Protecting students from bad PIs

Jan 13 2016 Published by under [Education&Careers]

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:

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.

20 responses so far

  • Drugmonkey says:

    And of course the supervisor person should never be asking these types of questions either.

  • No, they're out of bounds.

  • Bashir says:

    I understand the desire to try to predict the future. Your PIs personal life can affect you. My PI had two kids while I was there. That affected me to some degree*. Though if I had asked, it seems like "Is there something that I should know about?" is a very different question than a more specific "You having kids? Health problems? A divorce?" Though the biggest things that I've seen have be unpredictable health issues.

    *not necessarily in a bad way

  • Josh VW says:

    This is actually one of the few times when the student has more control than the prof - they can ask other students in the department/group about the potential boss's personality and working style. I always tell students that they need to make sure their own craziness is compatible with their advisor's craziness (i.e. if you thrive on stress, you want a boss who puts pressure on you. If you like to go into a cave and work by yourself for a month between check-ins, find an advisor who is overworked and appreciates that you aren't pestering them). The prof, on the other hand, has very little to go on regarding the potential student's quirks.

  • M says:

    I suppose the student could ask about planned sabbaticals, lab moves, etc. to see if the prof volunteers anything on that front.

    My best advice would be to try and have some frank conversations with current students in the group (all or most of them) to get an idea of what it's "really like" to work with that person. Yes, people get along differently, but you can at least get a sense of what the red flags might be and whether that would be a problem for you (too hands on, too hands off, too passive aggressive, biased toward certain genders/races, etc.). You probably still won't be able to predict all of the finer nuances of your future interactions - but part of the experience is learning to work closely with people of different personality types - everybody goes through it - you just need to avoid the really bad apples.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I had a sit down talk with my grad PI before I joined his lab. I explained that I was willing to work, but unwilling to sacrifice my mental health in the process; I would work-work not dick around-work so things would get done during business hours (or any wonky hours needed for a specific experiment on a case-by-case basis); and if he was clear with his expectations, I would make sure they were fulfilled on his timescale. I am pretty sure that conversation is the reason why I had such a positive grad school experience.

  • There's no sure fire method for selecting a PI who is not a giant dbag, nor can you predict what will happen if something terrible goes wrong. Our focus should really be on institutional safe-guards for students who end up in bad positions. Also, not allowing sexual harassers to have students and face consequences.

  • Anonymous says:

    I dunno -- I guess I see this differently than everyone else. The question doesn't say, "tell me all about your medications, drinking habits, how satisfied you are with your spouse," etc. It is specific to those issues that affect the working relationship. In other words, if your social drinking does not affect your work (and by extension, our working relationship), then I don't need to know.

    Employers can certainly ask interviewees if they're capable of performing all duties of the job (e.g., lifting X many lbs, etc.). Is this really so different?

    That said, I wouldn't ask during my interview.

  • shrew says:

    I did a first postdoc with someone who had a personal health issue crop up within my first three weeks of being in the lab. My time there was terrible and I left within a year, but it has remained unclear whether that health issue was a major, minor, or noncontributor to the terrible approach that PI took towards our relationship.

    Point is I couldn't have known in advance. As a postdoc, I could bail quickly. The grad students remained behind and had to deal with this walking personality disorder. There need to be better mechanisms for getting students out of situations which are nonproductive without tanking the student's career.

    It is of course important to ask other trainees what they think, since happy people are never afraid to talk about why they're happy, but unhappy people can be reticent to discuss the issues that are making them upset (at least at first, get a beer or two in em and things change). But asking the PI if they are anticipate becoming an asshole (in so many words) is a nonstarter, and will just make them think you are a problem.

  • David says:

    A friend entered a master's program at a university new to her and she didn't ask around about the PI. First few weeks were rough and as she meet more people and asked more questions, she learned that the PI was notorious for treating female students poorly. Unfortunately for her, there was no alternate PI that would allow her to continue the project that was the reason she choose the university. In the end, she just toughed it out, but if she had to do it over again, I don't think she would have attended that school.

    Based on the other comments on this thread, sounds like she should have done some more research on the PI, but also that the department should do something regarding the PI. If it's common knowledge that the PI is treating a group of people poorly, why allow they to continue.

  • Luminiferous æther says:

    @David "A friend entered a master's program at a university new to her and she didn't ask around about the PI."

    I think this statement represents everything that is wrong at a systemic level. I get that PIs are humans and have their shortcomings. However, why should a student even have to worry about "asking around" about a PI?? Echoing other comments, this issue needs to tackled with urgency at the institutional level at least, if not above that. And when a student joins a university, program or lab they should get the education and training that they are paying for with their time, money and energy without worrying about all this other BS from their so-called mentors.

