I wrote up this description of what I have to offer a lab and what work conditions I need to succeed. I'm trying to get a sense of what is reasonable to ask for given what I'm offering. Feedback welcome, whether you are in science or out.
1. Above-average skills in reading/understanding literature, designing experiments, and writing papers—all supported by multiple references.
2. Ability to quickly learn the basics of new subfields thanks to intensive and efficient reading.
3. A passion for understanding interactions within complex biological systems. I have a history working in pathogenesis in both plant and animal systems, but I have a general interest in how tightly evolutionarily intertwined organisms interact/communicate and how those interactions evolve, whether the relationship be parasitic, symbiotic, or in some nebulous in-between. Aside from relationships between organisms, I am also interested in intersections between systems within the human body generally considered separate (i.e. the immune system and the nervous system).
4. Passion for and experience in teaching and mentoring undergraduates. I find teaching to be invaluable to my own intellectual development, as it requires me to consolidate my knowledge and then prepare to answer novel questions.
5. Excitement about learning about new fields/subfields. I have some personal interests but am adept in learning new techniques and engaging with new subject material.
6. A willingness to and even excitement for working on ‘risky’/out-there projects, so long as I have some more reliable work going on as well just so I can graduate some day.
7. Experience working with basic molecular biology techniques, C. elegans, some basics of biochem/protein work and microscopy, mammalian cell culture, and mammalian animal models (primarily rodents).
8. I’m not especially scared of classes, committee meetings, or orals. I can present well and I’m good at earning grades.
B. My personal goals
1. Contributing something truly meaningful to the world while also staying sane, healthy, employed, and having a life.
2. Fighting the good fight—taking advantage of opportunities, be they personal or professional, which may increase scientific literacy/enthusiasm for research in the public and/or young students.
3. Securing a job after graduate school that will utilize my greatest assets and make me enough money to live on and potentially travel/have adventures a bit if I budget my time and money appropriately and carefully.
a. This will require opportunities to practice and showcase my writing and/or teaching abilities, as well as further developing my skills in experimental design.
4. Staying engaged in/aware of current research, regardless of where I end up professionally, simply because I find it entertaining/intellectually stimulating.
C. My abilities/limitations.
1. I work efficiently and hard, but not excessively long. I have no interest in staying in lab when I know I am not functioning at a high level unless there is a legitimate emergency going on. I don’t hang out in lab when I’m not being productive for the sole purpose of earning brownie points for being committed enough to work long hours.
2. On average, I can steadily and efficiently at bench work for roughly eight hours at a stretch (with bathroom/meal breaks) before my productivity diminishes severely and/or the quality of my work begins to suffer. This may mean more than an eight hour day on campus if I have long assays that I can leave unattended while relaxing or more likely dealing with non-work necessities such as exercise, but I avoid going significantly over 12 hours unless there is an emergency or I have the ability to work lighter days in order to recover.
3. I can manage roughly 40-50 hours of actual active productive bench work during the week, plus weekend drop-ins or half-days as necessary and a bit of reading/writing/data analysis outside of the lab as needed. I can manage more than 40-50 hours for brief stretches of time in order to meet urgent deadlines or [in the case of teaching] to serve my students during high-stress periods, but will not do so for more than two weeks at a time.
4. I do not sacrifice more than one night’s sleep in a row to bench work because I know the costs to my physical and mental health are too high.
5. I am willing to work irregular hours to account for timing of inconvenient assays, but I ask that this be considered when assessing the amount of work I am putting in. Basically, if I am doing assays that require me to spend the night on campus or stay exceptionally late, slightly attenuated hours should be acceptable for the following day.
6. I am not naturally a particularly neat or organized person—these things take significant effort for me. I will do them gladly, but planning my experiments/days and keeping my notes organized are legitimate work activities and I will not do well in a work environment where there is pressure to rush on or neglect these activities.
7. When I’m sick with anything significantly contagious or anything that significantly hinders my ability to work, I take care of my essential lab responsibilities to the best of my ability, and then I rest. I don’t work while significantly incapacitated just to win brownie points for commitment.
8. I want to actually get my PhD someday, so I won’t take on the doomed orphan project that no one else in the lab will touch unless I have a damn good reason to believe that my approach/results will be different from those of previous students. I’m not that desperate.
D: Personality/management style considerations
1. I need an advisor who is generally responsive and who cares about my project, but they don’t need to be available to me at all times. Having formal meetings weekly, biweekly, or monthly are all acceptable options so long as that fits the pace of the project reasonably well. I’m also glad to discuss results/ideas on a more frequent basis informally/by electronic communication, but in my experience formal sit-down-in-the-PI’s-office meetings without explicit purposes more than weekly mostly just serve to waste time and clutter schedules.
2. I need explicit and clear instructions requiring expectations for behavior, recordkeeping, safety, and other basic/administrative concerns in lab.
3. I need someone to train me on new techniques, or access to classes/resources/study time to teach myself new skills.
4. Nagging or guilt-tripping me is an ineffective way to manage me. If you are coming to me ten times a day to ask about results that you know take more time to obtain, you will make me anxious and less effective. If I make a small mistake and you try to hold if over my head for an extended period, I will begin to dread being in your presence and this will impact my effectiveness in the lab.
5. I don’t deal well with passive-aggression or other subtle hostile behavior from coworkers. I would be glad to fix any problems that arise with my work to the best of my ability, but I need people to tell me what they need from me or to criticize me directly.
6. I need clear feedback from my PI, early and often. Again, I don’t catch/properly interpret all hints. You are going to have to use actual words with me.
I am an intellectually talented biologist with broad interests but deep passion for biology in general. I have a great deal of breadth in lab experience but less depth. I will not be aiming for a research faculty position due to the insane demands on young PIs in this funding climate, but I will find a way to make valuable contributions in industry or education. I work realistic hours and respect my personal physical limits, but I work hard and efficiently when at work. I want to earn my PhD because I believe it puts me in the best position to obtain a variety of jobs that I find desirable, and because during my PhD I would like to publish more and gain more relevant skills before entering the job market.
I think everyone applying for a job should have such an honest and encompassing self-evaluation as part of their application. Employers should also provide them. I think the very process of writing and reading them would be helpful, and that plus exchanging them would hopefully lead to greater job satisfaction and productivity.
To me, it seems like offering passion, hard work, and flexibility is a fair trade-off for asking for work-life balance and direct/clear feedback. I wish you the best in finding a PI who feels the same.