It is time to reveal the truth about your experience in academia.
Scientific research is responsible of making our life better, safer, healthier, more comfortable. But not everybody is aware about difficulties scientists meet to make this life possible. Continuous everyday stress, constant pressure and anxiety, fear about project deadlines, insecurity about reputation, troubled relationships with colleagues, unfair system of scientific evaluation, unemployment, « publish or perish » destiny, sexism, racism and other products of hypercompetitive scientific academic environment. Mental health problems are often associated with development of severe physical disorders. But does anybody care about it?
Toxic atmosphere in the research process not only is making harm to scientists’ well-being, it affects totality of the scientific progress. That is why we should start to talk about it openly. It does not matter, who you are: early career researcher, PhD student, university professor, research engineer, undergraduate or laboratory staff. Your story does make sense, share it to be heard!
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This story is not about me, its about a guy who was a PhD student like me in France several years ago. He was doing research in Phonetics, don’t actually remember his research topic. He had a self-funded research and was able to find a Parisian professor, who agreed to be his supervisor. For several years, professor was avoiding his duties, rarely counseling the PhD student and research was not advancing. In the end, a guy lost 6 or 8 years and did not even get a chance to have a thesis defense. So, my advice to all who want to do research: avoid self-funded studies at early stages of your career at all cost! Find a government/corporate sponsor and make sure that professor has a stake in this (e. g. reputation, money, etc.) and that sponsor will be expecting results. Otherwise, you will be relying on your supervisor’s honour and not all of them have it.
Anonymous postdoc in Chemistry, France
I went into my internship position as a stepping stone prior to applying to graduate school. There were a lot of red flags in this position but the biggest one was that the principle investigator avoided almost all contact with me. I would get reprimanded in the form of notes that contained all the things people noticed me doing incorrectly over the course of a month. Unfortunately, none of these things were brought to me directly so I didn’t know I was doing things wrong until I was overwhelmed with a long list of things pretty much monthly. One of the most devastating letters contained a few things I didn’t do because there was a record that I had a doctors appointment on the day of question. This letter was delivered the day my PI left for a month long research excursion in a country in Africa. The only time I would see my PI was during lab meetings every other week where he would often complain about the scientific article being presented and make a big show about how the researchers didn’t know what they were doing. It was during these meetings where he called me out on my weight and insulted my intelligence. I once called in sick because I was having an anxiety attack and couldn’t bring myself to go to work. When I came in the next day, I was met with a comment from my PI, “oh good, you actually felt like showing up today.” I had never missed work any other time during my employment. I tried reaching out to HR, but the resources contained dozens of emails to contact and in the end I didn’t know who to turn to or if I was in the wrong. I ended up quitting 9 months into my year long employment contract. In 3 years, 4 people quit that lab due to the toxicity of the work environment:2 graduate students, the lab manager, and a post doc.
V (24 y.o) research intern in Molecular Biology
A few years ago I received a grant to take a few undergraduate students with me into the field along with my advisor. I was a graduate student attending a religious school for a religion I am not a part of, and my advisor knew that I was a member of a different religious group. He knew that people with my religious identity tend not to work on Saturdays but didn’t understand the details and did not ask my level of observance or intent during the sampling event, but he refused to respond to my text messages or let me assist in the field work on Saturday, even the activities that took place after the sun went down (when the religious prohibition on work ends). He also was extremely particular about food, the first night of field work he drove us to a Walmart in town 15 minutes before it closed and told us this would be our only chance to get the food we needed for the week of sampling (he did not indicate this was the plan ahead of time, so we had not packed food accordingly). One of my undergraduate students, who had been on a plane since 5 am and had only eaten a granola bar, broke down into tears in the aisle because she couldn’t decide quick enough what she wanted to eat. Throughout the rest of the sampling trip, he took infrequent breaks for food or hydration because ‘he didn’t believe in stopping to eat because if he wasn’t hungry you shouldn’t be’. On the drive to our field sites each morning, he told traumatic stories of times he had seen people hit by cars, witnessed animal abuses, or bragged in stories about how he humiliated students in conference presentations or thesis presentations. Immediately after the trip, I left the university. It set me back, but that sampling trip was such a nightmare I never wanted to have to do field work with him again.
Anonymous graduate student (25 y.o.) in Biology/Ecology
When I was in undergrad, a male professor said he wouldn’t write me (woman) a recommendation letter because he didn’t believe a woman could succeed in such a quantitative, math-heavy field.
