Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ask CJ: Should I write a letter about my former advisor to the department?

From the inbox, an interesting question from "JGN" (this comment has been redacted for privacy and edited for clarity): 
I'm an [chemistry] graduate student working for a [prominent chemist]. Due to many [administrative problems] and me not seeing eye-to-eye with my advisor for a myriad of reasons, I've been fortunate enough to "leave with a Masters" and to gain entrance into another PhD program elsewhere. 
My question to you is this: 
Is it wise or a good idea for me to send a grievance to HR, [the university administration], and the chemistry department faculty a list of transgressions my advisor has committed after I have left? My advisor is toxic, corrosive and vindictive. I would have done this sooner, but I had heard stories of people attempting this in the past and no justice was served. 
This letter I doubt would help me in any way (in fact it may hurt), but I feel as though this man is getting away with years of abuse and no one is willing to do anything about it.
My thought process is that a letter addressed to other faculty in the department wouldn't do much to harm Professor Z's standing at your department or your university. This is exactly the sort of thing that professors have been great at ignoring (and let's be frank, it's not like this would get dealt with significantly better in industrial settings.) I think that it is best for you to move on and let your silence speak.

But my advice leans towards the exceedingly small-c conservative.

Readers, can you think of an instance where a graduate student has been truly wronged, they've publicly complained and then gotten a desired outcome (whether it's restoration for them, or a rebuke for the professor)? The last time we talked about this, there didn't seem to be a lot of examples. Any more?

UPDATE: As I hoped, chemistry professor (and associate dean) Chris Cramer has some good thoughts. 

27 comments:

  1. I would encourage you to write the letter, documenting everything with as many specifics and dates as possible. I would probably NOT send it, but just writing it will make you feel better. You will also have the details written down before you forget them. And in time, they will fade. Glad to hear you are getting out of a bad situation, and moving to a more positive program.

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  2. I'd argue the opposite: Silence is what allows awful professors to keep doing what they're doing. Speak up to someone - maybe not the whole department, admins, or HR - but start with a single ally or two (other professors you trust) and work from there. Be diplomatic about your complaints, but DO file them. Even if it does nothing personally for you, it serves as a starting point for someone (HR, departments, whatever) to make an attempt to correct the behavior in the future.

    Outside of private complaints to the department (that the department needn't share or act on), I've always wondered what voicing of complaints in a public forum would do, and if departments would remotely start to care given the bad publicity. Someone really should start "ratemyadviser.com."

    ps: see what I did there?

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  3. I think that I am in an unusually supportive department (as a whole) but I have seen several friends go to other faculty to air grievances about their PIs and I have seen departmental support for those students, in terms of helping the student find another lab where they are happier, helping the student get a research masters when the PI had refused to sign off on it, or just acting as an unofficial mentor when their PI would not help the student. In none of those cases has the PI received any sort of censure (at least that we, the students, were aware of), despite several of the other faculty openly sharing the students dislike for the PIs in question. As has been said multiple times on this blog, even at a university where I am happy to have done my PhD (and would do it again), there is no accountability for the PIs.

    I have seen some cases where the other faculty were genuinely not aware of how toxic the lab environment was for the students in a particular PIs group (because professors often don't see the side of their colleagues that students do) but there was still no mechanism for the supportive faculty to discipline the problematic PI...they could only help the students get out and land on their feet. I have seen a few students try to get back at their PI after leaving the group...it has not been successful in any case and has gone poorly for some.

    My best advice, from watching friends who have been through situations like this, is to let the bitterness go. Don't bother with a list of grievances unless you think there are specific cases of abuse that other faculty/HR must be made aware of to protect future students. (Note: I am not saying you should keep quiet about fraud or criminal activity.) Focus on the good things you got out of your experience there (skills/knowledge acquired, friends and memories made, etc.) and move on.

