Worst Moment: It is really hard to choose one particular moment, as my PhD was a nightmare almost every day for 5 years due to constant threats and uncivil behavior from my supervisor. I should point out that I was never a victim of sexual harassment – I was a victim of Harassment: the demeaning attitude, aggressive pressure and insidious intimidation that arise from the abuse of power over others.
Perhaps one of the most memorable moments (many of which I unconsciously repressed) happened shortly after I started my PhD. I had been working for several days structuring a figure panel on an extremely non-intuitive program I had never heard of and that I had to learn all by myself. My supervisor demanded that all results were shown to him on that particular format on a weekly basis and that day had arrived. After looking at my work with contempt, he printed the file, ripped the paper in front of my eyes and said “This? This is crap”. After that, he tossed the paper pieces to the trash bin violently, as if I had done the worst thing in the world. What came next was a conversation (more of a monologue, really) on how I should change my behavior, otherwise I would be replaced by one of the hundreds of students who would abide by his rules and appreciate the opportunity of working under him. He also mentioned (displaying his fingers very close to my face) that I was “this close” – to what I didn’t understand, but I assumed he was talking about me being kicked out of his lab. His threats were always present throughout my PhD, and I became the “little mouse who freezes in the corner of the cage”, always trying to keep away from conflict situations.
Every day before our scheduled weekly meetings (or the spontaneous ones) I would feel sick. My constant state of anxiety and fear led to panic attacks and by the end, while writing my thesis, it culminated in me having to spend a week in a hospital bed. When I returned to the lab, he told me my thesis was bad but that we should stop trying to improve it because I was weak and couldn’t handle the pressure.
I presented several formal complaints along the years to my thesis committee, to the direction of the institute and to other PIs who knew very well my supervisor’s reputation and all the other careers he ruined. As he is one of the few people with a permanent contract with the institute and a powerful position, the answer was always the same: “you were warned; there is nothing we can do about it. It was your responsibility.” I’ve learned during my PhD that nothing protects a student from unscrupulous supervisors, fearful thesis committees and complacent direction board members.
I Have Given Up On: I have given up on fighting for a career as a scientist. At a certain point during my PhD, my work was about to be submitted to a prestigious journal. For some reason, my supervisor decided he didn’t want to publish it. Instead, what was supposed to be my only first author publication ended up on a drawer and it will never be published, which lowers a lot my chances of pursuing a career in science – even if I really wanted one. Even though I never asked for any recommendation from him for any of the jobs I took after my PhD, he takes every opportunity to actively sabotage my career progression.
I’m Afraid: I’m afraid to put myself in a position that would make me vulnerable again to the abuse I’ve suffered during my PhD.
This Has Cost Me: My dream career – the one I’ve been fighting for all my adult life. It has also cost me the opportunity to collaborate, to go to scientific conferences, to publish and the chance to have built a good CV. It has cost me my physical and mental health, which years later I am still trying to recover. In monetary terms, it has cost me two months working on my thesis without a salary. After 10 years working in academia, I find myself without publications, a career in science or savings in a bank account.
Something You Should Know: I am a people person, an extrovert, someone who needs human interaction to feel fulfilled. I believe in cooperation and teamwork as much as I believe tolerance and kindness are key for interpersonal dynamics. Being a lover of the horror genre has helped me cope with anxiety and fear in real life.
Is There a Bright Side: The bright side of having been pushed out of academia is to have found my vocation in Education and a job I love. Every day I get to think about what me, my colleagues and close friends have been through under the tyranny of the academic system and to come up with ideas on how to transform the academic environment into a richer and more pleasant one. I have converted my personal frustrations into energy that propels me to find ways to fight for respect and dignity and against harassment and abuse. I also get to meet and talk to a lot of brilliant scientists and future scientists, and to those I dedicate my efforts to change the academic system for the better.
My Fight Songs:
Secret Weapon: Everyone tells me that I look austere and serious. To be honest, that is an outside armor I use to protect myself.