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Delicate situation (lengthy)

  1. Jul 20, 2006 #1
    Here's my quandary:

    I'm a math/physics major at an primarily undergraduate state school (United States). Since last summer I have been working with a newly hired assistant professor Dr. X doing scanning probe microscopy. This professor did good work as a graduate student and post doc, but his skills as a PI are severly lacking. Dr. X is very disorganized, and has about 10 different projects he wants completed, but is always in his office writing grant proposals, and who knows what else. Our physics department does not have a graduate program, so Dr. X's lab is run by 4 undergraduates, including me. We barely know how to run the equipment, let alone build experiments, and Dr. X never comes over to the lab to help us. Dr. X also has very poor English and communication skills.

    I'm going into my junior year this fall, and I was accepted into the McNair scholars program, which grooms undergrads for graduate school. Part of the program is to complete a research project with the guidance of a faculty mentor. My problem is that I don't want my faculty mentor to be Dr. X, but I don't how to quit working for Dr. X without alienating some of the other professors in my small physics department, like the dept. chair, who originally recruited me to work for Dr. X the summer after my freshman year. If I make waves in the dept, then that might affect their view of me when it comes time to write recommendation letters. But I am afraid my McNair project will stink if Dr. X is my mentor.

    This situation came to a head today, when Dr. X and I got into a disagreement about my academic plan for my final 2 years. I have always wanted to study mathematical physics or cosmology. Dr. X has known all along that I was double major in math and physics. Now that I am in the McNair program, which adds about an additional course's worth of work a semester, I informed Dr. X that I can't take his biophysics course in spring of 07. I'm taking 18 credits that semester, and they are all required, and biophysics is not. Dr. X sent me a condscending email explaining that the future of physics is biophysics, that mathematical physics is a waste of time, and to quote from the email (spelling and grammar left intact):

    " You aret rying to go opposite way and you are trying to learn osolete physics
    that was developed 300 years ago."

    " I am not intersted in working with a student who likes math or physics developed 17-18 centry. I am more interested in working with a student who are more excited with current challenging biophysics."

    I've pretty much had it with Dr. X as a supervisor but I don't know how to quit working with him without alienating the entire department. I don't want to go to the dept. chair and rat Dr. X out for being a lousy professor, but I don't see any other way to get out of this siutation and save face. I know I might sound like I'm whining but believe me Dr. X has serious problems with management and leadership. I also believe that he doesn't care about what I am interested in studying, he just wants to build his biophysics program so he can get more funding. I've always been clear with Dr. X about my long term career goals, but that I would do my best while I worked with him in biophysics as an undergrad. I'm starting to get really depressed about the whole situation. Any advice?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 20, 2006 #2

    Bystander

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    Forward the e-mail to the chair.
     
  4. Jul 20, 2006 #3
    If you want to be non-confrontational, I suggest talking to the chair about how you and the topic seem incompatible. You're right not to tell the chair how lousy Dr. X is, because he will almost certainly side with Dr. X unless you have lots of corroborating evidence (Asst. prof's opinion > undergraduate's opinion). Just focus on your disinterest in Dr. X's subject. You're not supposed to have specialized yet, so don't feel bad about "quitting." Even graduate students bounce around considerably before they know what they are going to do.

    Unfortunately, you are playing on uneven ground here. I think if you just bring up the fact that the subject doesn't suit you, the dept. chair will be much more sympathetic. I don't believe such an action will alienate you in any way, except maybe with Dr. X.
     
  5. Jul 20, 2006 #4

    mathwonk

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    be diplomatic, but tell the truth about your preferences. It is not necessary to attack Dr X to make it clear that your preferences differ from his and you want to work with someone who has more sympoathy with your intellectual inclinations.

    You can even say something like, I realize Dr X highly qualified mentor in such and such area, but that is not what I see myself doing and I think this is the time to set my own course.

    I am grateful to you for helping me find this position but I have come to realize it does not not suit my own taste.


    No one will really fault you for standing up like a man (or woman if that applies) for your own independence. rather they will respect you.

    Be polite but make it clear what your wishes are. There is no need to criticize anyone here, but when asked you must say clearly what myour wishes are.

    you can do it and you will be glad you did. if by any crazy chance you are in a loony bin of completely uncompromising egomaniacs, you should get out of there anyway.
     
