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A Graduate School Situation For the Record Books

If you haven’t read this article, about a completely out-of-control conflict (in the Lee Rubin stem cell lab at Harvard) between a graduate student and his advisor, have a look. I’ve seen some pretty dysregulated relationships in that area, but nothing like this one: misconduct allegations, forced psychiatric evaluations, and this:

German, however, believes the forced evaluation was an act of revenge by Rubin, retaliation prompted by German’s allegation of scientific misconduct against Rubin and two of his students. (The allegation was later dismissed.) And this past August, a Massachusetts judge agreed with German, concluding that Rubin was “motivated by bias and revenge, not by a legitimate interest in keeping German safe.” The judge issued an order that has created an extraordinary situation: Rubin must allow German to work in his laboratory, but stay at least 30.5 meters away from him, and have no direct or indirect contact. Rubin must also provide German with all of the lab resources he had before the problems began.

Rubin vehemently objects to the findings and the decision, his lawyer says, and is filing an appeal. “At no time did I ever act with malice toward Mr. German,” Rubin stated in an affidavit filed with the court this past July. “At all times, I strove in good faith to resolve the tensions which developed between him and me.”

All sides say the order has created tense and difficult working conditions. Among other things, it means Rubin can’t be in his office or laboratory when German is there, according to German. And the dispute has left bystanders wondering how a conflict between a mentor and his student spiraled so dramatically out of control, jeopardizing the reputation of a prominent scientist and an elite research university, along with the future of a promising young scientist.

Holy herd of cows. But given the tensions and personalities involved in academic research labs, I can certainly see how things could get to this point. It’s easy to believe that a grad student or postdoc would have some sort of breakdown – that happens all too frequently. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to believe that a research advisor might act vengefully towards someone in their group, because that happens way too often as well. This particular case is, as the article says, “especially bizarre and destructive”, but it’s a matter of degree, not one of kind.

91 comments on “A Graduate School Situation For the Record Books”

  1. AlmostBelmont says:

    I’m placing this one firmly under the heading of: “When things don’t make sense, there’s a lot more to the story than what we know.”

  2. John Campbell says:

    Where was the dean while all this was going on? The guy needs to get a new supervisor and quickly.

  3. Isidore says:

    “30.5 meters”? How on earth did the judge come up with this distance?

    1. Hap says:

      I think it says 100 ft, and Science converted to metric.

      I hope there’s more to this, because this sounds like a winner in the “Bad Lab Environment (without weapons use)” category.

      1. Anon says:

        100 ft is just as arbitrary as 99.362 ft.

        1. AC says:

          Remember your significant figures.
          30.5 meters seems like an arbitrarily certain measure vs. 100 feet.

          1. Anon says:

            Perhaps the judge meant 100.00000000 ft, which was then converted (roughly) into meters.

  4. sgcox says:

    100 feet = 30.5 m

  5. oldnuke says:

    How is the final oral defense going to work? Using Skype? Or depositions at 50 paces?

    1. CR says:

      I don’t see how Rubin can participate in the defense in any manner. From the article, it states there to be no contact (direct or indirect); thus, a Skype (or using a megaphone from behind 30.5 m) would, I think, constitute indirect contact. I would suspect, the thesis committee, sans Rubin, would have to be the defense.

    2. Janne says:

      Does the advisor participate in the defense in the US? I didn’t know that.

      Either way, I’d expect the guy to have a different advisor already.

      1. tlp says:

        Any potential new advisor will now think twice, unfortunately. It’s a lose-lose situation for both.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m inclined to give Harvard the benefit of the doubt on this one. Considering that one suicide per year per group in the chemistry department is the accepted norm, it’s refreshing to someone being proactive.

    1. anon the II says:

      “one suicide per year per group in the chemistry department”

      I’m thinking this falls into the “Fake News” category we’ve been hearing so much about lately.

