When PI narcissism jumps the shark

November 22, 2010

Genomic Repairman relates the not-uncommon tale of a lab head who negotiates for a new job and then springs his decision on his trainees and technicians with ~ 2 months notice.
The PI was then wondering why his staff was not jumping for joy at the opportunity to join him in his move to a new city and new University.

PI: “Why don’t they want to come with me, I mean they came here to work with me?”
GR: “Uh, you realize you sprung this move on them after keeping them in the dark.”
PI: “Yeah but I had to work out negotiating my hiring package.”
GR: “Um, that doesn’t mean squat to them. All they see if you taking care of yourself and while you are telling them you aren’t going anywhere.”
PI: “But they came to work with me, they should want to follow me.”

And that, my friend, is the point at which a PI’s narcissism truly jumps the shark.
If one of my colleagues started down this line of wounded dismay that her trainees weren’t coming with her on a move to another institution, well, “are you kidding me?” would be the polite version.
Look, it is one thing to want your people to come with you. I’ve known one hell of a lot of PIs who, when contemplating a lab movee, work pretty hard to make an attractive offer to their indispensable TurboTech, for example. And you want to do right by your graduate students and any postdocs who have just started with you. Quite naturally the move is all upside with great new resources for your laboratory in your opinion- since you accepted the offer after all.
But really, it is a pretty lofty height on Narcissism Mountain for you not to understand that your trainees and technicians don’t see from the same vantage point as yourself. They do not see it as unalloyed upside. Is it really news to you that not everyone feels free to just pack up and move to a new city!??! There are spouses and significant others and children in school to consider. Care for aging family members. Personal preferences come into play as well. Moving to the Bible Belt or the BigCitee or to East Jesus or to the South or Canuckistan does not have the same valence to every person in your lab.
Do keep in mind that all that lack of respect at your current institution that prompted you to move in the first place (insufficient salary bumps, lack of promotion to Full Professor, failure to provide the space that you “deserve”, etc) is not really a motivating factor for your laboratory members. They might be perfectly happy at Current University and wonder what in the heck your problem is! (Word to the wise, if all they can see is that you are getting a bigger salary this is not going to help your case.)
Sidebar: Hmm, at this point I’m wondering how much of a say in the decision the PI’s spouse and children (if any) had….
So, let’s recap: If any PI starts having this conversation with you and you manage not to laugh right in his face, you’ve done better than expected value.
With that said, my dear trainee readers, let us turn to the other side. Yours. It sucks, no doubt, to have a lab move sprung on you with only a few months notice until the PI departs. But this is life. Sorry. You gotta deal.
In most cases that I am aware of the announced departure date of the PI was not the same thing as the drop-dead date for the laboratory at Current University.
So if you are facing this sort of announcement from your PI, you should recognize that unless the timing has been incredibly well managed and fortuitous there can still be an interval in which a grant or two is still active. Most of the time NIH grants can be moved to New University with only minor paperwork hassle however, this takes place at the noncompeting funding anniversary. The NIH grant is allocated in yearly intervals, even during the total interval of proposed and approved funding. So it is most typical for the University to continue to run out the current funding year and then for the new year to start at New University. This means that the departing PI’s lab can continue to function in some form or other. I have seen many Universities that manage to use this to provide a long slope for the trainees to wrap things up. Perhaps another local PI has to take over responsibility for the animal use/human subject/biohazard protocols and maybe even the formal supervision of the trainees- but they manage to make it work out.
This can turn a seeming 2 month drop-deadline into a 6-9 mo proposition. This provides the trainees with a little more room to wrap up experiments and seek another job or graduate training supervisor. Maybe even to defend a dissertation.
So all is not as horrible as it sounded at first. Don’t get me wrong, this still is not a GoodThing. It is painful and distressing. But you can survive it. Many of your peers and even some of your more-senior colleagues have weathered these situations.
The mentoring side of this is simple. Whether you are a local PI, postdoc drinking buddys, jogging friends or graduate school classmates with the affected trainees, you have to apply the boot in the rear. The people in the departing PI’s group are going to be depressed, anxious and paralyzed. Your job is to help them stop feeling (justifiably) sorry for themselves and to look for the solutions for their particular situation. What can they wrap up scientifically so as to escape with a partial-loaf publication…or even a completed figure? What other PIs might be willing to take them? Which Dean should they try to tap for temporary salary support?
Science is not a CareBears Tea party and having your lab head take a job at another University is one of those times when this is made crystal clear.
Make sure you survive it.

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21 Responses to “When PI narcissism jumps the shark”

  1. Janice in Toronto Says:

    Hey! Go easy on Canukistan.
    You’d be lucky to move here, eh?

