Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Bio Hazards

Some grad students and postdocs who write to me have advisors who abuse the advisor-advisee relationship by making unreasonable demands on their advisees regarding how they spend their work time, how their time and contributions are credited in publications, and (in the case of grad students) how much time they spend as students before being awarded a degree. In some of the worst cases, the advisors make specific or veiled threats that their future letters of recommendation for the student/postdoc will only be positive if the student/postdoc does what the advisor (unreasonably) demands. The students/postdocs are trapped, fearing for their future careers. (This fear of letters of recommendation also occurs in other situations.)

Most, but certainly not all, of these emails are from students and postdocs in the biological sciences, and specifically biomedical/biochemical fields. As I've discussed before, that could be because there are more people in these fields, or it could be because these fields have a greater propensity for misbehavior, based on the size and structure of the research labs. I don't know (but there are many interesting comments on the post linked to previous sentence).

Some of the scenarios described in e-mails sent to me by anxious students and postdocs seem very clear-cut examples of unethical behavior by advisors. I hope that in at least some of these departments and institutes, there is a mechanism by which students and postdocs can get help and these advisors be held accountable for their repeated 'irresponsible conduct in research'. It doesn't seem like there is, or, at least, it doesn't seem like students know about the possibilities and/or feel that there are any reasonable options.

And that leads me to my question of the day: What are the mechanisms by which advisor-advisee problems such as these can (theoretically) be resolved? 

I am particularly ignorant about the biosciences, but there is likely quite a lot of variability in this answer as a function of institution type and size, across all academic disciplines. My impression, however, is that large biomedical/biochemistry/bio-etc. labs operate as semi-autonomous units in which the PI sets the rules, even if some of these rules would be widely recognized as abusive. (tangent: Don't these PIs have to undergo Ethics Training and attend Responsible Conduct in Research workshops? Don't they see themselves in some of the classic case studies discussed in these workshops?). Advisor-advisee problems can be difficult to resolve even in departments in which there is some degree of oversight, but what recourse do students have in PI-ruled kingdoms?

Even in cases in which there is a mechanism by which students can get help from faculty and administrators, the most difficult issues remain: a student who has a lot of time and effort invested in a research project doesn't want to have lose ground and experience even more disruptions (i.e., sometimes it is easier just to put up with an awful advisor and get out as soon as possible); and
a student with an abusive advisor may be reluctant to complain, fearing the consequences for future career opportunities (the letter of reference anxiety, common to all types of harassment situations).

I will give one specific example of a conflict and resolution situation with which I am familiar, just to show that it can work out in some cases. At University Z, an advisor didn't think a grad student had done enough work to attain the degree, even though the student had been in the grad program for longer than peer students and had (in the opinion of some) accomplished at least as much as others who were awarded the same graduate degree from that department. The faculty had some sympathy for the advisor, who was justified in being frustrated by the not-great work done by this student, but the student had a job offer, and the offer depended on the student's having the graduate degree. The advisor was not willing to budge; the student needed to do more work or no degree, even though the advisor had no grant to support the student's further research. The rest of the student's committee and the departmental graduate program advisor examined the available information and disagreed with the advisor: they felt that the student had done enough research of sufficient quality to be awarded the degree. The advisor refused to sign the relevant forms, so the graduate program advisor and committee members took care of the paperwork, the student got the degree, and is now happily employed.

This worked out in part because the student no longer needed the advisor's letter of reference; in the future, if a letter is needed, the graduate committee members can help with this, bypassing the angry advisor.

That incident had a happy ending; I suspect that most do not, but it would be useful to have more information, in part so that we are all better informed when students ask for advice.

Therefore, I am interested in hearing about examples from different departments, institutions, and academic disciplines:
  • Is there a good way to resolve serious problems in your department/university/etc.? 
  • How much is your department (etc.) willing to get involved in advisor-advisee issues, when problems are detected? and
  • Even if there is some process on the books for resolving serious problems involving advisors and students, do students ever find it reasonable and useful to pursue these options, or is the conflict resolution process seen as something that sounds good in theory, but has too many pitfalls (or is just a bunch of empty words in a document somewhere, to make administrators feel better)?


