Today’s column goes out to readers in graduate school. Are you feeling as if you have more to do than a single person can accomplish? Does your boss expect a lot of you, pushing for results? All that can be pretty standard for the PhD experience, but here’s another question: does your research advisor scream at you and threaten you? Constantly insult and berate you and other lab members? That is way over the line, and don’t ever think it isn’t. That, you don’t have to put up with.
This story is what has me writing about this today. It’s about the suicide of a Wisconsin engineering student, John Brady, who found himself in just such an environment, and whose mental health was in the end put under too much strain by it.
Graduate students described the work environment under engineering professor Akbar Sayeed as “toxic” and “abusive.” The professor called students “monkeys” and “chimpanzees.” One said he compared them to “slaves” who must learn to endure pain because it would last only four or five years.
Turnover seemed constant. Some students joined his lab only to leave within a few months, even though it meant losing their financial stipend. The churn put more pressure on Brady, who came to UW-Madison in 2010 to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering and worked as a research assistant in Sayeed’s lab. Despite Brady and others’ attempts to address how Sayeed’s behavior drove students away, the tirades continued and Brady’s responsibilities mounted. He trained new student workers on top of his own research, pushing his degree further into the future.
The problem is, there are people like this all over academia. They’re not the majority, of course – you’re not going to automatically end up working for someone who has such fits in your presence that you record their abuse as evidence (as happened in this case). But too many departments have people like this, at some level or another, and too many universities are willing to look the other way about this sort of behavior.
That’s the accusation in this UW-Madison case, that the department and the graduate school in general allowed this environment to go on for far too long. As usual in such cases, various authorities are saying that they had no idea how bad things were, etc., and who knows, perhaps they didn’t. Incidents of abuse inside research groups have a way of not propagating as far as they should (and to be sure, some people have a way of not hearing about them even when they do, although I have no idea what the mixture of these two was in this specific case).
Even when word does get out, figuring out what to do about a tough lab environment is a tough problem in itself. Many department have no specific policies in place to deal with faculty members about such issues, for one thing. An abusive lab environment can be brushed off with the general observation that yeah, grad school can be pretty unpleasant, and yeah, some of the professors can be, too. All true, but there’s a limit. Grad students are indeed expected to put in long hours and put in a lot of sustained effort on hard problems. There is no requirement that this be an enjoyable process, certainly not all the time, and it’s a rare academic research group where the boss doesn’t get on people’s nerves at various points. Maybe many points. I would guess that the majority of folks finishing up science and engineering PhDs spray gravel in the parking lot (metaphorically or literally!) as they leave – I know I did. But screaming tirades and threats? No. Being a professor doesn’t give someone a license to do that to people. You’re there to push your people, to make them do the best that they can do, but you’re not there to break them into pieces in the process.
Over the years, I’ve seen people who were obviously damaged by their PhD work, and there are plenty more who have dropped out of the field entirely that I would be much less likely to encounter. It’s for sure that some of these folks never should have gone to graduate school in the first place, but that’s not always the explanation, either. Some of them would have made it, and made more of themselves, under different circumstances and with a different research group.
So if you’re a first-year grad student this year, choose carefully. Don’t ignore red flags (higher than usual turnover in a group, worrisome stories that circulate around the department about the professor’s behavior). It really isn’t worth it. Don’t be afraid of hard work – one of the things you can find out in a graduate program is that you’re stronger and smarter than you think, and you should be both by the time you leave with a degree. But don’t confuse hard work and tough research with working for an abusive asshole. You don’t have to do that, and you shouldn’t choose to. You can do well, you can get the degree you’re working for, and you can use it to get on with a good life after graduate school. But working for a lunatic is not the way to do any of those things.
And if you’re already partway through your degree and in a situation like the one described in the Wisconsin story, please get help. Don’t think it’s all your fault, and don’t think that there’s no way out of the place you’ve found yourself in. A really horrible working environment can warp a person’s thinking, and one of the worst parts about grad school is that such an environment can come to seem like your entire life. It isn’t. There’s more. There are a lot of other paths out of the place you’re in than the one that John Brady ended up taking, and in his memory (and the memory of others, those I’ve known and those I’ve just known of), I’m telling you this.