Let me tell you ’bout the snakes, the fakes, the lies, the highs

I am very uncomfortable with the first conversation I have with new or prospective students. They are usually enthusiastic and eager to make a good impression, and I am too. I want them to be excited about graduate school and about science. I want to know what their long term plans are if they have any (it is fine not to). Because whatever their plans are, that’s what I want to help them do. At the same time, I want them to help me and the lab succeed.

I don’t want to lie to them. Joining my lab comes with real risks. I have a short window of time in which to obtain substantial ongoing funding. I am “untested” as a PI (though I feel pretty fucking tested, academic life-wise). All of the issues around publishing, the culture of science, careerism, funding…I think for them it all seems very abstract and faraway, even as they are making the choice to step into the center of it. You can tell people to read the Scientopia blogs, but until they hit their first big disappointment, hate their PI for the first time, and drunk-Google “why the fuck did I go to grad school” most of them probably won’t. They are moving to a fun new city and all possibilities lie ahead. Why get bogged down with worrying about career bullshit? All of my instincts agree with this attitude, but I don’t know if it’s right.

So what can I say to someone who is obviously smart and motivated and wants to pursue an academic career? Something that is completely honest yet not demotivating? Should I really describe how I think the next 10 years of their life might go? Should I tell them they should be looking for someone who has a higher profile and more resources to start their career, and only settle for me if they have to? I don’t want them to look back on joining my lab as something they did blindly, or that they were set up to fail. And I don’t want to be self-defeating. Or, you know, shit on people’s dreams.

What I do say is this: you’ve chosen a fantastic graduate program (it’s true). And what matters now is learning to be an experimentalist and publishing good science that we believe in. Luckily, that’s what matters for both of us, so our shared goals will be motivating for both of us.

What I don’t tell them is how unfair a lot of this is going to be. How arbitrary. How my failures might affect them. That the advantages they potentially give up by trusting me and joining my lab might lead to lost opportunities. I have the instinct to protect them from bullshit, but I don’t want to “protect” them from realities that will affect their career, and that they should develop the personal and professional skills to deal with. At least they aren’t postdocs. For graduate students, I can take some solace in the idea that I can help them strategically move on from my lab when the time comes, whether it’s a postdoc or a job outside academia or whatever.


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