Preventing abuses of power in grad school


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.

12 thoughts on “Preventing abuses of power in grad school

  1. Is it really not common that the committee is chaired by someone other than the advisor? I’ve worked at three institutions as fac/admin, and was a student at one other one, and nowhere was the committee chaired by the thesis advisor. That is an OBVIOUS conflict of interest. In fact, perhaps the reason why I have not seen mistreatment as “common”. I have, however, seen very clear mistreatment. But it’s not the norm, nor is it recognized as such, in my experience.

    This is something that I really care about, and I am frustrated as hell with the passive acceptance that “the market will decide”, that students “just shoun’t join those labs”, etc. In my view, an appointment as Graduate Faculty should be decided on more than just funding and productivity (though, those are obviously important). The Dean should be able to revoke grad faculty membership, even in the Provost wont fire someone who is bringing in the big indirects and making a great name. Of course, most Deans have the power to do this, in theory, but in practice very few are willing to do it. And other faculty are content to whisper or suggest that so-and-so’s lab “may not be the best place”, but few have been willing, in my experience, to formalize this by voting to revoke membership.

    All a long winded way of saying that I am shocked that the practice of every institution I’ve been at, namely, having a committee chair be someone other than the thesis advisor, is not universal; however,while that will probably go a long way to cutting down abuse, it won’t solve the problem.

    • Do you mind sharing what field you are in? Or if you’re not in the US? In my field (Eco/Evo Bio), as far as I know, the thesis committee chair is always the graduate thesis advisor. I don’t know of any department that does it otherwise (though I just learned on twitter that at Berkeley in Integrative Bio, the quals are run by someone other than the thesis advisor, but still the advisor is the chair of the thesis committee)

      • Yeah-sorry. Life sciences (cellular, molecular, biomedical etc). US. Was a student at a private school with decentralized graduate governance, was a faculty at a similarly structured private university, and then admin at two large public universities with (more) centralized grad governance.
        My own personal view is that the thesis advisor should not even be at the thesis committee meetings. I’ve seen that at some, not other institutions. I feel strongly about it not only to prevent abuse (which, as I state above, I’ve experienced as somewhat rare), but also to ensure intellectual independence of the student, and to solidify the advocacy role of the committee.
        Also, at my current institution, we’ve structured the thesis defense process to not even require approval by the thesis advisor, though in most cases they are involved and all is well. But it is structured that way so as to prevent a vindictive thesis advisor from standing in the way of a student defending. In over 200 defenses, we have only had to invoke this once. And it was ugly, but we had the structure in place to minimize the harm to the student.

        • Berkeley IB alum here–Not only does the thesis advisor not lead the quals, but they are not even allowed to be on that commitee. The most the advisor can do is sit in the room with the student and commitee during the exam to observe, but not interact. This scheme makes a ton of sense to me, especially because in IB the purpose of the exam is to assess breadth and scholarly preparation, not serve as a thesis proposal review.

  2. I am on a few committees (as an external) in the Columbia E3B PhD program. The policy there is that the committee is chaired by a tenured E3B faculty member that is not the student’s advisor. I think this is a good policy, although in small departments with toxic relationships between PIs one could see the policy not working as intended. Better mechanisms and transparency are needed overall.

    In my home department, the Chair or the Deputy Chair for graduate studies is required to be present at all oral exams and defenses. This policy on its face seems reasonable, but some chairs have interpreted this as their invitation to grill the student rather than to ensure the fairness of the process for the student.

    • We also have a slate of carefully chose senior faculty who each sit in about five exam committees as a designee from the Dean. They function largely to oversee procedure, fairness, uniformity, and transparency. I instituted this about seven years ago. It took a few years to get the slate right, We rotate people in every few years, and have an annual orientation and end of year summary. I think it’s pretty effective.

  3. I fully agree there should be some way to hold PIs accountable and find a way to prevent abuse and bullying, but I’m not sure how much removing the advisor from the committee would do anything. Just my personal experience, but the most abusive lab environment I experienced was when I was a post-doc in the UK, where PhD advisors not only weren’t on the committee but didn’t attend the defense/viva. When I left I talked with HR about making a report (specifically hoping for oversight to prevent more trainees from being abused) and was told my PI brought in so much grant money the university would never do anything.

    We handle sexual harassment badly, but at least we mostly have a definition on what it is and theoretically have protocols to deal with it. There is really nothing in place to stop non-sexual bullying aside from lucking out with the whisper network, or being lucky enough to be able to leave and have someone better take a chance on you.

  4. At the Environmental Science and Forestry campus of the SUNY system, someone from outside the Department acts as Chair for candidacy exams and thesis defenses. It is a rotating duty of all faculty, and the Chair is assigned by the Graduate Office.

  5. I think this is a great idea. I’m a PhD biological sciences student at a private university. The thesis advisor is also the committee chair. Also, at every thesis committee meeting, the PhD student is asked to leave the room at the start of the meeting for the thesis advisor to give the committee their opinion of the students progress and their suggestions for what the student should concentrate on in the future. Anecdotally, it seems the committee demures to this advice. At no point is the thesis advisor ever asked to step out to get the students perspective. While I’ve been lucky to have a good advisor, I feel a powerless outrage at this system because it seems designed to promote student servility and mistreatment.

  6. I agree that this is a step in the right direction, and no, not common in my experience.

    “We handle sexual harassment badly, but at least we mostly have a definition on what it is….” This! A lot of times, except in very over-the-top cases, students can’t even tell that they’re being gas-lighted, abused, or just plain not supported in the ways they should be until they have been around for several years. Academics need to do better at formally defining what is and is not acceptable in the PI-trainee relationship. Many schools have a student Code of Conduct but lack the equivalent for faculty. I’d like to see the equivalent of that for the faculty-trainee situation. I found your earlier post on this topic very helpful and have shared it with a number of new grad students.

    I also have another suggestion to offer. What about exit interviews for people leaving the lab? These should be confidential, o.c., and could be used by the dept. to identify troubling behavior.

    That said, until being a bad advisor can result in tenure revocation, nothing we do will have much impact….

  7. My PhD thesis advisor at UC Berkeley was a completely unethical piece of garbage. He had his students write papers for publication, then claimed them as his own.
    Forty years later, I’ve never forgiven Prof. Graham H. Powell in Civil Engineering for these thefts from multiple students. Prof. Dolf May, who was the ombudsman at the time did absolutely nothing about it.

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