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Warning Signs: If it Looks Too Good to be True...

Hello, everyone. I'm sure we have all heard about the saying before, "if it looks too good to be true, it probably is." Although this phrase has been beaten to death by now, it still rings loud and true to this day. We mentioned in our previous posts about how a psychopath usually will have grandiose, overly ambitious goals and objectives. You may even hear your principal investigator (PI) or committee members say that the project is "cool" or "exciting". They may even promise that you're going to be published in major journals, and present at major conferences. All you have to do is be patient. While this may be true, this should raise several red flags within you, if you're thinking clearly.

Let's try to analyze these red flags, and start off again by dispelling some misunderstandings. You may be scoffing at this post right now and going, "Pfft. Yeah, right. You're only saying this because of sour grapes. You're trying to scare me away from a great opportunity."

Don't do it! You're better than that!

Again, while this may be true, I would submit that negative experiences also give someone wisdom. Another thing you should consider is that your PI is a human like you, and not a god, like they would want you to believe. Your PI is trying to pass a project onto you, and get you to accept ownership and responsibility for it, no matter what the outcome is. You might hear your PI correct you when you ask them, "well, what is it that you want?" They will interject and replace the second-person pronoun with a plural first-person pronoun such as we or us. While this might come off as endearing at first (almost like they respect your opinion, or look up to you as an equal), really all this is trying to do is condition you into accepting responsibility for anything that happens during the course of the project. Do not fall for it! A psychopath, is good at acting. They can easily come off as sweet and charming the psychopath feels this is necessary to further their goals.

As I've mentioned in some of my earlier posts, one of your biggest responsibilities when starting a PhD program is to find a good mentor for you. This will require you to step out of your comfort zone a little bit (a common pitfall is to rely on other people for advice instead of trusting your own gut instinct). At the end of the day, if you are being honest with yourself, you will know what you need in a mentor. Do you need someone that will give you positive feedback or reinforcement? Do you need someone that will occasionally hold your hand, and give your written reminders, two-way discussion on your project and genuine advice? Or do you like autonomy, with minimal feedback and interruptions?

Everyone is different, and there are mentors that work much better for some people than others. You might have people advise you to work for someone that does not mesh with your personality at all, and you might fall for the false sense of security that someone else's advice brings you. Trust me, go with your gut on this one. If this mentor that everyone is recommending to you seems to be clashing with your style, you may be doing yourself a disservice by blindly accepting everyone else's advice. Throughout your program, you typically have up to 3 different lab rotations throughout your first year. Make use of all of these rotations if you have to, to find the mentor that works for you. If, at the end of all of these rotations, you still don't have a clear idea of who a good mentor is, this is another red flag! Something about your style and personality is unique, and trying to force your way into acceptance will not pay off in the end. Do not be discouraged either. Raise your concerns with the program early, before you commit to anything. Ask for an additional lab rotation if you have to. There has to be somebody that will work for you somewhere. The scientific/academic community is full of diverse individuals. Do not accept the notion that you are too unique/different to fit in with everyone. You might be an "odd ball", but you may also find that strange, quirky faculty member that somehow synergizes with your unique personality, even if nobody recommends them. Make sure you use common sense, though! Some faculty members may be weird and bad for you. The reason why no one recommended them might simply be because they're the "norm", and you're "unique" just like that faculty member is "unique". I cannot emphasize this enough --- go with your gut!

Do not be swayed by overly ambitious projects with promises that are hard to keep. If this appeals to you, look through the publication/track record of this PI. Do they deliver? Do they have a history of publishing in high tier journals. If so, is this consistent, or isolated to one specifically stellar individual that used to work in the lab.

Do not always take advice at face value, especially if you have a hunch that something seems "off" about the mentor you're considering. You can't force yourself to fit in with your mentor's style or culture. It may be uncomfortable, but you have to ask yourself what is best for you. Other people might be scratching their head and wondering why you chose who you ended up choosing. At the end of the day, if that person works for you, they just work. Everyone is unique, and while you may have a lot of people with your best interests at heart, you and you alone can know for sure what that is.

Also, as I have mentioned in previous posts, it is important to be flexible. You have to go with your gut sometimes, even if that means pursuing a research topic that you weren't originally interested in. It's better to choose a "boring" topic with a strong, supportive mentor, than a dynamic, overly ambitious project with a mentor or lab that is eager to throw you under the bus whenever it's convenient for them.

I know this post may be a little difficult to follow, so I will summarize it as follows:

  1. Go with your gut.

  2. Take advantage of the lab rotations you have in your first year.

  3. If you're struggling with finding a good mentor during your lab rotations, ask for additional help, whether that's through the program or from other people. Get that extra lab rotation. Ask that question.

  4. Absolutely ask for other people's advice, but don't blindly rely on it.

  5. Review the mentor's track record.

  6. If 2-6 sound too good to be true, and your spidey senses are tingling, telling you that something is off, don't shrug it off! Do some deeper digging if you have to!

  7. Be flexible! Sometimes what you write in your statement of purpose may not be what you end up researching. If you find a mentor that is a good fit for you, don't question it. Choose that over your research interests. This will better serve you in the long run.

In closing, if this post sounds like "sour grapes" to you, it is only because I'm trying to warn you of the folly of making an uninformed decision. If you're in a graduate program, you've been taken on because people look up to you as a sort of problem solver. If you cannot solve your own problems, you are kind of letting everyone else down, yourself included. We do not always have the freedom to choose our mentors, but when we have options, it is important to consider all of them instead of being naïve, and simply accepting the first option that comes to everyone else's mind. At the end of the day, you do you. No one knows what "you" is, except you. Don't make yourself anymore miserable than you have to be.

Now that I've beaten the dead horse on this topic, I hope that helps at least someone out there that is unsure of what to do with their current situation. As always, my door is open if you have any additional questions about this subject. It might even help me think of some revisions I can make to this post so that it may help even more people in the future. Thank you very much, and good luck with your situation. You'll find something that works for you. You just need to believe in yourself and your own best judgment!

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