MY WORST MOMENT
My worst moment was a series of events. My adviser told me to start working on what topic I would want to pursue for the rest of my PhD, as the foundation to drafting my proposal for my general exam. I would spend hours pouring over the literature and gathering my ideas together, stop by her office, and propose my idea. She would immediately wave her hand and say “Nah I don’t think that has promise, work on this instead.” I would again go back to my desk, and work on what she proposed. Stop by her office, be told it’s not a good idea, rinse and repeat. This continued until my first committee meeting, which was scheduled for a Thursday. Two members had to cancel, so we rescheduled for the next week. Over the weekend, I was asked to come to her house to work on the presentation. By the next week, my presentation and proposed topic were completely different than those of the week before; my ENTIRE thesis direction was changed, cobbled into a presentation, and perfected from hours on google scholar within a week.
This was part of a bigger theme – every idea I proposed, even if she had suggested it, was useless. If I tried to defend myself, she would tell me I was taking the criticism “too personally” — a common quip of hers, used to dismiss everything from my being disappointed a grant wasn’t funded to my breaking down crying during a practice talk because she had beat me down and criticized me at every sentence, asking me to completely re-frame my talk as I was giving it. And it wasn’t just me. I saw how she treated a graduate student giving her practice talk for her qualifying exam while I was rotating. But she makes the victim look like a useless graduate student while praising you as the golden child if she wants you. And I fell for it.
I HAVE GIVEN UP ON
I am out now. I left the lab. But I will reflect on what I HAD given up on:
I had given up on having any say in my research direction. I had succumbed to not argue with her, to try to better anticipate what research ideas she wanted me to propose, what experiments she would want me to do, so that I would not have to defend my directions to her. I minimized my opinions. I hid what I thought because I knew that having any opinion would simply result in her telling me that I was “taking things too personally”. If I had stayed in her lab, I would have kept my head down and tried my hardest to not have an opinion about my science.
I’m not afraid anymore. But I was. She was known for retaliation. If she felt slighted in the least, a student would feel her wrath for weeks to months. She would constantly shit-talk her students behind her backs but expect them to praise her to anyone and everyone. I was afraid to go to my program directors for fear of word getting back to her that I was “unhappy”. I kept silent for months. I could speak to no-one.
THIS HAS COST ME
I escaped early. I was only in this lab for just over one year. But in the last two months my life was ruled by fear. I had begun to have ‘what-if’ thoughts about escaping, but this freaked me out more due to fear of retaliation. Those last two months, nearly every day I would wake up, go to lab, work, come home, and immediately crawl in bed and cry. I couldn’t eat. My husband would sit with me in bed and ask what I wanted and I couldn’t make a decision because in my lab life, every decision I made was wrong. I lost 10-15 pounds off of a typically ~105lb frame because I couldn’t decide what to eat, as clearly there is a “wrong” choice in deciding between a bagel and a piece of toast. I’m not sure how much in total because I only weighed myself about month after leaving the lab and having started to recover. I was literally wasting away.
SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW
While I realize that #MeTooSTEM focuses on sexual harassment, I feel the need to bring attention to the harassment some trainees face under narcissistic, power-hungry PIs. This PI treated ALL graduate students this way, as we were not operating at a sufficiently high-producing level as compared to postdocs. The power dynamic scares me, and to this day I don’t know if I want to do a postdoc because I don’t trust myself to make a good decision mentor-wise, because I KNEW this lab was a bad decision but I fell for the ‘it will be different for me’ trick.
IS THERE A BRIGHT SIDE?
Yes. You CAN get out.
MY FIGHT SONGS
Familiar Hell by Battle Beast. In the ~5 months leading up to leaving the lab I was effectively pounding my head against the wall asking myself “Is a familiar Hell better than Unknown Heaven?”, and guess what — the answer is NO.
MY SECRET WEAPON
I have an amazing mentor from an earlier research experience. He is not at my current institution, and he has rescued many graduate students from bad PI situations before at his own institution. I saw him at a conference and he KNEW something was wrong, even while I projected my best professional self to the research community (…..aaaaand later broke down crying to him after he directly asked me if something was wrong). He helped me get out of the lab, under-the-table, incredibly quickly. Without his support I would not have been able to leave the lab and would have either masters’d out or burned myself out finishing my PhD, even moreso than I already have.