Astro physics has been in news a lot recently, with a series of sexual harassment cases involving male PIs and female students. As anyone who has worked in academia for a while knows, these are not isolated cases. Academia is as bad about dealing with sexual harassment as many private and public sector jobs are, and the consequences for the students involved can be complete career annihilation. This is a massive problem tat we are not treating with the urgency it deserves, and it is hardly the only issue that can lead to students being pushed out of academia.
Unfortunately, this is a problem that needs to be dealt with at the departmental and university levels. Of course, an issue that disproportionately effects students that needs to be dealt with by administration is only acted upon if that admin is motivated. They rarely are, which is why the problem exists. And we go round and round.
I get that it makes sense to take the bull by the horns as a student applying to work in a lab, but some things just don't work:
@niais do you have any personal or health problems that may affect our working relationship?
— Jeff Terry (@nuclear94) January 13, 2016
On first glance you might think, "okay, that's one way to start a conversation about expectations, etc...." but take this a step or two further.
- Asking someone an incredibly invasive personal question on an interview aside, what's to say that the situation today is predictive of tomorrow? Things could be going great today, but a car accident, unexpected health issue of a child/parent/spouse, or relationship issue down the road is no less likely to occur if you ask this question. Life happens and it's impossible to predict what the reaction will be.
- Do you have the right to even ask this question? I mean, should a potential PI feel obligated to describe their personal health information to you? The answer is no. You don't know anyone's home situation and you're not privy to that information, even if it may affect you one day. Why not ask if they're on anti-depressants? How much they drink? Whether they do drugs? Are they seeing a therapist? I mean, that's basically shades of the same question. Can you see where this becomes problematic?
Asking that type of question will not protect you from anything and is more than likely going to alarm a potential PI. Maybe it's a vehicle to a good conversation in a few instances, but I doubt it would generally play well.
I am acutely aware that the power differential between PI and trainees is a very steep slope, and that more protections need to be in place for students. Reforms at the department and university level for student (and really anyone junior) protection are desperately needed, but the "advice" above is not how we get there.