CHOOSE YOUR OWN NIGHTMARE: Can You Complete This “Quick” Side Experiment Your PI Asked You To Do?

Richardson, J. et al.

It’s Monday 9am and it’s time for your weekly meeting with your PI. You update them on your progress. You’ve polished off two data sets this week! Congrats. 

Unfortunately for you though, a genius idea for a new experiment came to your PI in a fever dream and they want you to run a quick pilot experiment alongside your other commitments. 

“It really shouldn’t take long. Just chuck on a few extra samples next time you run your other experiments. I only need three technical replicates just to see if this idea is worthwhile pursuing.”

Do you:

A. Enthusiastically agree to take on the task. Afterall, your PI said it wouldn’t take too long, and they have a PhD so they must know what they’re talking about. (Go to TWO)

B. Grumble about it but say you’ll try to squeeze it in. How long could it possibly take? (Go to TWO)

C. Refuse. You’ve got too much to do. (Go to THREE)

TWO: Wow what a great grad student you are! You read the protocol for the side experiment and it seems easy enough. You’ve even got a similar protocol running later today, but you have to get everything done before the practical class you’re demonstrating at 1:30pm.

Do you:

A. Rush to prep the samples you’ll need for both experiments. (Go to FOUR)

B. Decide you’re probably better off delaying the side-experiment for another time and just doing the experiment you already had planned. (Go to FIVE)

C. Delay both experiments so you’ll have enough time to properly prep the samples to run them at the same time. Afterall, there’s no point in running a protocol twice! (Go to SIX)

THREE: “What really? You’re not even going to try?” Your PI assures you that it really won’t take that long and if the results are interesting, you might even get a middle authorship out of it!

How do you respond?

A. “Damn, I could really use a publication…” (Go to TWO)

B. “Absolutely not.” (Go to SEVEN)

C. “Isn’t there an intern who could do it? Where’s Natalie?” (Go to EIGHT)

FOUR: Oh no! In your rush to get both experiments done at once, you’ve accidentally mixed up the samples! The experiment is practically useless at this point and you must rush to get to your class.

Do you:

A. Redo the experiments right after the practical class even though you will be exhausted from babysitting undergrads. (go to NINE)

B. Wait for the next time you have a free moment. Clearly, it isn’t worth trying to juggle too much at once. (go to TEN)

C. Aim to do the experiments again tomorrow during your lunch break. It’s grad school, who needs lunch anyway? (go to ELEVEN)

FIVE: Great! The experiment you planned to do was an absolute success. But you still haven’t completed the side experiment, and your PI just emailed saying this could be a major research breakthrough with serious grant implications. What do you do?

A. Hope your successful experiment is a lucky streak and aim to do the side experiment in your lunch break the following day. Who needs lunch when there are grants to be won? (Go to ELEVEN)

B. Wait for the next time you have a free moment to complete the side experiment. Grants are fickle. (Go to ELEVEN)

SIX: Good job! You managed to avoid doing any experiments at all! But at least you were relaxed for your teaching session. Unfortunately, you realise that the machine you need is unavailable for most of the week which means you’re now seriously behind on your data collection.

What do you do?

A. The equipment is available at lunch time tomorrow. Who needs lunch anyway? (Go to ELEVEN)

B. Redo the experiments right after the practical class. The machine is free all night! (Go to NINE)

C. You’ve got plenty of other experiments to do. You’ll come back to both experiments as soon as you can. (Go to TEN). 

SEVEN: Ending: You don’t take shit from no one!

Despite the pleading of your supervisor, you’ve decided not to take on the quick side experiment. While you may have failed to complete (or start) the experiment, you have certainly succeeded at being a badass grad student who doesn’t take orders from anyone. With all the extra time you have from not taking on unnecessary extra work, you are awarded your doctorate on time and move on to bigger and better things. Your name and reputation linger on as a figure of admiration for future generations of students as the one who stood up and said no. 

EIGHT: Your PI fervently agrees with your suggestion. Of course, you don’t have enough time to do the experiment. Asking Natalie to do it is an excellent alternative. But your PI has back-to-back meetings for the rest of the day. Perhaps you could talk to Natalie about completing the experiment.

What do you do?

