Monday, October 28, 2019

UW Madison grad student died of suicide; father blames abusive boss

This is a post about an electrical engineering grad student at UW-Madison who died by suicide in 2016; if you don't want to read this, I won't mind. 


Via Twitter, this story about the 2016 death by suicide of a graduate student in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The article is written by Kelly Meyerhofer of the Wisconsin State Journal:
By the time UW-Madison realized something was wrong in the Wireless Communication and Sensing Laboratory, it was too late for John Brady. Graduate students described the work environment under engineering professor Akbar Sayeed as “toxic” and “abusive.”... 
...The churn put more pressure on Brady, who came to UW-Madison in 2010 to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering and worked as a research assistant in Sayeed’s lab. Despite Brady and others’ attempts to address how Sayeed’s behavior drove students away, the tirades continued and Brady’s responsibilities mounted. He trained new student workers on top of his own research, pushing his degree further into the future…. 
...In 2016, Brady’s seventh year on campus in a program that typically lasts five or six, he started secretly recording Sayeed screaming at students in the lab. He hammered out his thoughts in a Microsoft Word document, describing a siege mentality among students in the lab. He arranged a meeting with a trusted faculty member that fall, one he had turned to the year before with concerns about Sayeed. 
Brady never made the meeting. In October 2016, at age 28, he killed himself. 
UW-Madison redacted Brady’s name from the report, but his father, Jim Brady, agreed to speak publicly about his son’s suicide for the first time. His sole reason in agreeing to do so: He wants to know what UW-Madison has done to prevent work environments like the one his son found himself immersed in for years.
I don't wish to excerpt the whole article, but it is worth a read. Professor Sayeed seems like a terrible adviser, and it seems that John Brady was a decent student doing his best to deal with the situation. There are a number of similar cases in chemistry, it seems. 

I will say that UW-Madison appears to have done the normal things after one of these events (e.g. adding more mental health resources, doing peer trainings, etc), but the response of the administration to Professor Sayeed seems pretty tame: he was placed on a two year leave without pay, some of which he spent working at the National Science Foundation. The administration appears to be allowing Professor Sayeed to work with graduate students once more, but "an outside committee will oversee any students in his research group to monitor the climate. Additionally, those within the group will be informed that the extra oversight is because of Sayeed’s previous violation of university policy."

This is one of these remarkable things about becoming a tenured professor in large research universities - even when it is quite clear that there is significant abusive behavior, you can always find yourself back in charge of students. There's always a second chance for the tenured, even as there is no second chance for John Brady. 

Students and postdoctoral fellows, I care about you. Want to talk? My e-mail is chemjobber@gmail.com. Thinking about self-harm? The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Here are the warning signs of suicide. 

14 comments:

  1. Although there is a necessary burden on the victim for seeking mental health assistance, it is one of many abusive relationships that occur between a "mentor" and student. Too many advisers do abuse this asymmetric relationship. They should be able to detect when the student is about to crack. When I was the age my adviser was when I was his student, his behavior repulsed me. I had become a father and didn't have to become a bigshot academic to know how to treat a person. Most of my academic superiors at Purdue when I came through in the early 90s disgust me, even after I had the time to mature and look back. Fortunately, I have seen academics since then become much better and while still demanding, the newer class seem more humane. Even though grad students are older, they're still often young and vulnerable. This is sad and Sayeed's comments sound almost dismissive. So terribly sad.

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    1. You really think the current ones are better? Most of my undergrad professors never would have gotten hired under today's much more competitive standards - pretty much any new professor today needs to be some ultra-competitive Type A personality. I suspect you saw what really went on as a grad student in the 90s, and today you're not interacting with them as closely and not seeing the ugly side. I could see an industrial chemist having a few meetings with an academic collaborator and saying "he seems nice."

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    2. I'm not in industry, but I suspect you are exactly right. Maybe I had hoped things were better. Although on leaving Purdue, I noted some much less intense types had been taken on and their students did seem healthier. But in general, you're probably right.

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    3. I know of someone else from there who also had advisor problems with which the department was...less than helpful.

      From Gavin DeBecker: "Nice is a social skill." (approximately). It has no relevance to whether someone is good or trustable or not. Sociopaths are nice because it gets them close to prey.