      1. ex-Harvard chemist says:

        Not fake news, just an exaggeration:

        http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/29/magazine/lethal-chemistry-at-harvard.html

        “Some graduates of Harvard’s chemistry program volunteered the opinion that Altom’s letter eerily and lucidly confirmed longstanding concerns about the pressures of the Harvard chemistry program in general and the Corey lab in particular. As every ensuing bit of coverage dutifully noted, it was the second suicide to hit the Corey group in less than two years and the third since 1980. Others felt Corey was being unfairly tarnished.”

        http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1998/9/11/chemistry-grad-student-dies-pjason-d/

        “Altom’s death marks the fifth suicide within the University community during the 1997-98 academic year, and the second suicide within theGraduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). It is also the second death in the chemistry department in two years.”

        1. Bagger Vance says:

          You so realize 1998 was almost 20 years ago, right?

          1. milkshaken says:

            I was there in the Corey group when it happened and the story is more complicated than how it is usually presented. I would not call the Chief a great advisor – but also I would not blame him for this one. I got to know all kinds of slimy vicious PIs quite up close over the years, and in comparison EJ is a saint. He could be actually quite a decent human being (for a patriarch) if he liked you, and I believe he liked Jason. By the time of this last suicide EJ was already quite mellow and I know he tried to help people in difficulties.

          2. no excuse says:

            “By the time of this last suicide EJ was already quite mellow”

            I didn’t know EJ, but I think this is all you really need to know – most PIs go their whole career without even one of their graduate students committing suicide. Three suicides is three too many.

          3. milkshaken says:

            it could also happen that people who show up among his students and postdocs, some of them can be unbalanced, and being overambitious does not help. For example, the suicide before Jason was completely unrelated to EJ. It was more about the difficulties of that person and his love relationship breakup.

            When I lived in Child Hall dorm in the first year, there was a shy international grad student in a room right across the hallway that was wetting his bed every night – He kept to himself, and he tried dealing with the problem by using increasing amount of cologne… you can imagine the reek. One day I came home and saw yellow police tape: that student had jumped from the roof of Widener library.

      2. Anon says:

        Seeing as they had two this year, I doubt it.

  7. Wavefunction says:

    Hopefully at the end of this mess neither of the parties will see the other approaching with drawn pistols from 40 paces (30.5 meters) away.

  8. Wonders says:

    Wow. But why would German want to stay in the lab? Does he not understand he won’t be receiving a good reference? His demand to stay in that lab will taint him as difficult even if he were correct about misconduct. Why not finish the work under a new supervisor? Seems like both parties handled this poorly.

    1. AC says:

      German already lost the chance of receiving a good reference when the PI suspected him of making the misconduct allegations.

      German is close to finishing, so I don’t blame him for trying to get out as soon as possible. Also, should German let the PI get away with retaliating against him?

      1. Isodore says:

        There’s principle (not getting the PI get away with it, whatever “it” is) and then there’s common sense. It doesn’t sound like German’s needs are so unique to the Rubin lab that he would not be able to finish his research under someone else’s supervision and with some different colleagues. From what I am reading it sounds like his problems are not just with the PI but also with other lab members. At this point it is time for a clean break.

        1. AC says:

          The “it” is harassing the student by a forced psychiatric evaluation and preventing the student from returning to the lab. The judge concluded that Rubin was “motivated by bias and revenge” and that the acts were in retaliation for the research misconduct allegations. Common sense would typically lead the student to ignore any cases of suspected research misconduct, which would’ve prevented the retaliation by the PI.

          I can’t speak to how unique German’s research needs are. The article mentions that he needs a specific strain of mice and presumably the same reagents/equipment that were used on his previous experiments. Switching labs (if someone is willing to take him) and protocols/equipment might cause minor delays, but reagents and mice would require material transfer agreements and new Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approved protocols for the new lab.

  9. oldgradstudent says:

    Given the immense power differential between the advisor and the student, it is hard to rationalize taking the student’s side.

    I’ve seen plenty of people threatened with, or actually losing, years of their life in unproductive (no degree) graduate school study due to empowered and dysfunctional advisors.

    German seems to have handled the situation deftly; you can’t do much better in terms of defense. It looks like he will get his degree one way or another and has put some light on an all-too-common situation.