J.F. said...

Ha! You have described my spouse's mildly sociopathic current advisor to a "T". We are both in biomed/biochem.

My old grad program did have an advisor-bypass mechanism for grad students (public defense); in practice it required the consent of the committee and the dept. chair. Aside from that, there was no conflict resolution. Plus, of course, if you still need that person's goodwill, you're out of luck.

Anonymous said...

I had a large number of significant problems as a grad student. Most of them were solved by getting out of there and finding an alternate career path to get to where I wanted to be without phenomenal recommendations. I was lucky in that my university had an excellent ombudsperson. I used her office to resolve one of the conflicts that involved my advisor and a postdoc in my lab. My department chair was totally freaked out that I had taken ugliness out of the department, but in the end he agreed that it was an effective way to handle that issue. Only do this if your ombudsperson is really good, though!

Anonymous said...

I wrote you one of these "help!" emails. I work in a biofuels lab that is very well funded and produces a lot of moderate-high impact papers each year. I moved here from another country (which is not the country of my birth) where I did my PhD.

In my field I think the problem is that there are very few people with a PhD in applied chemistry that is specific to biofuels. My generation is perhaps the first to actually have people with PhDs in bioethanol processing. Our mentors were chemical engineers/carbohydrate chemists who spent their postdocs working in the sugar industry. Since fermentation and enzyme technology is also a part of our processes, we sometimes have people with PhDs in enzymes and fermentation leading us.

Although this field has the potential of being happily multidisciplinary, it is sometimes eclipsed with ambiguity -- especially when it comes to authorship.

Who should supervise a student/post doc who is working specifically in understanding the organic chemistry of biomass? Sometimes, the student or the post doc has a better understanding of the fundamentals than the supervisor. And sometimes, the supervisor cannot make a philosophical contribution to the manuscript at all.

So in this sort of a situation, in my opinion, the post doc/ student should be connected to an external collaborator who can review and critique their work and the supervisor should leave it up to the first author to ethically assign authorship.

But this does not happen. In my case, it turned first into a "controlling my interactions with everyone" reaction and later into a full blown ego battle that involved personal defamation, alienation blah blah blah. Bullying in short.

PIs should be more involved in the work that their lab produces. Many famous/successful/highly funded PIs spend the later part of their careers writing books, devoting themselves to the big picture revolutions in their field. The lab is usually left to an associate or assistant prof. It is really important that this person is ethical, compassionate and is not blinded by personal ambitions, insecurity and/or a complete lack of confidence in their own technical skills and knowledge.

And on the other side of the associate prof, post-docs/students should be aware that producing papers is not an "assembly line" process. Research in science requires the same kind of passion, individuality, creativity as Art does. And it comes with both rational and emotional milestones.

Anonymous said...

I have a good job at a SLAC now, but I will comment on how things worked in my biomedical graduate program. I had an abusive advisor, and I tried to get help. My impression is that the offices that were there to "help" us were really just places to blow off steam and I doubt that my advisor was ever reprimanded in any way about his behavior. (I should note that I was not the first, nor last student to have problems with him.) I visited the University-wide academic ombudsperson, and the medical school ombudsperson, and was basically told the only resolution was for me to find a new advisor. By the time I had the courage to visit these offices, I was well into my research, and decided not to do that. In retrospect, I should have switched. I probably would have finished in a similar amount of time, and I certainly would not have been as emotionally unhealthy as I was.

I was also in the situation where my committee had all signed off on my thesis (written and oral defense), but my advisor was dragging his feet. I had a job lined up, so I had to leave within 2 months. The department chair (on my committee) was aware of the situation, but when the three of us met together, my advisor just flat-out lied to her. Other students and post-docs in the lab were making bets as to who would win the fist-fight when it broke out (most of the money was on me). In the end, I basically physically blocked my advisor from leaving one night until he signed the document. He had all kinds of reasons he didn't want to, and even suggested that I come back the following summer to do more work, but I would not take no for an answer. I had been pushed to the point that I really didn't feel like I had anything to lose, so I had no reason to back down.

