Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Response to Distraught grad student

Ok, as usual Blogger is not cooperating (or I'm too busy to use it properly).

Someone wrote a really long, very disturbing comment about her horrible situation with a verbally and physically dangerous sexist advisor, financial problems, thesis project that isn't what she wanted to work on, and no idea what to do. Oh and severe insomnia.

My heart goes out to you.

Dear Insomniac,

First let me say that if your health insurance covers mental health at all, you should get some professional help from someone near you.

Where I went to grad school, we had so many suicides that they added free mental health benefits to help cover their asses. Your school sounds about as bad, but if they're adept at covering things up, they might not have this benefit.

Friends, family, anyone you can vent to, try to get yourself a support system. Make sure you're getting enough exercise and cutting out the caffeine and limiting your alcohol. I know this sounds trite, but trust me, it's critical. Make sure you're eating well. Take care of yourself!

All of that said, your situation sounds pretty bad.

Let's try to break it down and talk about your options in order of easy --> hard.

Option 1: stay where you are and keep your mouth shut (aka the Suck It Up option).

You're already doing this. It's the easiest in the sense of your not having to take any overt action. And you will most likely finish and get a degree, though you won't be learning what you said you wanted to learn.

You said you're in your 3rd year? Doing molecular biology? I'm guessing you have at least 2 years left, then?

Two years is a long time to not sleep. I think the only way you can make this work is to develop an iron-clad coping strategy.

Oh and whatever you do, write everything down. Keep a journal where you record, in as much detail as you can, anything abusive that happens in your lab, to you or to others. It could be handy should there be a need for a lawsuit or an anonymous call to the press.

But keep this one thing in mind: you could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Don't you deserve better?

Option 2: Stay where you are, but speak up.

I think it's debatable whether this is harder than Option 3, but it's worth trying if the later options seem appealing.

Basically, you can stick your neck out.

You can say to your advisor that you hate your project and you want another one. You can do this with your advisory/thesis committee present, better yet ask for a meeting in the Dean's office.

You can try to organize other witnesses in your lab and at your school, to make a formal protest to the administration about your abusive advisor and their inadequate response to the things that have already happened.

It's unlikely that this will work, but sometimes it does. It all has to do with timing and critical mass.

If there is an Ombudsperson or Office of Sexual Harrassment or anything like that, go talk to those people for advice about your school's policies. They're required to talk to you anonymously and you can be given the choice whether or not to file charges and go forward under conditions that will reveal your identity.

The main advantage to going this route is that it might help prevent these things from continuing, and the administration might be so embarrassed that they would bend over backwards to get you into a new lab in exchange for making sure you shut up.

More likely, though, from what you said, they'll try to expedite your leaving. Which might be fine if you're thinking about taking the option of switching schools.

Option 3: Switch to another lab.

From your comment, though, I get the impression there is no one currently at your school that appeals to you in terms of joining their lab.

Keep your eyes peeled. When I was in my third year, someone new came to my school, and I immediately added this person to my thesis committee, and that helped me a lot. I wasn't unhappy enough at that point to consider switching.

By the time I was wishing I had switched, it didn't make sense anymore (it was too late).

Option 4: Transfer to another graduate school.

This would require that you pay a fee to apply, probably, but they should be able to waive it if you can demonstrate your financial straits.

If you get in and decide to move, you should negotiate to get them to pay for your moving expenses. They can do this, you know, you just have to make it clear that you can't come unless they do it.

They might even raise your stipend if they want you badly enough. A friend of mine unwittingly discovered this when she genuinely couldn't decide between two schools, one of them offered her a sort of signing bonus to go there.

Transferring would take a while to put into action, but now is the time. Deadlines are... nowish, if not already passed for this year. Best case scenario, they could admit you for Spring semester if your credits will transfer. More likely, though, you'd be stuck until next Fall.

And it would take you longer to graduate, no doubt, unless you manage to switch back to chemistry, which could be faster than MoBio in terms of completing a thesis project.

Your best chances at finding a better lab and not repeating your current predicament are to research thoroughly the labs you're considering, get in touch with the PIs and the people in those labs ahead of time, and only apply to those schools where you've already found people doing what you want and agreeing that they think you're a good candidate and/or could give you a direct admit (some schools still do this at the PI's request).

Just make sure you do your homework, find out what you're getting into.

