Should I Fire Her?

Some time ago I was sitting over dinner with a couple of other PIs when one of them told the following story:

A student was doing a project in the lab as part of a Masters degree. Before joining the lab for the project the student discussed with the PI which courses to take in order to make good progress in both courses and research. Specifically, they agreed a specific course the student was considering would put too much load and so the student should avoid it. As the time passed the student was falling behind, with the project getting stuck. The PI asked the student time and time again is everything OK, what was going on etc. Only toward the end of the semester the student admitted of taking that course, hiding it, and then failing to manage the courses and the research. The student still wanted to keep doing research in the lab though. The PI was left with a dilemma: Fire the student yes/no?

Of course, the description above is missing many details that can influence your decision: How badly was the project delayed? What were the ramifications of that? Why did the student insist on taking that course? What would be the consequences of “firing” that student from the research project? etc. Notice I tried to remove any mentioning of the gender, field, or rank to minimize the effect of confounding factors. Still, I think it’s a good base for discussion.

The opinions at dinner were split. The PI seemed to lean towards allowing the student to stay. The PI was also the only person to actually know the student. My view leaned towards letting the student go. I explained that I am all for training and teaching our students, and I spend a lot of thought and effort on that, trying to make them grow. But I make it clear to anyone who joins that integrity and trust is never to be doubted or meddled with. I explain to new lab members that while we all hate to F** up, we need to come clean about it as by far our most valuable asset as scientists is our integrity. Where I grew up (i.e. in the army) you literally trusted your life with someone and therefore doubting them was not an option. Soldiers were continuously put into extreme situations and those who lacked integrity were quickly kicked out. I think I have grown more patient and accommodating during the years (you meet a lot of people in both the army and academia, in both environments you need to learn to work with them….) but I guess the low tolerance for integrity faults stuck. Another point I raised is that it’s important to make the student understand they do not live in a vacuum and their actions have consequences. In many cases young students lack awareness for the system around them, they just assume it’s there to serve them. But that system is made of people. If a project gets stuck maybe a paper deadline won’t be met, maybe a grant won’t be renewed. It’s not just about them or, in this case, their courses. A more senior PI brought another argument to support firing the student: He/She explained that by kicking that student out the PI would be doing the student a favor, giving the student a valuable life lesson for cheap, about not meddling with trust/integrity in a work environment. Another PI was more forgiving: Young students, he/she explained, can easily find themselves tangled beyond what they planned but still deserve a second chance.

I’m not sure if this is a clear cut case and we are definitely missing details (e.g. the student was maybe over motivated but with good intentions, not a slacker, what was the student exactly told before, etc.), but I thought it made a good base for a worthy discussion in a post. Some points that came to my mind when thinking about this story were:

  1. Make it very clear right off the start what are the rules/expectations so if a student does something like that they also understand how this is viewed and what they can expect. (One way to do this btw is to write a blog about it… 😉
  2. Try to see the whole story from all sides before making a final decision. That goes for both the PI and the student.
  3. Even if you decide to keep the student you need to send a very clear signal to all the lab about this issue. Otherwise you are facing a very slippery slope which would be very hard to get out of. This is not about theory and ideals: There is much more than just this student/project at stake for you too.
  4. Make your decision for the right reasons. The point here is that the most consistent advice I got when I was interviewing for a tenure track position was: Do *not* compromise on the people you take to the lab. As a young PI you badly want people to get things done. Since you just started maybe students/postdocs do not line up in front of your door. So you interview someone and think “I can make it work”. No you can’t. And you are likely to spend a lot of time/energy/money learning that. This does not mean you should wait for an Olympic Champion, because that’s not likely to come your way in the beginning either. But you need to find someone which you strongly feel can be a good fit, not someone you take against your gut feeling. So, keeping the same line of logic, if you decide to keep a student like the one in the story then do it because of the reasons listed above and not because you badly want people and think you can “make it work”…

So, what would you do??