Choosing a thesis laboratory: should the advice be corrected or the system repaired?
It can be a real challenge for doctoral students to choose a laboratory to do their research.
I started thinking about it a few months ago after counseling a mentee. I had offered the standard advice that you can find all over the internet: “Talk to the people in the lab”.
Yet I quickly realized that this advice was wrong, for reasons we don’t often think about.
If someone is asked about the lab where they work, their answers can be deeply influenced by their particular academic culture. Most graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have no experience of non-academic workplaces and therefore have no standard of comparison. We can hear stories of bullying and harassment from our co-workers, and these become the measure by which we assess our own experience.
We can normalize the unprofessional or unethical behavior of a principal investigator (PI) towards a peer, for example, and then accept it when such behavior is directed against us – especially since is often tolerated (and almost endorsed) by other academics as eccentricity or typical big-cup behavior. We can think of bullying and harassment as a particular management style.
“If you are going through hell, keep going,” they say. And that’s what we do. As we work on our doctorates, peers may interpret the difficulties we endure as simply part of the doctoral experience. Indeed, we can see it as a failure if we are do not struggling and overworked.
I remember when I broke down in tears after a meeting at the lab and told a postdoc that I might be depressed, he took me to a quiet place and explained to me that such feelings were completely normal during a doctorate and that everyone was going through the same thing. treat. He did not know that a few months later, I would have the idea to kill myself.
So we are finishing our doctorates and congratulating ourselves on having survived. Maybe it’s only then that we begin to wonder if there was a problem with the culture and management style in the lab – and maybe in academia more generally.
A crucial question is the power dynamics within laboratories. Many of us depend on our PIs to help us publish our articles and provide us with letters of recommendation. It can prevent us from speaking. Conversely, colleagues known to speak out on the management style of the lab may not be selected to spend time with a potential doctoral candidate on the day of their interview.
Institutions appear to make little effort to improve their conduct, letting their status dictate the range of acceptable behavior. The majority of students who complain do not come to any kind of satisfactory resolution and are often suggested to them that they are too weak or sensitive to do a PhD. Despite all the talk about mental health, the mechanisms for supporting or protecting doctoral students against bullying and harassment are largely ineffective and do not take good practices into account.
Finding a good lab to start their research career is made even more difficult for doctoral students as past scandals or investigations are unlikely to be common knowledge, while websites such as glassdoor.com, that allow people to see employee reviews of where they want to work, don’t rate university labs.
There are no quick fixes, but institutions must do more to protect the psychological safety of all who are affiliated with them. They must ensure compliance with the guidelines and, drawing inspiration from the industry book, professionalize their hosting programs for graduate students, research officers and professors.
Promoting well-being and work-life balance can help circumvent laboratory-specific toxic cultures. Annual surveys on job satisfaction, student-supervisor relationships, psychological safety, and mental health can also be helpful in determining which labs are at risk of becoming dysfunctional environments. Exit interviews can also contribute to this image.
In the meantime, doctoral students should keep in mind that by discussing with people in the laboratory can be helpful if they manage to talk to the one person who is willing to turn the tide, that person will likely be very difficult to find. As for the others, take their comments with a big pinch of salt.
Joana Vieira is a medical writer and mentor on the International Mentoring Foundation for the Advancement of Higher Educationis international mentoring program.