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  4. Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. Revenge? There are... better... methods. Closure? Try writing it then burning it, per the first comment, and consider seeing a therapist. To help others avoid your fate? If this is your goal, you've probably already played the most important part you can by complaining to everyone who would lend you an outwardly sympathetic ear. The best deterrent is a bad reputation, but that takes time and multiple complaints to develop. Remember, even those who have seen the whole thing first hand probably don't believe you and won't support you -- people are bastards -- and to a stranger you are easily dismissed as a quitter with sour grapes, so there's nothing you can do directly or personally.

    The only other thing you can do is quietly to file a grievance with HR, giving them all the gory details and letting them know that you are not requesting any action but simply contributing to a file that you think they should be building on this PI. That may provide some assistance to anyone who, down the line, decides to fight by the regular rules; they will lose, but you might have helped minimize their damage.

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  5. Losing the support of the PI, the one person holding the keys to your future can be devastating. To make this even worse JGN experienced years of mistreatment from a PI who didn't care about the students' well-being.

    Filing a grievance may feel like the best way to finally feel a little better about those years. Making a change in the department to protect current and future students may seem like an honorable goal.

    As VTJ pointed out, in a case of criminal level abuse filing a complaint should be (carefully!) considered. The right place to file it would be the local DA's office since the University would likely end up as co-defendant.

    However, I would strongly advise against filing any grievance for non-criminal mistreatment after graduating. The complaint will be seen as an attack from outside of the institution. The administration and the faculty will be working together to bury the issue and may retaliate against JGN by distorting recommendations and damaging reputation.

    The current students may also suffer more if the PI thought there was some collaboration with JGN in filing the complaint. They are sufficiently miserable as it is.

    The way to make you feel better is to tell the story on Chemjobber, build a healthy lifestyle, good reputation at work, and perhaps talk to a good therapist. This was a stage of life and it is over. Use it to spot jerks and avoid working for them.

    The way to fix the system is to … change and fix the system. We could chose to perhaps burn a couple of examples at the stake. It may be newsworthy that day. The system wouldn’t care or change.

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  6. Having worked for a toxic, abusive a-hole, all I can say is let it go. I was fortunate to get my Ph.D., and spent two years rehabbing myself as a post-doc. I didn't get much done there, but I was ready to work again by the time I started my second post-doc. Things 'may' have changed since I was in grad school 20 years ago, but I really think that there is nothing you can do to expose the guy or get back at him. As they say, the best revenge is living well, or being successful, or something like that. Make something of yourself, and give all the credit to the second advisor. Be glad you got out before you started having visions of climbing the bell tower and picking off your advisor on his way in to work (one of my lab-mates had those visions).

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    1. I often fantasize about running into one of my managers and smashing his face into the concrete until it's pulp. He's lucky I'm able to control myself, because our company did not have security guards so when I left he moronically offered to walk me out to my car (I declined). I agree it's best to get out of situations like this before they get to that point. You'll never get your revenge and it'll eat at you relentlessly.

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  7. The week of my final defense (at a top 1/3 university) I had to reschedule due to the death of my grandmother. One of my committee members told me in front of the department chair and my adviser as a scrambled to touch base with everyone before heading home (1000+ miles) that rescheduling my final defense was unacceptable and that he would no longer participate on my committee. His time was more important than postponing my defense for two weeks to attend to family issues. The timing to reschedule upon my return was tight as I had about one month before leaving for an industrial job. I was only able to get things worked out when I threatened to go to the Dean of the College of Sciences. That committee member did not attend my defense but did see fit to mark up the draft dissertation as reviewer #3 and requested more experimental work. He is now the chief Editor for an ACS journal.

    So I did get the outcome I needed but have had no contact with my graduate department and limited contact with my former advisor in the 13 years since I left with my Ph.D.

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  8. The best revenge may be living well, but the PI will cite your success and happiness as a reason for more fresh meat to sign on the dotted line......

