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Graduate Abuse

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.

 

 

126 comments on “Graduate Abuse”

  1. Some Dude says:

    Everyone in chemistry knows there’s a very prestigious group at a very prestigious University in Cambridge, where a large number of students killed themselves – once two in the same year. This lab continues to exist and to provide a large percentage of the faculty appointed for chemistry positions in the US, perpetuating this culture.

    Choosing the wrong lab for the PhD can literally kill you, and people should indeed be very cautious, especially about joining high pressure environments.

    1. db says:

      Curious; what does anyone gain from this information if the details are not given?

        1. anon says:

          The Jason Altom incident was over 20 years ago. Perhaps a little more relevant and useful info/advice in the link.

          https://www.reddit.com/r/chemistry/comments/df5h0x/why_so_many_suicides_in_the_harvard_chemistry/

          1. dearieme says:

            Thank God it’s that Cambridge. Mind you, in the older Cambridge one of the PIs in the Chem labs had a reputation for groping the lassies; he seemed to get off with it for ages. Or so I am told.

            “A shiver moved around the university looking for a spine to run up.”

    2. discovery.fellow says:

      “This lab continues to exist and to provide a large percentage of the faculty appointed for chemistry positions in the US, perpetuating this culture.”

      Whether you intended to refer to the famous Harvard lab referenced below, I’m not sure. But to turn things onto a more positive note, at the same time as the tragedy of Jason Altom a certain CalTech professor was in that same lab, who now has a reputation for being a great boss and a caring mentor.

  2. Kiss the Chemist says:

    Bravo Derek. Excellent post…….and it is just not credible that an abusive supervisor goes unnoticed amongst his collegues. Is it really believable that nodoby in the department knew what this guy was doing to his students. Everyone involved in teaching research has a duty of care that needs to be taken seriously.

    This should never happen again.

  3. Iatrochem says:

    Having worked for an advisor whose claim was that his advisor produced a female PhD while he never did… this was tolerated by the institution and his peers.

  4. Anonymous says:

    A small word of advice to prospective graduate students going on school visits – ask lab members about group culture. Lab dynamics are typically not a secret and you can often find out plenty by just asking (especially after a beer or two is involved). Try and find those students who haven’t drank the group Kool-Aid and get their honest opinion.

    1. Anon3 says:

      Absolutely essential for any job interview process, really.

    2. anonymous says:

      Ask grad students to comment on the culture in other groups; you’ll get a lot more asking them to be honest about someone else’s problems.

      1. Pedwards says:

        Agreed. There are definitely groups where the students acknowledge the behavior but refuse to classify their PI as abusive or say there is anything wrong, even if everyone else is telling them it’s wrong.

  5. Bucky says:

    As a current graduate student at UW-Madison, I have to say that I think the biggest problem is a fundamental lack of leadership skills amongst those tasked with running graduate/academic departments. Being tenured the longest does not in anyway guarantee that any broadly applicable leadership skills exist. The combination of varying levels of social skills, combined with a general aversion to conflict, lead to an environment where the person who is willing to be the biggest a$$hole gets their way nearly all the time, since no one has the courage to put them in their (appropriate) place. I have no problem butting heads with anyone in my department when warranted, but I can only imagine how I would handle things if I was less outspoken and forced to deal with the level of incompetence in leadership I’ve observed in my time here.

    1. r says:

      Agree. The contrast to industry is stark where there are lots of mandatory people management courses required before you are even given a single direct report. It takes a long time in industry before people are convinced that you can lead and advise more than 10+ people, whereas in academia the bar is low and next thing you know, you are mentoring a large group with zero leadership and management training. Prospective students should ask faculty and departments not only about student mental health resources and support, but also ask what management and leadership training they give their new and established faculty.

  6. Hap says:

    The problem isn’t that there are bad advisors, but that their mistreatment and dishonesty are tolerated if not fostered by the administrations of their employers. Universities would never leave tuition or overhead payments up to the goodwill of others, but with academic integrity or the training and treatment of their students, the goodwill of their immediate supervisors is more than enough. Even when people in the administration have concerns or try to help (fraud at Wisconsin in which the students who testified to the fraud were kicked out of the biochem program despite the attempts of their department), they are thwarted. Like lots of other things, the concerns of universities for…anything but whether the checks clear seems rather overdetermined.

    1. Bob Kadobby says:

      Curious what year was the covered up fraud at UW (I’m a graduate of Wisconsin Biochemistry)? I tried to search for it in vain. Thanks.

      1. Hap says:

        This post would reference it (https://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2007/06/the_price_of_calling_out_misco.php) but is inactive (I assume she migrated when Science Blogs Pepsi’d itself).

        1. regdoug says:

          The post Hap references is available on archive.org and it also cites an article from Science (DOI 10.1126/science.313.5791.1222)

    2. anonymous says:

      This is absolutely true. Professors are expensive investments for a department. If they professor behaved badly, but didn’t do anything illegal, it’s in the department’s interest to try and shelve the matter quietly. Administrators can convince themselves that his or her behavior can be improved through a “talking to.” In reality, this rewards bad behavior and people even become convinced that what they’re doing is right. Graduate students (and postdocs) have virtually no power in these kinds of situations. You can complain, but you risk being blacklisted in so many ways, and even future career opportunities. Even if you “kick up the gravel” on your way out, there is basically nothing you can do other than be upset. I think the toxicity can be unbearable and it all stems from the unbelievable power imbalance.

      1. dearieme says:

        “Graduate students (and postdocs) have virtually no power”: that’s the nub of it I’m afraid. As an undergraduate I decided that I’d never be either. I relented on the first when I got a job that would let me take a PhD part time. Even then I had an anxious time of it. It’s difficult when the abusive research supervisor is also Head of Department. I stuck to my resolution never to be a postdoc.

        A problem common in the Arts and Social Sciences is PhD supervisors who simply neglect their duties, leaving novices floundering around without any guidance.

        And then your universities write to you soliciting donations.

        I did make a negative donation to the university system: I persuaded my offspring not to do a PhD.

        1. Anonymous says:

          My Big Name Ph.D. supervisor stopped coming to work sometime around my fourth year. We didn’t publish papers or have group meetings and we even came close to running out of money. The department’s response was to do nothing. It has been about ten years now and we have all, finally, found jobs. But I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that having no or poor-quality publications, as well as guidance, meant that a lot of us didn’t do as well on the market as we should have.

          I went on to do a postdoc with another Big Name. He was terrific. Supported me 100%. He had flaws, of course, but it was a terrific and productive experience. Sure, we argued all the time, but it was never personal, except in the sense that I felt he believed in me. Yes, it was in his self-interest to believe in me, but isn’t that how things are supposed to work?

          Then I did a short second postdoc with an AP at a Big Place. He was insecure as all hell. I did a bunch of work for him on a paper that had been rejected multiple times from several journals. Then I got a job and left. Afterwards, the paper got into a Big Journal. His way of thanking me was to try and boot me down the author list and get administrators to threaten me when I balked. I think he just couldn’t stand being intellectually inferior to me. I told them all to go fly a kite.

          Short of torpedoing my own career, I have no recourse at all. What am I supposed to do? It frustrates the hell out of me there are absolutely no consequences for bad behavior.