    1. oldgradstudent says:

      gah “*not* taking the student’s side”

  10. Calvin says:

    Awesome. Hilarious and awful in equal measure. This is why I could never work in academia again. On first glance I’d assumed that as usual the PI was a douchebag and was awful to his students but reading the full article my strong suspicion is that German is an odd chap and does not play well with others. So all of this is driven by him being a little on the unusual side and getting a little bit paranoid about life. The fact that he defended himself is typically a sign of somebody who thinks very highly of their own intellect (I realize this is a pretty broad generalization). So the picture is forming of a a lone PhD student with low social skills and some odd behaviors falling out with both the other lab members and the PI and then taking things to an extreme. Yup glad to be out of academia. Academia sure is a mad world…..

    1. AC says:

      Defending oneself is considered arrogance/confidence? That is a pretty horrible generalization.

      German idealism about scientific integrity in academia clearly backfired and the accusations turned the lab and the PI against him.

      1. Calvin says:

        Well, reading the full piece paints a picture that German (who may very well not be German) may be an awkward individual. I point to the fact that it appears he wasn’t popular with his labmates either. That’s typically not a great sign. If a PI is an idiot, then normally everybody in a lab thinks the PI is an idiot. That doesn’t look to be the case here.
        And yes, defending yourself in court with no legal representation is rare and divides into two camps in most instances; confidence in your own intellect or lack of wealth to employ a lawyer. I’m guessing on the former.
        But this based solely on my reading of the whole article so there’s clearly a chance for significant bias in how this is all reported. So I’m guessing, and this my interpretation of the situation. Normally I’d expect to side with the student but not in this case.
        That said, my comment that academia is an odd place that I’m happy to no longer be part of stands.

        1. unclear says:

          Sure, but let’s think about why none of his labmates are defending him. If they do, they are directly opposing the PI, and their career and recommendation could be in jeopardy. Even anonymized, an educated guess could be had. More likely, any students or postdocs taking German’s side are remaining quiet – probably the best move for them.

          Re:self-representation – lawyers aren’t exactly cheap on a graduate student’s dime. Could be a combination of both.

          That being said, while the article dives deep into this story, clearly there’s more than meets the eye. A lot of he-said, he-said, and it’s hard to figure out what’s right and what’s not based on this story alone (e.g. a lawyer saying ‘the lab will dissolve if the PI isn’t there’ is hyperbole, especially in labs where PI is already hands-off and not there!)

        2. AC says:

          I misunderstood what you meant when you said “defended”. German acted as his own lawyer, but it seems that he was the one who initiated the legal proceedings against Rubin. I don’t know the legal term in this case, but I don’t think German would be the “defense” (injured party?). I’d guess that it is more likely that German, with his graduate student stipend, could not reasonably afford a lawyer.

          As for “popular with his labmates”, how many labmates would be willing to associate with someone that the PI is actively harassing? Also, whistle-blowing research misconduct is not a popular activity (no matter how well intentioned).

          I don’t know enough about the situation to really choose a side, but the judge is siding with the student on the harassment side of things.

    2. Søren Furbo says:

      Conflicts with one reasonable part tend to be diffused before they end up with forced psych evaluations and restraint orders in the workplace. When conflicts go to these extremes, it is usually a good bet that neither person is what you would classify as well balanced.

      All that said without knowing the details of this case, of course.

  11. Anon says:

    Typical bloody Germans!

  12. been there done that says:

    This is incredibly common in academia. The current advisor-grad student relationship/configuration for many (most?) students is & has always been, a bizarre, dysfunctional, unjust, corrupt, self-perpetuating, hell-on-earth. As a PhD (~ 20 yrs ago) this story recall (PTSD episode) awful painful memories from my own experience; fwiw, all too close to the Jason Altom tragedy. Good grief when will this evil madness end? Recalling JS Mill, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing”. No doubt many of you reading this have either witnessed variations of this sad episode & done absolutely nothing, or worse, actively enabled it (sycophants!). You were motivated by the fear of risking your own ambitions. You know who you are, Your behavior was cowardly & pathetic and you will–as we all will–ultimately be held accountable. In any event, obviously none are perfect; on this however… all y’all can go commit an impossible act. 😉

    1. dearieme says:

      I spent most of my career in academia. I do know of cases of misbehaviour and alleged misbehaviour by research students, but they were small beer compared to proven misbehaviour by research supervisors. One scientist behaved so badly that he was levered out of a Chair in an ancient university, with his case passed off as early retirement on grounds of health. Similarly, two Heads of Department (one in the Humanities, one in Social Science) found themselves subject to re-structuring, eventually heading departments consisting only of themselves and a secretary. One of those cases went to court: the Professor lost. No doubt there were other cases I never heard of.

