Neglect and Discard: How to Dispose of Grad Students
When advisors lose interest in projects (and students)
Anyone who is familiar with lab-based research work will know how much research involves an immense amount of single-use and disposable materials. Even our research questions and projects can be disposable, involving many dead-end projects which are dropped after a few failed experiments or even after years of work if the results won’t get into a high enough impact journal. But when advisors don’t value their students or invest in their educational and professional development, they have the power to neglect or even discard those students who they lose interest in advising along with those projects. This is exactly what happened to me.
High Hopes and High Pressure
I was accepted to MIT in 2017. As an international student, I was thrilled about the possibility of attending such a prestigious world-class research institution. So thrilled that I thought every faculty member at MIT must be excellent. So thrilled that I ignored the red flags when my future advisor told me that I needed to commit to joining the group before stepping foot on campus, despite students taking up to 9 months to choose their advisors in my program, or risk losing my spot in his lab. So thrilled that I disregarded the ominous coded warning from another student in the department who warned me not to join his lab. I saw MIT as the pinnacle of academia before my experience, what could go wrong?
When I first joined the group, my advisor was beyond excited about my project. It was a serious undertaking, but he believed it was an important and novel contribution to the field and I felt ready to take it on.To perform my experiments, I would have to design and construct a first of its kind high-pressure and high-temperature system to high precision, requiring extensive work with the machine shop, local manufacturers, and intensive facilities modification in the lab space over the course of months to be done safely without endangering myself and my labmates. But then he started saying the work wasn’t moving fast enough, he needed results. I refused to cut corners and his impatience just grew: he spent less and less time on my project, and then less and less time on my development as an academic.
A Convenient Disposal: Quals
Overall, I thought my first year and a half at MIT were like those of any other grad student: facing academic challenges, getting myself into a hole, and then successfully coming out of it. I made my experimental set-up work and I was excited that I was going into quals with initial results in February 2019. My advisor even praised my proposal and preparation. During the exam, I presented the research proposal, which my advisor approved of, and then for the first time I presented a few initial results. My advisor was not pleased. They conflicted with my advisors predictions, and instead agreed with the current theory. Though the results weren’t as anticipated, I still left my exams feeling confident because I was able to answer most of their questions and demonstrated a grasp of the current theory in the field. However, a week later, I was informed that I did not pass it and would have to retake it if I wanted to continue as a Ph.D. student. I was shocked.
A week later, I had a review meeting with my advisor and the chair of my qualifying exam committee. The two of them were very close; some in the department would even make jokes about how obviously nepotistic their mutual self-promotion was. With that in mind, I was already worried that my committee chair would agree with whatever my advisor wanted. Even then, I was shocked to find both of them discouraging me to continue pursuing a Ph.D. Furthermore, my advisor told me that I had not done enough independent research in my one and a half years at MIT. That feedback had never come up even once in any of our research meetings before this. And this was the same project which he supposedly believed to be an immense contribution to the field for which he spent significant resources and I worked diligently to bring novel experimental capabilities to the lab.
I still wanted to leave with constructive feedback, but my labmates and I never knew what to expect from his behavior, so I didn’t know how to ask. Instead, I went home and began to seriously doubt my self-worth as a researcher. I tried to reflect on his feedback to see where I could improve, but I still couldn’t find anything. Instead of criticisms of my research project or my approach to performing original scientific research, they had kept coming back to a couple of open-ended research questions from our field which not even they had a satisfactory answer to. I didn’t understand why the lack of satisfying results, according to my advisor, was reflected poorly on me when this is how research often works. After I talked with a few of my friends from the department, I decided not to appear for my second qualifying exam since I didn’t know where I could improve.
A few weeks later, a professor on my committee reached out to me. He was concerned about my opting not to reappear. He told me that my performance in the first qualifying exam was fine and even that people who performed worse than me have passed — that in the quals committee meeting my advisor simply said he didn’t want me to pass without providing any real reason. He simply wanted to discard me. I considered raising this issue with the department administrators and department head, but our department is tiny and nothing would remain within the four walls where I would raise this. I doubted that I could prove any of this — the professor who told me would have no good reason to publicly stand up for me against his close colleagues. I decided it was better to leave quietly.
Getting out of MIT
By the fall of 2019, I pluck up the courage to try again. I would apply for Ph.D. programs elsewhere and continue to pursue my career goals. I knew I could be a researcher and didn’t want to let this experience stop me. I prepared my essays carefully. I contacted multiple professors for my Ph.D. application and had great conversations with all of them. I can say with conviction that my profile was certainly better than when I had applied to MIT for the first time. The last step was a reference letter from my advisor.