The irony of the entire situation is that my advisor has since written glowing letters for me as my career advanced. I'm not sure he is self-aware enough to know what a horrible advisor he is.

queenrandom said...

I don't know if these problems are more prevalent in the biosciences - here at my postdoc U, it seems to be much more prevalent in engineering departments.

My grad "U" was a free-standing cancer center, so it was all biomedical. I had an abusive advisor myself; I went to the deans in my third year (which was the proper procedure at this institution) and they had a chat; she got better for a while then reverted to her old ways. This happened when employees went to HR about her, too. But eventually I and others got fed up and went to HR as a group, which resulted in significant consequences for her when her department head got involved, and I (and most of the employees) switched labs. It was clear that their attempts at fixing the situation just didn't work - she would behave just long enough to get the higher-ups off her back. So while I thought the institution gave it the old college try, I am skeptical of these "trainings".

Another issue I wanted to bring up: a research fellow at my grad institution went through the same process I did about an unreasonable work load, and the PI actually got worse - he started threatening pulling her visa (she was international) and even though she went back to HR about it, his department didn't follow through on his behavior and she is currently looking for other jobs because she feels it's just a matter of time until he makes good on his threat. I believe student visas are slightly different but this is a huge problem for trainees - I've seen it multiple times at my grad U and postdoc U.

EliRabett said...

The issue in the biomedical sciences is that the PIs salary usually depends to a great extent on soft money. This leads to a hypercompetitive gut churning environment.

They think it is a feature.

Anonymous said...

I think at the graduate student level, it is easier for american students to get out of the situation using the similar strategy you describe, they do know their rights and also not dependent on visa etc to be employed. It gets much harder for foreign students (read Indian, Chinese etc). At the post-doc level, it is much harder for the student, both domestic and international. I know a case when a foreign post-doc just quit her position thus risking her own career. However, I do know one positive case where an american post-doc found a way to get out of the abusive lab by getting a Fullbright fellowship to another well established lab in a different country, thus actually neutralizing the abusive PI.

FemaleAcademicAffairsDean said...

I’m a biomedical scientist currently serving as Assoc Dean of Academic Affairs in a large umbrella PhD program at a med school. We are in the process of developing procedures to resolve serious problems between grad students and advisors. In the past we have dealt with things in an ad hoc way. If a student came to the Dean or one of the Associate Deans with a problem, we would hear them out, talk to the advisor to get their side, and then make a recommendation, The recommendation could be anything from the student leaves the lab to go somewhere else, with temporary support from the Graduate School budget, or the advisor is “spoken to”, or the student leaves the program, depending on the circumstances or personalities involved. The biggest problem with this ad hoc system is that we tended only to hear from students who were in very deep crisis, long after the problems had started, and it could be very hard to discern whether we were dealing with abusive advisors, underperforming students or just a case of student-advisor mismatch. We are now working on procedures that require faculty mentors and an advisory committee to periodically evaluate student performance in number of specific areas, with a written document. We also require students to evaluate their advisors (like a student in a course evaluates the instructor), again in specific areas with a written document. We do not actually use the document to “check up on” advisors, but we think that if a crisis arises, and a student or faculty member comes to one of us, we now have some documentation of the progress. Of course, this adds “layers of bureaucracy” that everyone just so loves. And I agree that the potential for abuse here is also significant. This requires that we in Dean’s office uphold the highest standards for confidentiality and ethical dealings with people. We leave the heavy hitting to the Dean, but we make sure that we keep him or her well informed about what we are seeing and hearing.

Another aspect of our new procedure is that when a student or faculty member comes to us with a problem, we will, if appropriate, convene an off-schedule meeting of the advisory committee and ask them to weigh in on the nature of the problem-faculty abuse, student underperformance, mismatch, or other. We then document that, and develop an appropriate remediation plan. Everyone is informed of the time line and the possible outcomes, and we maintain contact with the principals during the remediation process.

