do you expect to get here other than to deal with it? – Cape Code Oct 15 '16 at 21:13
  • Probably depends on what sort of lab this is ... – Azor Ahai Oct 15 '16 at 21:18
  • @CapeCode he has left me on my own to perform experiments, then returned after office hours. He had asked a student to clone the key: in fact it was myself who gave it to him. – salehgeek Oct 16 '16 at 4:00
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Couldn't your problems be solved -- or at least, manifestly made your lab director's responsibility -- just with some planning in advance?

You wrote:

An issue that came up today that made me vent off some steam on the Academia StackExchange. Instead of going home, I stayed after my morning class so that I could go to the lab and get some research done. However, no one was in the lab. I called my lab mates, but they either had work, had their key taken from them, wasn't answering, had gone on a trip... You get the idea. I ended up investigating the lab equipment of an adjacent lab.

(By the way, you had a morning class and then couldn't get into the lab on a Saturday? That makes me wonder where in the world this question takes place.)

You make it sound like your decision to "get some research done" was made more or less on the spur of the moment.

This isn't the first time either. One time I had arranged with two people to come the next day: neither came nor informed me. This is especially inconvenient when the lab is on a remote section of the campus.

This time you planned it one day in advance.

Once, he said that he would give me the key, but only if I came to the lab more often. I explained that as a human I do get tired and need rest: as much as I love research, I don't want burnout either.

All of these things add up to the following conclusion: you and your advisor don't have a clear understanding of when and how often you'll be working. So you drop by sometimes, find out that no one's there, and maybe that's your fault because somehow you've implicitly agreed to show up as much as you can but at random times. That's not professional behavior!

I see a rather easy fix: first, agree with your advisor how much time per week you'll be spending in his lab. If you hear a "As much as possible if you don't want me to think you're lazy" response, you'll have to move the conversation past that. You can promise in advance to devote XX hours per week -- i.e., you have to figure out in advance how many hours -- to the lab. (If you and your advisor can't agree on how much time you'll be spending the lab: sorry, but you don't have a wonderful working relationship, you have an entirely dysfunctional one. But since you have mostly positive feelings about your advisor, I am optimistic that he will listen to reason here.) Then you need to make a schedule with your advisor about exactly when you'll be in the lab. If he doesn't want to give you a key -- okay, but then it's his problem when you get locked out of the lab, not yours. Every time that happens, you don't call up every other member of the lab, you leave, and then the next day you approach him and say that unfortunately you couldn't get into the lab at the time you had agreed upon, so is there some aspect of the agreement he'd like to adjust?

Bottom line: if you model the behavior of a professional rather than someone who drops by when he's interested, you'll implicitly challenge your advisor to be professional to you in return. It seems unlikely that someone who cannot rise to the standards of professionalism set by a conscientious undergraduate could be a successful lab director, so I am rather optimistic that this strategy will work for you.

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    tl, dr: create a schedule. – clueless Oct 15 '16 at 22:51
  • italic if you model the behavior of a professional rather than someone who drops by when he's interested, you'll implicitly challenge your advisor to be professional to you in return. italic – salehgeek Oct 16 '16 at 5:21
  • As an undergraduate, I have classes and office hours to attend. In addition, I have work. While my schedual is thus dependant on external factors, I now understand that it would be a good idea (and should be able) to set a minimum number of hours for my attendence in the lab, with my adviser. – salehgeek Oct 16 '16 at 5:33
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    That you have other commitments is an argument in favor of scheduling your time in the lab in advance, not against it. The students and your lab director are also busy with other commitments similar to yours. Busy people often find that they need to schedule things in advance in order to be sure to have a common meeting time..... – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '16 at 6:17
  • This is why classes, office hours, jobs and so forth usually meet at a fixed time from week to week -- otherwise chaos would ensue. Don't your classes office hours and work take place at a fixed time?? If not, how do you avoid conflicts there? – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '16 at 6:20
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Let's face it, you are the low man on the totem pole. If you want to work in this group, you will have to adjust to the others' schedules.

Is there a phone in the lab? If so, call before heading over.

See if you can find out what the pattern is for the other students' lab hours, and pick some that work for you. Try to get in a rhythm of the same hours every week.

Ask the others to send you a text message or an email to let you know when they've arrived. If you're free then, grab your chance.

It seems that the professor would gain confidence in you by seeing you in the lab more often. It might help, then, to hang out in the lab more -- not just for your project. You might also be able to do some homework, have your lunch, get to know your labmates better, do a little clean-up.

Yes, it's frustrating for you -- but realistically, accentuating the conflict, or even simmering about it, won't speed you up in getting a key -- it will only slow you down.