    3. Another Anon says:

      This is sadly all too true. When I was a graduate student the graduate school insisted the individual departments institute some sort of feedback process for the students to provide at least a little oversight. My department picked a method that was practically tailored to provide as little oversight as possible; once a year you would fill out a form with any problems you were having in grad school, then take it to your advisor and have them submit it to the department.

      Given this, it wasn’t really a surprise when they made it more explicit that they knew and didn’t care about abusive advisors. A friend went to the department for help with their advisor, who among other abuses had decided that threatening to cut off students’ funding was an excellent motivating tool. (Their group was one of the best-funded in the school and had absolutely no problems with money.) The department’s response was basically to say “hah, yeah, that joker, he’s been doing this for years,” and do nothing.

  7. anon says:

    I am baffled by the original article that said…”Sayeed grew up in a militaristic environment in Pakistan and said he replicated many of the behaviors his father used on him, which led to anger problems he has been seeking to address through counseling since 2013.” Yea, right!

  8. Dave says:

    Occasionally there is a counterpoint to this. When I was a graduate student, someone posted a news article about Theodore Streleski on the bulletin board. We didn’t have any abusive faculty that I was aware of, but the administration sure paid grad students a pittance.

  9. SP123 says:

    So what are your thoughts on unionization of grad students, Derek? When I was in school I was opposed to it, but with hindsight and hearing about things like this continuing on a regular basis I think it’s a reasonable response.

  10. Vandy Alum says:

    My advisor is currently part of the old guard – he threatened to hit someone with a 2 x 4, he’s called students “dumb boob”, he throws markers and erasers, he yells – he apologizes – he yells, he walks out of meetings, he walks out of conversations, he’s rude and ruthless. The chemistry training is good, but people leave here abused and a shell of themselves.

    1. t says:

      Report him to the police. Threats of violence.

    2. anon3 says:

      report him to the NIH or to the media – public money should be used appropriately. If something cannot be tolerated in public offices, should not be tolerated at universities using public money

    3. anon says:

      You should have complained to higher authorities already, yesterday!

    4. PD-op says:

      I was a post doc at VU and have spoken to several current and previous graduate students from this lab over the years – the trainees always speak of verbal abuse from this PI but do so, jokingly, almost as if they had normalized the behavior. GO TO HR. Theres nothing funny about throwing lab notebooks or yelling “who the f*ck do you think you are”. The problem is that this PI is still active. More broadly, as you state it, the “old guard” faculty members like this exist everywhere and either go unnoticed or ignored by department chairs and deans. I firmly believe that the only way to fix this mess is to replace the old guard with well trained newbies (that are held accountable for their behavior).

  11. Harvard alum says:

    We should be naming names of abusive PIs and bad departments for people to avoid, this is not categorically different than #MeToo.

    Shortly after I finished my PhD at Harvard, a grad student in Emily Balskus and a postdoc in Eric Jacobsen’s committed suicide in close succession. I can’t speak to Jacobsen lab’s culture, but Balskus’s lab had a high attrition rate and was known to be a pressure cooker – not uncommon for that department.

    After the suicides, students were instructed by the school to not talk to the media and there was no reporting (maybe they were afraid of a repeat of the bad press from the EJ Corey reporting?).

    A group of PhD students in the Chemistry program surveyed all their classmates on mental health and brought concerning rates of mental health issues and suicide ideation to the school, asking for action, but the school and the department did little.

    Is anyone surprised that Harvard students are unionizing?

    1. Harvard G1 says:

      Thanks for the warning!

    2. NQ says:

      I didn’t know about the Balskus suicide, but I did know about Balskus’s reputation. Thanks for pointing that out as it is critically important. A former collaborating student asked me what I thought of her before he joined her lab, and while I did not convey anything positive to be honest, and only what I knew from a friend previously there, if I’d have known about the suicide my message would have been different. He was already deep in plans to go there, though. Most of us scientists are not clever enough to avoid the shit we can see in front of us for the illusion of glory – I know I wasn’t.

    3. Anon says:

      Everyone knows Balskus lab is a pressure cooker but she’s still treated like a superstar by science media and writers. Sad.

    4. anon says:

      LOL. They are not the same. Not even close. I had no idea creating a high-pressure environment was a criminal offense.

      1. Harvard alum says:

        So any abuse is OK as long as it doesn’t potentially violate Title IX?

        C’mon, any normal employer would put a manager like this under review at a minimum. Professors that are so abusive could in principle by liable to civil suits.

  12. PR says:

    In the original article, the response to one abusive jerk was to create a bunch of new positions and programs (e.g. “Hired 10 additional mental health providers.”). Isn’t it the job of the dean to know what’s going on and to fire the jerk?

  13. navarro says:

    at one point in the late 80s i considered adding a chemistry major to the math and english majors i was already closing in on simply because i had already taken 12 hours of chemistry as electives. my complete inability to grasp reaction mechanisms in organic finally disabused me of that (i’ve never worked harder for an “f” in any subject than i did for organic). before i reached that point i took advanced inorganic which i enjoyed and then i had an opportunity to spend a summer working on a research project for undergraduate credit. there were two research projects going on, one under the aegis of the p-chem professor and the other was being run by the senior inorganic specialist. i chose the latter because he had taught the class i had just finished and i knew him better than the other one.

    as it happened, i was so glad i chose as i did. under the supervision of dr. inorganic i learned so much about working in oxygen-free conditions with extremely pyrophoric compounds and how to characterize said compounds. he was both unfailingly supportive and incessantly demanding and i was able to get more done in 12 weeks than i would ever have thought possible.

    down the hall in dr. p-chem’s lab was an unfolding slapstick tragedy. he was an impatient micro-manager with a completely flat affect. it was virtually impossible to tell whether he was pleased or furious at any point and it seemed like even odds of either. the only way you could tell which was by the words he used. when he was angry those words would be vicious yet spoken in a flat, conversational tone. when the summer term started he had gone from 4 grad students to 3. by the end of the first summer term it was down to 2 and by the middle of the second term his last grad student literally ran from the building screaming. he ended up dropping out that day and i heard that he finished his master’s degree at another university.

    dr. p-chem’s research never reached publication and he was allowed to retire and continue occupying space on an emeritus basis. dr. inorganic’s research led to a series of papers, two of which reached publication. i ended up on an acknowledgements page for all the people who contributed in small ways. i hate to think what might have happened if i had gone the other way with summer projects.

  14. BK says:

    It’s not uncommon to hear stories of suicide and attempted suicide at some of the top tier institutions. But having firsthand witness of abuse by a few profs in my graduate tenure, I cannot stress enough how important it is to talk to people about this kind of thing. I was also negatively affected by such and stayed in grad school longer than I should have.

    I now have interactions with summer interns/co-ops and tell them to not pursue a PhD without a Master’s degree first to make sure you know what you’re getting into. I also advise them to avoid certain universities and professors of which any rumor has ever made it to my ears such that they can hopefully have a leg up in making a wise decision.

  15. two schools, two outcomes says:

    At my *first* school, the people on top did not care, did not care, did not care to hear about the abusive advisors, and there were many. It was a top-ten school and surely gets a lot of applications. The lab photos online show that the groups are swollen with grad students. Abuse a grad student? There will be others to take their place.