In general, we don’t deal with “departments”, and that is a function of the nature of our program. To us, it does not matter if a student or faculty member is in Neuroscience of Virology, since the student is a Graduate Student and the faculty member is jointly appointed to their department and to the Graduate School. We also have decent resources for the Deans office, and the Dean and all three Assoc. Deans (and everyone just so loves all these Dean-lettes, LOL) are biomedical scientists who hold or have held faculty positions, here or else. Which means that we were successful grad students and postdocs and faculty members. We also try hard to maintain the correct posture-we know that there is always a lot of anxiety around change, but in the end this will be for the better, and we have to win some level of buy in for this to work effectively. Nice matters. But the larger point is that because we have a reasonably empowered Dean for the graduate program, and faculty appointment to the graduate school is voluntary and can be dissolved without really harming someone’s scientific career, we have some leeway. It’s like a club-you don’t have to join, you can quit or be dismissed, but if you are here, this is how we operate.

I'll continue post below

FemaleAcademicAffairsDean said...

Part II

My faculty experience was in a small department-based Bioscience PhD program at elite arts and sciences R1, and it could not have been more different. The University did have a Dean of Grad studies, who, in principle, oversaw all Masters and PhD programs in all disciplines. But both students and faculty in my department were reluctant to use the office as resource. There was mutual mistrust and animosity, and I was never sure that grad students were aware of how that office could act as a support. The faculty did not want to air our dirty laundry to “the failed academic over in XYZ hall”, and there was no concept that “taking” (as opposed to “mentoring”) grad students was a voluntary activity or a privileged. We “had to” take grad students. The university was counting on the tuition payments from our NIH grants. We were unable to attract many good students (though I had two wonderful student who, alas, struggled with the horribleness of the training environment, but that is another issue). Among our faculty, we had had a small number of very bad apples. One person had no qualms about asking students to babysit or do personal errands, and the “requests” were always accompanied with thinly veiled threats about letters and projects and the like. More often we saw the standard variety of abuse-treating the students like a robotic arm in an assembly line, with no thought to their intellectual development. I think most of us did as decent a job as we could, but the two or so bad apples really stood out. The chair either ignored, or tried unsuccessfully to intervene, or took the issues to the Dean of Nat Sci, rather than the Dean of Grad Studies. The Dean of NS’s response was always something along the lines of “Nothing could be done as long as Professsor X has grant money” or “we can not refuse him/her the right to support grad students”, and “we need labs for the students that we are taking”. ‘Right”, “need”, “taking”. Not concepts conducive to the intellectual development of trainees.

I don’t know whether our current paper-trail mechanism will work-we certainly hope that it does, and we remain committed to finding the best way forward. But I think the idea that mentoring graduate students is a voluntary activity and a privilege, rather than a need and a right, needs to be explored and possibly formalized. It could go a long way to combating abuse and the perception of abuse that is so rampant, for a number of reasons I have not discussed here, in biomedical sciences.

Anonymous said...

This kind of scenario has occurred recently in our dept: all of the lab's student members (both graduate, n=4, and undergraduate) quit, but despite a long history of documented issues there does not appear to have been any substantive action taken even after involving police, funding agencies, and university administration. [The sole student now present, who arrived as a new grad student just after this all blew up, is in a horrible situation!] Grad students were found other homes but with varying outcomes and generally little support from the dept. or university.

The worst example I have been close to was a grad school colleague whose advisor dropped dead (age ~45) while jogging, just prior to her defense; the dept. chair took her in 'to finish writing' but then forced her to do a holw new set of expriments, adding 3-4 years to her grad school time. Not until he was forced by the other committee members did he sign off on her leaving!

So: no, no effective mechanisms for handling such problems, especially when the faculty member in question has funding/prestige/whatever.

Pam K said...

