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Abuse of Power -- Professors/Grad Students  

 

Dave Jensen
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May 28, 2019 6:37 pm  

Hello,

As anyone knows who has read our forum over the last 15-20 years knows, there's a lot of gnashing of teeth and frustration between grad students and their advisors. It is SO important to establish a good potential for the future when you select a lab and a mentor. Not doing so can create all kinds of downstream issues.

I'm starting to gather stories and details now for an article that I am writing about the abuse of power between the Professor and his/her graduate students. I'm not talking about abuse in the sense of nasty headlines . . . I'm talking about the power imbalance, and the great difficulties this can cause you when you are a graduate student counting on a certain amount of mentoring, and the mentor relationship was never fully established. One case I am exploring now takes place at Bucknell University. Can anyone who has such a situation please write me (my email address is readily available via Google search) and we can keep it anonymous if you'd like, Thanks!

Dave Jensen

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PG
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June 18, 2019 9:15 pm  

I used to be the chairman of the PhD student association at the Medical University that I did my PhD in and were in contact with several of these cases. Some of them got very complicated especially when the PhD student came from a non democratic country and were expected to come back with a PhD. In some cases the family was left behind resulting in that there was a lot more at stake than only a PhD. This was some time ago and I am no longer in Contact with the different parties so I have difficulties with giving specific information. However during my time the University started a function as PhD student ombudsman and I know that this is a function that exist in several other universities around here. That type of person should be a good contact for the type of information that you are looking for.

 

 


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Colleague 45751
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June 29, 2019 9:26 pm  

Boy, Dave I got a story for you. I can tell you and the other readers that potential PhD students should seriously consider: avoid doing a PhD with a MD who does not have a PhD and/or significant basic research training (beyond 2 years of residency training); this means avoid MDs with significant clinical or administrative obligations. Only MDs in academia who are good at research are those who have retired from the clinic and devoted their efforts full time to research; on average MDs with only a MD degree will never appreciate the experimental and technical skills to be a good scientist(which is essential); therefore, they will never fully appreciate and reciprocate the efforts of a PhDs due to the differences in the nature of their training. Further, this is also why I would suggest PhDs avoid MD only professors for a post-docs (i.e. they don't have the basic training to be good bench scientists or educators and will not appreciate your goals as a scientist in training). It should be noted that there are significant cultural differences between comprehensive universities (e.g. Univ of Michigan, UCLA, or Duke) versus a stand alone medical school (e.g. UT Southwestern or Medical College of Georgia). In my opinion, avoid the medical schools if you are getting a PhDs to minimize the potential for conflict.  

Dave: I will post that story soon.  

This post was modified 3 months ago by Colleague 45751

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Dave Jensen
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July 3, 2019 9:28 pm  

PG, thanks for the suggestion - I agree, there are often people assigned to this detail and to helping the student - being their advocate. In the case of the Bucknell story I am writing about though, the "Dean of Students" and team seem to be more worried about protecting the school and the professors there than helping the student.

The situation I've been investigating is horrendous . . . this was a Masters program, and not a PhD of course. But still, when you have a mentor and you're essentially doing a research degree, that mentor should be rigorously teaching you what is necessary to get out the end with your diploma. In this case, the professor missed three out of every four meetings (scheduled weekly "review your work" meetings between student and mentor). Not until nearly two years went by did the advisor ask to see the work. There were numerous instances where the professor spoke about the student (as if she weren't in the room) in front of other people, expressing disappointment. The students work was destroyed in a lengthy power outage at the greenhouse and they wouldn't give her a break and allow the work to be extended . . .Etc! Nasty, horrible situation on all fronts.

New colleague -- hope to hear your story soon!

Dave Jensen

This post was modified 3 months ago by Dave Jensen

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
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TFinn
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July 25, 2019 2:40 am  

