March 6, 2012 / Opportunity, Safety, Sexism



The following article is cross-post with the express permission from the blog Female Science Professor. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

In Scientopia, I discuss a letter from an undergraduate researcher who is now anxious about her interactions with her lab’s PI, and invite comments from readers who might be able to help her with her difficult situation.

An undergraduate recently wrote to me about a difficult situation. I don’t want to reprint her entire e-mail because it might have identifying details, so I will describe the general situation below (I told her that I would do this, and have her consent). I will, however, use the student’s term for the professor in question; that is, she uses the term PI, indicating the professor in charge of the lab in which she does research, but not someone who closely advises her research.

This student has been doing research in a lab at a large university for several years, and her work is going well — so well, in fact, that she recently gave a presentation on her research at a conference. The conference was far from her university, so the various members of the research group who attended the conference stayed in a hotel.  The student was pleased to get to know the PI of her research group better at this conference, as she seldom interacts with him in the course of her research in his lab. Her happiness at attending a conference, presenting her results, and having more interaction with the PI turned into anxiety when he texted her to ask if she wanted him to come to her hotel room one night. She did not text him back, and she has not talked to him or seen him since this incident.

This part is in the student’s own words:

I really enjoy the research that I’m working on, and I love the group I work with, so quitting and finding another paid undergrad position seems unreasonable. I wouldn’t put it past my PI to never speak of it again, but if he does, I’m afraid I might say something wrong. .. I want to go to grad school and expect to get a letter of recommendation from him in the near future when I start applying.

Have you ever been in a situation like this?  What should I do?

I know that this letter will seem very familiar to those who have experienced similar situations and/or who have read about other incidents like this in other posts. I wanted to post this anyway so that this student can get a range of responses and advice, which I expect may range from “Don’t do anything” to “Report him. He’s a creep and may be doing this to other students.”

Although in some ways the situation is clear-cut (professors should not proposition their students), it is a difficult situation for the student. She has been doing her work, doing it well, and getting excited enough about research to want to apply to graduate school. Now she is worried and doesn’t know what to do.

I hate to think about this student feeling anxious when she is doing her research, and worrying about asking this professor for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Will this incident factor into his opinion of the student? Unless the professor proactively apologizes sincerely to the student, says he has never done anything like this before, and affirms that he thinks highly of her work, she is likely to worry about this until she graduates, and perhaps beyond.

The student worries about saying “something wrong” if the PI brings up the incident. If he does bring it up, I think that saying “That made me uncomfortable” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, whether or not he apologizes. It tells him that he crossed a boundary he shouldn’t have, and that his behavior had consequences. An undergraduate student shouldn’t have to tell that to a professor, but this entire situation shouldn’t have happened in the first place. If the student then turns the conversation to research issues and/or career plans (graduate school), maybe they will be back on track with their professional relationships.

Even so, I think it might be worth asking around about this professor, especially if the student feels comfortable talking to others in the research group — a female grad student or postdoc, for example. If this professor is in a habit of propositioning his female students and creating a climate of anxiety in the research lab as a result, this information needs to get to someone in authority, if not the department chair, then an organization on campus that can provide information and advice. It would be good if the text messages are still on the phone.

But mostly I hope that readers who have dealt with similar situations can provide some ideas and support, to help this student through this anxious time.

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  • Bes

    If there are any lab techs she trusts I would ask them if he has a history of this sort of behavior (I would bet he does and that his superiors are well aware of it)however I would not mention the details of her experience to them. Don’t waste energy expecting an apology, she won’t get one. At the time it happened she could have replied to the text “LOL you hit the wrong phone #!” There is no reason to leave her job because there is no guarantee her next job will be any better and it could be worse. If he brings it up (he won’t) I would say “that made me uncomfortable until I realized you inadvertently hit the wrong phone#”. Watch out for him because he may let it go but he may be out to get her. Document all contact with him. I would not report him, in environments run by men the person who calls out a problem is the person who created the problem and people who create problems are punished.

  • Kali

    If I was her, I would definitely save the text and then talk to female colleagues and staff. If she finds enough support from the female colleagues and staff, and maybe some even share a similar experience with the creePI, then she will feel more confident about reporting.

  • hispanicmom

    I have dealt with things like this in the past (not w/a college professor, though).

    Before I give a suggestion, I have a couple of questions: did his text say anything other than him asking if she wanted him to come to her hotel room? Did he say why? Was there more than one email? Was she rooming with another student?

    Now my suggestion: Own the fact that she did nothing wrong by not responding, and confidently stay focused on her research. If he should bring up the situation, your suggestion –“That made me uncomfortable.”– sounds just right.

    I would also add that without any fear or annoyance, she could simply reply along the lines of “Right, that text you sent. I didn’t know what you meant by it. What did you mean?”

    Finally, what I have learned to do is invite another person to any meeting that could be construed as unethical or compromising. That way, everyone stays above reproach.

  • Susan

    I wrote out my whole story but, even after forty years, it’s too painful to share in this forum so I’m going to stick to offering suggestions. First, the student needs to know that she did nothing wrong. Secondly, she should not bring up the text and, if the PI does, “that made me uncomfortable” is an excellent response. I would also, very carefully, ask around to see if the PI has a history of coming on to students or employees. Knowledge is power. Next, I would preserve the text if that’s possible and write up a detailed account of what happened. Then, I would get the written record of the incident notarized to document that it was written shortly after the incident occurred. If the PI continues to make inappropriate advances or tries, in some way, to punish her for not accepting his advances, she will have a reliable record of what occurred.

    She shouldn’t allow this incident to detract from her joy in her work. It’s still a patriarchal society and she may well be approached under similar circumstances again. Depending on the circumstance an “I’m not interested” or even a “F*** off” might be the right response. It’s unrealistic to make a complaint, formal or informal, every time a boss or a co-worker does something inappropriate. She needs to know that there may be consequences to making a complaint and, depending on the organization, they can be just as harsh for the complainant as for the abuser. Sometimes. it’s the only way to go but she needs to know that it’s not going to be easy.

    Lastly, she shouldn’t let the bastards get her down. It’s their issue, not hers.

  • Bes

    I should have warned to not document anything in her lab book. Lab people get to thinking of “their” lab book as personal and it is not, “your” lab book is owned by who ever pays for the research and they can take it at any time. So you need to carry a separate personal journal with no experiment details in it or they can accuse you of taking or hiding data if they should get mad at you for any reason.

    Also I would recommend being seen by the men you work with, with a really large guy. It can be a brother, cousin, father, boyfriend or guy friend. You don’t need to say anything about it, this is non verbal communication which most men can process.