Get ready for one of those "I don't give a shit cause I'm not in academia anymore" posts. This one was inspired by a guy I used to work with - he told me it took him four years to get through his master's program in biomedical research, an inordinately long time for that sort of degree. When pressed for details, he explained that his mentor decided to change some variables in one of the backbone projects for his thesis, variables that the professor had suggested himself before the experiments ever began.
This is most definitely not cool. While PhD students are supported by their advisor's grants, Masters folks pay their own way; adding uneccessary experiments that will likely never see the light of day adds not only time to the degree program, but also student debt. Perhaps more importantly, it's a classic example of moving the goalposts and, in most academic situations other than research-oriented fields, would not be tolerated. And yet this story is hardly unique - everyone has some tale of getting screwed over.
By "getting screwed over", I mean being asked to do uneccessary experiments, providing preliminary data for grants you won't be around for, or being asked to continue a line of investigation past the agreed-upon scope of your dissertation proposal. (Obviously the concept of fairness is open to interpretation. I could write a good bit on that, but for now I'd like to use the same definition for grad student exploitation that the Supreme Court once applied to pornography - you'll know it when you see it.)
The mentor/trainee system is really set up poorly to ensure fairness. As a grad student, it is popularly assumed that you are the bitch of the school and, more specifically, of your advisor. This is absolutely correct. Grad students are monkeys scrabbling for a treat (read: their degree) that is dangled in front of them as their primary motivation (it ain't the stipend, that's for sure). In fact, as you approach graduation, this inherently asymmetric power dynamic becomes further unbalanced; it's easy to imagine leaving a bad situation six months into a PhD, but once you're in year five it gets much tougher to simply declare your time a sunk cost and abandon ship. Considering that you're the most knowledgeable in the later years of your degree, it's also easy to imagine abuses of power where a professor blocks a student's graduation for arbitrary reasons in order to squeeze a little "payback" from them. Such is occasionally the way of academe, and while not every prof does this, you'd be an idiot if you didn't believe that some do. I've seen it. Firsthand.
OK, I'll stop describing the water to a drowning man and provide some possible ways to push back against the system.
First, let's talk about what not to do if you're a student getting screwed over by the Man.
Under (almost) no circumstances should you file a complaint with the university.
Contrary to the university's party line, unless you are being physically or sexually abused, filing a complaint is almost always a bad idea. If you don't immediately understand why this is true, ask anyone who's done it whether they're glad they went this route.
Why's it bad idea to go public with a grievance? First, as a student, you are very likely to receive a second screwing. I don't mean ruining your relationship with your boss (although that should have been the first concern to stop you), rather that you will almost de facto lose the case.
Why? Depending on the complaint and institution, the complaint will either go to a senior administrator like a department head or to HR. Different parties, but same result.
First, imagine a department head tasked with handling a student complaint. A grad student comes in saying that their PI is unfairly delaying their graduation or making them do uneccessary experiments. The PI says that this isn't true.
Look at thesituation fromthe adjudicator's position: on the one hand you have a kid who is (as far as the professional community is concerned) tactically worthless. On the other side, you have a tenured colleague with whom you share a long history (or at least the prospect of a long term working relationship). Whether or not you uphold the complaint, someone's walking away mad. As a department head, who do you want to piss off, the guy you'll spend the next several decades working with or a person who will be gone in six months (if you rule in their favor) or sooner (if you rule against).
Academia HR is no better. Even sexual stuff that means instant canning in the private sector gets ignored in academia. For example, I had a friend who postdoc'ed in a lab where the PI was fucking one of his graduate students. This created a glaringly toxic environment and a shitstorm ensued where basically everyone complained to HR. The professor retaliated by publicly threatening to fire everyone in the lab. HR got involved. There was copious evidence, but the professor had active research grants and was threatening to leave. Guess who HR backed? My friend eventually found a job in a different lab.
Paradoxically, universities often make a great show of pretending that they listen to their students, but in practice, they'll usually follow their best interests by defering to the person they have more invested in. Long story short: without overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing, there's no point of complaining. That revelation leads me to my second point:
Do not get into a pissing match with your advisor in the first place.
Openly challenging a prof is a terrible idea. Faculty often have massive egos (ex., I once saw a prof storm out of a product show after being asked to sign his name on the registry). Know that you are the bitch and accept your lack of power and life will go smoother. But when there is conflict, there are a few options if the shit really hits the fan, all of which are complicated by the presence of open, mano-a-mano conflict.
What of these options I spoke of? If you're a senior grad student, there are a few ways to get that PhD and escape the toxic situation. But it's a delicate, delicate dance to do so. Most of the ways to do this involve making yourself inconvenient and/or dangerous in a nonconfrontational way. By forcing your PI to regard you as an undesirable (a liability - but not too much of a liability - rather than an asset), you will hopefully be jettisoned with degree in hand.
Here are a few ideas on how one might accomplish the kicked-out-with-PhD maneuver:
The Work Stoppage Approach
As a grad student, there are a million little things you can do to create inefficiencies - ordering things that turn out to be useless, messing up experiments, accidentally breaking equipment. If you're a "productive prisoner" (a grad student deemed too valuable to lose to graduation), a sudden dip in performance can make you appear less valuable and thus imminently ejectable. This can be done without the big obvious confrontation of a formal strike. Labs are small, and little things add up. Experiments fail all the time. Blowing a couple of expensive experiments could be the results of bad technique or simple bad luck. The only alternatives to a PI is to ignore the loss of resources or to micromanage you and waste their own time.