I find that situation you describe quite odd. My observation has been that the Kings in Bio like to keep their most productive students, while pushing the lesser ones out the door. Not was is fair, not what is even best for the student. But best for the PI.

Anonymous said...

One difference that I've seen (but don't understand) between bio- and non-bio research labs is that although PIs can be totally obsessed with publications (quantity) in both, some bio PIs do things that increase the number of papers their own names are on but actually work to decrease the number of papers their students and postdocs are on. I mean, they leave off the names of some of the people in their lab, or they write papers with other colleagues, leaving out their own group members (unethically). I don't get that. Aside from the ethical issue (people should get due credit for their work), what is the advantage to the PI to leave them out?

Anonymous said...

I think because biomedical sciences are "disease curing" like you said in your other post, it tends to attract more people in it just for the glory. And when people are in any job for the wrong reasons, unhappiness ensues.

But there are people who are doing biomedical sciences for the right reasons, and are willing to push to find a cure even if it's extremely difficult. These people tend to not have problems so much, or have them at the same rate as people in physical sciences would.

I come from a biomedical engineering background, with some of my classmates focusing on more physical sciences/engineering, and others more on biomedical sciences, and the biomedical sciences focus tended to attract the neurotic premed students. But there were also quite a few talented, well-adjusted, and intelligent biomedical sciences people, and they end up doing great whether they choose medical school or graduate school.

FemaleAcademicAffairsDean said...

It's interesting how, when we try to figure out why something is not working or working badly or working well but with unintended negate consequences, we (like so many commenters here) begin by impugning the character and motives of the participants as a whole, rather than looking at the structural constraints and incentive systems under which they operate. Perhaps because it is easier to just write off a whole group of people as uniquely flawed or unworthy of consideration rather than find out what's really wrong and fix it.

second-rate scientist said...

Biomedical sciences faculty here, too. We have a similar setup to what FemaleAcademicAffairsDean has described in that our faculty have joint appointments in the grad school and within their departments. We further subdivide that into discipline-specific "programs" within the graduate school. Each program has its own requirements for course work and qualifying exams.

We used to admit students as unaffiliated with a specific program, instead, they chose an advisor and made up their own curriculum. While this was a good recruiting tool - prospective students liked the flexibility of "choosing their own adventure" - the general faculty consensus was that unaffiliated students were more likely to get into a hazardous lab relationship.

Students working within programs have another layer of protection in that the program director should be checking up on their progress. In addition, having to attend program-sponsored events such as seminars forces the student away from the isolated pressure cooker of her/his lab and into interactions with peers, who may demonstrate a healthier relationship with their own PI. Finally, this also allows more student-student and student-faculty networking, which is great if things go REALLY bad and the student needs to find a new home.

From what I've seen, a long-term bad student-advisor relationship is not easily solved. I think prevention and early intervention are the best tools. My own department currently houses a repeat offender nasty jerk of a PI. Repeated complaints to the grad school and to the postdoctoral affairs office have put him on the radar, but nothing stops him from recruiting replacements (he's currently using the visa trick to keep his minions around).

Unofficially, the program director makes sure he doesn't get any grad students. Also unofficial is our department "underground railroad" of postdocs and faculty who make the effort to reach out to trainees in the Bad Lab and make sure they get involved in seminars and trainee get-togethers. They usually seek one of us out when they need advice, and we can help resettle them and write them a letter if need be.

It's not a great solution, but it has helped a few trainees into a better situation.

Anonymous said...

On the other side of the pond, in the kingdom of Sweden, doctoral studies are carefully regulated in administrative law:

"At least two supervisors shall be appointed for each doctoral student. One of them shall be nominated as the principal supervisor. Doctoral students are entitled to supervision during their studies unless the vice-chancellor has decided otherwise by virtue of Section 30.
A doctoral student who so requests shall be allowed to change supervisor."

So if a student gets stuck with a crappy advisor, they always have an escape hatch. Yes, even if you are funded by your advisor's grant; the student belongs to the department, not the PI.

Anonymous said...

I have had a series of problems with bad bosses, dealt with differently in different situations.

