Just how common are abusive situations in academia? How do you survive and is it even worth it?
March 13, 2012 10:10 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend is 5 years in to a PhD program with an abusive (verbal, emotional, and mental) PI/lab. This seems to be a common theme in academia, just how common is it? How do you go about graduating if they seem to be working against you (assuming no fault on your part)?

The department and graduate committee seems to be a web of danger with all the political play going on between everyone and my girlfriend's PI.
posted by anonymous to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A friend in graduate school encountered at least one abusive professor (no, wait, two). Fortunately, neither were this friend's advisors.

While academia doesn't select for difficult people, it doesn't necessarily filter them out either. If your gf feels they are getting something out of working with the advisor/PI, and they can put up with the unpleasantness, then seeking support (from friends, counseling) so that she can draw boundaries between her work and reasonable vs unreasonable criticism may help.

Alternately, she may feel that the best route is to rotate into another lab / find another advisor.

Whatever department politics there are, gf should avoid. And it's her advisor's job to see her through. If she feels the advisor is unable to do so, I'd say she should get a second opinion (though I'm not sure where from, it's a sensitive thing to ask around about) and if that backs up her impression that her advisor won't see her through to a degree (very unlikely, but it's possible, then she must seek out another advisor.
posted by zippy at 11:38 PM on March 13, 2012

Been there and was on the verge on nervous breakdown many a times, resulting in daily migraines and now have f#$%ed up my health.

My recommendation to your GF would be, approach head of the department or equivalent and start search for a new PI. When approaching authority, support your every statement with evidence. I waited too long to approach our head of the department to learn that she was way too helpful. I approached her in my second last month of leaving the department (for personal reasons). There is ALWAYS a political game between these PIs, as a rule of thumb is, I rub your back and you rub mine but as a HOD or graduate committee, there is an obligation that the grad student has to graduate without any politics.


Have a blunt talk with the PI. She has to stand up for herself with the data. She has to prove that his behavior is not helping and actually ruining the situation. I didn't dare to do that with my PI, scaring his future references but now I am at a position that I don't give him a hoot.

In short, this is a GAME and she has to learn to play. It will get worse and worse as you walk up the ladder. Me Mail me if you want to have a more talk.

GOOD LUCK (I know its not at all easy)
posted by zaxour at 2:34 AM on March 14, 2012

I know three people that have switched advisors- two because of abusive situations, one because of external forces. In all cases, this extended the amount of time required to complete the program. But for the people leaving abusive advisors, that lengthening effect was worse.

Why? Because the advisors insisted on controlling the data that the students had gathered. The students were not permitted to bring the data for experiments they had designed and run to their new lab. So aside from the coursework they'd completed, they were starting fresh.

I don't know if there is some formal way to guard against this, but I would consider it a real possibility and would take any steps possible to prevent it. If she talks to the head of her department, she should ask about whether she can guarantee in some way that she can keep whatever data she has collected. It will save her so much time if she can.
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 5:12 AM on March 14, 2012

(I should note that in that previous comment, the two abusive situations I mentioned were not related and involved two different abusive PIs that didn't associate with one another, which makes me think that controlling data might just be a thing that other abusive PIs might pull.)
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 5:16 AM on March 14, 2012

She's a 5th year PhD student? Switching labs that far in isn't really an option unless she wants her PhD to take 8-10 years -- which would NOT look good to a prospective employer -- if she's put up with it for this long already it would be in her best interest to just work as hard as she can and get out of there ASAP.

Also, growing a spine can make dealing with difficult people much simpler. You haven't provided much detail but does she make an effort to stand up to her PI? Just because he or she is her 'boss' doesn't mean she should take shit from him/her. Your girlfriend should try to be more confident and be willing to say "Hey, Professor, I don't appreciate the way you are treating me. I find it hostile and disrespectful. Please stop."

Finally, I second the suggestion that your girlfriend speak with the department head if problems persist. It is one of many roles of the department head to maintain relations between students and faculty. If your girlfriend has been doing good work then it doesn't really matter how her PI feels about her personally -- he/she will still write them good recommendations because it's in _their_ best interest that their students graduate and get jobs.
posted by imagineerit at 6:50 AM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's common, it's complicated, and it's a really, really crappy situation to be in 5 years in. I had a great PI, but even then there are peculiar challenges that arise due to the nature of the system.