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  9. I've heard and read so many stories about toxic academic environments and abusive advisors by now, I'm indeed surprised there isn't something like "ratemyadviser.com" yet, exposing each of them by name. On the other hand I doubt it's going to prevent people from signing up, gullible fools aplenty. Even when confronted with rock-solid evidence, there are always those who think they are special and it can't happen to them.

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    1. @Captaingraphene

      Those PI's will probably sue the commenters (or give headache to the host). That's why "there isn't something like "ratemyadviser.com".

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  10. Those of you telling him/her not to do this have drunk the Kool-Aid, the grad school rule that anything embarrassing to the department Must Not be spoken of. Please go ahead and expose this SOB; he isn't going to give you a good recommendation either way, and the university HR drones might actually cause him some inconvenience. Professors get away with their abuse because no one dares to say anything to university administrators outside the department.

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  11. I suggest that you only contact the department and HR if you have actual evidence such as emails or voice mails. I know when I had difficulty with my former PI, things were dismissed until I produced the emails and voice mails. The Graduate Dean immediately got involved, I was given a full fellowship to finish writing my dissertation, and I graduated with my PhD a few months later. It is understood that if he is ever called for a reference he is to keep it positive, but luckily I haven't needed it yet. He has excluded me from a few papers and a patent since, but end of the day he had to shake my hand and call me Doctor.

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    1. If you can I would contact a Patent Attorney/IP Expert because if you were left off a Patent where you might be classified as an inventor then the Patent could be invalidated. Based on that you might be in a position to force inclusion in that patent and possible corrections to papers you contributed too,

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  12. The poster has already taken away from this advisor the one thing that the PI values, and that is the poster’s labor. If there were enough students who leave the advisor’s group before earning their degrees, then the department might take notice and do something. Barring this, I reluctantly have to agree with those above, that there isn’t much that can be done about the PI’s behavior. It may be toxic, but if it’s not illegal, then it’s doubtful that the department will intervene.

    Write the letter and then put it away. Focus on your present and your future, which now belong to you and not to the toxic PI. Work to establish a good relationship with your new advisor, and put your energies into your new research.

    Part of me wants to say “Write that letter and send it to the department chair.” But I’m afraid that with the old PI being a vindictive person, he might contact your new advisor, and work to ruin your relationship with this important person. No letter is worth this happening.

    I wish you the best of luck with your research.

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  13. Wrote a long, (ok, too long) essay in response to this -- those interested will find it at http://pollux.chem.umn.edu/ProblemAdvisors.html

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  14. Chris, thank you, once again, for working so hard to change the system from within. If 10% of the faculty had your guts the system might actually work. I'm curious as to how the process you outlined differs if the professor is question is a "rockstar" prof who would threaten to leave or "old guard" prof who holds considerable power (read money).

    CJ - I think you should put a link to Chris's essay in your original post.

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  15. Everyone says 'let it go' and they might be right since HR works for the institute where it is based, and not for you. However, there is something evil that you can do to your former advisor, but it's not guaranteed you'll find the dirt. This only became possible in the last two years because of PubPeer.

    Basically, look at their old papers and especially the SI for any instances of spectra having peaks deleted or things like this. That would be the ultimate thing you could find. However, there is also the paper with a pretty large result, that hasn't been repeated by anyone else in the last ten years, including people from that group. Well, a concern about the chemistry, saying that it was an important finding, but it hasn't been repeated by anyone in the community, can still go on PubPeer. The smallest thing can be, and this happened with a friend of mine who worked for an abusive advisor, is they got so depressed that they basically just wrote in their crappy Elemental Analyses that were 10% off (because the compounds were too unstable and they kept decomposing on the way to the EA company) and the reviewers didn't care to read the SI. You can make a quick PubPeer post saying "The elemental analyses are egregriously below the level of the journal in which they are published". Probably there will be no retraction for that because EA for really unstable stuff is kind of useless, but it will hurt. 100% yields in a methodology paper? ==> PubPeer. Of course, it's not as good as finding the real good stuff of scientific misconduct... Plus, make sure you use a neutral tone, back up all of your claims, and don't make direct accusations, just say 'this looks suspicious', and use a Tor browser and a masked IP when you make your comment, due to some current, ahem, concerns.