    After getting canned via a letter in the campus mail, I moved to my second school, which is a fine school and on its way up. But would you say that Harvard, for example, is a fine school on its way up? You get the picture. The students were orders of magnitude happier…because there weren’t as many students. Abuse a grad student and they leave? Well congrats, you no longer have any grad students. Supply and demand is a thing, and it relates to more than just money.

    (And, if you’re wondering, most students at less-prestigious school get great jobs after graduation.)

  16. Magrinho says:

    PIs in academy are, as a group, awful managers. As would be anyone without a little bit of training and effort but there are a few who are excellent.
    These PIs cultivate research(ers) and ultimately leave behind terrific legacies. And students are happy – yes, it happens.

    Academia is rule-based just like the rest of the working world. If institutions wanted to improve the situation, they’d make mentoring and managing talent a key criterion for tenure, teaching assignments, better labs, salary, etc.

  17. loupgarous says:

    “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 both by the time you leave with a degree.

    Missing verb between “should” and “both”? “should know both”, maybe?

  18. Bobby says:

    Thank you for this article, Derek! There are plenty of PhD students reading your blog.

    After reading you for a while, you get a false sense that you know someone. I don’t know why, but I was a little surprised to see you drop an “a-hole” in your article. Keep up the good work.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Many of the stories, some old, some new, sound very familiar. “Vandy Alum” is, presumably, a Vandy Alum and I could have guessed who that prof might be except that he left Vanderbilt many years ago. On the other hand, I can think of other profs at other institutions who have threatened violence and other serious actions against students. Some readers of In The Pipeline who haven’t been there, might think that a student can just dismiss such ravings as theatrics or “idle threats”. However, the POWER that Profs have over students is enormous. They can make or break your career … on a whim.

    Djerassi asked, “Who will mentor the mentors?” Nature, (Jan 28) 1999, 397(6717), p.291
    https://doi.org/10.1038/16786 Certainly not University admin or departmental colleagues, despite years of claims to the contrary!

    I see here another form of “bahramdipity” (link to PDF in handle) which still exists in too many places.

  20. Watchdog says:

    He served as an NSF program officer while on administrative leave. That seems…sketchy.
    Funding agencies expect that institutions will provide indirect support for research (including HR functions), and universities use this to justify the sky-high overhead costs associated with grants. Failure to provide sufficient oversight should be construed as a misuse of federal funds and should be met with sanctions against the PI and the University. Instead, this guy gets to ride out his suspension at NSF.

    Unbelievable.

  21. Joe Q. says:

    Well said, Derek.

    The nature of the professor-student relationship is IMO one of the most important aspects of graduate education (if not *the* most important). It’s supposed to be about training, mentorship, and personal growth, without which the experience is just mechanical. Five or six years is a long time to spend in an adversarial or fear-based relationship with a supervisor, especially when you need his / her blessing for whatever you choose to do next. I think that new graduate students are wise to keep that in mind, and need to consider their supervisor’s approach and personality very carefully. The project itself matters less (again, IMO).

  22. Larry says:

    I was a post-doc for (the late) Paul Gassman in the 80’s. When you arrived in the group you were given a 5 page letter, stating clearly what was expected of you. He expected a minimum of 60 hours/week, with 10 hours journal reading being included in this time. For grad students this included class time. For us Post Doc’s, we were expected to take leadership positions in the group and to essentially be independent researchers as well as mentors to the grad students. It was also stated that his recommendation letters carry a lot of weight, that is he would not give a “good” one willy-nilly. You had to perform to a certain standard. If you met that standard he would back you all the way. He was tough, but fair. Not cruel or mean spirited in any way, but you knew if you were not performing up to his expectations of you. We all knew going in what was expected of us. His philosophy was that the people working in his group are involved in a chemistry apprenticeship. He set the standards for research for us to follow. He also included, in his letter, a copy of a letter written by Al Myers (Colorado State) detailing the same philosophy. I still keep a copy of these letters with me and read them every so often.
    Old school all the way!

    1. Hap says:

      Those don’t seem like unreasonable requests though – they seem okay (50 h lab and 10 h reading seems like something that would not foster mental illness) and they are explicit rather than put in place by psychological warfare. They seem somewhat different than the expectations of Carreira’s infamous post-doc letter.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      I’m OK with that – everything is laid out, people know what they’re getting into, and if the PI lives up to their end of the bargain, then this can work. And, of course, if the PI can get people to this level of performance without beating them up, of course.

      1. Larry says:

        I agree, as long as one knows going in what is expected there should be no issues. That’s why I was glad to get the letter when I joined his group.

    3. Anon says:

      @ Larry…..I can arrange for these letters (as pdf file) that I have in my possession sent to you ? The documents are too long to be posted here in. What do you think? Are you or any one interested? Granted that these fellows are no longer alive but the letters do reveal, how mean these tyrants are!

      1. Larry says:

        I’ve got them, thanks.

      2. MG says:

        Hi, I am interested in getting these letters if you don’t mind. Can you send by E-mail?

        1. Larry says:

          Yes, what is your email address.

          1. MG says:

            Hello Larry,
            My email is muki_01@rediffmail.com. Thanks for agreeing to send the letters.

          1. MG says:

            Thanks Larry !!

          2. NMH says:

            This is why things like the Bolshevik revolution occur: “Leaders” who act in an irresponsible manner (thinking that their intelligence and “leadership skills” makes up for this), who expect way more from their charges than the leaders could possibly deliver to them. Only in academia.

    4. NMH says:

      “For us Post Doc’s, we were expected to take leadership positions in the group and to essentially be independent researchers as well as mentors to the grad students.”

      Wait a minute…isn’t that what the ADVISOR is supposed to do? It sounds like the advisor is being, at least in part, irresponsible. If an advisor has a lot of grad students and post-docs, it is the advisors responsibility to mentor them properly, or he/she should not have them in the first place.

      Why should a “trainee” (which is an ironic word use, because it implies you might actually learn something from your advisor) work longer than the mandated 40 hr work week? Because academia is somehow special?

    5. Adamantane says:

      The letters Larry mentioned are online here: http://www.chemistry-blog.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Gassman-and-Meyers.pdf

      Even though I got my PhD recently, I read these letters as well and had them at my desk. I do agree with the spirit of the letters – a PhD is hard work and you’re expected to put in the effort, and if you do, the PI should back you.

      And holy S**t, I did not know about the Baluskus and Jacobsen suicides. That is tragic.

  23. Isidore says:

    Reading the above makes me aware how lucky I was with my PhD advisor, whose scientific and professional standards were high while being a gentleman through and through; I would like to think that the above examples notwithstanding, this majority of PIs are like this. He never mistreated his students and post-docs and his criticisms were direct and clear but never insulting. There was an incident with one graduate student, an eminently competent and bright fellow, who had done something related to his research that the Professor disapproved of. He (the Professor) kept repeating “I can’t believe you did this!”, which was as harsh as it got. In exasperation, the students response was “I guess that’s the way I am”. We still laugh about this decades later.

  24. Jürgen Bosch says:

    Thanks for sharing Derek. I think you used absolutely appropriate language for such a nasty case.

    Here’s another suggestion, in case you are in such a situation or know of someone in an abusive lab. Donate the PI a book via Kindle e.g. “Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth”. And definitely don’t wait talking to someone and taking action.

