What can you do when your PI does not have your back?

This morning I woke up to a twitter full of sexism and harassment stories. I want to highlight the Vanderbilt harassment lawsuit, where a former neuroscience graduate student is suing her advisor for harassment, abuse and discrimination of which you can read the full text here. I guess I should add a warning that what you will read is pretty shocking and unpleasant.

Some of the things that are described in this lawsuit are not completely foreign to me. I think many women will recognize the large grey area of things that happen for example at meetings that are uncomfortable but perhaps not bad enough to speak up about. Because I also understand very well that speaking up might damage the relationship that you have with your advisor, and might - on the short-term - make things worse. So what can you do as a grad student or post-doc when you feel uncomfortable - to say the least - with your advisor's behavior? Can you talk to other faculty, for example people on your committee, or do you feel that those people will automatically take the side of your advisor? Are there other people you can talk to at your university? I guess we might see this as a fire drill for all of us: find the nearest exit when there's no fire so you can use it in case you need it.


14 responses so far

  • My uni has an Equity and Diversity unit, along with a website, that describes the processes for lodging complaints of harassment and unlawful discrimination (http://hr.unimelb.edu.au/advice/toolkits/equity-diversity).

    The university also has a list of regular staff members across the university who are trained to provide advice about how to deal with complaints (these people are available to advise the complainant or the alleged culprit). If using these people for advice, the university suggests seeking people who are in a different faculty or division, in an effort to retain confidentiality.

    The article by Kate Clancy et al. and the flurry of social media commentary provides a perfect opportunity to reinforce messages about non-tolerance of harassment and unlawful discrimination, and to re-advertise the processes that are available to report and prevent these. I took the opportunity earlier today to remind my group about these matters. It is much easier to raise this with my group when there is a social media storm on the topic, rather than simply raising it out the blue, which might make people suspect something untoward has happened locally.

    I would hope all universities would have similar (or better) policies and processes, and that PI's would use occasions such as this to regularly remind their group members of their responsibilities, and of processes that are available to them if they experience harassment or discrimination.

    So thanks for the post.


  • Miserable Postdoc says:

    For grad students, the committee members are a nice option. I'm told that department chairs care in non-clinical departments.

    Postdocs at the institutional level are hung out to dry. My advisor has become increasingly irrational, demanding Sunday afternoon lab meetings and hours of personal one on one experiment time on weekends. My pi texts at 9am Saturday morning to demand a manuscript revision for grammar and content on 30 pages by Sunday and ends the email the paper is attached to with the statement that significant intellectual contributions will be awarded with authorship. Like that will happen in 24 h. My pi drops by my bench at 7pm, upset if I'm not there, and screams at me to set up more experiments. Before leaving. I leave at 10 and my pi texts more on the way home. After Sunday lab meeting my pi spends hours giving advice on my personal life, unsolicited, under the guise of helping guide my career.

    I have talked to the postdoc people. The institution says there's nothing they can do about my current position and I simply need to find another one. As if that's simple in today's climate. My desire to do science has been so thoroughly beaten out of me by this pi that I have little hope of productivity as a postdoc anywhere. I have choked in the fire and feel like there's no exit to hope to find before my career is dead.

    • babyattachmode says:

      I am sorry you're having such a crappy experience, and it sucks that the postdoc office cannot help you here. And finding a new postdoc position might be tough if you need your current PI as a reference. I hope someone else here has good advice for you and you'll find a way out.

      • neuropolarbear says:

        1. You need to leave ASAP

        2. You need to tell everyone about it, in detail

        3. You should talk to your university ombudsperson. If they tell you there's nothing you can do, then there's nothing you can do.

      • Nicky says:

        I am sorry, sounds like an awful environment. Are there any sympathetic faculty in your department who are aware of the situation? They might be your best bet for getting help with the current situation or even getting into a better situation?

        At the end of the day, I would ask myself how well you can work in that situation. If the answer is anything less than you best, you owe it to yourself to make the change.

        I was able to secure a job I love, albeit not in academia, without the help/recommendation of my postdoc PI or my graduate school PI. I also had an unusually rough time in grad school and I couldn't be happier now. Change is possible.