      I’ve got one piece of advice for students caught up in this sort of fiasco: people who consider themselves above the law and the canons of good behaviour don’t restrict themselves to abusing underlings. Look for evidence of fraud and theft.

    2. Emjeff says:

      Reminds me of my time in grad school as well, at the hands of an abusive psycho who was also playing fast and loose with his many foundations. The system is and has been broken and there is no fixing it – the Ph.D. degree should be abolished and a more objective way to a terminal degree (modeled on med school perhaps) needs to be developed. This open-ended, professor-has-all-the-power way of doing things is too ripe for abuse by demented, power-hungry psychopaths.

    3. Bla bla says:

      Incredibly common? Nope! Maybe in the US, but not in civilised countries, with more reasonable PhD systems (ie UK, Western Europe etc)

  13. milkshaken says:

    Mandatory psychiatric evaluation are becoming increasingly common in academia, when the point is to discredit someone and force him out at the same time. It is illegal, but it was used at Scripps Florida against a staff scientist who was making research integrity allegations about people being intentionally left off patents and publications (so that they wouldn’t need to be paid royalties by the PI when he starts his own company and licenses his own research from Scripps to his company. Scripps used to have a generous profit sharing program, with 50% of patent royalties were supposed to be divided between PI and the co-authors on the patents)

    1. sgcox says:

      It does sound eerily similar to the treatment of dissidents in former SU as psychiatry patients to avoid the legal procedures and exposure to Democratic US outrage…

    2. Dionysius Rex says:

      The Rosenhan experiments tell you all you need know about pschiatric evaluations…..

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosenhan_experiment

  14. pete says:

    I remember how news of the rumored fistfight between a senior PostDoc & his mentor – who went on to a Nobel – zipped through the junglevines of academia back in my doctoral lab days. It was quite the scandal.

    But wow, compared to with this reported standoff, a genuine fistfight sounds like more healthy / therapeutic choice for all concerned. Loser buys the winner a drink and both shake on it & apologize.

    1. Poison Ivy says:

      I remember when rumors flew around my department of a grad student poisoning another grad student (their roommate), allegedly on camera. I am still waiting on that story to make the headlines…

  15. Anon says:

    I am confused, why would his advisor label him as crazy rather than just failing him on his qualifying exam?

    1. anon says:

      Nobody fails those exams anymore.

      1. Phil says:

        If by qualifying exam you mean candidacy exam, I think he had already become a candidate by the time the clashes/misconduct allegations started.

        If you mean thesis defense, that’s a little different. People don’t tend to just pack their bags and go home after sinking 5+ years into a PhD. Advisor would probably have to deal with a conflict of some kind either way. After I defended (successfully!), I heard of someone else at my university trying to defend their thesis without the support of their advisor. I don’t think they were successful, but it was a massive headache for everyone involved.

        1. Isidore says:

          One more reason for the student to seek another advisor, about which I am sure the university would be very accommodating, just to have the whole thing go away. And academics are sufficiently back-stabbing so there would certainly be other faculty who would be happy to take German on, if only to piss off Rubin.

  16. ASL says:

    Maybe the student wouldn’t trade his pokemans to his advisor

  17. Tina says:

    As someone who has participated in two pharma collaborations with the HSCI researchers — it’s a bit of a snake pit. But of course snakes are not immoral or out to profit at any cost, so this is an unfair and stigmatizing comparison for reptiles. I feel bad for German.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Tough to take sides based on the evidence presented. Having been in a situation where a coworker probably should have been psychiatrically evaluated, that can be an awful situation for the whole lab. On the other hand, the fact that the rest of the lab couldn’t substantiate a pattern of suspicious behavior with things like abusive emails, threats, etc sounds suspicious. One girl found her microscope out of focus at the end of the weekend — this is how a crazy person gets revenge on the world?

