Primary Investigators and Personal Interactions

I've known I've wanted to go to graduate school and do research for a very long time. It was confirmed in high school. First, in the internship I attended at an orthopedic/knee replacement research and surgery clinic. That was when I realized that my uncomfortableness with sick people, and the new-found unfortunate discovery that hospitals apparently make me faint, meant that I definitely should not be a doctor. (Because that is usually thrown out there as a good career choice for people who are interested in science. And because doctors are generally good things to have.) The second internship was a summer-long research experience in a local lab. And that was awesome! (PCRs! Gel electrophoresis! DNA sequencing! All that fun stuff!) And that was when I was introduced to the lovely informality of research and the wonderful searches to understand things and realized that THIS WAS SOMETHING I WAS GOOD AT.

So going into university/college, I was pretty sure I wanted to do research. I hadn't decided which one I wanted to do, so I tried to take math major, chemistry major, and biology major classes all concurrently as a freshman. This was when I realized that I dislike chemistry. My math major hung on a bit longer (and it would have stayed forever except for a ridiculous number of class conflicts which I couldn't navigate) but I decided that I needed the physical manipulation of materials and images and not sitting still and moving things that occurs in biology. (Also biology is just awesome!)

So I was pretty sure about going to graduate school and about doing more research. At my school, the process was pretty well explained to us, for how getting into research and going to graduate school works. It is shown below in lovely flow-chart format, because that is how it works best.

1. Email professors 2. Set up a meeting with them 3. TALK to them about their research and if they are looking for any new undergraduates  4. Start research 5. Keep interacting with people because other people in your lab have answers to common questions like where is the paraformaldehyde and so does your PI (like why does this do x) 6. Do (hopefully) awesome research and maybe even present it or get published 7. Apply to graduate school ask your PI for ideas for good schools or people to work with ask your PI for letters of recommendation 8. Get into graduate school 9. Choose a graduate school ask your PI for advice ask your friends for advice see what you think when you GO to the school and meet the professors there in interviews
So, the process was pretty thoroughly explained. I also had all my classes picked out since freshman year in a spreadsheet (some of the electives changed, as I specified my interests, decided not to do study abroad, dropped my math major, et cetera).

But there are some problems with this process. It involves communicating with strangers. Because before you join a lab, the PI is a stranger. Which is partially how I ended up in the lab I was in.

I found a work-study job on the job board on the university site doing basic prep work (washing dishes, making food, and such) and that was an e-mail based application. E-mails are good. My preferred form of communication. You can spend all the time you want prepping for them. You can read over them (and even have other people check them!) to make sure they are ok. There is no talking. But I still don't like e-mailing strangers.

I had this work-study job for a year. I did prep in the back secret room of the lab and learned the names of two people. Eventually, I decided the easiest way to get into research would be to talk to one of them (my boss) and ask about getting into research. He directed me to the PI (primary or principle investigator aka the Boss aka the professor whose lab it was). So I set up a meeting via e-mail. I read ALL the papers. I went to the meeting, absolutely terrified. I said very little. But I ended up researching in the lab.

And it seemed nice. Some of the graduate students I worked with were very nice. Especially the summers I stayed, they looked out for me and drove me places when I needed a ride or when it was 110 and humid outside and absolutely disgusting to walk back to my apartment. 

But the PI was horribly frightening. Every time I needed to talk to him, it usually ended in me crying afterwards. I avoided talking to him for about a year and a half (for about a year of which, I couldn't recognize him--there were a lot of white-haired, bearded men in our department). But then I started writing my thesis. And I needed him to read it and know what work I was doing and maybe say something helpful.

And he just really didn't care and was sort of a mean person. And it was extremely difficult to get in contact with him.

And I needed to attend a conference so there was one that he said would be good and he was going, too, and the one of the other undergraduates was also going to go to it. So I registered for it. And the other undergraduate then got kicked out of lab for going to medical school interviews. So it was just going to be me and PI going. So I went. And I still do not know to this day if he went. I didn't see him there at any point over the 4 day conference. I went and presented and ate alone every day. Because all the other people had people they knew there and seemed to be pretty set with what they were doing. 

But then, for applying to graduate school, you need a PIs letters of recommendation. And usually they talk to their friends at other labs. And usually you have an idea of what to expect at interviews. (Or so I've found from all my other friends who applied to grad school and had somewhat helpful PIs).

But I made it through and made it into graduate school.

And now I need to pick labs to rotate in and then pick a thesis lab.

And I need to pick a good PI.

Because personal interactions are not my strong point. But as a graduate student, whether or not I graduate actually WILL depend on this PI. And I need to pick one I can interact with.

And that is tricky because I am extremely bad at interacting.

Luckily, I'm interested in a million things, so I should have a lot of options.

But I have a mission. To pick a PI who welcomes interaction. Maybe even one where we have a formal system set up for progress reports (such as meet once a week or something). Because I need to interact with this PI. But I do not initiate interactions. If I have a very specific, pre-worded out request, I can initiate interactions sometimes. (I mean, I can't even call my boyfriend on the phone. Before he had texting, I would call until the first ring, hang up, and then have him call me. Because answering the phone is something I know how to do.) If I get to know them decently, I will be able to make graduate school work. And I will be able to graduate. And that will all be good. 

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