Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ask A Scientist: Lab Politics Are Eating My PhD Project

Unearthed from the vault.  Apparently I wrote, but never published, this one!


Reader T. asks:
'My jerk of a boss wants to give away my project, which I spent many years on and which I've just gotten to work! To another lab, with whom I thought we were collaborating! And I'm worried the boss will kick me out. What the hell. What can I do???'

Dear T,

Your boss is a shortsighted, egomaniacal idiot. Does he, perhaps, lack tenure?

If your boss wants to kick you out, and you don't have a contract or a union, you're screwed.  This is what I advise: play hardball politics, and look for another lab. Just in case. (Trust in Allah, and tie your camel.)

Here's what I would do:

1. Email your advisor in the politest, snarkiest terms you can manage: 'I recently got Thing A to work. As I am an Nth year, I had planned to use Thing A to explain my [really cool result here] and finish my !@#% thesis already. However, I understood from our recent conversation that you wish me to switch projects. I am deeply concerned that I'll never bloody well graduate, plus Thing X will never work, plus you're a moron. Kindly explain in writing why you think it best for my PhD progress to abandon my very cool, about-to-work project and take on Your Project Which Sucks. I will contact you about an in-person meeting when I return from [fishing]' Print it out too; sign and date it.

2. Take a couple days off. Go hiking or fishing or shopping or visit a friend.

3. Call the Possible Collaborator Person. Ask what the %#$ is going on. Explain that your advisor said X to you but you're sure there must be a terrible, terrible misunderstanding.  Because you are collaborating.

4. Schedule a meeting with your department chair.

5. Then meet with your advisor. Be a total hard-ass bitch; you have nothing to lose. Take notes.
 Consider a stiff drink after the meeting.

6. Take copies of all correspondence and notes, and meet with the department chair. Explain how you're getting screwed. Ask him/her to lean on your advisor. Present it as good for the department: surely they want you to finish! In a timely fashion! Surely they don't want to be known as Department Of Nasty Horrible Advisors!  Surely they don't want all the new grad students to hear terrible stories about their department!  Then ask about switching labs.

7. Meet with the dean. Ask if you have any recourse: can you file a complaint about your advisor? What will protect you from retaliation if you stay in the same department? What if you switch departments? And personally, think about whether you're likely to suffer. And if so, file it right after you successfully defend.

You can raise hell with the chair, the dean, and the provost, but if the boss really wants to get rid of you, the worst outcome is: you stay in your lab, your boss screws you over, hates you, and makes your life a misery.

8. Start looking at other labs. Sad but true: you may have to choose between starting over, and leaving. If it makes you feel any better, I had a friend at Snooty U whose lab imploded and who had to do this; friend got a paper in 2 years. A good new advisor will be willing to help you find a quick, high-success-rate project to bang out. It might not be so bad.

Best of luck.

Yours in academic politics and misery,

Aunt Jenny


  1. Anonymous9:08 PM

    Of course, it's too late to help poor T... I am always stunned to think that this sort of thing really goes on. But then I suppose it's no more shocking that magic markering a mouse and calling it discovery... --Bunny

    1. I'm pretty sure I emailed the poor dear back. Not only do things like this happen, I saw them happen in grad school more than once. Snooty U was not a *nice* place for grad students, though the undergrads of course found it charming. There was even one lab that would set three people on the same project and the first out got to publish. Naturally, it was full of foreign students.


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