Conflict Resolution Guide

Last Updated: 08/05/2020

Introduction

*This is a document made by BEGS and is not an official departmental guide. Please make sure to consult the departmental resources we reference before making any decisions that may drastically escalate issues. 

Every lab will have a certain lab culture with some more accommodating to different personalities than others. For example, what may be unacceptable behavior in one lab may be perfectly acceptable in another. The rotation period is designed for you to sample different labs to find the best lab for you. 

A rotation can end anytime, so if you are having difficulties getting along with the students and the PI, we recommend simply rotating through a different lab. In our view, finding a strong environment in which you can see yourself succeeding is the primary goal of the rotations. Finding a lab quickly for the sake of early productivity is not. For more details, see our rotations guide. 

Nevertheless, it’s normal that relationships between your labmates and PI can sour after your rotations. The purpose of this guide is to outline the strategies and departmental resources available to you to resolve these conflicts. 

General Communication Strategies

Understand the schedule constraints and personal priorities of the other person

Define the purpose. Where is the relationship now and where do you want it to be at the end of the conversation?,

Using phrasing such as “I feel…” & “From my perspective…” is a good way to guide a sensitive conversation. It invites the other person to share their views. 

Be cautious with using objective statements that may invalidate another’s point of view.

Focus on what the other person is saying and pause to think before responding. Depending on the person, interruptions can easily and drastically escalate the interaction. 

Stop the conversation if it has escalated to the point where neither party is listening and resume it another time. “ex: I need to think about what you said. Can we resume this conversation another time?”

Conflicts among lab members

The first step is to be aware of the personality differences between you and whomever you have the conflict with and find a communication medium that you are most comfortable with. The goal is to find a method where both parties can listen, think, and respond clearly and respectfully. For example, you may be an introverted person and the other student is an extroverted person that you know can easily be set off. A direct face to face talk may not be desirable, and an email or another medium that allows slower but uninterrupted and thoughtful exchange may be better. Follow the general communication strategies above. 

If communication breaks down, let your PI know about the conflict, but clearly define what relationship you want to have with the other person and ask if your PI can help you. Avoid an accusatory tone and follow the general communication strategies above. It’s normal to not get along with everyone in the lab, but you need to have at least a working relationship with people who you depend on. 

If the conflict remains insurmountable after speaking to your PI, ask for outside help. Start with either Vanessa (graduate coordinator), Adam Engler (vice chair), Kun Zhang (chair), or Pedro Cabrales (Chair of Graduate Studies Committee). Previous students have reached out to them to mediate conflicts between graduate students and PIs. 

Conflicts with your PI

PIs are not professionally trained to manage people, in communication, or in conflict resolution. Nevertheless, your progress in the program is highly dependent on a strong positive relationship with your PI. There is simply no way you can finish your PhD without their support.

​If you are afraid of raising sensitive issues, such as negative results or problems with your PI’s behavior, with your PI due to fear of anger and/or retaliation, we highly recommend addressing the situation ASAP through a third party. We suggest first talking through specific negative interactions that have led to this feeling with Vanessa (graduate coordinator), Adam Engler (vice chair), Kun Zhang (chair), or Pedro Cabrales (Chair of Graduate Studies Committee) or any other PI who you have a close relationship with. The current unofficial policy is that all communication will be confidential. Nevertheless, make sure you secure a verbal agreement of confidentiality when speaking to the department. 

Sometimes difficult conversations with your PI need to happen multiple times. We recommend keeping a record of your interactions. Noting whether their behavior has changed over the course of these conversations will be helpful to observe behavioral patterns and recall specifics from each interaction. 

In situations where you have been yelled at, degraded, slandered, or harassed by your PI, we highly recommend you speak to either Vanessa (graduate coordinator), Adam Engler (vice chair), Kun Zhang (chair), or Pedro Cabrales (Chair of Graduate Studies Committee). The Office for the Prevention of Harassment & Discrimination will also be able to help you confidentially. 