  25. there is help says:

    To all graduate students reading this, if you are having thoughts of ending your life, text HOME to 741741. There are trained crisis counselors available 24/7 to support you and direct you to resources that might make a difference.

  26. MTK says:

    Anytime there’s a large disparity in power there’s going to be some abuses of that power unfortunately.

  27. now an academic med chemist says:

    Regrading the question “does your research advisor scream at you and threaten you? Constantly insult and berate you and other lab members?”

    My research advisor? No way. Me as a research advisor? No way.

    But I had a pharma job where the head of chemistry was EXACTLY like that., Profane, verbally abusive, crude, demeaning, rude. Other days he was an angel. Perhaps bipolar.

    HR would do NOTHING about it, since he was best buddies with the CEO. Quitting was the only option for me, and many others.

    Don’t be that boss, in academia OR industry.

    1. Dave says:

      Yeah – I had a boss like that too – a real sociopath. Told all his direct reports every day that nothing they did was important and that they would no doubt lose their jobs. TOld someone he wanted everyone who worked for him to be worried they would lose their job because he thought they would work harder.

  28. Wavefunction says:

    So much of this also seems to be field and time-dependent. Organic synthesis and especially total synthesis acquired a reputation where chest-thumping proclamations about how one could accomplish something based on sheer stamina were considered a badge of honor. Stories of people like Woodward being in his all year long including Christmas and making do with no exercise and 4 hours of sleep at night or Nicolaou finding Baran fast asleep on the NMR spectrum of the CP molecules were held up as things to aspire to.

    Most problems with the culture such as the lack of gender balance, the semi-incestuous propagation of members of the same three or four schools, the self-flagellation and suicides and the mental health issues were either pushed under the rug or held up as signs of weakness in a dog-eat-dog world. Institutional mechanisms for providing critical feedback on advisors also did not exist for a long time. We need to stop glorifying people and start recognizing their flaws without dismissing their greatness.

    1. Anonymous says:

      How can their be consequences for abuse in academia?

      Saying “these people aren’t perfect” doesn’t seem to cut it given the number of people who die from this or have their lives damaged.

      Chemistry should not be powered by human sacrifices.

  29. Retro Sinner says:

    There’s no excuse for bullying and abusive PIs. How much long term influence do PIs hold in the US? Does US corporate recruitment really value recommendations from them? My experience in the UK is that those days are long gone despite what academics might think. The interview is everything, certainly that’s how we operate. In reverse, if we provide references for ex-employees they can only be straight facts delivered by HR – role, worked X years, no reported safety issues etc and that’s all we see from elsewhere – too much concern over legal action if there is any misrepresentation.

    1. dearieme says:

      And perhaps also too much concern over legal action if there is too much accurate representation.

    2. nowhereman says:

      At the US big pharma where I work at least, faculty letters matter a lot. There are more candidates applying who look solid on paper than we can interview in person. Short face to face on campus interviews are useful, but we still can only bring in a subset of the qualified candidates. A non-enthusiastic letter from a current or past advisor is probably going to cost you the chance to interview.

  30. luysii says:

    Things have changed ! ! ! And not for the better ! !

    Back in ’60 – ’62 Don Voet and I used to ask each other — “are they really paying us to have all this fun?” Granted, I didn’t complete the PhD getting only a masters before going back to medicine, but Don did as did everyone else except one of the women who felt intimidated. However, she transferred to MIT for her PhD (supposedly a bastion of male chauvinism) and found it more welcoming and supportive than Harvard. I’ve kept up with a few and none complained about the atmosphere. The one getting his PhD from Corey never said much about it, being one of the most taciturn people I’ve ever met, but went on to coauthor a very successful textbook and be a department chair. Woodward, in particular, treated me and all his students well. Bill Lipscomb was quite nice to a girlfriend who got her PhD from him. She really liked him. Another PI used to take his grad students out to dinner (including another friend who also became a department chair).

    1. Wavefunction says:

      “She transferred to MIT for her PhD (supposedly a bastion of male chauvinism) and found it more welcoming and supportive than Harvard”

      MIT was quite progressive for the times, much more so than Harvard and even Caltech. For instance, Jack Roberts took with him Caltech’s first female graduate student (Dorothy Semenov) when he moved there from MIT.

      1. Sideline Chemist says:

        Fun fact: In 1870, MIT admitted Ellen Swallow into the chemistry program as the first woman student at MIT. She earned a BS in chemistry in 1873 and was in line to be awarded MIT’s first MS degree in chemistry, but the faculty wouldn’t allow their first degree to go to a woman. Ellen went on essentially found the basis of home economics.

  31. Dustin says:

    My University of Texas hallway friend Chetan Mahajan went to UW for a postdoc and died less than a year later. Nobody from his PhD group would tell me what happened to him. Just that “he was in his 20s what do you think”.

  32. Icefox says:

    I never had to deal with this sort of stuff in grad school, my advisor was vaguely neglectful at worst, which suited me fine. But if it had been worse I knew who I could have gone to: the department graduate office, who were very nice and compassionate people, and the school’s Graduate Student Association, who took seriously their job to advocate for grad students to the administration. And I met both of them during grad orientation. And this was at a state school that wasn’t exactly wealthy and able to spend a lot on these efforts. So if you have a problem with your advisor and don’t know who you can talk to about it, take that as a warning sign that the school doesn’t have your best interests at heart.

  33. Jake says:

    I remember being in grad school in a different discipline and one thing we told each other when things seemed overwhelming was how much worse the grad students had it over in the chemistry department.

  34. DrGreen says:

    When I was applying to graduate schools, an older friend in my field (ecology and evolutionary biology) gave me some of the best advice I ever got: choosing a graduate advisor is the closest you ever come to choosing a parent, so choose wisely. Your advisor has enormous power over you and your career trajectory, and you’ll spend 5 years (at least) subject to their authority. At the time, I was trying to decide between two labs, one at a very prestigious university but with a PI whose reputation for spitefulness preceded him, and one at state school with modest resources with a PI whose students universally spoke well of her. I went to the state school. My advisor was a phenomenal role model and came to be a friend, and I’ve been happily employed in my field since finishing. Even so, I struggled with depression and anxiety in graduate school. It is a pressure cooker atmosphere that drives people, even in the best of circumstances, into unhealthy mental states. I hate to imagine what my experience might have been if I’d gone through all of that with an unsupportive or even abusive PI. If you’re a prospective graduate student reading this comment, please remember: choose wisely. It really is like choosing a parent.

    1. dearieme says:

      Well said.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the post, Derek.

    Just a reminder, even if your graduate advisor is not abusive, their lab may not be an environment that is suited for you. There is no need for blame here: it’s not your fault for not being able to survive in the environment, and it’s not your advisor’s fault for not creating your ideal environment. However, it is absolutely critical to take care of yourself. For context, I genuinely believe this happened in our lab last year: that our PI was just as heartbroken as the rest of us when we found out how toxic our environment was for one of us, and that I’m not suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

    To echo others’ comments, please seek help as soon as you realize you aren’t doing well. You don’t need to understand the root cause. Your friends just don’t want it to be too late.

  36. DrOcto says:

    What’s so hard about telling your professor: ‘You’ll get 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for four years. If I’m doing something cool in the lab I might stay late on occasion, or come in Saturday but that is by no means a given and will be completely up to me. When I am here I promise that I’ll work to the best of my ability’

    If they have a problem with this from day one, then at least you’ll be going into that environment with open eyes.