My doctoral advisor had almost no communication with me. When he spoke to me in front of the lab he was often harsh. I had a hard time with this, because he was older and famous and he was worshipped and feared in the department. Fortunately, I was well known and liked in the department by other professors, and my doctoral advisor was widely known to have have zero successful female students in his long career before me, so people were kinda looking out for me. I was able to put together an official and unofficial committee of other professors to talk to and lean on and it worked out well.

WIth my first postdoc, I was not so lucky. I can't even really talk about the things that went on there, suffice to say a lot of personal boundaries were crossed by him in inappropriate ways, I wrote a lot of grants for him, and got zero first-author papers. He attacked me personally and made me feel awful for not giving him the papers he demanded, even though he was using me to edit all the manuscripts in his lab and write his grants. Fortunately, I am relatively well-known in my field and I was able to get another postdoc without needing his letter. I felt there was nothing I could about that situation, as a postdoc I wasn't really employed by the university, he was the exclusive boss and ran everything. Some other professors were aware of what he was doing to me, but no one intervened this time. This boss also terrorized me, telling me he would know if I ever told anyone anything about him, he would know and I would be punished. Of course, after that, I decided to get the hell out of there, but it ended up taking me almost a year to find another good job.

How I am starting again, 3 years down, with another postdoc. Although I would say the demands on my time are brutal (it has already broken up my relationship with my boyfriend), I am happy to have a boss who seems relatively sane and fair, and wants what is best for me professionally.

I should also say, that at my new institution they are very serious about their postdocs and about work place dynamics, and if anything ever went wrong, I would know where to go and would do so without reservation.

Anonymous said...

@FemaleAcademicAffairsDean: I appreciate you are trying to resolve a difficult problem, but I don't think the measures you are describing will do much- if anything, they may serve to protect the faculty member not the student. I had a horribly abusive adviser, it took an insane amount of action to remove myself from that (and I was not funded at all by hir). I would never, under ANY circumstances have been willing to fill out any kind of "anonymous" evaluation- I would have been terrified about retaliation. Nor did any other member of the faculty have the slightest clue- how would you convene any kind of committee on this? What there needs to be is clear guidelines for acceptable behavior and less insistence on "mediation"- which involves recognizing that mediation is a bad idea in some (many?) cases

Anonymous said...

There don't seem to any good ways to resolve these situations other than leaving, ideally to work with someone else if you can.

Anonymous said...

We've (so far) managed to avoid these problems by hiring faculty carefully and by keeping in touch with students frequently

Students have to meet at least annually for a progress check with the grad committee before advancing to candidacy and afterwards at least annually with their thesis committee. These meetings are explicitly intended to prevent surprises (students thinking they are doing well when they are not, for example).

We have never had an instance of an abusive adviser, but we did have a problem for a while with MS students not finishing because they (and their advisers) had too inflated an idea of what an MS thesis was. We eliminated the thesis and replaced it with a 1-course capstone that was identical to the PhD lab rotation (same course number, in fact). That cleared out a bunch of overdue MS degree students, and made everyone (students and faculty) happier.

I don't think we've ever had an abusive faculty member in classic mode, though we have had some students kicked out of labs for not getting any work done. (One was kicked out of 2 labs, but managed to find a 3rd one.)

As grad director, I try to make it clear to first-year students that they can turn to me (or to our much beloved staff grad adviser) for help. I have had some students come to talk with me about various concerns, but they are generally very minor things.

We do occasionally lose students because we can't solve a particular problem (like inadequate day care or students not interested in any of the projects that faculty are working on). But we haven't had to deal with prima donna faculty—it helps that our highest status faculty are also genuinely nice people, so they act as reasonable role models for the junior faculty.

Anonymous said...

In my country, there is a time limit set on PhDs by the university. Departments get a certain amount of funding depending on how many PhD students *graduate*, so if they take ages, it's not in the department's financial interest. There have to be special circumstances to extend a PhD beyond 4 years (changing supervisors, technical problems, illness, etc).