Looking back at it now, I know I was far too naïve.
I guess I’d only worked casual jobs in hospitality up until that point, and my initial introduction to Academia and research was very positive.
So, for some reason, I had this romanticised impression of what working in research would be like.
In my defence, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have that much life experience (I don’t even know if I do now), and I’m a general social hermit. I didn’t know how to ‘people’, as it were.
So it came as a bit of a shock when I realised that there are toxic people everywhere, even in science.
Going into my Honours, then onto my Ph. D, I had this baseless assumption that well-educated people would behave in a more down to earth kind of way. Not necessarily happy, friendly, easy-going all the time, type thing. Just not… shit. I just thought that people would display some level of standard collegiality.
I know… I know… It’s ridiculous! I know that now. But come on- I was in my early twenties. Hell, I used to think that age meant you were a real adult, but now I know that that’s also BS (adulting sucks!). In reality it’s a constant ebb and flow of ‘I know nothing’ to ‘I think I know something‘, and it’s pretty much life long.
I don’t know why I thought that people would be better. Growing up, even as a small child, I knew plenty of ‘adults’ who were just giant children who had no emotional control, healthy coping mechanisms, or mental maturity. But for some reason I hadn’t linked this prior knowledge to my new work environment.
Any place that has a hierarchy, an incentive for promotions (i.e. more prestige), drive to compete for more funds, and is generally a highly stressful environment, is going to cause conflict. As a lowly student, you can cop a lot, because you’re literally at the bottom of the ladder.
Now, I fully acknowledge that I was very fortunate, in that I had a supportive supervisor and a pretty good social circle. In the end I will graduate (soon) with a Thesis I am pretty happy with, two first author papers (one from last year and another published earlier this year), one second author paper, and a book chapter. I’ve had a pretty good run, and I’ve met some amazing people along the way. Overall my experience has been positive.
I highly recommend having people around you who will either push you (within reason) so that you can succeed, and also support you and be there for you when you realise you’re not coping. For me, this meant having friends who knew my project and the field quite well (my ‘lab’ friends), friends who were in my general field that could listen to me vent a little more broadly (my ‘non-lab’, but ‘Department’ friends), and people who weren’t in science at all (‘grounding’ friends who could point out how crazy #LabLife was).
But I also know plenty of others who were not so fortunate.
The worst source of toxicity in the workplace can be your supervisor. That is a nightmare scenario, because the person who is supposed to train you to be a better scientist is literally doing the opposite. And it’s not even like they have to be yelling at you or abusing you so openly. It can also be that they don’t give you opportunities, or they don’t help guide you through difficult experiments. Maybe they take credit for the work you do, for themselves? It’s quite telling when a principal investigator (PI) presents data at a conference, and they don’t cite their staff or students. If a manuscript is published, and the first author (i.e. the one that did all the work) is the Lab Head… I usually go, ‘hmph’. If they’re the Lab Head in a big lab, and they don’t seem like they would be working 24-7 in the lab itself, actually generating the data- then they should be crediting the ones that did. Not themselves.
So it can be quite subtle like that.
I have friends who struggle to maintain a line of communication with their supervisors, because the supervisor just doesn’t seem interested in leading them in any way. I also know people who have been screamed at behind closed doors by their supervisors, because their supervisors are insane.
If your supervisor criticises you as a person, for a failed experiment or a bad draft- then they’re the piece of shit. Not you. That’s not criticism. That’s just bullying.
There’s a difference between, ‘you should organise your day better so that you can plan and coordinate experiments better- how about we get together every week and you show me a plan of what you’re going to do? ‘ and, ‘why are you so useless? Why can’t you just work better?’
One is making suggestions so that you don’t make the same mistake. The other is just putting you down without offering an option to improve.
Which is why I liked my supervisor, because they would acknowledge a mistake, then come up with practical solutions on how to fix it. It was always, ‘how can we move forward with this?’, and not, ‘let’s just dwell on how bad you are’. If it was an experiment, I would run through what I did, and we’d nit pick it and come up with alternative protocols- but at no point in time would they ever say anything like, ‘why did you fuck this up?’, or such like. It was never personal, and I really appreciated that. Sometimes I would make it personal, as in, I thought the criticism was aimed at me, when in fact it was at the experiment. It can be difficult, sometimes, when you’re a very anxious person, to dissociate the words from yourself, and direct it at the work.
Obviously no one is perfect. There would be days when something was said, and it wasn’t quite appropriate. But you know what- there’s this new thing called ‘apologising‘. It’s this amazing thing where you admit that you were at fault, and seek forgiveness. Crazy, I know. Being able to self-assess and admit fault is a character trait I never knew would be so rare in people who are in high positions.