A. Politely ask Natalie whether she could run the experiment for your PI. (Go to TWELVE)

B. Email Natalie about the experiment. (Go to THIRTEEN)

C. Ask Natalie to help you with the experiment. (Go to FOURTEEN)

NINE: You stay back after hours to complete the experiment. You’re ready to go. But you realize that someone has used up the last of a reagent you need and you won’t be able to order new stock or borrow any until tomorrow! But wait, what’s that – a tube of the reagent you so desperately need sitting on the counter with another group leader’s name on it.


A. Use the tube without permission. Duh. You’ll replace their precious reagent by next week and no one will be the wiser. (Go to 15)

B. Go home! You’ll do this experiment at an opportune moment after you’ve reordered the reagent. (Go to 10)

TEN: Ending: Aspirational at best.

You have failed to complete the “quick” side experiment your PI asked you to do. You realize now that it was a mistake to prioritize your own experiments you needed to complete to obtain your doctorate. You wait for the opportune moment to complete that last little small side experiment for the rest of your PhD candidature but it never comes. Day after day, you think to yourself “perhaps next week, I can slot it in.” Inevitably, something always comes up. Your PI inquires about the experiment several times and is confused why you haven’t gotten around to it yet. After all, it is such a quick experiment.  You may have received your doctorate but you’ll always remember this experiment you failed to complete! 

ELEVEN: Although it was an admirable endeavour to try to squeeze in this experiment instead of having lunch, you are quickly overwhelmed with a growing hanger. You’re light-headed, you’re angry, frustrated, your calculations are all over the place and you keep forgetting things. You’re overworked and hypoglycaemic.

What do you do?

A. Give up for now. It’s probably best to just fit this experiment in when you have time. Don’t push yourself. (Go to TEN)

B. Push on. You got this! (Go to SIXTEEN)

C. You’ve had enough. You tap out and tell your PI you won’t do the experiment. (Go to SEVEN) 

TWELVE: You politely ask Natalie whether she would have time to complete the experiment for your PI.  She replies with “Of course, I’d be happy to. But unfortunately, I am not familiar with that protocol. Could you show me how to do it?”

How do you respond?

A. “No, I don’t have time, figure it out yourself.” (Go to SIXTEEN)

B. “Yeah sure I’ll show you how to do it. Let’s do it together.” (Go to FOURTEEN)

C. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll do it myself.” (Go to TWO)

THIRTEEN: It turns out that Natalie doesn’t check her university email often, or ever. Your email is lost into a void. By the time you think to inquire about whether or not she received the email, Natalie’s internship period is up. Your PI asks you once again, whether it would be possible for you to squeeze in this experiment in your “in-between time”.

What do you say?

A. “Finnneeeeeeeee…” (go to TWO)

B. “Absolutely not.” (go to SEVEN)

FOURTEEN: Ending: With great sacrifice comes great reward!

Natalie is enthusiastic to help you out with the experiment, although she has never done anything similar before. To help you get the experiment done faster, you’ve decided it’s best to work together. After all, you’ll get the data you need, and Natalie will get a useful learning experience! You work through the protocol and explain as you go, step-by-step. Natalie’s going to be an expert in no time. Unfortunately, the added time it takes to explain everything takes longer than you anticipated and eats into the time you needed for your next planned experiment! Will you graduate on time? Who knows! But never mind that! You did it! You completed the quick side experiment and supervised the intern at the expense of your other much-needed data. Congratulations!

FIFTEEN: Ending: Congratulations! You’re a criminal now.

You’ve decided to risk it for the biscuit and use another lab’s reagent without permission. It’s the dead of night and no one is around. Without hesitation, you swipe the tube from your colleague’s freezer shelf and get to work. You feel a rush of excitement and naughtiness that you will never feel again in grad school, and the high is intoxicating. The experiment goes perfectly and by midnight, you’ve done it! You completed the quick side experiment, but you know in your heart that you’ve changed, and you’re not sure if it’s for the better. 

SIXTEEN: Ending: Nice one! The lab’s on fire now.

You’re not really sure what happened but not only did you fail to complete the quick side experiment, but whether through your actions or inactions, the lab is now in flames. You’ve let yourself down. You’ve let your PI down. You’ve let Natalie the intern down. And most of all, you’ve let the fire department down.

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About Author

Jess Richardson

Jess is a postgraduate researcher in biology. Out of the lab, Jess makes art, writes science stuff and co-hosts a podcast discussing science fiction TV.

About Jess Richardson 5 Articles
Jess is a postgraduate researcher in biology. Out of the lab, Jess makes art, writes science stuff and co-hosts a podcast discussing science fiction TV.