    1. Anonymous says:

      “microscope out of focus”

      People blame their experimental problems on all kinds of things (think of all the lab superstition that propagates). Unsubstantiated allegations like this should not be believed at face value.

    2. HFM says:

      As someone whose PhD relied on long-term microscopy runs, if I started accusing my colleagues of sabotage every time the mother-loving run failed for unclear reasons, I’d have been carted off in a straitjacket within a month. And I’d have deserved it. (If I got usable data from one in three runs, I was thrilled…and my colleagues were amazed that I got that high!)

  19. Survivor says:

    I’m 50 years old, and by far the most abusive, pathological, psychologically destructive environment I’ve ever encountered was an Ivy League biomedical graduate school research campus. There were multiple suicides among students and postdocs in the seven years I was there, and the faculty/administration attitude could be summed up as, “Some people just aren’t cut out for the demands of world class research.”

  20. hchem says:

    So did everyone miss the fact that harvard chem has had two suicides this year that have not been reported? seems like the focus should be on the other side of the river charles…

    1. HMSguest says:

      I did not hear of this. How was this not reported? Any links?

    2. Dr. Zoidberg says:

      There have been multiple people talking about these suicides, is there some way to get more information? I wasn’t able to find anything.

      Also, this incident happened at Harvard, so not sure what you mean about looking at the other side of the Charles.

      1. HChem says:

        HSCI is in Allston, the south side of the river…

      2. SP says:

        This is not true, I don’t know why there are comments saying this.

        1. hc says:

          i have heard one in a young profs lab, one in another

          1. SP says:

            Any time a student dies at Harvard it’s reported in some newspaper somewhere (Crimson, Globe, Tech.) Regardless of whether the cause of death, suicide or otherwise, has been confirmed, can you point to any reports of a Harvard graduate student dying in 2016? The only thing reported is a summer student drowned when he went swimming in the Charles.
            I suspect this is just completely made up, for what reason I have no idea.

        2. @SP says:

          @SP – you should be a little more respectful for events that happened recently. The idea that “everything” is reported by some news organization is laughable

          1. Incredulous says:

            @SP – You’ve remarked about the possibility that these incidents are “fake” news. I think there are a couple of things at work.

            First, grad students and postdocs, even Harvard ones, by the simple fact of being older and perhaps being seen as “knowing what they were getting into” generate far less news interest than undergraduates. The bitter, depressed, 28 year old “professional student” without a strong social support network has much less headline power than the naive undergraduate who seemingly could be anyone’s kid.

            Further, also by virtue of being older, grad students and postdocs are a lot more likely to live off campus. Unfortunately, unless the person is famous, a suicide at home is a much smaller news story (if it makes the news at all) than a suicide on campus. A suicide on campus necessarily involves official statements by campus officials and potentially very visible campus investigations. There were several postdoc/grad student suicides in my academic department in NYC in the early 90s. All took place off campus, there was no news coverage, and, as is common with suicides, the obituaries gave no indication of the causes of the deaths. It’s also not hard to imagine that no academic department or school trying to attract talent or win grants would have any interest in publicizing a single suicide, much less admitting there was an institutional problem with a spate of suicides.

            At least the department sent flowers to the funerals.

  21. Jose says:

    This should be required reading prior to any PhD (RIP Jason Altom):

    http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/29/magazine/lethal-chemistry-at-harvard.html

    1. pete says:

      This is the first time I’d encountered this story. Must say, it really got to me – both as a parent and as someone who’s experienced the doctoral / PostDoc trek firsthand.

      It should be required reading for all who run research labs and/or manage research departments, and serve as a case in point for periodic discussion of approaches & policies for avoiding such tragedies.

  22. Blunderbuss says:

    A flagpole on the grave of the current model of graduate education, a gift from the Middle Ages. Looks like that whole institution is just one axe shy of an Overlook Hotel.

