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From the honeymoon to the split: The evolving relationship between graduate school mentors and mentees


As a fifth year graduate student, having just defended my thesis, I recently found myself reminiscing about the early years in my graduate career. I am particularly fond of one analogy a principal investigator (PI) mentioned back in the days when I was trying to decide which lab to join. He said (and I am paraphrasing a bit):

Choosing an advisor whose lab you want to join is not unlike selecting a significant other. At first, you think the other person is totally amazing. Everything he or she says is interesting; you love spending time together. Alas, this is a honeymoon phase. Over time reality sets in - you have to work at your relationship. Personal traits start to get on your nerves; suddenly you can't seem to communicate any more. Finally, you can't remember any more why you ever liked this person in the first place.

To all the first-year students and advisors out there rocking precariously in this boat, try not to stress about this momentous decision: The "marriage" can stay healthy for the next five to six years at least. Just keep in mind some key qualities when honing in on your thesis lab and future advisor:

Understanding: This trait is essential to any healthy relationship. If your advisor says, "You have to use two independent siRNAs every time you do a knockdown experiment," it is important that you understand that he is really saying, "All experiments are useless with out the proper controls".

Mutual Respect: Can you agree to disagree with your advisor? Or, rather, can he or she agree to disagree with you?

Caring and Sharing: Show your PI those western blots hot off the developer - share all your data, in fact.

Trust and Faith: Distrust and suspicious behavior are obvious liabilities in a healthy relationship - try to avoid either. On the other hand, sneaking around the lab late at night to load more plates in the real-time machine and catch up on data analysis your advisor asked for yesterday is a good thing.

Complete Support: The strongest relationships are those in which you have the unfailing belief that you could fall back upon your partner.

Obviously it's not a perfect analogy, but, as you grad students out there know, it's pretty close.

Lisandra West is a PhD candidate in cell and molecular biology.

Photo by Rob Gallop

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