Picking the Wrong Place

It’s me again, your favorite shouty princess. Or you know, the thing that shouts back when you shout into the void on the internet. Regardless, I’m here to talk to you today about a very sore topic: how to figure out that you’ve picked the wrong place for yourself. I am going to focus on graduate school because I’m a grad student, but I hope this will be pretty uniform across life history stages.

To preface this, I started graduate school with really high hopes. I thought from how I remembered my interview process with my department at (insert big R1), that things would be okay. I was sure that graduate school courses would be rigorous, that the literature would envelop me in new ideas, and that my project-presented to me as already on solid ground, with the only thing needed was a willing pair of hands-would proceed smoothly.

Instead, I have an advisor who volunteers me to present places without telling me, who I constantly fight with, and who tells me that I am not fulfilling my job as a student. I have a department where both professors and other graduate students tell me they’re afraid of professional judgement by their peers over their personal leanings, and where people openly admit that relationships between faculty, staff, and students are inherently inauthentic. Graduate classes are not what I expected, and much of what happens in the department is based more on the idea that we must get along to get along. The literature is dense, but it also wouldn’t be so hard to stay focused on reading 30 page research articles if I wasn’t constantly crying in my office. I currently don’t feel like I have any guidance, or any support outside the other graduate students in my cohort. Of course, in real life I turn to social media to connect with mentors outside my institution: but I feel like it’s inherently dangerous for me to be surviving on outside counsel alone. You join a department and lab because they are supposed to be your support network for you to embark on a successful career; not because they give you the spite you need to best them.

So, to summarize, there’s a few key signs that you’ve arrived in the wrong place:

  1. People openly admit the reason your department is peaceful is because you all hardly interact.
  2. Professors complain about the lack of graduate student engagement, but do little to foster relationships between themselves and students
  3. Related to 2, is if faculty ask for grad student opinions (on non-research topics) only to get angry when you don’t immediately acquiesce to their opinions or feelings
  4. Advisors feel entitled to volunteering their students for projects, papers, presentations or conferences without asking the student for permission.
  5. Postdocs/adjuncts/assistant faculty feel as if they cannot profess to deeply-held values, either in non-classroom settings or online, for fear of retribution by senior members of the department.
  6. People, especially older students, tell you to expect relationships between you and faculty/staff to be inherently inauthentic.
  7. Hierarchies within the department translate to non-departmental settings, and are used to silence dissent.
  8. Former students, faculty, or both warn you about various department members, department practices, and traditions.
  9. Students or techs from other labs find you in secret to warn you about your advisor; or tell you that you match the behavioral profile of students who have left in the past.
  10. You and your other lab members feel as if your project(s) are going stagnant, getting stonewalled, or otherwise failing due to lack of communication or guidance between you and your advisor(s).

I know this isn’t an exhaustive list, but these were the 10 warning signs for me as I’ve traversed the department. I feel like it is an indictment of the inherently toxic nature of today’s academia that I was actually shocked when a faculty member spoke to me about how they wished they could be their authentic selves. If grown adults in academia don’t feel like they can be themselves and still be allowed to do good science, how on earth can we expect minoritized students to traverse academia? If you hit any or all of these warning signs, please do what it best for you and leave: leave that lab, or department, or even academia itself. Go where you will feel safest to do the work you love.

As for me, I don’t really know what I will do. I want things to get better between my advisor and I, but I don’t even feel safe enough talking to them to try and establish communication boundaries and issues. I want my lab mates to feel more confident on our shared advisor, but that’s really hard when we go into weekly meetings begging for guidance only to be met with “read the literature more”. We can’t go to other department members for help, because everyone telegraphs that they are only interested if they get something for their H index out of talking to you. I can’t personally go to other people in the department, because the few “allies” I had trusted have shown to be more invested in the status quo than in helping me. I spend a lot of time in my office crying, or instant messaging with outside faculty I met through social media and crying.

My last ditch effort before totally dropping out will probably involve making one (1) confidante out of someone in the department who shows committment to equity in STEM, and hopefully having a deep heart-to-heart (or whatever academia chooses to call this) with my advisor. For both of these things, I have to pick my words as carefully as possible, present as assimilated as I can, and seem as grateful as humanly possible–because that will be the only way I make any headway. I have to use every emotional and social trick in the big book of assimilation politics to get people who should be my allies anyway, to help me. And if they don’t, then I will be forced to admit that academia is too inhospitable for someone like me. I won’t transfer to another department or school, because it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that other places won’t have the same lack of accountability and authenticity as here. If people care more about gatekeeping me for my lack of assimilation than for the good science that I can do, then I don’t really need to stay in a broken system. Academia is invested heavily in this facade where the doublespeak between faculty is worth more than the students who power their research. (Un)fortunately for academia, I am not.