  6. Jul 20, 2006 #5
    I would say that, judging from Dr.X's e-mail, that he has already resigned his services. You are now going to have to talk to the HOD so that a more suitable supervisor may be appointed. You have little option.

    A copy of the e-mail would be useful to show proof of Dr.X's resignation.

    This is now a pure 'business matter' & can be approached independantly of personality issues. Stay aloof & plead the 'poor student'. :devil:

    desA
     
  7. Jul 21, 2006 #6
    I forgot to mention that I'm meeting Dr. X in person tomorrow to discuss the situation. I'm pretty sure we can come to an understanding and I can retain my employment, if I want to. I'm interested in Dr. X's work, just not as interested as I am in other things, like cosmology. I took the job because I needed money, and it sounded a lot better than grilling steaks or jockeying a cash register. My biggest problem is with his management skills and his lack of help in his lab.

    I don't think he was dismissing me from my job in his email, because he often has difficulty translating his ideas into English, since he is a non-native speaker. Obviously this is a chance to diplomatically assert myself and change tracks for my last two undergrad years. The problem is that our dept. is small (only ~10 full faculty members, including assistant profs, and not of all them doing active research) and that I might not be able to find new professor to do my McNair project with. The project includes a stipend so that the mentor does not have to pay me, but it still might be difficult to find someone.

    Another possibility is to drop physics and concentrate strictly on maths, and then "back door" my way into physics later in life, if possible.

    mathwonk, supposing that they were all egomaniacs, I don't have anywhere to go. My junior year starts in less than one month, it's a little late to think about transfering. My only option would be to drop physics and do only maths.

    What's funny is that all the upper class EE's I knew laughed at me freshman year (when I was EE) when I said I was switching to physics. Our dept. doesn't have the best rep on campus. Maybe I should have listened.
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2006
  8. Jul 21, 2006 #7

    mathwonk

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    well i just said that as a last resort. it is unlkikely everyone in your dept is insane.


    but after watching Dr Shirley on tv I am remided that no noe can make these decisions for anyone else. Yopu have to make the call, but I am testifying that from my experience you need to make your wishes clear, and secondly it is always helpful ,down the line to alienate as few people as necessary.

    Indeed I have ahd very many tense encounters with poeople and it is usually possible to come away with a future with almost anyone, if you try to see it from their point of view, but insist on making your point of view clear as well.

    good luck.
     
  9. Jul 21, 2006 #8
    That's more than three times the size of our department here. You are very fortunate indeed.
     
  10. Jul 21, 2006 #9

    jtbell

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    If your description of Dr. X's skills as a PI are accurate, the other faculty in the department are probably aware of his problems, too. It's hard to hide such things in a small department. I wouldn't be surprised if you got a sympathetic hearing from the department chair.
     
  11. Jul 21, 2006 #10
    Thanks everyone for replying so quickly. mathwonk, sorry if I seemed testy in that last post. I'm just a nervous wreck over this situation. I have worked really hard my first 2 years (3.9 gpa, research exp.) and I don't want ruin that work by burning bridges.

    I'm meeting Dr. X tomorrow, right now I am trying to decide if I should quit or not. I think I need to make the decision by the time we meet. I don't want to stay with his group and then quit 2 months later, if I'm going to do it, I should do it now. I won't be sleeping well.

    Right now I am leaning towards quitting, working as a math tutor this next semester, and then hopefully hooking up with a new prof in the phys. dept. (or maybe math? My calc III teacher rides the same bus I do, and I know his research is related to physics) to do my McNair project next summer.
     
  12. Jul 21, 2006 #11
    You may consider it prudent to have someone sit in on the meeting as a neutral witness of what transpires. A dictaphone placed squarely in full view also helps to keep matters objective.
     
  13. Jul 21, 2006 #12
    I postponed my meeting w/ Dr. X. unitl Monday, so I could think about my decision. If anyone else has advice on what to do or how to handle the meeting I would be grateful.
     
  14. Jul 21, 2006 #13

    arildno

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    If Dr. X's actually believes biophysics is the "future" of physics, get the hell away from him.
    He, most certainly, won't be the future of physics in general or biophysics in particular.
     