Obviously, this only works if you're good in the first place. A shitty grad student tailing off simple because it's been seven years could well find themselves on the street sans credentials.
Weird Legal Bullshit
One girl I knew had a disability that resulted in her receiving some federal grant money to make the lab a little more friendly to her disability. Her advisor took this money and spent this money on other stuff. This girl had all kinds of problems in grad school (she had issues with her mentor AND wasn't a great scientist, if the rumors were to be believed). As the situation deteriorated, she complained. Faced with smoking gun evidence, she got her PhD in four years, despite a very minimal record of scientific accomplishment.
Corollary: Leaving early wasn't good for her, as she was left without good professional skills and struggled in her next jobs. That's a general trend that bears consideration, but outside the point here.
Ugly Secrets Approach
Sometimes in complex biomedical research mistakes are made. Many times, for example, a lab will publish something only to later figure out it's misguided or outright wrong. Although there are no statistics on this type of thing, I suspect that most of these revelations do not result in public, embarassing retractions, but rather are quietly swept under the rug to be forgotten. Entire reputations are made on the back of papers that turn out to be false.
In other words, it would be a real shame if your research interests abruptly blundered into forbidden territory. If you're itching to leave, it may behoove you to do an experiment or two that further opens the scar covering one of these hidden wounds (assuming your lab has one and you know where the bodies are buried). Going to the prof with some preliminary data that suggests a retraction may be in order gives the prof two options: let you go down the rabbit hole (for to block you would cross from scientific inaccuracy to active concealment) or cut you loose before your idiotic probing causes real trouble for him/her.
This strategy is based on one critical assumption - that your mentor will never admit that they were wrong. It's not a terribly dangerous strategy, but you have to play a convincing fool to make it work.
The Instability Option
If people think you're going nuts, packing you off is a good tactic. I once did this (inadvertently) when I took a week-long bike ride across Florida in the midst of a particularly brutal summer. While I was simply shooting for a cheap vacation, some in the lab thought this week spent in the broiler was borderline suicidal and a portent of mental instability. Word of this reached my boss and, perhaps coincidentally/perhaps not, I graduated three months later.
Although I've never tried it, another shade of this maneuver might be to give others in the lab that you're taking some of the anesthetics used for surgery (note: do not actually do this). Drug problems and labs with controlled substances don't mix. This is a kind of attention that any PI seeks to avoid. Again, easier to cut you loose (with degree).
The Nuclear Option
The last idea. The good: It prety much guarantees a change of scenery. The bad: It's by far the riskiest tactic I cover. The ugly: It's a terrible, brutal tactic for many reasons.
I'm dead serious about that last bit. This is not a move to be undertaken lightly. Whether it works or not, it will 100% torch your relationship wih your advisor. If it goes a certain way, there will be collateral damage to innocent colleagues and members of your own lab. If you ever find yourself considering it, you've already probably made some serious mistakes and should legitimately consider packing it in and looking elsewhere.
Still reading, huh? OK, here it is:
Let's say that you are legitimately being mistreated and it's gotten to the point of clear abuse. Let's say that your advisor really does legitimately hate you, to the point where he's now being an unreasonable asshole and is actually threatening to kick you out after many years in the lab, not because of a lack opf productivity, but because of a personal vendetta (or because you're a witness to him murdering a technician, or whatever). This is a death sentence, since you're not realistically going to be able to start fresh after all this time. In other words, you are quite certain that your career in science is permanently fucked without some serious intervention.
Now, for this to work, you need to have published one or more papers, preferably with you as first author and preferably in a journal with some profile. The more, the better.
In a private meeting (with no witnesses) say the following to your advisor: "There's been a lot of tension here lately. I think it probably stems from the falsification of data for [List one or more publications you've authored in this lab]. If we can't patch this up and there's nothing left for me in research, I'll need to move on and make this right with the ethics board of (your school) and the journal editors at (publication). Oh, and the NIH too."
For the obvious follow-up questions, make it clear that you intend to claim that you falsified data under pressure (or on orders) from you advisor ("we're both going to have to accept our roles in this").
Say that as politely as possible (I'm not sure how it's possible to politely threaten someone's livelihood, but no point in being antagonistic), but be crystal clear with the implication. If I'm going down I'm taking you with me. This is a variation of the Kevin Spacey tactic from American Beauty.
What happens next? You may have your bluff called, at which point you have to decide whether to pull the trigger. This is an ethical question I won't get into. However, it's also possible that your advisor may just realize that the bullet your planning on putting through your head could well hit them as well. They may also realize that, with your back up against the wall, you have very little to lose, while they may have a great deal at stake. The ruinous consequences of admitting academic misconduct give gravity to your words (why would anyone admit to this if it wasn't true?), and while the prof may eventually (and at great cost of time and money) be able to prove you're lying about lying, there's always the possibility that they can't replicate their findings or, worse, you could be telling the truth about falsifying data. Regardless, you will have created a situation with asymmetrical consequences.
This is a terrible idea. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you're even contemplating it, remember that you didn't hear the idea from me.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.