It has been nice to see the whole sexual abuse issue blow up; it was quite high time for that.
I would talk about something else, though, with the full knowledge that it might upset people. Academia is rife with abuse of all kinds, not just sexual, and it seems like this part is very much forgotten by everyone. The sole focus on sexual abuse is not conductive to addressing the real issue: despite of being the strongholds of liberal thinking, academia is more feudal than any modern systems I’ve experienced or heard about. Your line manager, your PI holds absolute power over you, and abuses of this power are rife. And guess what? You have absolutely no recourse or protection -unless, ironically, the abuse in question is sexual in nature. I’ve witnessed two professors dismissed for making repeated passes on their students. They behaved inappropriately: they were essentially trying to hook up with the attractive young women in their labs, and suffered for it. (One of the few ways of losing a tenured position.)
I’ve never seen anyone suffer the consequences of terrorising their students or for sabotaging their career. Just like sexual abuse it’s hard to prove. And unlike sexual abuse nobody takes the side of the victim if he or she comes forward. I am not trying to relativize one form of abuse over another, and I’m not trying to depict myself as a greater victim; I’m trying to point out that the problem is much deeper rooted than the present flurry of articles and revelations imply. I have some personal experience with abusive PIs; I was driven to depression and thoughts of self-harm during my first attempt at a PhD in the US, and frankly, nobody gave a shit.
The situation was typical, really: a husband and wife team, with the husband, professor Fields, being a widely acclaimed peptide scientists, and the wife being an ex-MSc student of his. As a side-note: she always liked to talk about how difficult it is for women to succeed in science, how much harder they had to work. Well, she certainly did: she seduced her MSc supervisor who divorced his wife, and married her. Boom, instant advancement to laboratory manager. She was quite famous of her ambition: anything you did in conjunction with her husband’s lab (even if you just used the CD Spectrometer or the MALDI-TOF instrument), her name went onto the paper coming out of the results. Highly unethical, but who’s going to argue with the wife of the head of your department?
She was also a horrible human being. (I suspect she still is.) She had obviously an axe to grind, and since her husband left her free run of the lab, she used her power to make the lives of students a living hell. Perhaps it’s no surprise that before the batch of students of which I was part of nobody managed to get their degree in this particular lab for seven years. True story: I actually chatted with some random guy at a bar in Fort Lauderdale (some 30 miles from my university), and when he heard the name of the wife, he said: “man, I heard she is a real bitch”. So yeah. My problems weren’t unique.
Because she made the three postdoc’s life miserable, they were all too eager to pass this misery onto the students, especially students who were not directly managed by either of them -me, in other words. When I arrived, none of the three gracias (the postdocs) returned my greetings; they slammed doors in my face, and in general ignored me. After six months someone told me: this was an initiation period. We’re talking about women over thirty with husbands and kids here- yet, here we were, re-enacting Mean Girls. The other students obviously read the writing on the wall- nobody likes to be friends with a leper, so the atmosphere was just perfect.
Everybody who worked in that lab had serious issues (except for one golden boy, who was groomed to be the first in seven years to acquire a PhD, so he got tremendous support from her). One student was actually mentored by a postdoc from another laboratory, and, since our dear lab manager refused to order supplies for him, the said postdoc supplied this guy from another professor’s funds. Let it sink in a bit: a student could only work in the lab managed by the head of department, because some other professor’s money was used to order him supplies.
Well, I did not have anyone buying me stuff. Apparently until you were successful, the lab’s finances were closed for you; none of my orders went through, none of my primers got ordered. (I don’t have to detail how insane this attitude is, I hope.) After three months of repeated requests I went directly to the PI who was quite livid when heard of this issue; the orders were approved for a short while, and then they stopped again; the wife became even more openly hostile, on the other hand for daring to go over her head.
Not surprisingly my research was not going well, and the pressure I was put under for it was tremendous. I felt trapped, isolated in a hostile environment; I really was a pariah in the laboratory, and I did not have many friends outside, since it’s kind of difficult to make new friends in a small town inhabited by millionaires, and not having anything more than an odd restaurant and strip mall. I wasn’t an undergrad, and the graduate students in general had families and were not interested in mingling with the same people they share their miseries every single day in the lab. I didn’t know how to deal with the situation. Obviously failure begets failure in both personal and professional levels. I became detached, angry, scared. I spent a tremendous amount of money of my mother’s to get to Florida, and felt trapped. Sure you can say: why didn’t I leave? Because I felt there were nowhere to go. If I left I had nothing to do but to go home and accept that I’ve squandered all that money, all those years, and face the fact that I’m unemployable with no PhD, having spent years abroad. (In retrospect it was not true; but you are not necessarily thinking rationally under duress. I felt I had everything to lose.)
And so I became suicidal. It wasn’t a conscious thing; no grand plans of killing myself in a spectacular fashion, or looking up ways to do it online. It just got into my mind uninvited. For example I would regularly refill the liquid nitrogen dewars in the cold room as part of my duties. It wasn’t like in the UK where you have very strict safety regulations: no oxygen sensors, no alarms, no buddy system or ventilated rooms. The dewars were kept in a small room and the only safety you had was to keep the door open. While I was waiting for the nitrogen to transfer I found myself thinking how nice it would be to close the door, and just spill the nitrogen out. Or, when I went out to the beach (which was almost the only way of stress relief, and ironically may have been the reason why I was able to hold out as long as I did) I felt like just letting myself taken out to the open water by the current. This is when I realized that holy shit, my brain was trying to kill me.