Option 5: Quit.

Quit now and go find something else that makes you happy and/or pays the bills (not necessarily in that order).

Maybe something that only requires a BA or if you can, leave with a master's.

I've written a lot about quitting, when and why people do it and how they feel afterwards (as have many of the people who comment here, see also FSP's blog).

You don't sound like you're ready to quit science, but it might be time to pick up and move, and start over somewhere new. But that takes a lot of guts and a lot of energy, and most people avoid major changes like that (and hence would probably take Option 1- suck it up).

I'd recommend reading this short little book called The Dip by Seth Godin. The book is about knowing when to quit. But I think he'd say that you're in panic mode, which is not a good time to make a decision. You have to get yourself into better shape (sleeping, for example) before you're equipped to make a decision.

And hang in there. Our thoughts are with you. Just remember, you're neither the first, the last, nor the only person going through this exact same thing right now.

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At 1:22 PM, Blogger ScienceGirl said...

This is very good advice for distraught grad students. I hope the Insomniac doesn't underestimate the very crucial piece of the advice:

"You have to get yourself into better shape (sleeping, for example) before you're equipped to make a decision."

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Chuck said...

Dear Insomnia,
If you're several years into your PhD can we assume that you've been to a scientific conference or few?

If you have, talk to the people you met there- both the people you spent all night drinking beer with an the people whose research talks inspired you.

There are enough good labs in the world that slogging it out in the abuse ones is a waste of time, unless you're almost done and things have suddenly gone sour.

At 6:32 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I think your advice about meetings is good, but she said 3 years. She may not have been to any meetings, I didn't want to make that assumption.

And some of us don't spend our evenings drinking beer. But if you'd read much of this blog you would know that. You'd also know why I have to disagree. I think that good labs are very hard to find. Most of them, so far as I can tell, are abusive in one way or another, because the system is a pyramid scheme.

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

"Most of them, so far as I can tell, are abusive in one way or another, because the system is a pyramid scheme."


First, as JSinger corrected me on a previous discussion it is certainly a pyramid structure in bioscience. "scheme" in the sense of Ponzi, not so much. I doubt you meant this either.

The main point though is, really, given the bulk of human organizations for accomplishment at present and historically, why should science be any different? Is there really anything fundamentally different between a lab and a small(er) business?

and looking at the other end, how have sustained efforts to break pyramid structures worked out in other areas?

At 3:16 PM, Anonymous andrea said...

Have you read Bug Girl's post on "Academia is a cult"?


At 11:57 AM, Anonymous jumpedship said...

I'm very impressed with Ms.PhD's thoroughness. It wasn't that long ago that I was a distraught grad student in a similar predicament. I wish that this blog had been available to help and guide me back then.

I switched labs and lost 2 years of my grad school experience to a jerk. The lab I switched into was wonderful and I graduated 4 years later with a biochem/molbio degree.

Good luck to insomniac. My switch in grad school took a lot out of me (when I was in grad school; I knew I had made some waves and was rocking the boat). It was the best thing I could have ever done for me in the long run.

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous JSinger said...

First, as JSinger corrected me on a previous discussion it is certainly a pyramid structure in bioscience. "scheme" in the sense of Ponzi, not so much. I doubt you meant this either.

I appreciate the citation (can I count it as Impact Factor?) but my point was actually the opposite: academic bioscience isn't especially hierarchical but the system where one's own success as a PI is based almost entirely on one's ability to get work out of more grad students and postdocs than the system can possibly find positions for is classic pyramid/Ponzi.

It received an infusion of capital from Clinton and Bush that allowed it to survive for another few years, and then hit the wall again with its new larger size -- classic.

What YFS' point was, I'm not sure. The "Academia is a cult" link is dead on, though. I think the author means it too facetiously than it deserves.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

JSinger, sorry about that. I suppose what I really meant was not that you were endorsing "structure" over "scheme" but that your comment ended up correcting my slippery use of terminology to accurately reflect my own belief.

that it is a "structure" not a ponzi scheme.

i can see i totally booted this distinction and made it seem like your views were mine. apologies.

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I meant it seriously. But I also wanted it to be entertaining enough to be fun to read.

At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The big problem with the "scientific community" is that its academic machiavellism is incompatible with the scientific method. Please check out Pure science Wiki. That is an Internet platform for the real scientific method.



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