Anonymous graduate student in Computational Biology
Last year, I taught an undergraduate introduction to biology course, where one of the topics was evolution. I am a Jewish woman, and I was teaching at a religious Christian university, so I was upfront about my religious affiliation and my inability to answer more than basic questions about their religion’s stance on evolution. In my student reviews, more than one student wrote that they felt I was untrustworthy because I was Jewish, another wrote that they didn’t think Jews should be teaching at their university, and yet another mentioned that they thought the reason I was “so strict” (a no late work without communicating to me) was because I am Jewish, and “Jews are only good at following legalistic rules”.
Anonymous graduate student in Evolutionary Biology
The month I was due to graduate I had my work presented at and international conference. I was delighted. I had worked hard balancing my job as a research assistant and lab demonstrator with the final year of my degree. Due to the cost of attending the conference I had got in contact with those running it. I would assist at the conference, doing set up, take down and carrying out sound checks. In return I would have free access to the conference including the talks I wanted to see. It was going well I had been in talks with several lecturers about possibility of postgraduate studies with them, with dependent offers made. On the last day of the conference I would be in charge of the organisation of one of the talks. This talk was exactly the field I wanted to work in and had via email talked with several of the participants. I set up everything and the speakers walked in the room. Having introduced myself and checked they all had what they needed I was met with rude comments on my physical appearance and requests to sit on their laps. I was disheartened but laughed it off. I fetched water for one of them and when I returned was groped. I squealed out, spilt the water and attempted to escape. He pulled me closer. However being a much older man it didn’t take much effort for me to break free. I looked at everyone who saw but didn’t react and I fled the room. I was embarrassed, hurt, wet and humiliated. Luckily I crashed into one of the security guards who I had been working with who saw I was flustered and splashed. He took me to the head organiser where I explained what happened. I am still so grateful she believed me. She left me with a watcher and a cup of tea. Returned to the room and asked them what happened. I know that all six of them saw, but to a man all pretended nothing happened and I made it up. The heads of six departments within this narrow field which until moments before I felt like I had several opportunities in. Six people who I knew would allow abuse to happen under their watch. I graduated on time, but without a plan. There was no repercussions as with no witnesses there is no proof. All the offers dried up and I have found no way in while avoided these people. I still hope to return to the research I love but its so hard to find somewhere safe to do it. Any system where credit is based solely on references or where individuals have the power to destroy careers is going to lead to the loss of good people.
Anonymous graduate student in Geology/Hazard Management
I am currently a female graduate student working towards a Master of Public Health degree. As long as I can remember I’ve had a love for science and always wanted to be in research. For the past 3 years I have been applying for jobs in labs related to research. I am just a student with no real experience, so it has been hard to snag a job. So, I started applying for internships that are even open to high school students. Even with my perfect GPA I keep getting rejection after rejection. I am starting to feel like all my work will be for nothing. Every time I apply for something I brace myself for rejection. I cannot think of any reason for me to not be able to get at least an internship other than I have been a stay at home mom for the past 5 years, I also wonder who they choose for these internships. Are high schoolers really more qualified at this point? I feel like, despite my best efforts and giving it my all, I will never achieve my dreams of scientific research.
Anonymous graduate student trying to get into research, USA
I am working on my MS for geology. It’s taken a few years because my advisor, who was always there for me during school, decided that he would abandon me when I got a job. Once I got a job THAT MY ADVISOR RECOMMENDED, he stopped inviting me to meetings and social gatherings. To him, his students are only worthy if they go into academia, and are worthless if they enter the job force. Thus, I have been fighting to get my MS ever since working for the job that MY ADVISOR RECOMMENDED.
Anonymous graduate student in geology (25 y.o.), USA
I (female) work as a research scientist in the cancer research field. My boss (male), who is also my professor, started a project abroad, I was his (unpaid) project manager during that time. While we initiated the whole legal process (which I was responsible for) we had to travel to that location a few times. Several times my boss openly suggested, infront of all of my (without a single exception all male) colleagues that when the project is successful and I become the chief operating officer of this spin-off company, then I will have to nanny his child, who he wants to travel with, so his wife and he can have a great time there when he doesn’t work. He emphazised that the reason he chose me is because I am a woman. Needless to say, I lost interest in this project and did not offer my unpaid help for any future projects of his ever since.