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  2. Graduate students and postdocs seems to be grist for the academic mill. I had some support in my graduate school, but graduate schools in general seem to be places where the students (the alleged point of the school is to teach and to train graduate students and postdocs while finding new knowledge) are irrelevant. Their well-being and whether they are learning anything or able to teach anyone else does not concern the university (let alone whether the people taught by the students are actually taught well or poorly). If students have legitimate concerns (academic fraud, abuse, or safety), they are expendable. The system of rules in academia appears to be designed to protect everyone else but students, and is all but tailor-made to protect people who would do ill (as long as they generate income).

    I just get tired of hearing the same song, over and over, without any evidence that universities have any concern for the people working for them. Some advisors are good and some are not, but the university's name is on the degrees and they cash the overhead checks. Depending on the good will of professors to get paid is not something universities would ever do - that's why they have rules and oversight - but for students' well-being, or the integrity of the university's research and teaching, depending on professor goodwill is more than enough. They do not seem to care - the institutions they've designed and maintain reflect their concerns.

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  3. I'm glad the Internet is starting to expose what a toxic environment grad school is. Parents of grad student suicide victims like Jim Brady and Victoria Owensby are becoming activists just like the parents of fraternity hazing victims have in recent years. If it had been me (which came damn close to happening), my parents would have thought it was a tragic isolated incident, and would have had no idea how many suicides in grad school happen and get hushed up.

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  4. He served as a program officer at NSF during his administrative leave?! What better way to perpetuate the cycle of abuse than to appoint him to a position of authority. Don't expect to see any changes to the toxic culture until the funding agencies hold people accountable for the way they administer funded research programs. There's been some headway regarding sanctions against those guilty of sexual harassment and abuse, but we need to address abuse in all its forms.

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    1. The sexual harassment issue is another reason why academic culture is toxic.

      Chemistry professor friends on Facebook: "Rah, rah, women in science, yay!"
      Chemistry professors in private: "We all know Professor So-and-So is a creep, but he brings in a lot of funding."

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  5. This makes me both angry and sad: "Sayeed grew up in a militaristic environment in Pakistan and said he replicated many of the behaviors his father used on him, which led to anger problems he has been seeking to address through counseling since 2013." Clearly the professor himself had deep-seated problems which were not resolved.

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    1. When I was a grad student, most of the faculty had been in or had closely observed slavedriver/obnoxious/etc. PIs when they were trainees. It seemed like about half of them internalized the idea that that's how you treated trainees; the other half got out and decided to never do that. Luckily, the department chair was in the second bucket, and had some skill at talking down difficult PIs. As I think about it, I'm glad I wasn't a few years earlier--the prior chair was apparently in the first bucket.

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    2. Industry has plenty of people like Sayeed, but any company with a halfway competent HR department doesn't let them manage others. He'd probably be a high-level individual contributor if he worked in industry.

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    3. KT, I work at one of the largest biotech's in the world. My last boss was very authoritarian, micromanaging, played favorites, and retaliated against people who ever challenged him. Many of our group complained about him and how poorly he treats people to HR but that fell on deaf ears, but we were told not to go to our corporate HR resolution team where you can make anonymous complaints about unacceptable behavior. Out of a group of 12 or so people, 8 had left in 7-8 months, including myself. After I left that group for another one, I heard he got promoted to a senior level manager position and he gave his job to someone else who will be working directly under him, giving the awful manager a buffer to protect him from awful ratings (we get to loosely rate our boss' performance at my company, but nothing comes from negative performance reviews on managers). This is what happens to the managers at most corporate places; managers love managers and no one will show them the door, at least not in my company.

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  6. I have worked for 4 or 5 advisors, and none of them have been even close to what I expect an advisor should be. All of them have expected that the lab should completely run itself (post-docs and grad students work almost completely independently)and pretty much sit around and wait for positive publishable results to come in. I had one advisor who was a jerk but not at the level of abusive that this guy was.

    If your on your own as grad student/post-doc as you are most of the time, with little help by the person that should be helping you, this is bad enough. Then to be verbally abused by a useless prof on top of that?

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  7. I was friends with someone who died from suicide in grad school, which was a pretty high profile suicide at the school. I was having issues with my advisor and I asked him if it was common or normal and he said it's normal and he's dealing with the same thing. Both of us got forced out of our groups. I left and did something else. He died. It's really a shame that professors can't just fire people if they don't want them and they have to resort to things like public humiliation calling the police and state attorney general with things they think should be investigated.

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