  15. Jul 21, 2006 #14

    matt grime

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    Whilst I agee with mathwonk, yet again, about not alientating people, I must back up arildno on this one. Anyone physicist who thinks that biophysics is going to be 'the future' compared to theoretical physics/mathematics is just plain wrong on a scale almost uncomprehendrable to many of us. Unless he is using some bizarre definition of biophys then he is very off the mark. Mathematical biology is certainly a very active area of research, though it is essentially the amalgamation of dynamical systems and probability theory, but biophys, well, come on get a grip.
     
  16. Jul 21, 2006 #15
    Biophysics is currently a "hot topic," for instance, see the feature article in May 2006 Physics Today. But Dr. X seems to think that is the be all and end all of the future of physics, and I disagree. There are plenty of interesting problems in all areas of science and maths. I think our dept. is really pushing the this biophysics stuff because we don't have any physics students (4 or 5 in my junior class) and they think they can attract bio and chem students into the physics program. Also, my school is big on "interdisciplinary research," so we have tried to collaborate with a couple of biochem profs. These collaborations have been disasters because of Dr. X's management skills, and as a result these profs don't want to work with us anymore.

    One problem I have had in working in my lab is that I have no background in biology (besides high school) and I have only take 1 general chemistry course. This makes it very difficult to understand the papers that my supervisor is interested in. Also, Dr. X never comes to the lab, so I end up stuck in the lab not knowing what to do, so I just surf the net all day, waiting for Dr X to email me back the answer to a question. This really a waste both of my time and his grant money.

    I thought that someone might say that I was being weak and to just suck it up and deal with it, but the consensus seems to be that I need to get out now. Thanks everyone for letting me vent some more, I've had all of this built up for a long time.
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2006
  17. Jul 21, 2006 #16

    arildno

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    Yes, and in my opinion, a FAD.
    Very good of you!
    You have the right perceptions of this, I'm sure.
    Don't waste years under an a**hole doing "research" that really amounts to very little.
     
  18. Jul 21, 2006 #17
    Whoaaa LOOOOL ? Theoretical physics and MATHEMATICS are going to be the future of physics - WTF ?! "Theoretical physics" is such a general area (it could be anything from condensed matter to strings) but from I see, there is more work today (and more funding) in condensed matter and applied physics, even in biophysics. I can hardly imagine "theoretical physics" and mathematics going in front of, e.g. nanotechnology, quantum computing, particle physics (LHC, future experiments such as LISA), astrophysics, etc.

    Of course, that doesn't make Dr.X right, either. I doubt that any specific area in physics will extinguish all others, since they are all advancing in parallel.
     
  19. Jul 21, 2006 #18

    matt grime

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    Quantum computing is (mostly) theoretical physics (at the moment), as is particle physics, at least in my up-bringing. And so is astrophysics, but perhaps I had an odd schooling. Almost all of the subjects you mentioned would be studied at DAMTP in Cambridge.

    (You can't say LOOOOL. LOL is an acronym. And you seemed to have missed the 'in comparison' part of my post. You also contradict yourself by implying there is more funding in things other than 'theoretical physics' such as 'condensed matter' yet you say 'condesed matter' could be theoretical physics.)
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2006
  20. Jul 21, 2006 #19
    The reason I switched from EE to phys/math is because I was intrigued by so called "fundamental physics" (notice the quotes, I'm not trying to start a holy war between reductionist and emergence camps) problems like the cosmological constant, dark matter, etc. I know that many undergrads have wide eyed aspirations to work on these types of problems and in reality job opportunities are very slim.

    I'm a "non traditional student" and didn't start college until age 25. Before that I worked as a gas station clerk or a line cook, which I was not happy doing. I love physics, and I don't see how I could not study physics for the rest of my life, no matter what I do to make a living. So it makes sense to me go to grad school. No matter where I end up after school, I know that I will be happier in my job than I was in my pre college life. I just don't dig biophysics, and if applied physics is where the jobs are, I would rather work in electrical and computer engineering than biophysics.
     
  21. Jul 21, 2006 #20

    arildno

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    Engineering is definitely a good choice!
    It seems to me that the physics department you are stuck at is no place for you to continue.
     
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