What To Do When Your Adviser Goes Too Far, Part I

"Ooh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struckout generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster."

So begins Charles Dickens's Christmas story of bitterness and redemption. For most of us, the novel A Christmas Carol represents one element of a happy and enjoyable holiday season. After a hard fall semester, the holiday break is a welcome, if brief, respite from the toil of research. For some scientists, however, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge takes on a familiar tone. While hard work (and even experiments on Christmas Day for some of us) may be necessary for succeeding in science, there are those among us who, like Bob Cratchit, labor under a truly terrible boss.

There is a point where an adviser has gone too far. Knowing what that point is and recognizing the policies and people who should protect you can make the difference between survival and surrender.

The Story of L.

A few months ago I met L., a recent Ph.D. from an excellent school on the East Coast. L. asked me about strategies for applying for jobs when one's adviser was either unwilling or unable to write a flattering letter of reference. I brought up the role that department chairs and other thesis committee members can play in this situation, but as we talked, it became clear that L.'s situation was extreme.

When L. entered grad school, she purposely chose a research group that would challenge her. Having dealt productively with a tough but fair undergraduate adviser, L. was ready to prove herself in graduate school. Dr. N., the principal investigator (PI) and adviser for her lab, seemed to have a very friendly relationship with his students. He had just received tenure, and there was every indication that things would continue to be positive in the lab.

After a few months of working with another grad student, L. embarked on her own Ph.D. research project. At first, everything went well. L. made good initial progress; she and Dr. N. got along fine. The only negative element was L.'s persistent difficulty with a piece of equipment that broke down and was sent off for repairs several times. Another device, also unreliable, had to be swapped for a new one, which meant that L. lost data gathered on the old instrument. L. continued with her research project.

It was around this time that, according to L., Dr. N.'s behavior became a bit disturbing. It was L.'s perception that Dr. N. was becoming less and less interested in his group. Dr. N. became increasingly aloof about appointments, arriving extremely late or missing appointments entirely. One particular day, Dr. N. was 2 hours late to a late-evening (10 p.m.) meeting with L. that he had set up to show her how to run a new piece of equipment. When he did arrive, he was clearly distracted and spent only 15 minutes with her.

L.'s relationship with Dr. N. took a precipitous turn in the winter of 1997. Dr. N. had asked L. to present her second talk at a major national meeting. The talk was to be an overview describing the group's research of which L.'s work was but a part. L. was worried about gathering together all the figures and diagrams necessary but Dr. N. reassured her, saying she could use his electronic versions of all of the necessary figures. Dr. N. then left for 2 weeks without sending L. the files. When he returned, he had a little surprise for L.

"I think it would be good for you to make the figures yourself," Dr. N. told her. What a nightmare! All the people involved with the project were away, so L. had to reconstruct the talk from scratch by going through all their data files. After she was almost done, Dr. N. came back to her and said that perhaps she shouldn't do the talk because it seemed too stressful for her. L. told him that she had finished the transparencies and she was bloody well going to give the talk! Dr. N. admonished her for not coming to him for assistance. Nevertheless, L. did present the talk at the meeting.

That June, L. met Dr. N. to discuss her yearly evaluation. Up to this point, Dr. N. had never indicated that he was unhappy with her research. Over the course of an hour, Dr. N. berated L. publicly (they had gone to the campus coffee house to discuss things). Dr. N.'s criticism was ceaseless and did not seem to contain any constructive advice. It was true that L. had not finished one project because of instrument trouble but she had made progress on other projects. After an hour of constant derogation, L. begged Dr. N. to allow them to return to the building. When she got back, L. went straight to her office and began to pack her things. Friends and family later talked her out of quitting.

L. continued her research and the situation in the lab lightened up, but it was readily apparent that her relationship with Dr. N. had deteriorated. About 12 months before graduating, L. began to look into postdoc opportunities. Because L. is personable and outgoing, she had no problem introducing herself to researchers and expressing interest in doing postdoctoral work with them. L. sent out other postdoc applications and became increasingly frustrated by her lack of success.

After a while, L. began to notice a pattern. When she sent out applications without letters of reference, she tended to receive positive responses. However, once they received the recommendation letter, she received a rejection. In other cases, L.'s application was rejected because Dr. N.'s letter was never received.

L. and Dr. N. then had another dust-up; this time, it was over her thesis. Dr. N. first demanded that L. defend by a certain date. But once the rest of the committee had signed her thesis, he withheld his signature until she had generated another paper. L., desperate to see the light at the end of the tunnel, complied and gave him a final draft of the paper.

