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Bullying in Lab: Are PIs Guilty?
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Bullying in Lab: Are PIs Guilty?

Dear Dora: Bullying in lab?Dear Dora,

With all of the talk about kids getting bullied in school these days, do you think the way some PIs treat their students would be characterized as bullying in lab?

-Den, postdoc


Dear Den,

The answer is, unfortunately, yes. But that does not mean that graduate students have no say in how they are being treated by their supervisors. One of my favorite quotes is from Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

In other words, stand up for yourself, and don’t let others bully you.  There are several ways PI’s can make the lives of their students tough. For example:

(1)  Micromanaging. Some PI’s check up on their students daily, even multiple times a day. One graduate student was called by her PI on her home number in the evenings and verbally attacked for not running certain experiments. She finally stood up for herself and set boundaries such as no calls on her home number, and no verbal abuse. Her PI agreed, and she was able to concentrate on her work better.

(2)  Hostile-aggressive. Some PI’s are routinely raise their voice, use strong language, or try to put a guilt trip on you. e.g. “By not using proper technique, you contaminated your cells and now they have a fungus infection. We have to clean out the entire incubator including the cells of the other people. I don’t know how you can sleep at night knowing you ruined everyone else’s work.” This is a real quote that was told to a 1st year graduate student. Moved nearly to tears, she apologized to the other students who used the incubator. It turned that that, while there were cells in the incubator, none of them were valuable, so there was no reason the student should not be able to sleep.( Those of you who work with cells know that it is hard to pinpoint who contaminated the incubator in the first place)

Standing up to your PI can be intimidating, especially is he or she is very senior. But there are respectful ways of explaining to your PI what your needs are. A rule of thumb is to suggest solutions rather than attack someone. Instead of “You called me really late last night, and I really don’t like that” say “It would work better if we discussed experiments during work hours in person, because then I could explain to you in more detail what I am doing.” or “I understand that you are upset by the fungus infection in the incubator. I cleaned it out and spoke with everyone who uses it to make sure we all follow protocol. Fortunately, no significant work was lost.”

When your PI sees that you are confident and are addressing the situation, he/she will treat you with more respect too.


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to DearDora@benchfly.com and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks!  In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:


Submit your questions to Dora at DearDora@benchfly.com, or use the comment box below!


1 comment so far. Join The Discussion

  1. chemist99

    wrote on December 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I earned my PhD in organic chemistry, not exactly a warm-fuzzy discipline. I'm sure I was bullied by my boss on a number of levels, but since I expected it going in it wasn't so bad.

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