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Ethical Dilemmas, Micromanagers and Evil Email | BenchFly
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Ethical Dilemmas, Micromanagers and that Evil Email

Dear Dora: Ethical Dilemmas, Micromanagers, and that Evil EmailAnother juicy issue!  Thanks for all of the great questions!  We’re addressing three questions each month, so If you don’t see your question this time, keep an eye out for our future issues where it will likely show up!  Send your questions to DearDora@benchfly.com.

Dora Farkas is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site.


Dear Dora,

I suspect a postdoc in my lab is operating slightly south of the acceptable ethical standard.  I don’t work on the project, so I’m not following every detail, but he’s incredibly sloppy yet his data always look pristine.  He’s also brought up experiments in group meeting that nobody in lab has actually seen him perform.  I definitely don’t want to be a “tattle tale”, nor do I want to do a whole investigation to see if our hunch is right.  Do I have some sort of obligation to report this if it’s just suspicious behavior?

Alison, Grad Student

Dear Alison,

This is a very challenging situation, and I can see your dilemma. On the one hand, you feel an obligation to bring suspicious behavior to your PI’s attention, but you also do not want to tell on your colleague behind his back. However, there are also practical considerations.  A person who manufactures data is violating the scientific ethical code. If he is caught by the scientific community, he could ruin the reputation of your entire group, and jeopardize your PI’s chances of receiving funding. This could have a direct impact on your scientific career as well.

Since you are not a scientific ethics officer, it is not your job to investigate this problem in detail, but you owe it to yourself to tell your PI about unethical conduct in the group. It sounds like you are not the only one who doubts him, since you mentioned that he had presented data for experiments which nobody had seen him perform. Are you absolutely certain about this? If all of you in the lab keep your eyes open, it would be very difficult for him to “pretend” he did experiments. If you do verify this suspicion, you should definitely tell your PI. If possible, pick someone who is on the project to break the news to the PI, since they are more familiar with the experimental details.

If he did indeed perform those experiments, but the data looks too good, the situation becomes more complex. In fact, he might be an honest scientist with a messy bench. Unless you are directly involved in the project, it is very difficult to prove that some has “massaged” the data. The only people who could find out are those who are experts in that particular field, and know what kind of data and errors bars to expect. You can indirectly bring this concern to your PI’s attention by asking your colleague a few scientific questions the next time he presents. For example: “How does your data compare to the literature?” “What type of statistical analyses did you use?” “How did you overcome …” (a particular challenge associated with his project). Asking questions is normal scientific procedure, especially when the results look suspicious, so you should not be embarrassed. Your PI can then hear his answers, and decide for him or herself how to handle this situation.


Dear Dora,

Is there a polite way to tell the boss their “management” style is pissing off the entire lab?  Basically, my P.I. is a horrible micromanager and has to be in everyone’s business all the time.  However, he offers almost no value other than wasting our time in meetings. He is very controlling and not very responsive to change/criticism (nothings ever his fault…).  It’s killing lab morale and making people want to get out asap.

Steve, postdoc

Dear Steve,

You are definitely dealing with a very difficult person, who is unfortunately also your boss. Believe it or not, micromanagers think they are helpful by being in your business all the time. He might worry that his students would slack off if he gave them more freedom.  Since he is actually interfering with your work you need to speak up for yourself, while also reassuring him that work will go on without his constant supervision.

It is unrealistic to expect someone to change their entire management style, but you can make specific requests. If there is a common consensus about certain issues (e.g. group meetings are too frequent) you could bring it up politely at the end of a meeting, and suggest an alternative. Your PI might get defensive, so you can say something like: “We understand that you want to know about our progress, but these meetings are taking time away from our work. That’s why we think it makes more sense to have fewer meetings and update you about progress individually as it becomes necessary.” You can then have a group discussion where people can suggest alternatives to frequent and long meetings.

Hopefully, this will reassure him that work will go on without constant supervision.  Later on, people can talk about their own mentoring needs and specific things that bother them during the individual meetings with the PI.  It might take some time for your PI to “loosen up” and give you more freedom. If you are proactive about keeping him in the loop, he will probably develop a more hands-off approach with you. If the situation becomes intolerable despite repeated efforts on your part, his mentoring style is probably not a good fit for you and you might need to consider other options.


Hi Dora,

My desk is near the door to our lab and if I sit in it straight-on, my back faces the door, which means so does my computer screen.  I swear, every time my P.I. comes in, I’ve just sat down to check email for a second in the middle of an experiment and he sees it.  It’s sort of become a joke in lab, but everyone knows it’s a joke because they see how hard I work.  Everyone except my P.I… He’s been making passing comments about my email checking and experiments not working.  I know I could stop checking email during the day, but….really?!  I’m seriously not on it very much at all!  Any suggestions for showing my P.I. its really not a problem??

Kristin, graduate student

Dear Kristin,

It is possible that your PI’s passing comments are in good humor, but perhaps he really does blame email for experiments not working. Either way you can tell him your “email schedule”, so he know you are not slacking off.  For example, you can say: “I know it seems like I am checking my email frequently, but I only read it twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I do not think it is interfering with my work, since I only read it while I wait for experiments to run.” This way, he will not be surprised when he sees you checking your email. If he “walks in on you”, just smile and let him know that you are currently running a specific experiment, and you should have the results soon.

At the same time, it is worth thinking about whether email is distracting you from your work. While email only takes a few minutes to check, it does interrupt one’s thinking process, especially if you receive messages that you need to act on right away. If you think email could be interfering with your concentration, try sticking to a strict email schedule such as twice a day. It is usually a good idea to get a little bit of work done in the morning before you check your email, so you do not get distracted right away. If necessary, you can check your email again in the mid-afternoon, to see if anything new came up. In any event, keep your PI in the loop about your progress, and discuss difficulties you are experiencing. This way, he will see that you are working hard, and he will probably forget about his email comments soon.


Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks!  In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:


Submit your questions to Dora at DearDora@benchfly.com, or use the comment box below!


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