  23. MoMo says:

    Ye Gods! Everyone involved in this saga should undergo psychiatric evaluations, in fact, I see a day soon where everyone in the all education systems are evaluated, especially staff! It will be Big Commerce and sensors will track your every move. We do this now except the bruins in VT know they are tracked, as they are much smarter than the average human.
    I wonder if the poor student was evaluated at McLean -its a Harvard affiliated hospital and real close.

  24. Another survivor says:

    Disclaimer: Not taking sides at the particular case.

    I cannot think of any person who has completed a PhD (in chemistry at least) and hasn’t felt at times completely vulnerable toward his/her PI. Using the words of a previous poster, the “power differential” is absolutely huge. Yes, there are formal mechanisms by which a PhD candidate can defend oneself in the case of an unresolved conflict but that is just in theory:

    The value of a fresh out of grad school chemist -especially in the NA culture- is mostly a function of his/her PI’s status in the academic community and how good or bad of a recommendation letter he/she gets. Yes, publications matter but there is no reasonable way to expect a good publishing record in a PhD while having your PI against you. At best average publications and a bad recommendation letter/call mean that more or less you are done at the highest levels (or more optimistically that you get out of grad school with a huge handicap ). I don’t think that people who invest so many years of their life in studies want to start their career in such a way.

    And for the people who say that the colleagues did not stand up for the guy, well how could they? Colleagues in such cases will shut up and wash their hands off of anyone, no matter who is wrong, unless they want to end up in the same case as stated above.

    Also the “world class research” argument is ridiculous. Its a way to make abuse ethical. Being someone’s oompa loompa =/ working hard and doing good science.

    Sincerely,
    Someone who not that long ago survived the “top NA school PI – lowly grad” conflict

    PS: http://tech.mit.edu/V134/N36/travis.html
    First hand accounts say that it was a textbook case of PI abuse breaking the poor guy.

  25. anon says:

    Are chemistry departments somehow more dysfunctional than others? My PhD was in physics and while it certainly wasn’t all sunshine, it wasn’t anything comparable to the life of misery that so many chemists seem to describe.

    Regarding the case: it feels easy to side with the little guy, but without knowing more it’s impossible to say. I’ve personally seen a case (in industry, not academia) where a coworker had mental issues and was claiming all sorts of tricks being done by the bosses to deprive him of his due credit. He sounded very convincing to those how didn’t know the details, but everyone who had worked with him closely knew that there was no truth behind his claims.

  26. I believe the general image of chemistry doctorates is being misrepresented here because those who had legitimate problems are necessarily more vocal. I spent time in 3 top-tier research groups, and although all of the PIs certainly had their own weaknesses, no one in any of those groups came anything close to the kind of conflict or abuse that people have been talking about here as ‘common’. Closest would be people being given dud projects, or being told that they need to work harder without specifying exact times etc.

    I never worked stupid hours, but I got plenty of publications, and now I’ve got my own research group. None of that pressure improves productivity anyway. Don’t work long, work smart.

    1. tlp says:

      sounds like a survivorship bias to me

  27. steve says:

    So I’m confused, It’s been quite a while since I’ve been in academia but doesn’t a lab head have a right to dismiss a graduate student? Why force a psychiatric exam? Couldn’t he just tell the student that he’s disruptive to the lab and needs to leave? Or speak with the Dean who could investigate and talk to the other graduate students? Something is strange here.

  28. dearieme says:

    I was once dragged into a case in a university where I was not employed, apparently intended to be some sort of honest broker between a student and her supervisor who had fallen out completely. As far as I could tell the supervisor’s colleagues thought he, the supervisor, was going mad.

    I declined to take part. There was a Head of Department, a Dean, and a Vice-Chancellor paid to sort out that sort of imbroglio.

  29. KevinH says:

    > doesn’t a lab head have a right to dismiss a graduate student?

    It’s a little more complicated than that these days. At my former institution in Canada (and I’m sure there are as many different policies as there are schools…), a supervisor can’t dismiss a graduate student out of hand. Grad students are attached to their departments, rather than to individual PIs. The authority to move a student to another supervisor, to substantially reconfigure a supervisory committee, or to compel a student to withdraw from the program rests with the department chair.