My time in the lab ended with a bang, actually. Jenny dearest came over to me after a presentation I held in a lab meeting, and started shouting at me. She did that quite often, but this time I was really, really out of fucks to give. She had no justification for shouting since my research did not proceed due to her refusing to process and approve my orders, and giving me support, as you know she was supposed to. I had good grades (3.67 GPA as a biologist taking advanced organic synthesis classes), my presentations given for the department were excellent (they really were), and I felt absolutely hopeless and at that point I knew I had nothing to lose. So I did not pull my tail between my legs as I did before, but stood up for myself. I did not shout back even though I would have liked nothing more than to shout at her; however I knew I had to be better than her. My heart was beating so hard it almost burst my ribcage, but I (outwardly) calmly answered her. And then I gave her my mind. Factual, no insults (of which she had a lot), collected. And then I went over to the office of her husband and told him what happened and that I cannot remain in this lab any longer because his wife is ruining my life (and his lab incidentally).
He was stunned; I was told an hour later the whole department was echoing of him shouting at his wife. And I joined the lab of Vetter, the German a day later.
I should have known. I did not know it at the time but she went over to his office and told him half-truths and straight-out lies, poisoning the well for me even before I started. I did not understand why, but I was under immense scrutiny in my new lab. All my mistakes, all my words were actually recorded. I had two meetings with my new supervisor who made me sign statements which were not true -statements about how and why I failed in his lab or twisting out things I’ve said. I was there less than two months at the first meeting, so it is kind of expected to not succeed; this is the nature of research. I was numb and stunned in these meetings and signed without thinking -this way he made himself safe from any complaints later on, and then he just dismissed me just after four months. (Ironically none of his other students got along well, and dropped out one after another; he ended up moving to some little state university in North Dakoda. I wonder if he thought about his statistically improbable bad luck getting so many poor students one after another, or perhaps gave a deep thought about his management style instead.)
Anyhow, after this I just took three classes over the summer semester with the good will of a professor who approved my request, and graduated with a MSc degree. (Another one.) I felt strange. As if a huge stone was lifted from my shoulders. I had no job, no visa, and I was happy and free. I mean truly happy. The nightmare was over, and I did not even realize how bad it was until after… it was like that story with the frog who is slowly boiled alive without him noticing.
I spent an awesome August working at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, swimming in the Atlantic in the mornings, going home and looking for jobs in the afternoon. Probably the happiest time of my life.
What my point is with this story that it’s not a sexual abuse problem that we see in academia. It’s certainly a part of the overall problem. It’s a power abuse problem. And if you have power you will abuse it as many ways as possible -sexual or otherwise. Weinsten and the other creeps were not “just” horrible towards women (or men) they fancied. They were reportedly an absolute terror for all of their underlings. Demanding sex was just one part of the privileges they enjoyed. Completely breaking down, destroying human beings, derailing lives, because they can was also on their routine – like what the famous wife did described above. This should not be ignored, either, just because bodily fluids are not exchanged in the process.
As I mentioned before PI’s hold the power of life and death over their students – it really is a feudal system. A lot of them are aware of the responsibilities they have; but a lot of them -men and women alike- are willingly abuse it. Even if a PI is not abusing his or her students, PIs are incentivized to keep them in the lab as long as they can as essentially free labor. You know all those Nobel laureates and other successful researchers? The bulk of their work is done by PhD students and postdocs, who spend an enormous amount of their time in the lab. The chances are none of the graphs, none of the micrographs they present in their Nature and Science papers were done by them; the data and the graphs created by their peons; they managed and directed the work. It’s like the pyramids which were built by masses of slaves for the glory of the pharaoh. (I have to add that this is a historically incorrect view, but makes for a good hyperbole.) I’m being unfair, of course; the direction, the management comes from the PI. But the contribution of the blood and sweat of their underlings is usually ignored.
Graduate students and postdocs -especially in the US- are exploited regardless of being terrorized or not. This exploitation is a form of abuse, no doubt about it. You are forced to work in a lab years longer than you should be working because your PI will not allow you to finish. You are making enormous sacrifices in your private life: you’re at least ten years behind financially than your peers, and forget about finding a stable relationship and having children. And you do this in return of the promise that you have about 7% chance to land a tenure position where you will similarly exploit students because the system implores you to. In order to succeed, you essentially are forced to hold on to students as long as you can.
Unwanted sexual advancements are just one aspect of this system. I too was abused in Florida by my PI and his wife. So were many people I hear describing their experiences in Ivy Leauge Schools where the spirit of competition is taken to an extreme, so students feel inclined to sabotage each other’s work (I’ve heard several stories; even my closest friend, who was my only ally during my trials in Florida had a camera set up to monitor her stock of reagents). It’s a system where your PI might cancel your visa while you’re on holiday, so you only learn you lost your postdoc at Harvard on the border when you cannot get back to the country… the list of horror stories is long. Reportedly even my dear PI had one of his fellow students blow her brains out in the lab one night when he was doing his PhD, but the circle has obviously not stopped.
I’m not sure how this could be addressed. But I thought I’d add my voice to the discussion. Even though I’m a white male and my abusers were female, and nobody touched my privates. They just took three years of my life, pushed me into a dark place from which I had to climb out alone and unsupported, and essentially killed my chance to fulfil my aspirations I held since I was a child to be a scientist. You will be the judge of how serious it is even if no gonads are involved in the process.