Story of a significant challenge – I expressed more, I said “no”

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We asked you to share a significant challenge during your PhD : Real story from a PhD who chose to be anonymous

This PhD Story begins 15 years ago. I was a starry eyed 20 something traveling internationally for the first time to begin graduate school in the US. I was taking a flight from my hometown in India, a city of 10 million people, to a small Midwest university town to start what would be charted as an epic PhD. I would work day and night, make fascinating discoveries and publish papers that would be cited a million times. Or so I thought.

What ensued in the next year was far from that. Although I put in easily 12-14 hours of daily work, I soon realized something was not quite right about my PI. He was extremely controlling and soon started to dictate things I could or could not do even in my personal life. He followed me to events after work and prevented me from chatting with colleagues in neighboring labs. He would call me to his office where he would talk for hours about non-scientific things that often changed to peer-bashing sessions. This went on for months and turned me into a bitter and rebellious person. I expressed more, I said “no”, I refused to accompany him to lunches and dinners. This started to make things worse; I remember him not speaking to me before my first committee meeting. I got absolutely no feedback on my presentation. I kept everything to myself although I am pretty sure now my colleagues in the lab were aware. I confided in one friend who convinced me this was not normal.

Things took a dramatic turn one night. I remember telling myself through tears that I will get out of this prison no matter what. That if I was good enough, I could go on to do a PhD in another lab and still achieve my dreams and goals. That one year in a lifetime was insignificant. With tremendous support from my friend, I lodged a complaint with the Department Chair and University Ombudsman. I did not pursue things legally because I did not have the energy. When the ordeal was over, I was afraid of repercussions, but friends and colleagues who really knew me empathized and offered support.

I went on to successfully defend my PhD six years later from a different lab and a postdoc from an Ivy League school. Both my mentors focused on what was important – science, learning, growing. Although there definitely were frustrations, rejections and hardships, I never felt I was in a prison. I am now a tenure-track scientist with a lab of my own. I focus on science and take workplace harassment very seriously.

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