    Many ambitious chemists do actively seek out these prestigious pressure cooker groups, because they either see them as either good training or as a potential career boost, and again they go into that environment of their own free will with eyes open. Of course there are just as many that aren’t fully aware of what they have signed up for, and that there are in fact other options more suited to their needs and goals.

    1. Fair and balanced says:

      At a very recent prestigious conference, an activity was designed to discuss, in a round table format, these issues, including mainly many students and PIs. Also folks from the pharma industry, but fewer.
      The students said very openly what you wrote in your message. They expect to have a good work/life balance, not working on evenings and weekends, and don’t understand what could motivate the PIs who work over the weekends and late nights. They thought the PI’s “don’t have a life”. They also expect to get a degree in 4 years, tops 5, and after that, they expect the PI’s support to get the job of their own choosing. Are these expectations reasonable? And if so, are they reasonable in every lab or university?

      I had the opportunity to work for a Nobel laureate. There, I learned of high standards, both in science and in treating people. So, it can be done. But, from both ends, one must be reasonable and understand that sometimes it takes years of extraordinary efforts to accomplish extraordinary science – something many of us aspire to.

    2. Flipside says:

      First, I’m not excusing the behavior in the linked article at UW-that is extreme. But he problem with the above comment is that you are going to get left in the dust if you are at a top place aspiring to do top science. The labs in China literally have two shifts now, and work round the clock. That’s not hyperbole. I am a PI at a top place, and the fact is that if I am putting students/pdocs on a very competitive/exciting project then I must consider whether we are going at a reasonable speed for the expectation and upside. Sorry, just true. Of course all the students want to get a nature paper, work 8 hrs a day, have vacation whenever, sip their coffee, and get whatever job they want. As said elsewhere on this page, truly exceptional science requires not only exceptional insight but in this day and age intense focus and time commitment. I think part of the problem is that many grad students come in used to going to three hours of class a day and are not ready as adults to handle responsibility and commitment. So their PIs pushing them to become adults and go at a speed that matches their expectations of outcomes is dubbed “toxic” and “abusive.”
      It goes both ways.

      1. Anonymous says:

        I don’t think anyone has a problem with working hard for short periods of time while things are busy. But people are not “immature” to wanting to have some work-life balance. It’s exactly this kind of thinking that leads to people burning out and poor mental health outcomes. It is perfectly possible to get good science done with 50 hours a week.

      2. x says:

        “truly exceptional science requires not only exceptional insight but in this day and age intense focus and time commitment.”

        Sounds like bullshit to me. Why is this required? Because labs want to run their staff ragged to save money? Because of some misguided ideals about commitment and personal sacrifice?

        It’s the same as crunch in the video game industry. The studios act like crunch is not only inevitable but some sort of magical process without which you can’t produce a good game. It’s bullshit there too, and everyone knows it; the only reason it persists is because the workers are powerless to change the management culture.

    3. Anonymous says:

      DrOcto: “8 hrs x 5 days”. Maybe the computational chemists and biologists (just kidding, had to get in a dig) can try that. Experimental chemistry research does not always conform to bankers’ hours.
      Not Yet Dr (below) mentions the “exploitation of passion”.
      luyssi, about the 1960s: ““are they really paying us to have all this fun?””

      I think that there MANY people reading In The Pipeline that are “old school” in their passion for scientific research and discovery. Years ago, when “old school” was old school, that passion wasn’t exploited, it was rewarded. And there’s the contemporary disconnect.

      Myron Rosenblum was the grad student with Woodward who was yanked from his project and switched to ferrocene in response to the 1951 Pauson Nature paper incorrectly claiming Cp-sigma-Fe-sigma-Cp. Years later, Rosenblum told a story: He and another student were working in the lab around 2 AM on a Sat-night Sun-morning. Woodward and Stork (and their wives) stopped by the lab after a night out clubbing (at nightclubs, not baby seals). Rosenblum was asked about why they were in the lab at 2AM: pressure from RBW? Peer pressure – ‘I have to work more hours than the other guy’? NO! “That’s where we loved to be.”

      In the 50s and into the 60s and early 70s, I think that passion like that was rewarded. Things have changed with the growth of academic research and increased competition for grant money. The loss of industrial R&D opportunities has led to cut-throat competition for tenure track positions. Once in, the pressure to bring in funding occasionally leads to “pathological science” (Langmuir’s term) and pathological behaviors … and “the exploitation of passion” of the graduate students and post-docs.

      (Side note to luyssi and women grad students at Harvard chem: Harry Wasserman joined the RBW lab in 1941, went off to war, and finished his PhD in ~1947. He married another RBW grad student, Elga, in 1947. She earned her PhD with RBW in 1949.)

      1. juniper says:

        Trying to imagine Woodward and Stork in a nightclub is a bit much. I have to imagine “nightclub” had a very different meaning back then.

  37. Not Yet Dr. says:

    “There is no requirement that this be an enjoyable process”
    But that’s the real problem, isn’t it? The whole system of academic science is based on the exploitation of passion. I’m a PhD student at a largeish German university, so I completed a master’s degree before starting, which is five years of education under my belt.
    Still I get paid on a level that allows me to subsist, but definitely not to further my life in any way, or – god forbid – start a family. I don’t complain about this, because Iove what I’m doing, but viewed from an economic standpoint, I generate the product that my PI and my university sell, which is highly specialized work, and I get a pittance (especially calculated as hourly wage).
    Combine this with an asshole PI (whom I luckily don’t have), and a bad working environment (which I luckily don’t have either), and you get the above. Unionization of grad students might be a good first step in a better direction, I think.

    1. T says:

      Yes this! PhD students are treated as students when it suits the university, i.e. people who are there learning for their own benefit and don’t need to be paid very much or get normal work benefits, but at the same time, they are the main people who produce the research results (and scientific progress) that the success of their PIs and institutes depend on, and are treated as employees who are responsible for efficiently achieving “outcomes” as @Flipside argues is reasonable above. Make up your mind. Are they students there primarily to further their education (in which case by all means pay them a pittance and give them no employee benefits but you should really be supporting them in their learning not insisting that they work 70+ hrs a week to further your own professional goals), or are they workers who produce the product that pays everyone’s salary (in which case by all means set productivity goals for measurable outcomes but do so openly and clearly and reward them appropriately within the legal framework of employment law in your region). You can’t have it both ways.

      1. flipped says:

        @T, this is @flipside. You are the one trying to have it both ways. The work done by graduate students/postdocs is of course what runs PI labs, papers, funding and university prestige etc etc. BUT – it is also TRAINS those students. Everyone acts like they come in all ready to go – to be “employees” as it were. They are not. They are a mess for 3/4 of their time in the lab. And that is fine, they are being educated. Say what you want but training in research is still very much apprenticeship-based. MOST importantly, the research they accomplish and the so-called “outcomes” are THEIRS for their career. I did things in grad school and my postdoc that I are still academically and commercially humming along. That helped make MY career, as well as those I worked for. Everyone seems to forget that part of this. That there is an immense investment in students, and that’s the way it should be.

