I had a great time in grad school. I absolutely loved it. But I’m quick(er than some) to recognize that my experience can’t be generalized. If you listen to enough grad students, you’ll hear far too many hair-raising stories about abuses of power. (And when I was in grad school, I was aware of students who were in labs with Toxic PIs, too. Many thesis advisors are good, but not all.) The longer I write here, the more people confide in me about very bad things that happened to them in grad school. One common thread is an astounding level of malevolence, incompetence, and/or selfishness by the student’s thesis advisor.
I’ve written about the options available to students when they wind up with a bad advisor. What about what we can do to prevent abuses of power by PIs?
I think this is a huge topic, and not one I’m ready to write an essay about. For starters, though, here’s a simple policy change that every department can implement: The student’s thesis committee should be chaired by someone who is not the student’s thesis advisor.
It’s not common in the US, as far as I know, but it’s totally feasible to have the committee chaired by someone who is not the student’s PI.
Considering how common it is for students to be mistreated by their PIs, and then subjected to retaliation upon speaking out against mistreatment, doesn’t it make sense to make sure that the capacity for a student to complete their thesis be removed from the person who has the capacity to control so many other aspects of this this student’s professional life?
Would this take a little more work? Yes, it would. Is it worth it? Absolutely. If a graduate program is putting in so many resources to produce PhDs, then the administrative work associated with chairing a student committee is a small ask. And frankly, if you think you don’t have the time for this, then you shouldn’t be in the business of training doctoral students.
One of the central messages of the National Academies’ report on sexual harassment in STEM was that sexual harassment is a form of academic misconduct — and that it proliferates where the organizational climate lacks a diffuse power structure, and where there is inadequate transparency and accountability. If we are looking to protect the safety of members of our community, that means changing policies to prevent the concentration of power and to promote a diverse and respectful community. A very simple thing is to just make sure that the PI doesn’t control everything in the academic life of a student. This looks like a sensible first step for an organization that wants a safer and healthier work environment.
If you’re on the graduate studies committee in your department, what’s stopping you from bringing up this policy change in the next graduate committee, and implementing it in the fall for the new cohort of students? Do you think that abuses of power by PIs don’t happen in your department? Don’t be so sure.