I’ll see you all on the other side, if I make it.




5 thoughts on “Picking the Wrong Place

  1. I started my PhD at an Ivy League university. After a couple of months I was already crying and reapplying to other schools (the reasons are similar to what you describe, but they are other factors, it’s long). I started the second year of my PhD in an R1 university. I’m now a full professor at a research university in Canada. All of this to say, your career in academia is not over at all. Best of luck!

    • I agree with mathgirl, your career in academia doesn’t have to be over if you don’t want it to be. Your department sounds particularly dysfunctional — I’m so sorry. Please don’t deny yourself the option of transferring; there are other departments, and more importantly, other advisors, that will be more supportive and welcoming.

      For years, I suffered with a withholding, condescending, vindictive, generally unpleasant advisor who was prone to yelling and a misogynist, to boot. At a crisis point, an administrator pulled some strings for me so that I could more or less replace my advisor and most of my committee (unheard of in my department). The difference is night and day — my whole life has improved, and my work is leaps and bounds better! My old advisor was a black hole who I could have spent 24/7 trying to please and never succeeding; I wish I had spent more energy trying to improve my situation instead of my relationship with him. I hope you don’t make that mistake!

    • Thank you so much! I needed to hear this. Academia takes so much from us sometimes. I am glad we don’t have to rely on awful people to advance in our career.

  2. I’m so sorry you’re dealing with such a crappy situation. It sounds like its not a great department, generally, and a particularly poor situation/lab. Academia is bit of a crapshoot – there are great places, but finding them can be hard. Choosing not to roll the dice again makes sense, in your situation.

    That said, I want to share a couple stories of people I know who did take that chance, and ended up in much better situations. I don’t mean to invalidate your situation and feelings – leaving academia is not failure, or a bad choice, no matter how much stigma there is around it. But sometimes stories where it works out makes things seem a little less daunting.

    One friend was in a really crappy lab for her Master’s – constantly brow-beaten by the lab manager, who was not good at her job, but was married to the PI and had little accountability. She worked her ass off, but got no guidance from her advisor, and was the only woman grad student in a relatively large lab. The students she talked to before deciding to join essentially lied to her about what the lab was like. She called me regularly, and it seemed like she cried every time. But, she was taking a class with a professor in a related department, who knew her advisor, and that prof noticed how unhappy she was. The prof, who was also a woman, offered my friend a position in her lab. Friend switched, finished her degree quickly, and got a job in pretty much the exact situation she wanted.

    Another friend did her master’s in an absolutely toxic lab. The PI (also a woman) did many things that were either hostile or, at best, ethically dubious. This culminated in the PI publishing my friend’s thesis without her permission – friend was listed as a co-author, and didn’t know it was being submitted until the journal emailed all the co-authors. That friend made it through, and worked in policy for a couple years, before going back for her PhD in a great lab. She’s an excellent scientist, and things seem to be working out, now.

    I’m also in a situation that, at best, is mediocre. I’m a postdoc, and my boss is fine, but not particularly engaged on diversity issues (I’m white, ciswoman, gay). That alone might be ok – my PhD was like that, and it was in a southern town where I didn’t feel comfortable being out (which is a whole other story). But the project is uninteresting, and other PIs on the project range from mildly sexist to openly hostile. And I don’t always feel like my boss is willing to actively push back on that, for all that he says the right things to me. It does make leaving academia look more appealing, but I also am hopeful about the next position that I’m not interviewing for. The people I’ve talked to about that position have been very positive, and the PI has a very good reputation in the field. The project looks interesting, and I’d have the independence to pursue what I want.

    Sorry, this got long-winded! I guess my point is that academia is deeply flawed and can be risky – but risk has two sides. You’re right, that the downsides might be too great to risk. But there can also be high rewards.

    • Its just so hard to come to a decision. I love the other people in my lab, but I basically only have one (1) ally in the whole department and it makes me feel like its untenable to stay here.

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