    Ideally, of course, such decisions are reached in consultation with, and with the consent of, all the involved parties. Where the student or supervisor disagree with the chair’s decision, they can appeal to various committees at levels from the individual department all the way up to the full university; at the highest levels, these hearings can have many of the same trappings (and even similar regulatory oversight) as civil court proceedings.

    It’s definitely less straightforward than the PI saying “I think you’re disruptive so you have to leave”. There is a recognition that the student, PI, department, and university administration have mutual, interacting rights and responsibilities.

    1. steve says:

      So where was the department head in all of this and why wasn’t German moved to another lab? My first job in a company I had a group who complained about one woman. I had her work in another lab for a while and then began to receive the same complaints so I fired her. Six months later I got a call from the University where she landed saying, “Did you ever have these problems with her?” Firing someone was traumatic for me but having two independent confirmations made it a lot easier.

      1. anon says:

        How come the university didn’t know she had those issues? Didn’t you write about it in your “recommendation” letter? OR didn’t they contact former employers prior to hiring her?

        1. Scott says:

          There’s actually some legal precedent in giving a bad recommendation making the person giving it legally liable for damages, even when the downcheck is backed up by data.

          One place I used to work actually refused to admit if you even worked for them, unless you paid another company $100 for the second company to say, “yes, he worked at [company], but that is all we are legally obligated and allowed to say”

      2. Survivor says:

        It’s a good question. Eventually, I switched from academia to industry, and while industry has its own issues, the level of accountability in industry is, on average, astonishingly greater than what is found in academia. From a power perspective, academic PIs essentially are feudal lords, especially if they bring in grant money, whereas there are far more checks and balances on pathological behaviors in industrial science, at least in companies large enough to have proper HR functions.

  30. Li Zhi says:

    German stopped going to the lab because one of the other students boyfriend was a bodybuilder. Well, that’s a perfectly rational response. The judge determined that it was a fact that Rubin acted maliciously. OK, based on what? Isn’t the testimony public record? It’s estimated that 20% of us will experience clinical mental illness at some point in our lives. So, it isn’t out of the question that both German and Rubin are at the fringes of the difficulty distribution, with collision perhaps inevitable. Who knows? I do know for a fact that perception is heavily biased by emotion, so if Rubin felt German was pond scum, then his perceptions of him wouldn’t be unbiased. OTOH, given German’s apparent behavior AND taking into account his lab mates feelings of him CREATING A HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT, then the question is why didn’t the Administration get heavily involved sooner? Why did they let Rubin run this fiasco into the ground? Seems to me this whole incident involves an enormous amount of bureaucratic incompetence as well as the attempt to cover their asses from all the potential risks. Does German own a gun? For godsakes, his parents were so concerned that they were there visiting him at 1 am! German, he believed some HEARSAY testimony and decided to blow the whistle? Wow, just wow. Other that what the judge is claimed to have found, the article presents zero evidence, zero!, that Rubin has done anything wrong. I’m not saying he didn’t, and neither am I saying that the alleged research misconduct wasn’t real and wasn’t covered-up – but what I am saying is that the article is clear that German had some serious mental problems. On the other hand, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely: PIs hold too much power over the careers and lives of their students.

    1. Anon says:

      According to you, there is absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the PI (when you exempt the conclusion of the judge) but there is sufficient evidence to conclude that “German had some serious mental problems”.

      I don’t see how the parents being at German’s house at night is evidence of some severe problem (perhaps they were staying the night).

  31. Ragin says:

    I was constantly harassed by my grad advisor and never allowed to graduate after many students joined after me and eventually graduated before me, despite producing just as much data/papers/etc, but apparently whatever I did for him was never enough. I just sat an accepted it as I watched students come and go, hoping that I would get a favorable reference. Numerous talks with him led to positive “hard” deadlines only for him to give me more and more work and push it back over a matter of years. I finally just gave him an ultimatum with my dissertation and said, “Here’s my thesis. You can accept it or not, but I’m done with my graduate work. You have one week to respond.” I packed up my stuff and went home.

    One week came and went with no response so I went behind his back to have a change filed to remove him from my committee so I can be granted my degree. It was a tedious process and the graduate school and the chem department did not want to help, but fortunately, the outgoing chair and I were really close for various reasons. He got me pushed through, thankfully. I ended up getting a job that did not contact my references either. Ultimately, my advisor got over it and we still talk now, but during that point in my life, there wasn’t a day I thought about injuring him.