        1. Hap says:

          The way professors act, though, isn’t always consistent with having an investment in students. Treating people like this advisor did (and like a nonnegligible fraction of advisors do) is not consistent with making an investment in students. An awful lot of incidents lately (from Sangji”s death to the Myers patent case) make it seem that the relationship of advisors with advisees is not a relationship worthy of concern. The inequity in power in the professor-student relationship is always present, but given its presence, it could be managed to mitigate its abuse if there was any interest in doing so. Instead, in a significant number of cases, the interest of a professor in their students seems more akin to the interest of a sweatshop owner in their employees.

          Apprentices are supposed to matter to their masters, but students don’t always seem to matter to advisors, and universities (who in theory are supposed to educate) seem uninterested in making sure that the advisor-advisee relationship functions to produce anything other than money.

        2. anon says:

          While an excellent rationalization, this is also a pessimistic estimate of the amount of quality work done by graduate students and an optimistic estimate of the outcome. Good science often does require hard work. I would agree more if most students had your experience. However, faculty tend to get the credit and rewards for research, even for the many projects conceived and directed by students.

          1. Flipped says:

            You are all just operating under the dilusion that every student who comes in has the potential to be a great scientist, the tenacity to see great science through, and most importantly the luck to be in the right place at the right time. An excellent summary of this “everyone is a winner” society. Not everyone will have the same “outcomes”- we don’t all hit the jackpot or even leave the table up on our bets. It’s the same everywhere. You all jist pretend it’s unique to science. All that said- it still does not excuse this kind of behavior from clear bad actors. But stop trying to throw the baby out with the bath water.

        3. x says:

          This is the same line creative professionals get – “work for me for free, you’ll get experience, it’ll build your portfolio.” They figured out the right answer, too: “fuck you, pay me.”

  38. Emjeff says:

    Academia is sadly behind the times in a lot of ways, and this is a great illustration. I am active in a professional society, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to talk with an academic who has just been elected to an office, and thinks he/she can talk to the staff like they talk to their grad students. This never happens with industry people, because the modern industry scientist knows that they can be fired for such behavior. But, the academics don’t get it. This will not be fixed until the ivory tower realizes that they don’t know everything and need to catch up with the rest of the world.

    Regarding unionization of grad students, this is about the worst idea I’ve ever heard. One reason is, they are all corrupt to the core, but the most important reason is that unions are , by nature socialists in the sense that everyone should get the same compensation regardless of talent. This would be an absolute disaster.

    1. Hap says:

      Unions are sort of like democracy – worse until you see the alternatives.

      The problem with grad schools is that students have no relevance to any of the other parties. Professors need money and to get published – students are the way they do that but they can get pubs lots of ways (whether they torture students or not). The university cares about getting paid, and sometimes about reputation (but not much and not enduringly), but not much about students. They may care about legal liability, but big schools have an awful lot of lawyers (and I don’t know that depending on the legal system for grad school shalom is better than depending on unions). If universities enforced standards on advisors, it could get done, but universities have no reason to do so. Journals have little incentive, because as publishing switches to a pay-to-publish model, the payers (authors and funders) hold the cards, and they have similar incentives – to get useful and publishable research. Unions aren’t good, but they are no other entities in this system that have anything resembling students’ interests in mind, or t least over which students are likely to have any say or power. Do you have a better alternative?

    2. Jake says:

      Where I went to grad school we weren’t unionized but there were three pay tiers for us depending on what hurdles we had passed in the program (preliminary exams, qualifying exams) and I thought it worked great. If nothing else it kept the department and faculty from playing favorites.

      Later I was in government with the GS scale and that’s something else that worked great; I wasn’t part of the union but I certainly benefitted from their efforts.

      Now I’m getting older in the private sector and wishing I had somebody looking out for me besides me.

  39. Safe Elsewhere says:

    At the beginning of this year, I was effectively pushed out of Notre Dame for reporting my graduate advisor for general abuse/gaslighting and research misconduct (blatant, blatant fabrication of data in two NIH funded RO1s). It looks like the misconduct investigation is being covered up- its horrifying. He can still take graduate students, have/apply for funding, etc.

    Worse- there was a research asst professor (RAP) who works in the lab that blatantly propositioned me for sex on top of other violations of boundaries, and when I denied him there was retaliation.

    I reported it, a full title IX investigation happened, the no contact order and other things done for my protection were broken with NO repercussions for the faculty member. ND ruled in my favor but nothing was done to accommodate the fear and discomfort I dealt with everyday. Rumor has it there’s consideration to promote RAP to a tenure track position

    I was taken into a graduate program elsewhere and allowed to transfer to another school no help or letter of rec from Notre Dame. It sucked, I feel better now. Moral of the story: There is wonderful faculty in the world.
    Thank goodness for good people.

    1. Concerned Graduate says:

      The ND one is pretty common knowledge among the department… but this post was fairly vague. The department is chemistry, the offenders are:

      Brian Blagg: falsified data, general abuse
      John Koren III: sexual harassment
      Brian Baker: Department chair; did nothing
      Brandon Ashfeld: director of graduate students
      Shelly Liapes: University representative; took no action
      Committee to cover up: Brad Smith, Holly Goodson, Joe O’Tousa, William Schneider, David Go

      I’m not in this lab but everyone at Notre Dame knows all this and does nothing. The graduate student organization has talked to multiple people at the university and they just sweep it under the rug. It’s something everyone knows and faculty just ignores.

      #callthemout

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        This would be a good time to remind people that my leaving comments up here does not, as they say, constitute endorsement or imply that I’ve vetting anything for accuracy, etc. I’m sure past examples over the years make that clear, but I wanted to re-state it.

    2. Disheveld Dottie says:

      I’m a woman, and I hate to have to say it, but one way to possibly avert unwanted sexual advances like this from faculty, is to just make yourself look as dirty, disheveled, ‘gross’, and unattractive as possible–which is not that hard to do if you’re working insane hours 7-days-a-week in a research lab and getting splashed with bacteria and other muck. Dirty, unwashed, smelly clothes are frequently worn by graduate students. If it helps repel unwanted sexual advances, even better! Of course, this view/approach seems to put all the responsibility on the potential victim….but honestly, I would rather just do everything in my power to avoid such a situation in the first-place, rather than having to report this type of violation and getting into a “He said, she said” sort of ugly mess. It’s sad that we have to think and live this way, but sometimes all you can do is just focus on survival.

  40. Anonymous says:

    I did a PhD for a scheming screamer who constantly harassed and berated people. She was so dishonest, she deliberately removed me as an author on 7 papers and had other “authors” listed as personal favors, no input needed. I occasionally get emails from prospective students asking what her lab is like, and I warn them to stay clear. She hasn’t been sacked yet.

  41. T says:

    We should be careful saying the line should be drawn at “screaming and shouting”. There is a lot of other (somewhat more more insidious but just as serious) abusive behaviour. I witnessed professors: making the student TA/dogsbody for the postdoc who happened to be the PI’s wife during the day (7 days a week) so that the only time they could work on their own project was at night; moving a student’s desk out of the communal room with everyone else and into the corridor outside the boss’ door so that the boss could “keep a close eye” on them (i.e. constantly criticize and berate); routinely granting holiday requests but repeatedly “forgetting” to sign the form and then withdrawing permission at the very last minute (once travel was already booked); removing someone as an author on a paper as punishment for doing something the PI didn’t like; and granting first authorship for the publication of someone’s work to another group member (who later became the PI’s girlfriend) although this person had little involvement in that project. And lets not forget that trick of giving the same project to several students (often without telling them) and the first to publish wins, with the others having wasted several (miserable) years of their lives. There really needs to be some method to reign in the absolute power PIs currently have over those in their groups since these people can’t publish/graduate without their support.