  • In addition to the phone in the lab, I have the number of everyone with a key. There is a schedual for attendance, but it is often disrespected. In addition, it takes at least 30 minutes to get there and back: the laboratory complex is on a remote part of campus. – salehgeek Oct 16 '16 at 4:32
  • Add the fact that protocols are time consuming and need to be performed sequentially, then waiting for someone to escape the morning commute means that my day is screwed. – salehgeek Oct 16 '16 at 4:44
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    @salehgeek: If the schedule for the lab is habitually not met and that's causing you to get locked out, you should bring that up very explicitly with the lab director and keep a careful log of when that happens. If you really can't get a key and the director thinks that not getting in just means you should come back later, and you are too busy for that not to be a serious burden: well, the lab is being run poorly in a way that is to your detriment. You'll have to decide whether it's worth the headache. I recommend looking for a better academic opportunity and switching if you find one. – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '16 at 6:30
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It seems like you have tried everything.

Unfortunately, this doesn't seem optimal but you don't have any power over this. Just work with what you have.

One side note: This seems like a potentially unhealthy relationship based on he called me lazy. Like I said, just try to work with what you have and avoid getting into confrontations!

  • I am offended when he calls me "lazy", but I understand that it isn't personal. – salehgeek Oct 16 '16 at 4:47
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Your adviser is doing the right thing.

No one, especially not undergraduate students, should work alone at night in a lab.

It is very unsafe to work alone in a lab. I know that this is very common, because students are young and inexperienced and haven't been around long enough to see what can happen. Just like young guys on motorcycles. Also universities have a can-do atmosphere, where safety is generally seen more as a burden than a requirement.

Of course, advisers often don't mind their students risking their live, because if you do care for the safety of your students, you will not make it in the cutthroat competition we call academia.

Take for example Eric M. Carreira, who pressured his students to work evenings and weekends. http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2010/06/22/something-deeply-wrong-with-chemistry/

I am an industrial chemist, and I can assure you, that anyone writing such a letter in the private sector would get fired immediately. In our company, it is formally prohibited to work alone. There have been cases when companies where fined huge amounts by OSHA for such letters, people have actually gone to jail for accidents that happened on their watch. Unfortunately ETH doesn't care about safety and hired this guy.

Here are two recent cases to remind people why it is not a good idea to work alone

In the early hours of 13 April, undergraduate students working at Yale University's Sterling Chemistry Laboratory made a shocking discovery. There in the lab's machine shop was the dead body of 22-year-old undergraduate student Michele Dufault, her hair tangled in a lathe. She had apparently died of asphyxiation

www.nature.com/news/2011/110418/full/472270a.html

I'll bet you a dollar, that when anything happens, the adviser, the same who would have claimed authorship of the work, will call you an independent researcher just happening to work in his lab. Patrick Harran of UCLA even claimed that his student who died in his lab, was not his employee, but employed by the university, so it wasn't his job to keep her safe.

Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, a 23-year-old University of California at Los Angeles staff research assistant, died three years ago after suffering massive second- and third-degree burns when a chemical she was handling caught fire.

www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/01/03/ucla-faces-criminal-charges-lab-accident

So even though it might be common to work alone, it is unprofessional and dangerous. Don't be the one who gets burned to death or strangled in a lathe, and don't be the eager beaver who thinks it is ok to take risks in the name of science, and don't push others.

You should thank your adviser that he is keeping you safe. It is great to see that some people actually do care. Please tell him thank you.

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    if you do care for the safety of your students, you will not make it in the cutthroat competition we call academia. I personally know many counter examples. I think that this sentence is wildly exaggerated. – Cape Code Oct 16 '16 at 5:07
  • Even though I have been working for over three years with him seems to be not long to you? He has even be left alone (see the comments), so that is clearly not the problem here. Also, you are right about a certain amount of safety issue, but that's a thing you have everywhere. Even a cook can burn things down if left alone... But to a certain amount, there is trust and expected responsibility. Those two things are especially high in academia (as also seen in his question) and are opposite to your answer... – Mayou36 Oct 16 '16 at 7:43
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    Understand that the word "Lab" does not always mean a place where chemical or mechanical experiments are done. For example my lab is a computer lab. Other people work in a electronics lab, where they only work with <5v signals investigating new logic controllers. Further the word lab does not refer exclusively to the part of the area where experiments are done. For example my friend who works in chemistry will say "I am going in to the Lab, to write up my results." He isn't going anywhere near chemicals, but to where his PC is -- in a totally separate room (but attached with 2 locking doors) – Lyndon White Oct 16 '16 at 8:08
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    You know, there's no real difference (in terms of experience) between a 1st-year graduate student and a 4th-year undergrad student that would justify trusting the former with lab equipment and not the latter... – Mehrdad Oct 16 '16 at 8:21
  • @Mehrdad: Sure. In fact, between an undergraduate who has been working in the lab for three years and a first or second year graduate student, only after very careful vetting of backgrounds would it make sense to trust the graduate student as much as the undergrad. Students do not magically become more responsible upon being conferred a bachelor's degree! – Pete L. Clark Oct 16 '16 at 18:31

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