I could list behaviours on and on- there’s PIs who coerce their students into sexual relationships, but let’s face it, that happens in every work place as well… But if they’re two consenting adults, they should be allowed to start a relationship, right? Nevermind the massive power imbalance and the supervisor’s responsibility as a… well, supervisor. If people can’t recognise that type of behaviour as being inappropriate, then those people are numpties.
ANYWAY, I guess the main thing as a student is- what do you do when your supervisor is a giant A-hole?
In all honesty, I don’t know. I think it depends on each and every situation, because every relationship is different. I’ve seen people just grit their teeth and take it, but I’ve also noticed that those people either break themselves in the process (long lasting PTSD), or end up becoming like their supervisor- toxic. I know others who have changed supervisors, while retaining their original project, and those who switched projects entirely- starting fresh in a new lab, university, or country. I also know people who straight up left science. The situation was that bad that they were completely disenchanted by everything.
I think, personally, that if it’s in your best interest- do what ever you need to do. If it means leaving the field, then so be it. Nothing is worth sacrificing your health in that manner. If you still love science, then maybe switching labs or fields might be a better option. At least you can try your luck in a new environment. Whatever it may be, it’ll be quite an undertaking, so this is why I mentioned friends as being a good source of support. Friends don’t just spring up willy nilly, though, so there’s a problem if you’re struggling to find some. I have no solution for that, unfortunately. Good friends have a tendency to just wander into your life randomly.
So I’ve spent a lengthy time talking about toxic supervisors, but what about fellow students? Or even other colleagues who are higher ranked than you (e.g. Post-Docs and other PIs)? What if they’re the ones that are toxic to you?
This is also a tough one.
If it’s a fellow student, you would hope that your supervisor can mediate, to an extent, or at least provide some level of validation that your fellow lab mate’s behaviour is bad. But in terms of consequences, it’s very rare that toxic behaviours from students will be prevented by a supervisor having a chat to them. They might not even be able to have that chat. Generally it’s just sort of… awkward.
It’s fine that not everyone can get along. That’s just life. Not everyone, no matter what I do, will ever like me. Some people are just too different. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be polite to each other.
So, what happens if someone is going out of their way to be rude, and make your life miserable?
Again, I think it depends on the situation. I’m one to speak out, within reason. If they’re being totally unreasonable, I will point it out- albeit in a calm manner. I know plenty of people who aren’t able to do that- and that’s okay.
Sometimes, speaking out doesn’t help, either. The behaviour doesn’t stop, or it might escalate. It just depends on the person. I know some people won’t change, so there’s no point in speaking out. I know others who just can’t seem to read the room, and you have to be extremely explicit when you voice your displeasure.
Then there’s people who are just… untouchable. They’re too high up the food chain, and there’s no way you can do anything to speak out. Maybe they’re just really rude, or maybe they keep pushing urgent experiments on to you, and your supervisor is also powerless to stop them? Maybe they make inappropriate comments, in full view of other people? I have absolutely no solution to this. I mean- if enough people get together, can you report them? Who knows? Would they even listen? What if they have a stellar work track record? What if they’re a major source of grants for the institute? What if they’re so two faced that, to others, they’re saintly? It can, and does happen. I would straight up grit my teeth for the short term, and then get away from them as quickly as possible.
I’m constantly astounded by the people who are absolutely awful, who have no idea they’re being so unpleasant. They’re a bully with no self-recognition that their behaviour is toxic. How do you stop someone like that, who can’t even tell when they’re being inappropriate? Some people know they’re behaving badly, while others have no clue. Their intentions might even be well-meaning. How do you fix that? It frustrates me and makes my head hurt.
I guess one of the biggest lessons from doing my Ph. D was inter-personal skills. How do you approach certain people, and get them to do what you need them to do? Who do you avoid, and who can you turn to for help? What if you notice some colleagues don’t get along, but you need them to work together for a certain project?
And then to top it off, what might you be doing that might be upsetting to some people, and how can you fix this?
Because I don’t want to be contributing to the negativity.
Sure, I’ll make mistakes, but at least I’m trying to fix it. Better that than just thinking that everyone else is in the wrong.
Nobody trains us for these ‘soft skills’. Nobody trains PIs to be leaders, educators, and management. Sure, there’s workshops now, but who’s got the time? They’re already working under the pump as it is.
Some people have a natural talent for ‘peopling’, and when you find them, you should hold on to them as best as possible… because sooner or later, they’ll encounter a jerk colleague/boss, and maybe they’ll move on, leaving behind the jerk. You only need one.
And so the cycle continues.
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