Some Common Sources of Conflict with PIs and Tips to Avoid or Deal with Them:

Unsatisfactory research performance 
1. In general, your PI has goals for your development and projects that need to be finished at specific times. It’s important to be open and honest with your perspective on those goals and communicate with your PI what you need to accomplish these goals. 
2. Failed research credit (BENG299): There have been some cases of withheld research credit. We recommend having a consistent record of your research progress. If you present to your PI one on one to discuss your progress regularly, this is not an issue. In this situation, we suggest speaking with Vanessa (graduate coordinator), Adam Engler (vice chair), Kun Zhang (chair), or Pedro Cabrales (Chair of Graduate Studies Committee) to mediate. We highly recommend that you do not try to resolve this yourself!

Thesis project time management
More often than not, you won’t be solely spending all of your time working on your thesis project. For example, you may be working on a few projects or assisting grant writing. Your rotation is critical in understanding the work requirements for each graduate student, and you will want to find the balance that works for you. 


Research progress and troubleshooting problems 
Experiments fail often for a variety of reasons, and a common source of conflict is differing approaches between you and the PI on how these problems are resolved. Use your rotation to learn how your PI prefers students to think through and present problems. Talk to graduate students in the lab for different communication techniques that have worked for them.


Vacation and Personal Time
1. This varies drastically depending on the PI. Make sure to ask your PI on their vacation policy during your rotation. Do not assume federal holidays are always off. Some PIs stick to the 9-5 work day, but many do not. As an example, you should know if you are expected to respond to an email at 10pm. 
2. In general, if you are assisting in grant writing, then it is critical to figure out how to best work on your PIs timeline. They may operate on an entirely different schedule than you and expect you to conform to their schedule. 

Changing Labs

A PhD is a long process and you need to feel like the time investment is worth it. Ultimately, if you feel like the lab you’ve chosen is not going to help you get the career you want after you graduate, you have a good reason to change labs. It should all come down to what the success of your PhD means to you. 

Every year, lab changes occur due to various reasons. If you’re considering switching labs after your rotation period, you should know that many people have successfully done this before you. It’s important to recognize that these changes must occur before the Senate Exam. We highly recommend discussing lab changes with Vanessa (graduate coordinator), Adam Engler (vice chair), Kun Zhang (chair), or Pedro Cabrales (Chair of Graduate Studies Committee). Talking to any of these people doesn’t commit you to leaving your lab until you give the official go ahead, and we highly recommend you take this route. Make sure to get a verbal agreement of confidentiality. Once you’ve decided that the best move for your career and wellbeing is to change labs, here are some tips to do before telling your PI you are leaving the lab collected from students who have successfully changed labs: 

There are three main choices that you will be given when you discuss the issue with Vanessa (graduate coordinator), Adam Engler (vice chair), Kun Zhang (chair), or Pedro Cabrales (Chair of Graduate Studies Committee):

1. Stay in the program and find a new lab 
2. Stay in your current lab and work out issues
3. If you have passed your Senate, changing labs is not possible and your only option is to Master out of the program. Otherwise, this option is always available.

We recommend talking through each scenario with Vanessa, Adam, Kun, or Pedro and thinking about your options carefully. This can be hard to hear when you are confused about the next step and looking for validation, but understand that they cannot (and will not) tell you what you should do. 

Before you officially leave the lab, you will be asked about your plan, so have it ready:
1. Leaving beginning next quarter
2. Rotation choices and why
3. Kindly ask for funding support through the next quarter

Typically you will have to TA courses (even if you are finished with your TA requirement). This is the most common method of funding. 

Your main goal is to identify a lab that you can finish your PhD in. Here are some tips:
1. Research your interests
2. Read the recent publications from the lab
3. Email lab members to assess the funding situation. 
4. In the past, professors who are newer to the department, affiliated professors in the department or out of department choices tend to be more receptive to transitioning students.
5. Contact the PI, tell them who you are and why you are interested in their research, and ask if they are willing and able to take you as a transitioning student if the rotation goes well. 

Prepare the conversation with your PI. We highly recommend rehearsing this conversation and talking it through with Kun, Adam, or Pedro. In the past, Adam has assisted in writing the email to your PI to signal your intention to leave the lab. This is a great way to make sure nothing is misunderstood and that you are supported by the department. 

Be clear that you have made your decision with your PI and be confident in it. 

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