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  2. queenrandom Says:

    Yeah, I’m in the midst of that 6-9 months post-PI moving period, myself. My PhD mentor informed me in October 2009 that she was moving to New Fabulous Institue in June 2010 and offered for me to come with. Considering I would have less than a year left at that point, a home I own and a spouse with a job he can’t move, I immediately responded with a very polite version of “Oh hell no!” She understood. So, I worked my everloving ass off in the intervening 9 months and am now finishing up the dissertation and waiting to hear back from a journal re. publication so I can get out of here and start my postdoc. Has it been ideal? No. But it worked out, and it’s not so bad. I’m living proof it can be done.
    I think my PI was very generous about the advance notice she gave us, as well, and I’m extremely grateful for it. I realize it’s not the norm to get 3/4 of a year notice (I know a PI who decided to inform his trainees of a move one month after a new postdoc joined his lab). Having been in this situation, I will take pains to be as courteous to my future trainees should I be in a similar position.

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  3. This lab that I mention has a fair number of folks on visas so its going to get a little crazy trying to get them transferred over to the new institution that fast. Since our lab shares a grant with them, we will be providing that buffer that DM speaks off for some of them to work once the shoe drops. My boss has already begun to counsel some of the trainees and begun writing letters of rec for those looking elsewhere for employment.

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  4. Jen Says:

    When I was in grad school, a big-whig PI moved cross-country from univ. 1 to my school (univ. 2), primarily to care for an aging parent. Apparently, the move had been planned for over a year. While the move was being planned, the PI interviewed a post-doc candidate, who took the position, and moved his wife and kids to univ. 1 city. Less than 6 months after he started, he was told (not by the PI but by a lab member) that the lab was moving. At no time during the hiring process was he informed about the decision to move. He thought he could make it work, so he left wife and kids in univ. 1 city and moved with the lab (wife was a surgery resident, and couldn’t leave her residency). As he told me several times, it ended up being the worst possible decision, especially since the lab lost about 3 months of research time due to problems with setting up the new lab and transferring organisms. He threw in the towel, moved back to univ. 1 city, and eventually found a new postdoc. I can understand PIs needing/wanting to move, but I think it is very unfair (and indeed, narcissistic) to interview candidates, knowing the move is afoot, but not giving the candidate the courtesy of a choice.

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  5. grad student Says:

    My lab is just moving across town, to the main campus from the medical school, but it’s still going to be a giant pain in the ass. And it’s tough to see the upside for the trainees in moving to Hot Sexy Science GlamourDept, although our PI sure is giddy.

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  6. Anon Says:

    Hah. Glad you blogged about this in perspective.
    My first grad school adviser was a new hire at Big State U., and got an offer for more money at Super Religious U. cross-country. He announced in lab meeting, “You all (students) would be able to come with me of course.” When we expressed less than overwhelming joy at the notion of going from Research I East Coast U. to Little Private Not-My-Religion U., we got a four-hour sermon about Jesus making us better scientists.
    When I approached the chair about getting a new adviser, I was told that I was a rotten, terrible quitter of a grad student who hardly deserved to be there and would not get any support. It turned out that Adviser hadn’t informed the chair of his plans yet, and hotly denied any plans to move when confronted by the chair, as he hadn’t yet worked out all the details of the offer.
    Upon asking my committee what they thought I should do, the consensus was that I should find a new department with more support, and the new department turned out to be a much better fit anyway. Glad to know that my experience is not as uncommon as some other PIs led me to believe (well, not the Jesus part so much, but expecting trainees to follow them like Deadheads).

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  7. anonymous Says:

    Narcissism is not just a PI’s trait. Earlier in my career, a technician from another department approached me about filling a position I had advertised for. I asked her if her PI is aware of her looking for another position and she have assured me that he does. I hired her and she had became my right hand. I taught her everything I knew and with her excellent mind and dexterity she was treated as equal; she set in all lab meetings, participated in planning of experiments and their execution and rewarded with co-authorship on all publications that resulted from those experiments (first author on several of them). Ten years after she took her job in my lab, she drop in my office one morning and gave me a three-week notice (as required by her employment contract) that she is moving to another lab in our school. It took me the best part of a year to find a qualified replacement for her and another six month to bring the new technician to a level of proficiency that the previous one had. To add insult to injury, the resigning tech took a position with a colleague of mine who agreed to the demand of the tech not to mention to me her move to his lab ahead of her notifying me of her decision. Needless to say that I also lost a colleague. Ironically, a year after she was hired away from my lab, she moved to another city and another job.

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  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    what, anonymous? You got mad at your colleague for hiring a tech that worked for you for ten years? This isn’t indentured servitude, dude. Maybe the person wanted a change of scene or projects or something.
    …someone is a narcissist in this scenario but it ain’t your ex-technician….

