Abuse isn’t an “advising style”: The consequences of MIT sheltering abuse behind mentorship

The notification of an email, the buzzing of a text, or the unexpected call sent me into a spell of anxiety. Even the absence of any notification kept me so worried that I constantly checked my screens to ensure I had not missed an email from my advisor. I was always “on call,” — and if I missed a notification or did not respond quickly enough, I would have to explain why I was “unresponsive and unprofessional.” Yet, if I answered too quickly, I was flooded with questions and my research would be stalled. It was an endless cycle of keeping up to explain myself.

My advisor’s words would pierce right through me and the period at the end of each sentence felt like a punch in the gut. I watched as my lab mates were berated over phone calls or in meetings, scolded because they were “taking too long” in their research and manipulated out of seeing their families or even taking a weekend for themselves. My advisor knew how to keep us close by threatening our futures. We were often persuaded by promises of pending publications, and we were too afraid to disagree. So we stayed and we worked through weekends and through holidays — we sacrificed our time for ourselves, our time for our friends, family, and children. Any semblance of enjoying life outside of the four walls of our office or lab was met with criticism by my advisor, who remarked that any successful academic would be working at least 100 hours a week.

The criticism was not reserved simply for research but also used to belittle students by pointing out their “flaws” — their age, their way of speaking, for being a parent “too occupied” with their kids, or for being “too emotional.”

We all suffered in silence not knowing each other’s stories. Slipping into panic attacks and learning to deal with them alone. Mistaking silence for thinking that everything was okay and our own experiences were merely a blip in the grand scheme of the group. We were learning to gaslight ourselves — it was a survival skill, a way of adapting, but the tactic had become so deeply internalized that we believed we were alone.

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Without connections to the outside and the constant vigilance of my advisor, there was no clear path for surviving in the group and no secure option for escaping. Who could we talk to? Who could we trust?

Years passed and students were dispensable to my advisor. — My advisor was hemorrhaging students, yet no red flags were raised. Students were replaced with newer ones — ones who did not know the truth because my advisor made sure to keep us all in the dark. Those who planned to complete their PhD left the group or left MIT. — Yet there was no clean break for anyone — my advisor would withhold recommendations and speak harshly of past students. Those students who left experienced a mix of emotions: relief to have left, a sense of lost time, and disillusionment. For those who stayed, it was an endless cycle of setting boundaries that would inevitably be crossed.

When students took their concerns to administrators, nothing was done. It seemed impossible to make the complaints anonymous when it was just one or a few students coming forward. It seemed there was no protection for students. They would tell students that every faculty member had their own “method of advising” and if we didn’t like that then we should leave. But when did abuse become a method of advising? This was not a “mismatch” in style, not a situation that required mediation — this was an abuse of power.

I came to MIT with expectations of personal growth, meaningful mentorship, collaboration, and friendship. After my first meeting with my advisor, I was filled with excitement for the important work that lay ahead of us and I trusted that my advisor would help me realize these goals. Unfortunately, this was not the case and now all I have left are my friends and our shared trauma.

Regardless of whether we stayed or we left, we all found ourselves hopelessly seeking a place to confide in, a place to feel safe where we could find a way to move on, to not feel lesser than, and to feel heard. We had overlooked our mental health because it was frequently brushed aside by administrators. Knowing the protection of patient confidentiality in therapy but also the associated stigma, I opened up to my lab mates and encouraged them to go. Therapy was where I found the power of my voice. It’s why I’m here, although anonymous, unveiling the dark truths of the graduate experience at MIT and reaching out to those who have not yet been heard.

MIT claims to lead in so many ways, yet it falls short when it comes to ensuring the well-being of its graduate students, especially when made aware of mistreatment from faculty. When they hear our stories, they refuse to call it abuse. MIT has the institutional conviction that when something goes wrong in an advisor-advisee relationship it is just a matter of compatibility. Too often I have been told to be proud of the great work I am a part of, as if this should outweigh the negative and harmful things myself and others have experienced. But I’m more than a researcher or a student. While there have been people compassionate of my experience, we are all left lost in the structure of an apathetic institution.

To the faculty, to the administration, and Rafael Reif: it is time to have meaningful accountability for faculty and protections for students. This could have all been prevented if you had acted sooner. I expected better. We deserve better.

The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous due to the risk of retaliation. Any questions about this piece should be directed at the RISE campaign at RISE4MIT@gmail.com. Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) is a grassroots effort led by Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, Black Graduate Student Association, and Graduate Student Council Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee. Our mission is to fight racism and sexism on our campus to guarantee the right to a safe working and educational environment free of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Please share your story with RISE here.

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