The idea of asking my advisor for a reference letter was nerve-racking. He was always very concerned about his students talking to other faculty, though I was never sure why. My labmates had warned me before: don’t try to transfer out of the lab to another advisor or he will make life very difficult for you. Even co-advisors were out of the question. But I couldn’t let those concerns stand in the way of my education. So I asked him: “Would you be comfortable writing a strong recommendation letter for me?” He responded, “of course, I can do that, it’s a no-brainer!”
But then I submitted my applications, and suddenly all the professors who I was in touch with stopped responding to my emails. Within the next few months, the results came in. One by one, I was rejected by all the universities I had applied to. Each rejection stung worse than the last and took my self-esteem and exhaustion to a new rock bottom. I simply couldn’t understand why my applications were being rejected by every school, including many of which I had previously been accepted during my first round of applications to grad school! Then I realized there was one piece of my applications which I didn’t have control over, my reference letter. My labmates had been right. It seemed as though our advisor could so casually and callously undercut my career, just as I was told he had done in my quals.
Despised and Disposed
After this, I spent every week running experiments that took about 40 consecutive hours per run for the best results, getting 12 hours of rest, a day’s worth of data analysis, and then back to the lab for another 40-hour shift. All this for my advisor to say that my work is not worth anything because I didn’t get the result he anticipated. At this time a senior student in the department told me that he believed my results would be an important contribution to the field if they were completed and published, but to this day, the manuscript remains in my advisor’s hands with no known plans to publish. Even so, every time my results deviated from my advisor’s expectations, he would be displeased, and would disparage all my hard work making passive-aggressive statements towards me in the group meetings like, “I know you spent a lot of time obtaining these results but they mean nothing to me.” or, “Please don’t take it the wrong way but your results are basically useless.” It was humiliating.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic came into our lives. I had almost finished my work, barring the last few experiments. My final days of thesis writing were extremely stressful, not only owing to the COVID-19 situation, but also because my advisor began threatening me about losing funding. The pandemic shut down all my chances of applying for optional practical training (OPT) and getting a job. My advisor shut down my chances of continuing my PhD. My advisor was so anxious to get rid of me that he said that he couldn’t get the department to provide funding for me, but when I reached out to my department head, I was easily assured of funding until I finished my thesis after exchanging only a few emails.
What Could Be
My story could have been different: if I had been able to wait until I arrived at MIT to choose my advisor, then I could have known his reputation and heeded the warnings. If there were clear expectations and oversight on advising relationships, then I could have recognized the problematic patterns of behavior and gone to someone for help. If quals were taken as an educational opportunity rather than an excuse for advisors to discard their unwanted students, then I could have learned and improved. If I had guaranteed transitional funding from my department, then I could have found a more supportive advisor. If my recommendation letters could have been reviewed by a neutral party, then I could have continued my education beyond MIT. But instead I was left to the whims of my advisors, as are all graduate students here..
It doesn’t have to be this way: I know from my experience at MIT that grad students are actually indispensable to both the core research and educational missions of the Institute. We run the long experiments, write publications and grants, teach undergrads, and participate in many other essential operations that would simply halt without us. Right now the power imbalance in advising relationships doesn’t reflect the reality of grad student contributions, instead, it allows faculty members to go unchecked in their ability to abuse, to neglect, and to discard their students. Even beyond MIT, these faculty have the power to undermine our future career prospects by simply writing a weak recommendation letter. The RISE campaign is offering an alternative, envisioning a campus where students have meaningful protections and faculty are held accountable, ensuring the educational and professional mentorship we came to MIT to receive.
When I finished my thesis, I reached out to my department admin and let her know about my situation. She shared that she has heard similar things from my labmates about my advisor, but that the system allows the dictatorial behavior of professors, and we cannot do anything to stop them. She assured me she was doing everything she can to make sure no one else suffers like me. But this has happened before, why would I be the last? Raising issues subtly during faculty review meetings does not lead to concrete changes. Yet, she was still relieved that I had not told anyone else in the department, because it would surely have created a bigger mess and jeopardized everything.
But what’s left to jeopardize? I am unemployed and uncertain about my future in the middle of a pandemic because of the negligence and retaliation of my PI. I have had enough of American academia. I am going home to my country to spend some time with family in a supportive environment and decide what to do next. Now it is up to those still at MIT to ensure that these abuses don’t continue and that students are no longer disposable.