    • Bill says:

      1. Document, document, document. Get everything you can in writing, keep copies of everything, and keep a diary of dates, times and incidents. At the very least, you then have a clear explanation for not including current PI as a referee when you apply for jobs. This also goes for meetings with ombudspersons, postdoc advisors, department heads and the like. Hell, record audio if you can. Maintain a master document showing a clear timeline, cross-ref'd to the other documents/evidence. Sounds excessive, but it's not -- and you're trained to keep clear records so it won't be at all difficult.

      2. Apply, apply, apply. Go for every job that looks even remotely possible -- it's not as though you're likely to land in a worse place, even if it's not where you want to spend your whole career. Get the fuck out of Dodge, even if just to have a little peace and space in which to recover.

      3. Think, think, think. Do you want to leave research, or just academia? The environment in industry can be very different (I went from academia to biotech and am SO much happier). What else are you good at, like doing, etc? Get some counselling, read that parachute book, make lists, talk to friends -- think about taking conscious control of your life and career. I know that sounds rather Pollyanna and/or trivial, and is probably impossible in your current miserable state, but if you can manage to get to a place where it's possible, well, some of that selfhelp stuff actually helps even if it feels silly.

    • iGrrrl says:

      "There will be no laughing in my laboratory!"

      Yes, this was said, by a similar type of PI, who came into the lab when they were sharing a joke. "If you're laughing, you're not working!" And what could any of them do? Only vote with their feet, but they were in the same position as has been noted: you may need a reference from this person to get the next job.T here are definitely other ways to successfully do science than this person's approach, but to quote Potnia Theron, the PI seems to be taking the the 'churn and burn' approach, where the trainees are expendable data machines.

      In all seriousness, I gave a client the following advice: "Pretend you're a spy in enemy territory, and plot your exit with the secret plans intact, and the hostile dictator no more the wiser." The reason for this advice was purely psychological, and we talked about it--finding a way to separate your self from the abusive situation, function in it, but be forward-looking. Use giving the PI what they want as a ploy to gain their trust in order to create and execute an exit plan.

  • Jonathan says:

    You need to name and shame that muthafucka (also, GTFO their lab, they're obviously psychotic).

  • Definitely get out. No reporting or actions by the university will make this PI a good person. Nothing good can come to you from staying in the lab.

    But for the sake of others, do report this to the department chair. Also the dean of graduate education should know about this.

  • eeke says:

    Kudos to the former Vanderbilt grad student. It is so extremely difficult to come forward with those accusations, and even harder to take it to the level that she has. I really hope she wins that one and that those assholes in that department get what's coming to them. And it's true, it's a selfless act - she says she is doing it so that others who come after her won't have to suffer.
    @ Miserable PD - I'm sorry to hear about your situation. I also had to leave my first PD in a hurry, but it worked out. Don't give up. As difficult as it might seem, there ARE other labs, other positions, and other people to work with who would be respectful and appreciate your efforts. My former student was able to change post-doc labs within a short period of time, although the reason for leaving in that case was fiscal. I think switching labs at the PD level happens more frequently than we all think. Life is short. Leave.

  • theLaplaceDemon says:

    1) For grad students, especially in big, multi-department programs, there are usually some designated support people who can help - Diversity chairs, director of graduate studies, program directors. From what I hear, the smaller and more insular the program/department is, the riskier it is to approach these people, though that is just anecdotes. One of the reasons I chose my current program was that I got the distinct impression that there were a few people in positions of authority who would have my back if necessary in a situation like this.

    2) For postdocs, I'd love to hear other suggestions because I'm scared of this happening to me...I suppose building up enough of a professional network that you have a good reputation and possible references if you can't use your postdoc advisor as a reference? But that's hard to do when you're at the bench 20 hours a day, all day, forever.

    • eeke says:

      I think PI's, or hiring managers, would understand if you say that you cannot use your current supervisor as a reference. I had to do this to move on to a second post-doc position - I informed them that the current PI wasn't aware that I was looking and would rather keep it that way. I had good references from grad school, as well as a decent list of accomplishments (publications, awards, etc) that the new supervisor was comfortable with.

  • […] of research that you are interested in. Another reason for a second post-doc is to switch labs to somewhere better than where you were initially. And of course, doing another post-doc might be necessary, for example if your current lab doesn't […]

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