    1. AbusedDPhilStudent says:

      I couldn’t agree more. My DPhil supervisor never screamed or shouted at me, but he still abused me to the point that I became both physically and mentally ill, had daily suicidal thoughts and needed medical support.

      Oxford’s Chemistry department is full of abusers. SJC wasn’t even the worst of them…

  42. luysii says:

    The PhD is the last feudal system left standing. You are totally at the mercy of your liege lord some of whom think the droit de seigneur still applies. Nonetheless the system produces an excellent product (in those who survive). Sorry to read all the comments. Sounds horrible.

  43. Lambcops says:

    I’d first like to counterpoint all the depressing stories with my positive experiences with my supervisor, who in addition to useful discussions about chemistry knew how to give a metaphorical kick up the arse in a productive way (chat in private, noting I should recognise myself that the quality of my work/attention to detail had been slipping and providing positive encouragement not to be intimidated by the, rather stellar, qualities of my colleagues and have a bit more confidence in myself). This helped me get through a mid phd slump. I also credit them for vastly improving my presentation skills, which perhaps had the most beneficial effect of any part of my studies on my future career.

    But . . .

    I know I got lucky. There are groups where I wouldn’t have flourished. Then at the worst end everyone in our department knew the stories of advisers like the one’s mentioned in this post, who ranted and raved, showed favouritism, fostered an unhealthy environment or downright bullied people. Of the 3 people I interviewed for one was my supervisor and the other 2 were in the second category.

    While I’d advise anyone (as others have done) to ask group members (particularly about other groups!) this isn’t always enough. The supervisors I dodged were both perfectly charming on the day and I didn’t hear anything to put me off. Given that I was moving to a new university it’s unlikely I would have heard anything. So while it’s a good move to protect yourself it’s not a cast iron guarantee you’ll avoid the worst.

    On another downer, I’m glad I’m not a woman – the extra dimension of unwanted advances, groping etc is awful and we’d all heard stories about certain people. Pretty depressing to hear people who have been on the receiving end of such things almost turning it into a joke/anecdote emphasising that the presence of at least a couple of people who are “wrong ‘uns” sadly appears to be the norm rather than the exception. It seems people are more willing to speak out now rather than it being accepted, but there doesn’t yet appear to be enough being done to stamp this behaviour out completely, which is a real shame.

  44. NMH says:

    I have worked for 4 or 5 advisors, and none of them have been even close to what I expect an advisor should be. All of them have expected that the lab should completely run itself (post-docs and grad students work almost completely independently) and pretty much sit around and wait for positive publishable results to come in. I had one advisor who was a horrible jerk but not quite at the level of abusiveness that this guy was.

    If your on your own as grad student/post-doc as you are most of the time, with little help by the person that should be helping you, this is bad enough. Then to be verbally abused by a useless prof on top of that?

    Academia is one screwed up system. These days its all about bringing in grant money; that is what the school wants, and too many advisors judge their value by this metric rather than whether you are a good advisor to your charges.

    1. SG says:

      I could not agree more. There are many important components to advising that are missed with an absantee advisor. Notably: ongoing, critical, and timely review of a student’s work. So that they are ready to present it with few surprises, and minimal wasted effort!

      Also, a true understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, to help guide their career choices, would be nice too. That takes time and regular interaction between advisor and advisee.

  45. ex rice says:

    I ended up switching to a different graduate school after just one semester at Rice University. It turned out that it didn’t take a lab to mistreat graduate students. I had previously completed my Masters degree from another university that was top-ranked in the world in my field. Then I worked for a few years in the industry. When I re-started at Rice, I wanted to devote enough time to study for classes. My subject is very technical. I had forgotten a lot of details by the time I re-started at Rice. My MS alma mater, let’s call it MSAM, is a lot more theoretical than Rice, with the majority of their grads becoming academic researchers or professors. Whereas I have always been interested in more applied research in the industry. Hence I wanted to devote enough time to rebuild, rearrange, re-tool my skills. Since my school training doesn’t really fit applied research setting well. There were only a handful of PhD students admitted every year. From my CV, I think I rank first or second among my counterparts that year. I was the only one of two female grads that year. My Rice department had high non-graduation rates. It’s not uncommon to lose 2-3 students out of 4-7 per incoming class. Though that may be very different now. I think most or all first year grads took the same 4 classes. The department Chair, Kathy Ensor, had been teaching the same first-year basic theory class for years. She came to class late every lecture to varying degrees. Typically 20-35 minutes late. She varies it enough just so that you cannot systematically arrive 35 minutes late every lecture. Sometimes she’d tell the whole class to help check her theorem proof as she gets it wrong every year. For the Central Limit Theorem, it took her 3-4 times before she copied the theorem correctly from her past lecture notes. She gave a couple of take-home exams. The first exam was so wrong that one exam problem becomes a complex-valued random variable problem, which no other professors in the field would ever give out for an exam problem. Every lecture and at least half the exams were fraught with problems and/or unpredictable tardiness. Professor Kimmel wasn’t that interested in teaching and cancelled the last few weeks of classes so he could attend to things that interested him more. The untenured professors were great and sympathetic. Both of them are no longer there.

    I was the sole grad student who was assigned 2 consulting projects with the business school in a different part of the campus. That was the first time a first year grad ever got sent to do any consulting projects. I was unfamiliar with the quantitative methods, business data, and their ancient VAX or VMS operating systems. I am familiar with the Unix system or PC. When I wanted to ask the instructor about a particular VAX/VMS command, he told me, John Doe was so good. When John did this last year, John never asked him any questions. And my question remained unanswered. The instructor wasn’t amenable to other means of communication with me and was not helpful beyond giving out and collecting assignments. I pointed out later to the department that John did not do consulting assignments during his first year. I never knew if any previous grads ever had 2 consulting projects at the same time either. My fellow 1st year grads told me they only needed to spend 2-3 hours a week doing light grading. I spent 15 to 25 hours a week.

    I did well on Prof Kimmel’s class. He and I have similar research interests. When he asked me whether I wanted to start doing research with him I agreed. I was completely clueless of his character at the time. I was told that I could drop the 2 consulting projects completely and switch to research 100%. We had at least 1 car trip to visit one of his co-PIs. I read a few papers and started doing programming. Every time he told me to meet him at this office, he was habitually late to varying degrees. One time he was 45 minutes late. After he arrived, he called his wife and spoke to his wife and daughter for a while while I was still waiting. He was always pushing me to spend more and more time. Meeting him more frequently even when I was having problems finding the time to prepare for my class exams. There were days when I told him I wanted to spend Tuesday studying for finals at home. We could meet any day other than Tuesday. But he insisted that I had to go meet him on Tuesday.

    But it turned out I never could get rid of the consulting projects at all. The 1 semester I spent at Rice, I just kept getting sicker and sicker. IBS, endless nausea, insomnia, GI acid problems, horrid headaches. Now many years later, I still have these health problems.

