May 03, 2014

Disgruntled Scientist

Dear Bullied Academics Group,

Here is my story of academic abuse from the US. (This is in case it hasn't reached your group already).  

Research Tech:
After completing my MS, I joined a multi-investigator lab at an Ivy league Univ. I thought that only hard work would matter. I worked diligently, long hours and never questioned my PI as I was just made to feel and told that I am just a technician. I kept telling myself that my hard work/publications will show. He put me as first author on national and international presentations that only he attended while I slogged away in the lab. I generated a lot of publishable data. During the two years in the lab, my work started getting published in high impact factor journals without my knowledge or any mention of me. I was involved in at least 5 "high reward" projects during my time there. The bullying was too severe and I was young. I mustered the courage and reported this to the HR after I received no response on this issue from my immediate PI and the other investigators in the lab. I had to subsequently report this to the people high up in the institution (Dean and provost). The result of all this was "squat". I was forced to withdraw my case and left with a mere acknowledgment that couldn't justify my efforts. I was given enough threats that I had to run as far as I could from that research area and the institution. I must add that during my stay there, I witnessed a lot of other unethical situations. My friend and colleague (also a technician then) was fired for looking into other opportunities on the side. They came to know of her job hunting when someone reached out to the lead investigator for a reference. I also witnessed a long legal battle with a courageous scientist who stated that they had been publishing fabricated data. They ultimately blamed an unsuspecting foreign postdoc for it. They ruined the postdoc's career. 

Grad School:
I moved onto grad school shortly thereafter at a nearby institution. I was asked to do a couple of rotations before picking a lab. The first lab was micromanaged by the PI and had alpha female grad students. The PI offered me the position but I refused politely. Out of vengeance for being turned down by a lowly grad student, she reported my stay in her lab as "does not get along well with lab mates but very talented". The grad students in her lab left no stone unturned in ruining my reputation either. I settled down in the lab of a young and promising assistant professor's lab. I was honest and informed him of my mishap at the Ivy League Institution. In this lab everything was fine in the lab as long as the teacher's pet a sassy bully grad student was happy. Everyone feared this grad student and they watched to not offend her. Those who did were burned badly. One day, I took my chances because I had had enough. All hell broke loose when I made a minor comment to her in retaliation. Everyone isolated me in the lab for fear of being ridiculed by this high school bully. My lab mates got onto social media to ridicule me. I came to know of this and informed my PI with proof as it was unacceptable to me. My PI held a lab meeting and everyone ambushed me and my PI pretty much showed me the door. From then on, I put my head down and worked. I worked so hard that other faculty members in the dept. would stop me in the hallway and tell me that it was unethical of my PI to make me work that hard. 

My project was brand new. I built up all the techniques and guided everyone in the lab on it. My PI conducted a new lab course as part of his tenure package and got me to TA for it. It was a course structure that would have not worked from the get go. It was a genetic screen he meant to have accomplished by undergrads over a period of two months. I was the only TA. Of course the course failed and I got royally blamed for it. He did not even let me take some time off to visit my ailing mother back home in my home country as she underwent surgery with only my ailing dad by her side. His exact words were "what will happen to all the TA money you are getting for this course"? I confided in someone in the department regarding the reason for the failure of his course. Word got out and I faced my PI's wrath for the rest of my grad school. I wasn't sent to any conferences, he ensured I never published. He allowed other foreign grad students to go home but not me. He got their papers published in techniques that I taught them. I put my head down once again and worked. My project turned out to be the only successful project in the lab and the PI received his first NSF funding. Guess what? he did not even invite me for the lab grant success party. My only way out was to prove myself and my worthiness during committee meetings. I shone each time and my mentor could not play his games there. My committee and faculty members in the department saw that I was actually smarter than my PI.

Sometime in between years two and three with my mentor, we ran into bad luck with a PI from a competing lab who was doing the exact same thing but using a route "B". So we decided to "join hands"/"collaborate". This has had its fair share of issues with the competing PI bullying my own advisor! This paper got rejected twice already from a top and mid-impact factor journal (but of course!). I fulfilled everything I could and tried to wrap up and managed to receive his blessings. During this time, I reported another unfortunate incident to my PI that he should have acted on immediately based on the nature of the incident. He chose to look the other way. I informed the next in command in the department regarding this incident and alarms were raised immediately. It was such a serious issue that the school did everything to fix the situation and in due course of investigation my PI got pulled up. Of course my PI was saved and forgiven. So there goes my relationship with him yet again! I had to find a postdoc soon and graduate. This was going to be difficult with my profile as there is years of training and still no publication!

