A Story of Power and Abuse against a PhD Student

Editor’s Note: The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous, for reasons that will become obvious when you read it.

It never occurred to me that I would have to speak out against my PhD advisor because I always thought that these regular tensions are just part of the journey. However, every day that goes by, I grow more aware of how troublesome the comments I receive are and how toxic and problematic the relationship has become and how I resent that it came down to this. How did it come to this? Why didn’t I speak out earlier? And if you can relate to my experiences, what should you do? I’ll try to answer these questions throughout this article.

How did it come to this?

During the 2nd year of my PhD, I developed major depression, went through suicidal episodes, and developed generalized anxiety disorder. Although I have been working with many professionals to deal with these issues, my research lab has not been the most supportive. Every time I brought up mental health during lab meetings, I would find notes at my desk the next day mentioning how pathetic I am and how I should quit.

My advisor disclosed my depression and suicidal episodes without my consent or respect for privacy in recommendation letters, stating “he’s too depressed and often suicidal, but he gets stuff done.” Thanks? I guess?

Beyond that, I overheard him talking with colleagues about private mental health conversations I’ve had with him. He also went out of his way and sent emails to many judges on fellowships and awards for which I was nominated to lament about my depression holding me back and how my contributions are so dull.

In addition, there has been lack of general feedback for over three years, practically none at all. For instance, if I come up with an idea, it’ll be called mediocre. When I finish the project and write up the paper, he gives one comment (normally pointing out a typo), and it gets published. Never a compliment, never any feedback, just disparaging comments till he receives the published paper.

Fast forward to now where I am finishing up. I was just told that “your whole thesis is very mediocre. It is passable, but maybe that’s just who you are and you’ll go on with your life to be a mediocre scientist and person.” When I asked why he never provided any feedback on this (as was his job as a PI), he responded “I did one PhD. I won’t do yours. You figure out why you’re mediocre.” One might wonder if this has to do with my diagnosis and possible attempts to force me to quit, but my honest answer is: I don’t know. He definitely is not the root cause of my depression/ anxiety, but, if anything, I never received any support from him.

I was just told that “your whole thesis is very mediocre. It is passable, but maybe that’s just who you are and you’ll go on with your life to be a mediocre scientist and person.”

Why didn’t I speak out earlier?

He is a powerful tenured professor with 20+ years of reputation. The whole department, if not the whole university, would believe anything he says, even over the emails and written comments I have from him. I am just a PhD student and my whole future depends on his signature on documents need to finish. I’ve also heard endless cautionary tales from students in my university and other places who spoke out to “confidential” sources and were exposed, pushed to quit or worse. Speaking out opens us up to retaliation and victimization, which is why I am now telling my story anonymously.

If you can relate to part or all of my situation, what should you do?

Seek help from a trusted, confidential ombudsperson if you have one and/ or to trusted people within or even outside your department who can help you switch advisors if your situation allows you to do so. If it becomes too much, see your general practitioner and find the inner strength to let them know how vulnerable you feel, and that you need help. Last, never feel forced to speak up until you’re ready to. Trauma and abuse of power take time to process. It took me over a year to be able to speak up against it. You may be able to change advisors without having to relive and retell all the trauma multiple times to people who may or may not believe you.

– An anonymous PhD student

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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