    But then again, even if people working for abusive advisors are more likely to make shit up, you might not find anything wrong with the science worth commenting about on PubPeer. But I suggest channeling some of that rage in carefully looking over the advisor's old papers and SI. At least it will make you less ragey and you will learn more chemistry in the process.

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    1. I should note, that professor Cramer's essay should be read first before attempting my revenge advice.

      Also, sometimes the student is at fault and doesn't realize it. No one mentioned this, but Female Science Professor blogged about a former grad student who was a heroin addict and was impossible to supervise. So, uh... first you have to ask yourself if you could be considered at fault too by outside observers in a conflict, before proceeding with all the revenge stuff. Obviously, I think that someone writing for advice to chemjobber has already done that, but this is just for all you heroin addict grad students reading this in the future!

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    2. If you joined a group with 8 or 9 members as a first year grad student, and after this time no new students joined, to the point that after four years you were the only member of the group, then guess what, it is totally your fault that the group disappeared. The a-hole you work for bears no responsibility at all. I know this for a fact, because that's what my advisor told me when it was just down to me and him. He also told me I wouldn't get my Ph.D. until a new grad student joined the group. Damn, those were good times. I felt pretty shitty when a year later 2 first years joined the 'group,' although thanks to them I got my Ph.D. I'm gonna go pour out some benzene in their honor when I get done writing this.

      Years later, I was talking to a couple post-docs in a research group that my company was collaborating with. They were telling grad school horror stories, and one of the post-docs mentioned that a friend had an advisor who once threatened to punch him in the lab. So I said to the post-doc, "So, was the advisor xxx xxxx?" And the post-doc was like "yeah, that's the guy. How did you know?" And then I just said, well, xxx was my advisor as well. The grad student in question joined the group after I graduated, and I never met him. Although my advisor never threatened to outright punch me, I'm sure there were few times when he was close to doing it.

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    3. If the advisor recruited 8-9 members before you joined, and none after you joined, the toxic a-hole in the group just might not be your advisor. Just a thought.

      Hasn't anyone else avoided joining a group not because of the PI, but because of one or all of their students? Surely i'm not alone in that.

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  16. 'JGN' can try, but I doubt there will be any outcome. I still have the discrimination email my department head sent to the department. I reported it to Dean of Graduate School, nothing happened.

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  17. I wanted to do this once to my adivsor. Still haven't ruled it out.http://shipyourenemiesglitter.com/

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  18. It's interesting that the title of this blog post within the link is "Can I change [a] Professor's behavior?", when the final title of the blog post is "Should I write a letter about my former advisor to the department?" The answer to the former question I think is a definite No. People only change when they themselves WANT to change. Whatever this toxic professor is doing clearly works for them (on some level), otherwise they wouldn't be doing it.

    I think the OP should write a letter...then put it away for 6 months or a year and decide if they still want to send it. A lot of people leave their PhD program with a sense of burn-out, unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their advisor. Sometimes despite their immediate anger, they realise with time that (i) there are worse advisors out there (often through postdoc-ing for them) or (ii) what came across as vindictive and unpleasant at the time was actually the advisor being right and you being wrong. Or else, the immediate strong emotions of the student stop them from making the best rational case they can, hurting their chances of a favourable outcome.

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    1. You can also craft a letter with someone else that is in a more level-headed state of mind, and still send it promptly. Do not discount the importance of passion. Mediate the passion with reasonableness, but feedback like this is what organizations need to improve.

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  19. I daresay this is literally pointless, but hats off to you my friend, for anything that goes against these people.

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