How dumb is your PI? You would think that with how competitive it is to obtain and retain a position in academia that the people who have these positions would be scientific phenoms with incomprehensible knowledge, or at least be somewhat competent. What you have to keep in mind is that the older generation of scientists who currently have the most power acquired their positions when there was far less competition. They may have published a single paper in graduate school whose only figure was a northern blot. They then went on to do a postdoc in a well-known lab and were subsequently handed a faculty position. With the favorable funding environment they easily received grants and grew their lab. As competition for grants began to increase their lab was still given funding simply because it had a long publication record and history of being funded. And that’s how we got to where we are today. These people not only don’t understand modern experimental techniques, but they also don’t have any training in computational work or statistics which are becoming increasingly important. They also are too busy attending meetings where they puff out their chest and talk about the importance of “their” work to stay up-to-date with the scientific literature. Their sole contribution to the lab is writing grants and obtaining funding, and admittedly through the years their ability to spew bullshit has undoubtedly grown. What all of this results in are some truly hilarious situations. When I was a student one of my favorite things was listening to scientists pontificate during seminars. My friend and I labeled a couple professors our “geese”, because they would reliably lay “golden eggs” during talks. And the best part was we could predict what they were going to say before they said it! The number of idiotic things I’ve heard come out of the mouths of professors is so large that I’ve probably forgotten enough to write a couple books. However, I decided I’ll start writing them down as I remember them, and I will update this post accordingly. In addition, I find it interesting that we promote researchers who have done nothing but perform science to positions of leadership where they will no longer be performing science, and will be commenting on these consequences. Feel free to list your experiences in the comments. 1. You have done a complicated analysis and the result is a single number. Your PI wants a p-value associated with the number so he demands that you perform a t-test. A t-test with a single number… For those of you who are curious, the best way to get a p-value in this case would be to randomize your original data thousands of times and run your analysis pipeline. This should result in a normal distribution of results and you can see where your value with the original data falls on that normal distribution. 2. Your PI claims that one of his best leadership qualities is to motivate people. But he acts completely randomly. He’ll praise someone for working hard even though they are never in lab and then criticize someone who is working 15 hour days. A classic way to make mice depressed is to randomly shock them. So this PI is not motivating, he actually makes his entire lab depressed… 3. Your PI asks your lab mate how long they think it should take you to perform some work and comes to the conclusion that you are taking too long. This lab mate was unable to perform the work so how would they have any idea how long it would take… 4. Your PI becomes furious that a manuscript was given to him a couple hours after the promised time. But manuscripts often sit on his desk untouched for weeks. Also, his favorite person in the lab constantly delays manuscripts by months with his incompetence and is never chastised… 5. A student draws a probability distribution on the board during a talk. The distribution looks like a cumulative distribution. A professor now asks a question assuming that the distribution is a cumulative distribution. The student is confused by the question and tries to repeat what he has already explained. The professor eventually realizes he’s looking at a probability distribution and instead of admitting his mistake he starts to rephrase his questions with words like “assume we are looking at a cumulative distribution”. Now the graduate student is really confused because we are not looking at cumulative distributions but probability distributions, and emphasizes that everything is a probability distribution. But the professor, in a pathetic attempt to save face: “but let’s just assume for a second that we are”. Graduate student: “but we’re not”. This continues for like ten minutes. 6. Your PI tells you Project X is guaranteed to be a Nature publication. Project X turns out to be an artifact and never gets published. PI tells you Project Y is a waste of time and you shouldn’t work on it. Another lab publishes Project Y in a high-profile journal. This constantly happens. 7. Your PI asks if you perform an identical GWAS study multiple times if you will obtain completely different results.
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