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Robert Neubecker

My colleagues treat me badly. I wish I could tell my Ph.D. adviser

Dear Ph.D. adviser:

I just finished editing my paper based on the comments from our two colleagues. Reading what they wrote felt like walking through hell (though I don’t believe that hell or heaven exists). Yes, it felt that bad. It took me 2 days to get over that horrible feeling before I could focus on editing the paper. Then I asked myself why their comments made me feel so bad. Does my writing suck that much? No. I know I have room to improve, but I have received positive responses from other colleagues about my manuscripts in the past. Am I incapable of taking feedback? No. Comments from another professor, two postdocs, and you, dear adviser, do not cause that sharp pain. Were the comments profane or abusive? No. But in my head, I could hear our colleagues making their points in the sarcastic, disrespectful tone they use when they speak to me. The comments were a trigger, waking other painful memories I have tried to bury.

Over the years I have worked with these colleagues, they have made me feel less intelligent and less human than they are. One told me I needed to read more. The other told me I was stupid on many occasions, saying “I don’t believe you” until I showed him papers that stated almost exactly what I had said. Then there was the time when he disparaged one of my ideas so loudly that another colleague put on headphones so she didn’t have to hear it.

I can’t help thinking they treat me this way because of my gender and race. I’m a Thai woman who speaks English with a strong accent. They seem to think of me as an exotic animal who happens to be able to speak English.

Dear adviser, you and I don’t always agree, but you never treat me that way. When I talk with you, I feel well-informed. You tell me I’m intelligent. You say you believe in me.

Yet I’ll never be brave enough to tell you how these colleagues make me feel. You’re so close to them, and I’m afraid you would try to protect them and justify their behavior. You would probably tell me they are kind and empathetic in their own ways. I’m afraid that you would tell me to tolerate the sexism, racism, and microaggressions. I’m afraid that, if I speak up, you might not want me in your lab anymore. And I’m afraid that, if you respond that way, I won’t want you to be my adviser anymore.

I’ll never be brave enough to say it to them, either. They would reject my reality and say I am too sensitive, as one of them has already told me. But even though these colleagues dismiss my experience, my feelings are valid.

Dear adviser, you once told me I need to grow a thicker skin. But why is it my responsibility to change my skin? Why should I have to invest my time, money, and energy to heal myself from their behaviors? I already went to a therapist and found a good self-help book to deal with inescapable toxic co-workers. But why isn’t it their responsibility to learn that their behavior is unacceptable?

I need more than a thicker skin. I need a spiky one, like a cactus, to reclaim my dignity.

I love my work and I want to finish my Ph.D. with grace. I just wish I didn’t have to sacrifice my energy and mental health to deal with this discrimination. I just wish I didn’t feel like I was in a meanness competition, where the meanest person gets the trophy. I just wish my colleagues treated me as an equal. Dear adviser, I wish all of this not only for me, but also for other nonwhite young women who want to pursue their scientific dreams.

Lastly, I will take your advice about changing my skin. But I think, to survive all of this, I need more than a thicker skin. I need a spiky one, like a cactus, to reclaim my dignity. I will no longer let anyone step on me. Although I am not ready to share my feelings with you or our colleagues directly, I plan to change my approach going forward. I will empower myself to say no to unacceptable behavior—without becoming another contestant in the meanness competition. It’s hard, and it will take practice. But for my mental health, it’s worth it.

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