  • MorganPhD says:

    As a postdoc, ask any darn question you want to ask about the PI during the interview.

    With the current market and with the incentives the NIH has out there that are tied to your 'time since terminal degree' (like K99 and ESI), you have to have a near perfect postdoc to have an advantage if/when you are a new PI. Why leave any stone unturned?

    With that said, tact is an important skill to learn and asking about a PI's health is silly.

  • potnia theron says:

    What makes you think that if you ask a PI a question that they don't want to answer, you will get anything approaching an honest answer?

  • Craig says:

    I think the most important question you can ask a potential PI is for references. Specifically, you should get the contact information of other graduate students and postdocs (possibly technicians if there are no other options). If the PI won't give you the contacts, find them yourself.

    Understanding that individual relationships vary, you can get a lot of information about someone's leadership style from previous long-term mentees/employees. Try and talk face-to-face or over the phone--people will be more inclined to give more and honest information if there isn't a paper trail. Pay attention to red flags.

    Rotation students aren't a great source of information--they spend too little time in a lab. Similarly, techs don't have the same type of relationship with their employers or, necessarily, the same expectations from them. There is often a good reason (other than funding status) that some groups attract a constant flow of trainees or that some PI's trainees drop off the face of the (scientific/academic) earth after their time with the group.

  • MorganPhD says:

    I don't think you'd get an honest answer, but it's a two way street.

    I know of many PI's who are incensed when their GS/PD's go to industry, even though during the hiring process, the GS/PD said they wanted academia.

    Or of the GS who asks a PI "I have a precarious visa issue, can you assure me you'll be here at school X in the US for my GS project". And the PI says, "I love it here at school X". And then moves to Canada.

    These little white lies (from both sides) hinder good communication and really hurt some careers and relationships long-term. There are VERY few instances where a GS/PD has any leverage/power in the asymmetrical power setup of PI-dom.

    I'm reminded of the great character of Winston Zeddemore from Ghostbusters.

    Janine: "Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?"

    Winston: "If there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say"

    Not all interviews/convos are that transparent, but maybe they should be.

  • L Kiswa says:

    "Or of the GS who asks a PI "I have a precarious visa issue, can you assure me you'll be here at school X in the US for my GS project". And the PI says, "I love it here at school X". And then moves to Canada."

    Not sure this is a reasonable question to ask -- PIs have freedom to chose where they work. As do students. I recently had a GS leave for another institution after one semester (on full tuition/stipend) in the lab. Was I pissed? Sure. Shit happens. But, certainly, I won't be asking future GSs to assure me that they will remain in the lab for the future of their degree. Just because most may say yes doesn't mean that they will stick around. Onus is on me and my institution to create an environment where they want to stay. If they don't, well, that's just life.

  • MorganPhD says:

    Of course we all have the freedom to work where we want. But how is it unreasonable to ask what a PI's 5 year plans are? I just don't get it, at all.

    What is worse for someone's career? A PD with a family who moves across the country (or world) to work and then their PI moves in 6 months or has a history of harassment? If you're a GS with a crap PI who is just jumps around uni's or is a serial harasser, it could ruin your career or life.

    Or the PI who loses a GS/PD to another job? If your lab is dependent on 1 person's project, you're screwed no matter what.

    I tell students to ask whatever you want to your PI.

  • L Kiswa says:

    I think we are arguing about semantics. Asking about a PI's 5-year plan is the not the same thing as seeking an assurance. I may not intend to move, but if an exciting offer comes along (fat chance, I know), I would seriously consider it. Thus, any assurance I give has little meaning.

  • What L Kiswa said. It's a meaningless question because A) No one knows what could happen tomorrow, and B) There's no way to assess whether the information you're getting is truthful.

  • Anon says:

    My 1st PhD advisor told me that he was leaving the school 6 mo. after he recruited me to join his lab. I wonder if I had asked about his plans at the time I joined what he would have said, since I'm pretty sure he applied for the position he ended up taking the previous fall. (He also got mad at me for refusing to follow him to the new school!)

    Some people will lie to your face, that's true; but you can tell a lot by the way someone tackles a question. And not everyone is comfortable lying outright.

    That said, there is always the precarious Faculty Ego to worry about. Some people can be insulted by the most ridiculous thing. You may think that as a grad student and an adult, you should handle this interaction in an adult manner, i.e., like a job interview. But your prospective PI may think that you should be honored to even be considered for a spot in his lab, so approach with caution....

Leave a Reply