How to approach your boss about your future plans

How to approach your research mentor boss professor PI about your future plans

Q: I feel that I am doing repetitive experiments in my project. How do I approach my boss on this issue, and he is the one recommending them? I am going to my 4th year and want to plan out what goes into my thesis.

A:  There may be a very valid reason behind why your mentor is recommending these experiments.  At the same time, he may not be aware of certain results and information that you have gained while doing these experiments.  How you approach your mentor about this depends on your established relationship with him.  Does he have an open door policy or do you have to schedule meetings with him ahead of time?  Do you have regularly scheduled 1-on-1 meetings where you present your findings and share your thoughts on the experiments?  I was fortunate to have weekly hour-long meetings with my mentor, in addition to having a relationship where I can just walk into her office pretty much anytime she was there and discuss things as it came to mind.  Regardless of how approachable your mentor is, a meeting to plan out your thesis is actually the perfect opportunity to get the two of you on the same page.

By actively approaching your mentor about your thesis, you are showing initiative:  you are showing that you are really excited about the work being done in the lab and care about your work, and are not just going through the motions doing what you are told to do.  Also, even if he’s super busy, as your mentor he is the head of your thesis committee, and a serious discussion to plan out your thesis should be important enough to merit a large block of time dedicated to you.

During the meeting, you should be clear about what your goals are.  By that I mean you are not going in there to have him tell you what you should do.  Instead, you should spend the meeting:

discussing implications of your project to the field of science, get him vested and excited about your thesis project (at the same time get yourself excited too!)  After all, you will be contributing a piece of knowledge to science, no matter how (in)significant your results, it is a knowledge that likely no one has known before you did the experiments to show it.  Having a clear understanding of why you are doing these experiments could clarify whether you are doing repetitive experiments or not.  What is it that you really want to find out, what are the questions you should be asking, and what data do you need to get the answers you seek.  Once both of you are clear on the goals of the experiments, then it will be much easier to discuss the merits of your experiments
sharing information:  By sharing your findings, or even lack there of, your mentor will have a better idea of how your experiment is going, and how that data can tie into other projects in the lab.  More importantly, you mentor may share insights as to what these results mean, and the two of you can brainstorm possible hypothesis that the data could confirm.  It may be a good idea to find out the reason behind why he suggested these experiments.  Is it exploratory, is it just to cover your bases, or perhaps there were other experiments related to yours that you are not aware of.  No body wants to waste their grant money, reagents and time, so preventing actual repetitive experiments that don’t contribute anything would be a good thing for you, your mentor, and the whole lab.
Having clear hypothesis you want to prove, and knowing which experiments needs to be done to verify them, next is to create a conservative timeline (as I mentioned in the webinar).  This will remind your mentor that you are serious about graduating.  Having a clear plan of action will also make you feel a lot better in this confusing time and give you the confidence to forge ahead.  Now I said conservative timeline because as we all know, thing that can go wrong will go wrong.  Leave your self some time for possible setbacks.  Also don’t forget to allot time for data analysis and writing.  Since you are going to your 4th year, you should have already had a thesis committee meeting.  Your thesis committee is going to want to see a timeline to know that you are on track.

Take some time to think about your experiments.  Be clear about what your experiments are about.  When talking to your mentor, be polite, respectful, thoughtful, don’t be confrontational, and show that you genuinely care and are excited about your project.  Once you clarify your future plans, you’ll be much more motivated to achieve your goals!

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