You don't specify the type, or how pervasive and damaging the abuse is, so it's hard to say who to speak to first (ethics or research integrity office for abuse that encourages scientific misconduct, for instance) but in most circumstances I'd suggest the school's student health counseling service. At a university with a large graduate program, they are likely to have experience with other graduate students going through similar situations. I would ask her to specify that she'd like to talk to someone with experience talking to graduate students in Ph.D. programs, because undergrads and even other graduate students (medical, law, etc.) don't necessarily have the same issues she's dealing with here.

Hang in there, both of you. Feel free to follow up on memail too if you have questions you'd rather take off-line.
posted by NikitaNikita at 10:55 AM on March 14, 2012

This is a brutal and unfortunate situation. But five years in the calculus seems stark to me. You don't mention what standard graduation timelines are in your field, but in mine 5-6 years is reasonable. If you're that close to the end, I think your goal should be to assemble resources that help you graduate. I would not recommend trying to switch. As others have pointed out, you run the risk of losing access to your data or having to reform your committee. Not only that, there's little reason for anyone else to take you. Unless you're doing brand new work (which you don't want to do) they're going to have little stake in you and not get much out of taking you on. If you're trying to get them to fund you, too, that's even more of a long shot.

So what to do? I think the number one goal is to find people to keep you sane. Try to find allies in your department who can help you strategize about dealing with your PI. This situation is not new, and senior people will have advice about this kind of thing and be sensitive about the situation, hopefully. As much as there are politics between PIs and labs, only the truly awful PIs would begrudge you some help and social support. So try to build that network. This can also be other senior grad students who can tell you you're not crazy after you get out of a meeting with your crazy PI. This makes a huge difference. Like NikitaNikita says, there's probably institutional support you can avail yourself of that's outside the political context you're worried about.

I'd also recommend not staying totally hands off the politics. At this stage of your degree you are a not-totally-insignificant player in these larger games. You're not important, for sure, but you're a senior phd student and you have tools. To get out of this program happy and on time is going to take some maneuvering. Try to rely on your network for advice and support for how to make your way through this, but you can't expect to just wash your hands of politics entirely. Engaging doesn't make you a bad person or part of the problem, it's just recognizing the realities of academia. It's distasteful, but your alternatives are finding a new PI (which is going to be WAY more political than anything else you could possibly do) and dropping out. Surviving will take unpleasant and stressful work, but you've been working hard for five years and I think you should grin and bear it for the graduation payoff.

Above all, you're not alone. Feel free to memail me - I went through a relatively brutal advisor-not-getting-tenure situation and survived and am happy to do whatever I can.
posted by heresiarch at 11:38 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't say how common it is, but it definitely happens. And maybe at first it doesn't seem so bad, but it can build. Having a shitty abusive boss can really wear a person down, especially one that holds so much power. If she hasn't already, she may want to look into anxiety meds and definitely see if student psych services has a doctoral student support group.

If your girlfriend is 5 years in, does that mean she is hoping to be done soon? Is it a "one more experiment...." sort of thing that keeps dragging along? Is she able to tell her advisor that she wants a firm timeline for finishing? Have previous students in the lab/group graduated on time?

The unfortunate part of all of this is that she's probably not going to be able to change the abusive behavior. I've never seen a grad student manage such a thing. I have seen people grit their teeth, finish and move on. I've also seen people change departments entirely (to something related) and things worked out fine for them. It meant more years of school/lab work. She would need to have someone who wants to take her on, obviously. And she would have to make peace with letting her work go.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:56 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hate to say it, but the best time for switching advisors was a long time ago. There might be some hope-- possibly switching to an advisor that's on her thesis committee.

You don't give very much detail here. What is the possibility of your girlfriend going the route of, "do everything you possibly can to finish"?

I had a hard time and a defense that went poorly and required major thesis revisions. The reason it got done at all was because I had a meeting with one of my committee members and we agreed on a *list* of specific experiments and data and chapter revisions that needed to be done, at which time the thesis got signed.

I've been there. Feel free to MeMail me with more specific questions.
posted by deanc at 12:26 PM on March 14, 2012

Here's a horrible inconsiderate idea: bully them back. Surprisingly effective.
I'd go on but I shouldn't but I may later.
posted by provoliminal at 2:51 PM on March 14, 2012

What I eventually realized is that PI's are like young children. You have to treat them as such. They want what they want when they want it, they will throw tantrums if they don't get it, they mercurially change their mood, goals, and strategies at the drop of a hat etc. They are short time scale memory free Markov systems.

You don't deal with young children by getting angry, you just do your best to ride it out without making it worse, provided of course you can't switch groups.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:13 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

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