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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Toxic Labs: Why I Don't Have a Graduate Degree in Plant Science

Toxic lab work environment
The chemicals in my advisor's lab weren't very toxic--but the work environment was

Note: Everything in this post is true, but I have omitted the name of the professor and the research institution to protect everyone involved. I do not have a degree from this university.

I was at a crisis point. My relations with my lab group had deteriorated to the point where I couldn’t handle riding in the same van as them for an hour. The work was unfulfilling and poorly planned. Worst of all, I was discovering that the grant proposal that had funded my assistantship was based on misrepresentation of data. I cared about academic integrity, but it didn’t seem like anyone else did!


Finally I took my concerns to the department chair. He was very nice and listened sympathetically to my concerns. But he told me there really wasn’t anything he could do, because my advisor was a tenured professor. Basically the only thing a tenured professor can do that will result in dismissal is to sexually assault a student or worker. They can’t be disciplined for verbally abusing students, being incompetent, not managing their labs well, or writing misleading grant proposals.


“Don’t I have any rights as a grad student?” I asked. “No,” the chair said. “A professor can do whatever he wants in his own lab. You have no rights.” When I asked if I could take my complaints to HR, he said,  “I wouldn’t recommend that. I’ve seen students do that three times, and it’s always ended with the student leaving the university. You wouldn’t be able to work with the professor after taking an action like that.”


I thanked the chair for his time and left his office. Apparently there were only two options. I could stay in that terrible work environment, doing badly-designed research that was doomed to have insignificant results, or I could leave the university. Switching to a different lab wasn’t an option, because nobody else had funding to take on another grad student. I agonized over the decision for several days, and finally called a meeting with my advisor and the department chair and told them that I was withdrawing from the graduate program. It wasn’t worth the emotional toll it was taking on my life.


Though I was much too upset to realize it at the time, my decision to withdraw from that plant science graduate program was a major turning point in my view of science. A certain level of intelligence and academic ability is necessary to succeed in science, of course, but I discovered that it’s not enough. Those who succeed must also learn to navigate the social environment—buttering up those in authority, building camaraderie with the lab group, tweaking statistical analysis to get significant results, and learning how to write a grant proposal that sounds convincing without saying anything that’s outright fraudulent. It was, frankly, more about learning how to play the game than it was about being objective. And I realized early on that it was a game that I couldn’t in good conscience play.


I hoped at the time that my experience was unusual. But as I talked to other graduate students over the years, I discovered that at least half of them had horror stories about “toxic lab environments”—being ridiculed by their advisors, forced to work evenings and weekends, falling into depression. Like me, they were told that was just how it was, that the problem was with them, not with the system.

There are exceptions, to be sure. There are some great professors out there who truly care about their students and who have a high standard of integrity. But the system doesn’t encourage people like that. Science, it turns out, isn’t an objective quest for truth. It’s a social and political game. And it’s been that way for a long, long time.

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1 Comment
Apr 18

While you don't have a graduate degree at this time, it might not be needed. You already have courage + wisdom. Thank you for writing up the events. One is prepared for the remonstrations of, Oh it's not really like that at all. I say to them, Nonsense. Reforms have long been greatly needed throughout institutional education. It's past time for sensible people in the systems to do the difficult work of cleaning house.

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