Anonymous PhD student in cancer research, Germany
A few weeks ago, a professor I work with forwarded an email to 8 – 10 people which contained a calender invite. The meeting was a presentation he was giving at a company. He had also accompanied his forwarded mail with a message, in which he asked us to provide information on the topic he was presenting in, but this message was not visible due to the way programs like thunderbird display emails with invites (they only show the invite message). Thus, all that was visible to me (and everyone else using thunderbird, which were a few people) was an invitation to a presentation which this professor was giving. I was eager to hear his presentation, because it was in my research field and I wanted to support him. So I accepted the invitation. I later wrote a seperate email to him offering my help to him. This is when it was discovered that indeed he had already asked for materials and that nobody was supposed to accept the invitation. An actual vicuous tantrum followed, with multiple emails not only to me but also to all of my peers, including the other 8 people who were CC’ed in the forwarded email, insulting me personally, insulting my intelligence, insulting my worth and value in all projects I ever worked in with him, followed by an email to my boss (with me CC’ed in it) that he thinks I should no longer work for the company. He basically suggested that I should get fired, over an accepted invitation. This absurd amount of anger came from a place of fear, where he thought that my acceptance to the invitation may have forwarded his personal message to the organizer of the meeting. The professor did not want his message to us be known to the company he was presenting at. Anyone with a little technical knowledge knows this would never happen though. Even though he was wrong, nobody stood up for me, and nobody called him out for his inappropriate behaviour. The insults and personal attacks were never taken back by him. He later apologized to me in a very general manner, however, he failed to do so in front of everyone; he only messaged my boss and I. To this day I feel uncomfortable around my co-workers who saw this man attack me in such a way and never taking the accusations and insults back. I don’t think such situations can ever be prevented if we continue to put people in leading positions on a pedistal instead of understanding that everyone can make mistakes, and that mistakes can be made, but that it should be called out and discussed instead of ignored.
Anonymous PhD student in engineering, Germany
A few years ago I started my PhD in a biological field which was completely new to me. At the time of the interview it was obviously known to the professor that I had literally no experience, but he still decided to give me a 4-year contract. I started highly motivated, working the typical long hours that graduates have to work. I gave it my all, as probably most PhD students do. But with time, I noticed that he appeared to grow negative feelings towards me and a few other new students at his lab, which I didn’t understand. He would frequently humiliate the new students, including myself, during group meetings, never let them speak or finish their thoughts during presentations, to the point where it was impossible to even finish a single sentence without his angry interruptions. He was clearly unhappy with his new students, but to this day I do not know what he was unhappy about or how anyone could have improved, because he never communicated anything to us. Half a year into my research project, he started to micromanage me. At first, he would ask for weekly updates, which seemed very sensible to me and did not bother me at all. Quite the contrary, I actually believe regular communication is key to successful research. But very quickly, this turned into daily nagging, until finally, he came to me mutiple times per day and asked me if I had finished specific things, mind you – BIG tasks that certainly take weeks, not days, or even hours, to finish. It was not possible to have an open conversation with him, because he avoided me altogether besides the daily pressure he would place on me. He did not only refuse any help, but instead increased the pressure he put on me over time. His tone grew more aggressive with each day. After nine months, the stress I experienced was so severe that I developed an acute gastritis, followed by a chronic gastritis. I finally decided that the situation would probably never improve, so I quit the position. Even though the position was a highly valuable and stable one (4 year contract!), I could not imagine working under these conditions for 3 more years. The day I quit I felt a type of relief that I have hardly ever felt before. It is expected from researchers to work over time, never take breaks, give their all, and work in hostile environments. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Find a position that makes you happy, with a team that respects you, values you and clearly communicates with you.
Anonymous PhD student in structural biology, Germany
When I was on maternity leave my line manager submitted my grant to another funder, without asking my permission nor involving me in the grant application. The University ignored this theft of intellectual property and I was harassed not to make a complaint about this to the funder (a NHS Trust).
Anonymous team leader in social psychiatry, UK
I hate that I feel like I won the lottery for finding a research environment where I’m treated like a human being. I know of a lab where 4 grad students and a tech left in the span of 3 years. Those who remained were constantly under pressure and would be in distress after every lab meeting. The PI is still allowed to take new students and holds a lot of power in the department/the field.
Anonymous PhD student in chemistry, USA
My supervisor was specialized in social exclusion and studied its negative effects on people. I was excluded throughout my PhD study. There was a paper that I wrote 10 years ago, co-authored by us, but never got any comments from her.
Anita Gofradump, graduate student in social sciences, Hong Kong
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