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  9. Physician Scientist Says:

    Drug Monkey-
    I think anonymous is more upset at the 3 weeks notice after 10 years of work. I have been in the position where I took an inexperienced but bright person with the understanding that she would give as much notice as possible if she chose to leave (so that she could help train her replacement). I trained her for a year and put her as first author on a publication to buff a potential grad school application. She gave 2 weeks notice as stipulated in her university contract. I sympathize with anonymous, but this is life as a PI.

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  10. To add insult to injury, the resigning tech took a position with a colleague of mine who agreed to the demand of the tech not to mention to me her move to his lab ahead of her notifying me of her decision. Needless to say that I also lost a colleague.

    Sounds like you’ve got the same psychological disorder as that fucken cockebagge PI who busted his fucken post-doc down to technician under the threat of firing because the post-doc refused to work unpaid overtime.

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  11. CPP brings up a good point, is Shitlin still alive or did he just put his trolling on hold?

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  12. anonymous Says:

    Physician Scientist got the point I have tried to make. It had been the short notice the technician gave me and her conspiring with my colleague, persuading him not to discuss her move to his lab with me prior for her giving me the notice. Both of them exhibited narcissistic tendencies, willing to sacrifice 10 years of friendship and even longer period of colleagueship for what they figured would be a personal gain. The right thing to do would be to let me have as much time as possible to begin recruiting another technician (maybe even allow for overlap in the lab such that the veteran tech could teach the new one the ropes) and, of course, for the colleague, who stupidly was willing to sacrifice our friendship to get an excellent tech. Ironically, at the end, he was treated by that tech exactly the way she had treated me.

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  13. Physician Scientist Says:

    Genomic Repairman-
    I exposed Comrade Physioprof and Shitlin as the same person months ago. Since then, Shitlin has not been heard from.

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  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    sorry, anonymous, but your unprofessional, vindictive tone (presumably years later?) shows *exactly* why the tech gave you the HR mandated notice and no longer than that. How was the tech to know that if s/he gave you longer notice that you wouldn’t go into a snit and then dismiss with the legal minimum? Ditto your colleague who was “conspiring”- what this person is supposed to seek your permission or something? Heck, it would be a violation of the tech’s reasonable expectation of confidentiality for this colleague to tell you that a person working for you was seeking a new job, if you ask me.

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  15. anonymous Says:

    DrugMonkey,
    Do you know something I don’t? Your attitude regarding dismissal and confidentiality, when the tech was a real friend (so I thought) and so was the colleague, is so typical of the cut-throat attitude that exist today in science, which is the issue, supposedly, you were complaining about in this very post about a PI’s narcissism. My way of dealing with a tech or a postdoc who wish to move on has always been by encouraging him/her to pursue that wish and offer him/her all the help I can to succeed.

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  16. grumpy Says:

    Anon, I agree that 3 weeks notice is inconsiderate, but did you seriously toss 10+ years of friendship away because you would have preferred more notice?!

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  17. anonymous Says:

    grumpy,
    Of course not. I did not toss any friendship away. It was the tech who did. I didn’t hear from her until almost two years later, after she already left my colleague’s lab and move to another city. Then, out of the blue I received a Happy Holidays card from her around December 15th. Three weeks later, the phone rang on my desk. It was her sounding very sweet and friendly. She showed great interest in the well being of my family members before asking if I’ll be willing to write her a letter of recommendation as she had applied for another job in the new city. I honored her request and wrote the letter. The PI who interviewed her contacted me by phone and based on our conversation he hired her. I gave her all the accolades she deserved for her technical and research capabilities; friendship is not a requirement for an excellence in job performance. Narcissism can be an asset on the job, especially for the narcissist, no matter how annoyed DrugMonkey is by this trait in a PI or how annoyed I am by this trait in a tech.

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  18. Roman Says:

    In the industry it is common that you give only the minimum required notice and it’s treated as a favour from you to your boss if you give it earlier than that. Nobody will hold it against you if you do it at the latest legal moment, and keep silent about looking for a new job before that.

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  19. anonymous Says:

    I agree that the academia today looks more and more like the industry, where the narcissists rule.

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  20. I’m confused, for two reasons.
    First, almost all psychology studies use college students as subjects. It’s extremely rare for research psychologists to collect data from a random sample of the population. There’s just not enough grant funding. So this study isn’t at all unusual in using college students. As a psych scholar, you should know this.
    Second, pregnancy, abortion, and getting along with parents are not correlated with narcissism. And drug use, which is connected to narcissism, is up since the 1990s. What are “obvious indexes to narcissism”? Materialism, inflated expectations, and uncommitted sexuality, all of which are up.

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  21. Anonymous Says:

    anon#12: “Ironically, at the end, he was treated by that tech exactly the way she had treated me.”
    to quote DM’s last sentence of this post:
    “Science is not a CareBears Tea party ”

    Like


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