Wednesday, February 13, 2008

People who are not my problem.

A senior member of my department is keen on bringing in students and postdocs from developing countries and the like. He's passionate about international development issues in our discipline, and he's really supportive of nondomestic students and scientists. At any time, he has a LOT of students and visiting researchers in his group, many of them through collaborative programs designed to provide educational and training opportunities to scientists/technologists from certain countries.

But he's also reeeeeeeeally busy with some administrative responsibilities and other work things. I get the vibe that he doesn't really have as much time to devote to these students and guest researchers as he thinks he does.

He has a particular postdoc that he brought in on some semi-open funding (that is, the funding was for the person and not for a particular research project) where they then had to brainstorm a research project for the postdoc to work on. The project they came up with requires using some complex software that I use in some of my research - software that, in order to figure out, I attended an 80-hour short course on AND spent many hours fiddling with myself, and still I am not completely fluent in it.

Last semester the postdoc asked if he could borrow my copy of the software. I immediately worried that I was going to get sucked into teaching him how to use it, which I don't have the time (or expertise, really) to do. But I loaned him my software to try out, and then the Sr. guy bought him a copy to use himself once they decided to go forward.

The other day the postdoc sent me an email saying he was "having some problems with the software" and could we meet to discuss. Again . . . I think the guy is kind of in over his head and I don't want him to think I can (or should) teach him to use it, but, I'm a nice person and I like to help people out when I can, so I said sure, let's talk about it.

He came by my office. This is what he said, "I need to know how to make it go."


So, I said, "Your installation CD came with the instruction manual, have you looked at that?"

He said, "What? Oh. No. I haven't looked at it."


So, I said, "Ah, you should probably look at it. It gives you some details on how to run the software. Also, last time, I gave you some of the exercises that we went through in the training session I attended. Did you try any of them?"

He said, "What? Oh. No. I haven't looked at them."


Okay, look. I would like to be helpful. I don't want to be that person, who won't help out a fellow researcher because they're too busy or think too highly of themselves or anything, and I certainly don't want to annoy the senior researcher.

But, this guy is not my postdoc and so I don't want to invest a huge amount of time giving him the background, to be able to do a project that, given his current LACK of background on this particular point, I would have advised against, if anybody had asked me. And I don't get the sense that I can be all that helpful by investing a small amount of time.

Blah. :(


Katemonster said...

Well, it seems to me that you have already offered help (the shared exercises from your workshop). So unless this postdoc takes advantage of that help, he does not deserve more of your time. I would have no qualms about instructing him to read the manual and do the exercises and then come back to you if he has specific questions (with the warning, of course, that you yourself are not yet completely fluent with the software).

Schlupp said...

What principle investigator said. The only excuse for his not trying to figure it out by using the help you've already given him would be, if he hadn't realized it wouldn't be just 5 minutes for you to "make it run." This should be clear by now.

Ms.PhD said...

I totally get the sad faces. BUT
DO NOT feel bad about saying no to this person!

Like god, we should only help those who are at least trying to help themselves!

I'm kidding, but only sort of. You have got to protect your time from leeches. This person is a leech.

What scares me about leeches is that while they are too lazy to do it themselves, they sometimes get desperate and cheat.

But again, that is NOT your problem. It's the ethical obligation of the person who brought him in and his co-authors' responsibility, if they ever get to the point of publishing whatever gets cooked up with this software.

Unlike what principle investigator said, I would steer clear of this person. It sounds like this software is involved enough that even if he goes through the manual and does the exercises (both of which sound unlikely), he will be leeching off you for quite a while.

The only advantage I can see to this is that, if he turns out to be a good student when he applies some effort, you might learn a few things in the process of teaching him. But it really depends on your level of commitment. This is where the borderline gets fuzzy between "good deed" and "co-author", because if he needs that much help, you're bound to end up doing at least half his work for him.