After finishing her defense, L. sent out more postdoc applications. One opportunity was with a group whose PI was close friends with one of L.'s thesis committee members. This committee member persuaded his friend to interview L.

During the interview, L. learned why she had had such poor luck with her applications. The letter from Dr. N. was poor. When she probed further, all she could learn was that the letter said nothing very laudatory. It was a lackluster nonendorsement that guaranteed an application would end up in the "round file." Nevertheless, she ended up getting an offer, which she couldn't accept because the timing did not match the end of her thesis project.

Currently, L. is caught in a terrible limbo. Dr. N. does not acknowledge her presence. The manuscript that Dr. N. hounded her for 6 months ago remains unread on his desk. Dr. N. kicked L. out of the lab a few months ago , so is unable to complete the half-dozen experiments needed to finish a second paper. Worst of all, L. says that at least two other members of the group, both women, are receiving similarly poor treatment.

I asked L. if she had ever gone to other professors or the department chair for help with this situation. She explained that the department faculty was comprised of a few buddies who were "very close." L. doubted whether any of them were aware that Dr. N. had a problem at all. "There's really a feeling in this department that you are on your own -- I don't know of any graduate students who feel that there is anyone they can safely complain to," she said.

How Dr. N. Crosses the Line

L.'s story, like nearly every dysfunctional relationship, is complex. While difficulty with an experimental thesis project, and a clash of personalities, may lead some advisers to regard a particular student less highly, I see several elements in L.'s story that seem clear examples of advisorial misconduct. These include:

  • Misrepresenting the contents of his letter of reference to L.: An adviser has the right to write whatever he or she wants about a student as long as it is truthful. But should an adviser deliberately send out a lackluster letter without warning the student of its contents? And what if an adviser misrepresents the contents of his or her letter?
  • Sitting on manuscripts: Publications are a critical element in the career of a young scientist. Requiring that drafts be handed in before a thesis signature is one thing, but failing to promptly edit and return those drafts seems negligent.
  • Failing to send letters of reference: Considering the critical role that these letters play in the future employability of a scientist, at what point does an adviser's failure to send a letter, either from carelessness or malice, become an issue of ethical or legal responsibility?

What Should L. Do?

It may be tempting to deconstruct L.'s story and cite all things she should have done differently. Rather than looking back, I would like to focus on actions L. could take at this point to resolve this situation. While L. expressed a common sentiment that there seems to be nobody to whom it is safe to complain, there are, in fact, a number of people and resources one can and should approach in a situation like this:

  • The Department Chair: While the responsibilities of a department chair vary enormously from school to school, one issue that they all seem to have to deal with is personnel. The department chair is the most logical level for a disgruntled graduate student to seek redress. A student can request at the outset that any deliberations be kept confidential. At most institutions, a department chair who violates a pledge of confidentiality will be held accountable.
  • The Dean: In some cases a student may fear that the department chair is either unable or unwilling to fairly adjudicate an advisor-advisee conflict. In this case, the student should go to the dean. Just as department chairs have responsibility over the people in a particular department, so the dean has responsibility over the people in a school. Deans often deal with difficult personnel matters! They tend to be better acquainted with school and legal policies than most faculty, and they have tremendous authority to resolve these issues.
  • The Ombudsperson: In some schools and research organizations, there is a person or office whose job it is to deal fairly with internal complaints. The ombudsperson is typically given broad discretionary power to protect the identity of the person seeking redress. In many organizations the ombudsperson is endowed with significant independence from the power structure so that conflicts can be adjudicated fairly.
  • A Labor Lawyer: There is an entire field of law that addresses issues that arise in the workplace. Many people think that they should approach a lawyer as a last resort -- and only if they are ready to take full legal action. In reality, you don't have to be at the Karen Silkwood stage to make an appointment with a lawyer. (They will usually see you, at least on an initial consultation, for free.) You can ask questions about how the law may or may not protect you in your workplace. You should view lawyers more like doctors -- don't wait until you are on your deathbed to visit the clinic. Lawyers are also bound by significant legal obligations to protect your privacy. And most of the time, a lawyer does not need to go to court to get resolution for a client.

Next month we will talk to a former department chair, a dean of research, and an expert in labor law about the story of L. and what young scientists can and should do when they feel their supervisor has gone "too far."

In the meantime, I hope you will tune in to our forum section to discuss your own stories of living under a Professor Scrooge, or your own suggestions for L. as she deals with her difficult situation.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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