I was finally filled with excitement to receive a postdoc position in a cutting-edge research area. It was too good to be true and I was overjoyed. I did everything in that lab right. The PI turned out to be the worst form of micromanager. Everyone was involved with reporting everything to him when pushed against the wall. What we did, what we said, where we went and for how long. It was a no sitting, no reading and all work kind of a lab. It was slowly revealed to me that this PI had a bad reputation and I was advised by some senior postdocs from other labs to leave. I didn't pay attention to these warnings until it happened to me! I tried to report to him the misconduct from a grad student. My postdoc PI looked the other way too because he worked in close collaboration with the PI of the grad student in question. What I got in turn was hours worth of verbal abuse behind close doors because I had heard and knew way too much about him and I was getting in way of his collaboration. I kept quiet went through the whole ordeal and left for home. The PI realized probably he shouldn't done what he did, out of saving his face, he contacted my PhD mentor and all my committee members to ruin my reputation and said "she did not get along with lab members and is not fit for collaborative research" and "please do not give her a good reference". She is not as good as I was told she would be. He personally wrote to me barring me from future employment with the center as well. I found out later that my PhD mentor had been in constant touch with my postdoc PI for the three weeks that I served as my postdoc in his lab. I ran back to my PhD mentor knowing everything he had done and did in the past, begging him to not sit on the manuscripts I already wrote. I was told that my manuscripts were the last of his pile of things to read!!!! I was advised by him to take time off and have a family or move on to the industry. 

Please advise:
Should I still stay in academia? Is this happening to only me? How should I have handled situations in the past? Should I continue with my postdoc search given that my publication record does not exactly indicate my productivity and I cannot attach my story as a separate document with my CV. The abuse in academia has broken me. Is there any hope?

Disgruntled Scientist


Anonymous said...

No, you're not the only one this sort of thing happens to.

Shortly after I started grad studies, I heard a story about my supervisor. He apparently published data produced by another grad student and did so without that student's knowledge or giving him credit. The result was quite a nasty dispute which nearly ended in a lawsuit.

I used to teach at a certain post-secondary institution and I found that educators can be quite vicious and vindictive, taking revenge for the smallest slights committed against them.

Unfortunately, this happens in industry as well. I noticed it during the time when I worked for a number of high-tech firms. Go against the boss's lapdog, even if that person is wrong, and one's career will likely be very short.

The best thing is to get out of an environment like that. Find a source of funding and work on your own. Get away from those who can and will do you harm.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I had the same experiences. I believe that this has become the "new normal" for many academic labs as funding became scarce and there is a glut of students and postdocs. The social interactions rival that of the bad reality shows, and no one seems to care. When I started grad school, my PI was relatively unknown, there were only two students and a postdoc and everyone worked together. Then the lab developed a technique and began publishing in high level journals. That led to the PI being able to get better, i.e. Students and postdocs from more prestigious educational backgrounds, and the insanity began. My postdoc was even worse, power games , cheating and stealing others data by postdocs and the PI. HR and upper academics do nothing to those who can procure funding for the university. I guess the hardest thing to accept are that, based mainly on things like prestige or background, some are the stars and some are the miles. Merit and hard work are not factors in this, and nice guys, unless they have some advantage, finish last. If it is killing your soul, as it did mine, my advice is to get out. I may not have fame but don't have to see a rather horrible side of life every day, which made me angry and depressed. Getting your own funding becomes impossible if you are tagged by your supervisors as a mule, and it begins in grad school. Good luck in whatever you choose to do.

Gina Hiatt, Ph.D. said...

I think you might all be interested in our free virtual teleconference event that's going on right now.

It's called "How Academic Messes With Your Mind and What You Can Do About It." The recordings are free for 48 hours, so you can listen to them all if you register now.

This subject seems very related to the concerns of this group.

The URL to learn more is