I scored a position with the lab of my dreams, but the lead researcher is a really difficult person to
work with. I can never do anything right and he never praises any of my hard work. On top of this
he acts like I don't do enough even though I put in more hours than I should. I'm still a student so of course there is a limit to how much time I can spend there. It's starting to stress me out to the point where I think about quitting. What do you think I should do?
First off, congrats on securing the position in your dream lab! You must have worked very hard to accomplish that and I’m glad it all paid off! Since this position is important to you and you worked hard to secure it, I wouldn’t make any rushed decisions about quitting. I’d first step back and consider what you’ve learned so far from your position and what kind of skills/experiences you’ve gained. If you feel your time there so far hasn’t been very rewarding, then I would think about leaving the lab. If it has been rewarding and you wish to stay, I’d voice your concerns to the lead researcher or maybe someone else in the lab you feel more comfortable with, such as a grad student or post-doc, and see if the research team can be more understanding of your limitations.
Working for someone who doesn't acknowledge the work that you do can be very frustrating. Trust me, I understand and I am so sorry you are feeling this way, especially on a campus like Cal. With the constant pressure to do well and gain experience, many students are not praised for a lot of the work that they do. I commend you for assessing the situation in a mature manner. Working, while being a full time student, can be extremely challenging. If I were you, I would ask to speak to the lead researcher. Let him know how you are feeling. Sometimes, they get caught up in their work that they forget that there are other people working with or for them. Communication can definitely be utilized (considering the context provided). Set your expectations with your lead researcher and talk things out. Yes, he may be the lead researcher, but remember, you scored the position because you were the best candidate and they chose you for your qualifications! Don't forget that! You do have a say, so don't be afraid to speak out when you feel like you are being mistreated. Since you mention that you had thoughts about quitting, I would take action immediately and try to see if I could mend anything that has not been going the way that you expected. You have a voice, so please don't be afraid to use it when necessary.
The first thing I would recommend is to talk with your mentor. If there is a misunderstanding in expectations, then it can be cleared up very easily by sitting down to talk. I know it can be daunting to confront such a thing, but you really should vocalize how you feel. There is no point in staying in the lab, albeit one of your top choices, if you are not enjoying your time and learning in a safe and encouraging environment. If you are in constant stress because of your relationship with the researcher, it becomes really difficult to do protocol and experiments right.
Lab is a huge commitment; it is not as cookie-cutter in terms of hours. Many things go wrong, take extra time, etc. so I would advise providing flexibility in your schedule to accommodate these unexpected hours. If there are other undergraduates in the lab, talking to them about your issues will honestly help release a lot of the tension. If your schedule is not so forgiving, then you may want to strongly reconsider if you should continue to do research this semester, either in that lab or another one. You would not only be spending countless hours of your own time, but you would potentially be utilizing the researcher’s valuable time as well.
Having said that, it is also important to not be so hard on yourself. Like you said, you are still a student: mistakes are bound to happen, and the efficiency of lab protocol will obviously not be as high as that of a graduate student or a post-doc. Encouragement from a researcher is so important for the undergraduates, and I am sorry that he is not giving you positive feedback. The researcher should value your time, and if you feel like he is not doing that then quitting and/or going to a different research lab is totally understandable. All of the Berkeley labs and their PI’s are stellar; I can assure you that you can find a lab doing similar projects to the one you are doing now, or at least that you can find a different project that you are interested in.
Also, just a general advice for future research: write down everything in your lab notebook! Learn from your mistakes. You have to be asking tons of questions to your mentor. Let your curiosity spill; it will make research so much more enjoyable. If your mentor is not easily accessible, remember to write down your questions and ask all of them together when they have time. Research does not train you to follow protocol. It trains you to think critically,to trouble-shoot, and to discover better methods. You say “you can never do anything right”- but if you take active measures to make sure that you are constantly improving, then in no time you will be a great researcher yourself.