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My potential MSc supervisor is a surgeon, and he doesn't really focus on his research lab that much. I had an interview with him and his lab members and I was told by them that he doesn't really visit the lab like, ever. I have very minimal research experience, and his post doc told me that I can ask him questions if I had any, and that I needed to prepare my research proposal by myself. I have an idea about the lab's general research projects, but I feel that I am clueless as to what exactly I'm supposed to propose! I can't really reject this offer (I had a hard time securing a supervisor and it took me a year to find one), but I also don't want to be taught and helped by a post-doc who is frankly more concerned with his research than my education. I don't feel very comfortable about me starting a project and directing my future questions to my lab partners (I also hate asking my peers for questions and I much rather ask my teachers instead).

What should I do? I need this opportunity so bad, but the lab environment isnt very encouraging and my supervisor is a surgeon who relies on his post-doc students for all the work. How am I supposed to learn about research techniques and method?

  • 1
    There's usually a trade off between lab size and communication with the PI. It's not uncommon for undergraduate/MSc students to spend more time communicating with postdocs / PhD students than their supervisor. But postdocs are more than just peers / lab partners, so don't discount their experience. Helping supervise the lab is usually part of their job. – Steve Apr 11 '17 at 21:37
  • It is common to have limited time with your advisor (but hopefully more than your post suggests). As Steven said, don't discount your lab mates! They are an invaluable resource! – Austin Henley Apr 11 '17 at 22:31
  • I realize that they are an invaluable resource, its just I'm scared that I will appear as the most incompetent MSc student ever by asking too many questions. – Emma Apr 11 '17 at 22:34
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Do members of his lab have regular meetings with him, either one-on-one or as a group? Sometimes it's better to have time set aside specifically for your questions, rather than someone breathing down your neck in the lab as you try to formulate your proposal. In my experience PIs are super busy and neglectful in general. Also it's ok to ask anyone that can help you how to get where you need to go. They were probably in the same boat before you got there.

  • There are only 2 of them (3 including me). And one of them hinted that the cons of this small lab is that only the post-doc is available for our questions. – Emma Apr 11 '17 at 22:36
  • I think the common answer here would be that graduate school is a place to become an independent researcher, struggling to find your own way, begging for help along the way from anyone who will offer even a tiny bit of help. But I just suffered for two years under a neglectful advisor, so I say follow your gut and don't settle if it doesn't feel right. I think people probably give that advice to validate their own acquiescence. – rapidCascade Apr 11 '17 at 23:15
  • @rapidCascade I don't think it's fair to say graduate school is about 'struggling to find your own way'. It is an apprenticeship as an independent researcher. You should not be expected to be one by the time you start. Especially for an MSc. – Jessica B Apr 12 '17 at 21:39
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I realize that labmates are an invaluable resource, it's just I'm scared that I will appear as the most incompetent MSc student ever by asking too many questions.

Well, this is something you will get over as a grad student. The only question is, will you get over it quickly or slowly? I recommend quickly!

Guidance for asking questions:

  • Write them down ahead of time. Sleep on the draft, then edit the list.

  • Prioritize your questions and also sort them according to whom to address each one to (advisor, postdoc, fellow student at same level, department staff (e.g. paperwork or safety concerns).

  • Write down the answers as you receive them. For future lists, make sure you didn't already get an answer to a particular question previously.

  • Find ways to make yourself personable and useful around the lab.

  • Be sensitive to others' time crunches and moods -- i.e. choose when to ask.

  • Be sensitive to others' preferences for mode of communication (e.g. email vs. in person, spontaneous or by appointment).

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