    1. Bla says:

      This is as much a problem with the US system of not having proper end dates for PhDs as a problem with your PI.

      1. Isidore says:

        Easier said than done, having proper end dates that is, for receiving a degree based on research that can be unpredictable in its duration. I mean, it’s one thing doing a Ph.D. in, say, the Napoleonic Wars, for which not much new information is likely to materialize during your research and the time you are writing your dissertation, but putting defined timelines in completing, for example, a synthesis is much trickier. Unless we decide that after 4-5 years, regardless of whether any of your research has yielded any useful results or not, you must receive your Ph.D. for time served.
        When I was a Chemistry graduate student, some decades ago, there were some who entered grad school with me and who finished early, months shy of four years. Then there were some who took five years and some who took longer (plus a few who left/were dismissed with or without a Masters). Even in my research group some people took longer than others to finish, always depending on whether they had gathered sufficient data and produced adequate results to write a defensible thesis.

        1. Yeah_I'm_Still_Bitter says:

          M.D.-Ph.D. students almost universally have a time limit on their dissertation research, I know, I trained enough of them while I was a graduate student. Given that MSTP programs have a budget cap for each student, they always got the projects with the highest probability of technical success while sucking up more lab resources than anyone. Meanwhile, lowly Doctoral students like myself were left to slug it out ourselves and finish in an average of 6-8 years. I suspect this was not limited to my university (a top 3 Med School).

        2. Bla says:

          Works fine in most European countries. Here’s in the UK it’s 3 years funded, one year to write up (quite a few 4 years funded as well now actually). If you haven’t finished by then, you’re not getting your PhD. Everybody knows at the start what’s going on, and people don’t hang around for ages. Helps as well of course that we don’t get distracted by pointless exams and courses here.

          1. Ragin says:

            Bla, that’s a very nice set up, in my opinion. In all of my grad school scouting, there was never anything definitive other than most schools having a max limit of I think 8 years, and petitioning to stay longer. I did not like that, so I tried to narrow it to schools with lower limit(s) because you know that people have reached that max before, and some schools probably extend it to try to get, for example, 99.99% of students out by then.

        3. kriggy says:

          Works great in Europe. PhD in my country (Czech Republic) is most of the time 4 years. By that time studends are able to get at least 2 (usual about 4) publications, 3-6 month visit on foreign university, teach some classes and write the thesis. You can prolong your study by (I think) 2 or 3 years but its not that common unless for some medical reasons.

  32. Yalie says:

    Having graduated my program very recently, this level of dysfunction (albeit not quite the level of dramatic consequence) was extremely common in my department. I cannot remember how many times the rumor mill churned out pretty cringeworthy news about a professor’s actions, including those very similar to this story.

    Just because it isn’t public doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

    1. CR says:

      Just because it was churned out on the rumor mill doesn’t mean it happened either. Or it didn’t happen exactly how the rumor mill stated.

  33. hc says:

    @kriggy – those must be high impact publications getting cranked out by 2nd and 3rd year grad students to consistently have 3-4 and defend in 4 years…job market is going to get flooded with czech phds i guess.

  34. Kent G. Budge says:

    Your neighbor doesn’t watch where he’s going, you end up with a broken leg, and there’s an insurance settlement driven by the alternative of going to court. If the latter had happened, the court would have awarded damages that arguably would have done a reasonable job of “making whole” the damage done by your neighbor’s negligence, which is the objective of civil law.

    This strikes me as the kind of situation that neither law nor equity are capable of “making whole” in any really useful way. Yet the court was asked to settle the dispute and tried to hammer a ruling together that would do what little was within the power of the court to “make whole.”

    There are all kinds of lessons here, most of which we won’t actually take because we probably aren’t getting most of the story. But “courts are a lousy place to settle disputes and should be an absolute last resort” was conventional wisdom a century ago — there’s a copy of The Book of Useful Knowledge in the family, copyright ca. 1880, in which there’s a whole chapter devoted to this theme.

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