Very interesting topic indeed!  I'm sorry to hear about Bucknell, as that's a school near where I did my undergrad and PhD.  Always thought highly of the school---then again, one or two examples also doesn't mean the whole institution is a disaster. I had an instance when I was getting my master's degree where I did my education (and overall degree came from) at one institution and did my research at a neighboring school (bigger university which a much more diverse neuro program).  There seemed to be some unwritten agreement between the faculty at the two schools.  Well, my experience seemed to ruin that relationship!  Basically, the professor who agreed to work with me refused to fix his HPLC machine, which was the only device I could use to analyze my samples.  There were some empty gestures to work around the issue, but in the end, he refused to provide me the equipment I needed to finish my master's research thesis. I was enraged, highly depressed, and just beside myself with every possible negative emotion. Between bouts of extreme anger and depression, I found a way to take matters into my own hands by befriending a new professor in a neighboring lab.  He was appalled to hear of my plight and helped me sneak out a few microdialysis samples to determine if there were commerical labs with equipment sensitive enough to measure the catacholamines I was measuring (many lacked the sensitivity, FYI).  My PI had no idea this was going on.  In the end, the chair of the department where I was doing my research forced my PI to spend $25k to run the sample in a commercial lab.  As I recall, it was going to cost about that much to fix his HPLC setup!  Unfortunately, this outcome essentially ended the relationship between where I was getting my degree and where I was doing the associated research.  Now this was like 15 yrs ago, so maybe things have gone back to the way they were, but I still loathe my PI in my master years.  Topping things off, for my thesis defense, my PPT wouldn't run and I had to basically draw out the slides/data from memory on a white board.  No one was going to prevent me from graduating.  I ruined my undergrad career and I was determined to do whatever it took to get myself where I needed to be.  My master's experience was fierce.  

Ph.D-land was so much better.  My PI was a publishing machine and I was able to benefit from that.  I just needed to work hard to get data--but it was just a matter of putting in the time and showing up.  The worst thing from that experience is that I left the bench entirely right after I graduated grad school, not even a postdoc---my PI was crushed and couldn't understand it.  Oh well.  I have zero regrets.  He's a great scientist and was brilliant at both funding and publication, but that path just wasn't for me.  My education and experiences were not wasted as it turns out---all of my neuro education is still relevant to what I do on a daily basis. 

This post was modified 2 months ago by TFinn

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Dave Jensen
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July 25, 2019 4:20 pm  

Hi TFinn,

Thanks for your contribution. I think your Masters story is much like the one I examined at Bucknell. Basically, a rogue Professor and not indicative of a problem across the organization (although you DO have to wonder why Department Chairs don't get a bit more involved with the students to ensure that things are going smoothly). 

Over the years that the Forum was on the AAAS SCIENCE website, most of the power imbalance and horror stories involved the PhD degree. You're lucky that your PhD moved along so nicely. And, thanks for being here, please help us build the forum back up with interesting posts like yours!

Dave Jensen, Moderator

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


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TFinn
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July 25, 2019 4:32 pm  
Posted by: Dave Jensen

Hi TFinn,

Thanks for your contribution. I think your Masters story is much like the one I examined at Bucknell. Basically, a rogue Professor and not indicative of a problem across the organization (although you DO have to wonder why Department Chairs don't get a bit more involved with the students to ensure that things are going smoothly). 

Over the years that the Forum was on the AAAS SCIENCE website, most of the power imbalance and horror stories involved the PhD degree. You're lucky that your PhD moved along so nicely. And, thanks for being here, please help us build the forum back up with interesting posts like yours!

Dave Jensen, Moderator

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one!  I know plenty of people where experiments didn't work or PIs were a bit absent, but nothing really seemed to jeopardize the ability of these people to get their degree.  In my situation, the PI for my Master's was an example of why people don't like tenure.  He got what he needed and coasted for the rest of his time. I wasn't a student where he worked, so I don't think he really cared.  It got to the point where people at both institutions were asking if the PhD program I got accepted in needed me to finish my degree.  It was a dark time.  

 

My PhD experience could have been a disaster.  I ended up initially working in the lab of another absent PI, just not to the same degree.  As it played out, she ended up taking a position at another school.  My decision was to go with her or work in another lab at my current school.  I considered both and even spoke to the new institution.  I ended up staying, which was the best choice.  It really brought home that the value of your graduate education/training, isn't always about the rep of the school, but where you do your research.  There are always superstars at given institutions who punch greater than their weight.  I ended up at that lab essentially by chance and I have zero regrets.  I ended up being very successful for a grad student.  I wasn't even that enamored with the research question the lab was interested in.  


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Dave Jensen
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July 30, 2019 5:49 pm  

Here's just one example, of a 2 year history of issues at Bucknell with this particular Masters student I spoke with . . . 

Her work was in a greenhouse that lost power during a period of break at the U. The greenhouse became incredibly hot and the irrigation wasn't working, and so the plants she was using for her thesis died. Her advisor could have, and should have in my opinion, given her additional working time to replace the research that was lost, as the outage in the greenhouse affected much more than just her work. She had a smaller subset of data that she could have gone with as well, and they could have approved her work on that -- or, as I said, given her additional time. But they didn't and this is just one way that the Professor sabotaged this woman's career in science. In other instances, she missed most of her weekly meetings with this student as well -- just a "no show." I don't get how you can expect a person to get a graduate degree when you keep them in the dark and don't train them . . .   Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


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