Who is screwed the most?

Oct 28 2014 Published by under Academia, life in the lab, mentoring, moving, postdoc, science

Yesterday on twitter people talked about whether to join a lab from a new PI with the risk that they do not get tenure, or whether to join an older PI who might leave or move or whatever. This is a difficult decision with many factors, but say you've chosen a lab and then all of a sudden the bomb gets dropped and the PI has to or chose to leave. Who in the lab is screwed the most?

1. The newest grad student who just decided to join the lab.

2. The grad student who is a couple years into their project but faaaaaar from finishing up.

3. The grad student who is really almost done, but just has to finish a few things and write their thesis.

4. The foreign post-doc who needs to leave the country when they don't have a job.

5. The favorite post-doc who thought they had saved their ass (i.e. secure funding) by writing a multi-PI grant with their PI.

6. Did I forget anyone?

Please discuss!

13 responses so far

  • bashir says:

    This really depends on everyone's situation. How mobile are they? Where is the PI going? If they stay who else is in the department?

    One of our PIs just left for [Fancy-Pants U]. I think her grad students are cool with it, even if inconvenienced by the move.

  • DrugMonkey says:


  • NeuroMonocle says:

    Agree with DM. 2 is screwed.

  • darchole says:

    6 - Technicians. The others have the easy to between a rock and a hard place option of finding another lab or moving with the PI. I'm from the area I currently work in, have family here, a mortgage, pets so there is no way I'm moving and in the current funding situation finding a place here that has an opening is nearly impossible. At my uni several PIs have lost funding and as a result several techs who have worked for decades have lost their jobs or "retired".

  • Amanda says:

    @darchole as a technician who did move with their PI, I had an easier time than anyone on that list above making the transition or making the decision to move.

    #2 is the most screwed, and #4 could be conditionally screwed, depending on extenuating circumstances (what country they're from, ect).

  • eeke says:

    6. The PI herself, depending on the situation. No funding = no job. Yes, everyone else is out of a job, too. But grad students, post-docs, and even techs can change labs, or be at an early enough of a career stage to change direction. The PI? Can't even get a job at a grocery store if she tried.

  • Ben Saunders says:

    It's tough to generalize, but my biased views on this as a PD in a lab that is moving 3000 miles...

    The mid-training grad students and PDs are the most affected in terms of career plans and trajectory, and comparing the two, the PDs more so, if only because they are closer to applying for jobs and disruptions/delays can do more to derail. A grad student at least typically has a support structure within the university, and could potentially move to the lab of, say, another thesis committee member. That's what a GS in my lab did at the beginning of this year, when he learned the lab was moving - he transitioned to a collaborator/thesis committee lab. Also, maybe I'm wrong on this, but on average a grad student would be cheaper than a PD, which might make it easier on average for a GS to switch labs.

    Another type of person not on the list is the career technician/staff scientist. Given that they're likely to be a bit older and potentially have a family, their mobility may be more limited. And my feeling is a stable staff scientist job would be harder to find than a PD or GS position.

  • DJMH says:

    I'd jump on the 2 bandwagon except that post-docs are a lot more likely than grad students to have marriages, kids, etc, so it's harder to move.

    So I vote for 7, the post-doc who isn't so super-favorite that she has a grant (and is therefore highly motivated to move with the PI), but the post-doc who is doing well if not rockstar, mid-project, with working spouse and two kids. Nearly impossible to move with the PI; stuck jumping labs and projects, possibly having sunk lost time into the current lab.

    Having been in more or less this situation, I'm voting that I am the worst off. Me, mee.

  • Neuro grad says:

    This happened to me (PI would have gotten tenure but decided to upgrade universities). I was working in my first data chapter for the diss and managed to finish up the project before PI left - was able to transfer to an established investigators lab across campus. My lab mates were a year above and below me. The newer student went with to the new university, and he older student changed labs to a different lab on campus.

    I guess I was number 2- it sucked a lot, but could have been worse. I think I've survived alright with pretty good productivity regardless of the switch. I originally wanted to go to the new uni, but was cohabitating and in a very serious relationship at the time (marrying my partner in 2 months!) who is also in phd program at current uni.

    I think the further along you are, the more difficult it is (except for students who are Very Close to finishing). Foreign postdoc would have a rough time of it too.

  • Neuro grad says:

    I was 2. There was another 2 a year ahead of me who I think was screwed the most. I stayed at current uni and changed labs. There was 1 who moved with the PI, I think easiest because she hadn't established a secure setting in the first uni town. She seems to be doing well in the new place.

    It really sucked and I was convinced my career was mostly ruined, but i don't feel that way anymore (the transition happened a year ish ago). I think I've managed to stay productive in terms of papers and projects despite the change.

    Just because GS are less likely to have spouses, families, doesn't mean they'll up and move. I didn't move because at the time I was cohabitating with the man who will become my husband in two months.

    I agree with DMJH - it's always the worst when it happens to you.

  • Established PI says:


  • DJMH says:

    "Just because GS are less likely to have spouses, families, doesn't mean they'll up and move. I didn't move because at the time I was cohabitating with the man who will become my husband in two months. "

    Yeah, but you have to admit this is not as big a deal as having kids. My spouse and I lived apart for several months for science reasons at one point and it was fine. You could probably have done long-distance for a year or two and the relationship would have survived. With kids, it is almost impossible.

  • Neuro grad says:

    DMJH- you are right - distance is always an option when kids aren't in the picture. With them, not so easy.

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