    Late in the semester, when it was time to do teacher evaluation for Kathy Ensor, Ensor told her (our) class that it’s the Statistics department who analyzes these data for the whole school (and she was the Chair).

    My MSAM professors were very supportive and had very high standards for themselves and grads. I was shocked to see this level of teaching, research and management style at Rice.

    There also were some racial stereotype issues. Much more limited friendliness towards non-Anglos. A less blatant version than the one about the Native American children and a few similarly-themed news piece featured by Vox. I was too sick to observe additional details at Rice.

    The anti-immigration theme in the US is omnipresent. On campus and elsewhere. Immigrants are either horrible and taking jobs away from people whose ancestors immigrated to US earlier, or immigrants are dragging the US down. What is the protocol for immigrating to the US at the right time? And who are the authorities on that?

    I understand why STEM women have such high leakage rates. I also had to deal with unwanted romantic advances repeatedly though not at Rice. I have heard others mention how that happened to women who have already graduated.

  46. Hap says:

    And it just gets better…

    (Chemjobber – pointing to story that UW did not tell NSF that Prof. Sayeed was on suspension): https://twitter.com/Chemjobber/status/1189570275160944640

    (UW’s response) https://twitter.com/Chemjobber/status/1189572563862614017

    (Prof. Sayeed’s response) https://twitter.com/Chemjobber/status/1189580365200969730

    1. eub says:

      Sweet Moses, Prof. Sayeed’s attempt at self-exculpation places him as quite a piece of work.

  47. SamuelDJackson says:

    Behaviors of professors in Chemistry follow the Bell Curve I find, and thank the Gods of Neurobehavior for that. But try to correct some of these bad actors as colleagues through any University system and you’ll find yourself in Court for Libel and Slander and your administrators will cower in the corners, leaving you to fend for yourself.
    But the righteous win only after striking down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy My brothers (and Sisters).

    Meanwhile, adminstrators run for cover, hide their asses and assets, and basically are useless.

    1. Hap says:

      The administration’s job, for the most part is to back the institution and keep the money rolling, not to educate. They aren’t useless – they’re working as designed. The fact that the design is not fair (nor necessarily achieves anyone’s goals other than the bureaucracy) doesn’t ever enter the equation.

  48. SamuelDJackson says:

    Their job, as part of being paid by the students tuitions, is to look after the welfare of the students- from accepting student money while its “rolling” in, which starts the accountability trail- to their education and to protecting them from miscreants and behavioral adversity that they brought in and should be managing.

    But they don’t until caught- and then they offer counselors and pizza parties to the students like Harvard did after the numerous suicides in the late 90’s.

    They directed the counselors at the wrong people, the students- its the professors are the ones that need studied and watched.

    1. Hap says:

      The failure mode of clever….

      I wasn’t trying to argue that administration shouldn’t have students’ welfare in mind so much as they don’t. Nothing in their chain of command holds them responsible for student welfare – students have no say in themselves, and the measurable products of administration activity (grant money, mainly, licenses, and other money) depend negatively on conditions that foster student welfare (or on on conditions that don’t actively antagonize it). As long as they have no incentive to care about students, they won’t, and they won’t put policies in place that concern themselves with students. Student welfare will depend on the kindness of professors, which is not absent but not consistent, either (and is sometimes mitigated against by the system in place – it takes less work to rule by fear than respect).

  49. OnceAChemist says:

    When I was selecting a grad school, I took advantage of school visits, met with the profs, had lunch with the grad students selected to meet with me, did the tours with other selected grad students, etc.

    But I always, always went back at night, wandered through the labs (never a locked door anywhere in the ’80s) and started conversations with random students who were there burning the midnight oil. Sometimes what I heard more or less matched the narrative I’d been given on the scheduled tours, sometimes grad students picked at random painted a very different picture than I’d been given by the ones hand-selected to speak with me. I ultimately picked a school where the stories aligned, and it worked out fine.

  50. anonymous says:

    Some of my friends at Indiana University School of Medicine was abused by a professor named Gerry Oxford. This guy was insulting students in front of their lab members and threatening to fire students on daily basis. I know one committed suicide. Shame on this professor and the program.

  51. still hacked off says:

    Apart from the three months of unpaid work I was expected to do, my prof was pretty manageable. But one of the reasons I left the industry in the end was the fact that my PhD supervisor could not be bothered to publish since he was an established name and felt little pressure to and I spent years slaving for him and still do not have a publication to my name from my time with him. More annoying since I went of an post doc’d for less than half the time and got piles of papers from those years.
    When i told the PI in question that I was getting rejected from job interviews due to a lack of publications from my PhD, his response was to criticise the prospective employers and say I didn’t want to be working for people who think that way anyway.

    Other profs in the department were making students stay on an extra year and work for free. I recall one case where he told the student the couldn’t afford to pay her and then found out he had received more than he should have paid her in speaking fees during the time she was there.

  52. Aileen says:

    Honestly, it’s taken me a few days to finish reading this article… I was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress after mastering out of a Ph. D program (Chemical Engineering at University of Texas with Keith Johnston). I was prepared for the hours, but not for the berating. After lots of therapy, I (and several others in my lab) did all the things people have suggested (contact HR, talk to the department head, etc.) Nothing changed, no one offered to help. I asked to change to a different aspect of the project I was on, supervised by a different PI (now the department head, Tom Truskett, who I had liked and respected to this point). It was deemed “politically impossible” and I was left to master out. There was no accountability for bad behavior, despite the fact that my PI was so hard to work with that he was no longer permitted by the department to have a secretary. Grad student abuse was somehow fair game, though.

    Eventually, I left research entirely and now teach technical English. Even the thought of entering a lab makes me shudder now, and I feel like one of the lucky ones. Sometimes I miss the feeling of discovering something new, or working on something cutting-edge. But then I remember the immense pressure and go back to the lowered expectations of making sure that engineers in Germany can talk to their counterparts in California. Still, I feel like something was robbed from me.

    Ironically, UT asked me for money for a while. I think after I sent back a few letters with OVER MY DEAD BODY written on them, they got the idea.

    1. eub says:

      “There was no accountability for bad behavior, despite the fact that my PI was so hard to work with that he was no longer permitted by the department to have a secretary. Grad student abuse was somehow fair game, though.”

      Quoted for truth.

  53. anon says:

    I started at Princeton a few years back and ignored multiple independent recommendations to avoid joining the newest lab there. One person that had been a lab mate of the new Princeton prof described him plainly as an asshole. The students in nearby labs that had only interacted with him in meetings and during presentations described him as at least unpleasant.

    Why did I ignore this advice and join his lab anyways? Because I was young and didn’t know better, mostly. I was also probably too confident in myself. I figured that only bad grad students have problems (and of course, I don’t want to be a bad student, so I’ll avoid the problems naturally!).

    So Derek, I don’t think it’s useful to say: “So if you’re a first-year grad student this year, choose carefully.” New grad students mostly don’t have the context for that, even in the presence of advice.

    Responsibility shouldn’t fall to the grad student here. These people should be hired much less often in the first place. If they are accidentally hired, the responsibility should still not fall to the students to kill themselves as a last resort.

    1. also anon says:

      Based on the timeline and the faculty site this must be referring to a certain biocatalysis lab. Feel free to correct. The rumor on the street is that Princeton is one of the places to steer clear of as a prospective graduate student.

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