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I'm having trouble with one of my labmates that is severely impacting my work. He is a more senior student than me, but only has been in my lab for two months since my advisor came from a different university last year, and this student didn't come initially (he was supposed to graduate at the old institution but didn't).

No one else in the lab works on similar research to me, so when this student came I thought it was nice to have someone around who was experienced in similar research topics to talk to and potentially collaborate with. Right away he told me he planned to publish many papers with me while he's here, and then wrote me up a research plan. My advisor is quite hands off, and he has not mentioned to me that I am supposed to work closely with this student. I like my advisor's hands off approach, and certainly didn't ask another PhD student to write up plans for me. Even though I am a junior PhD student I am very self-directed and thus far my advisor has mostly let me dictate the research problems I work on.

Very quickly, my relationship with this other student has deteriorated to the point where I can't even go to the lab if I want to get any work done (and since I'm in engineering, most of my work is tied to my lab). He talks nonstop. And I do mean nonstop. If I'm trying to work (not paying attention to him), he interrupts me constantly to talk at me, and it is rarely work or research-related. I usually come in early in the morning, and he comes in in the afternoon. As soon as he comes in he starts telling me stories, about his work, about his childhood, his parents, anything. It doesn't stop. When I try to leave after being in lab for 12 hours (say, 8am-8pm) he stops me and criticizes me for leaving "early" (even when I point out if he works from 5pm to 3am it's actually less time in the lab than I've spent), saying I'm not a real PhD student if I don't work all night.

He has decided he will be a coauthor on all of my papers (without my invitation, and without my advisor's input), but he has not done anything. Initially I tried to meet to work out a plan for some experiments, and he didn't show up to some of them and at the others just ended up talking at me. He also touches me on the arm constantly and will stand behind me when I'm at my computer and rub my shoulders. He flatters me constantly, calls me "cute", says I'm going to be "famous" for my work. I don't see him behave this way with anyone else in the lab.

This is a lot of complaining, but the main reason I'm worried is 1) I haven't gotten anything done in the 2 months since he showed up; and 2) I know my advisor highly values students who can work well together (the older students said he fired a couple of students at the old university for refusing to work with one of the other students).

What do I do? I want to talk to my advisor but don't want to come across like I'm difficult to work with. I'm in a tough situation because this other student is more senior and has a long history with my advisor. I have immense respect and gratitude towards my advisor, but I have only been in the lab for a year (after leaving a toxic lab with a terrible advisor) and haven't yet established a good track record of research results. I've been working at home and hiding out in other labs to try to get my work done, but I can't stay away from the lab forever since I have to build stuff and run experiments. I'm worried my advisor is going to fire me for lack of results (another thing this student tells me constantly).

Sorry for the long rant, but what should I do? Should I try to talk to my advisor? Should I disappear until I have good results to show so he can't fire me?

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    Have you tried being direct with him? – Eppicurt Mar 20 '18 at 3:08
  • @Eppicurt I have tried. It doesn't seem to register with him. – bobthecoder Mar 20 '18 at 3:13
  • Can you be more specific about what you tried to say to them? Note that in today's times, a unambiguous warning about not liking to be touched is a pretty dire one, and the other student should better take it very seriously. Have you tried earphones? – Captain Emacs Mar 20 '18 at 4:36
  • @CaptainEmacs I have only spoken to him about the work/time infringement, telling him that I'm busy when he interrupts me and that I have a lot of deadlines to meet. Headphones make him interrupt me more, if anything: he stands behind me and waves a hand in front of my face to get my attention. I have not dealt with the touching directly -- in my last lab reporting sexual harassment got me blacklisted by my ex-advisor and my funding yanked, so now I just grin and bear it, and try to ignore all the inappropriate comments/touching/etc lest I derail my career. – bobthecoder Mar 20 '18 at 5:14
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    Did you report the sexual harassment (in your previous lab) to your ex-advisor, or higher up? This should not be the outcome of course. In which country did are/were you working? – Mark Mar 20 '18 at 8:45
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Ideally, you could discuss with your advisor. But, this is a challenging situation because you've already been in one "toxic" lab, and now you're having serious interpersonal problems in a second lab. Further, from your description, it seems like the professor might give the benefit of the doubt to the other student. So, I think there is a real concern that your advisor will assume that you are the common denominator, even though statistically, two bad labs in a row is not that unlikely.

I understand you've been unsuccessful in setting boundaries with this student before, but I think you should try one more time, and this time you should be assertive to the point of rudeness. I would ask for a meeting (rather than simply reacting to something annoying he says) and then say something (loudly!) like, "[name], since you've come here I haven't gotten any work done, and I'm increasingly unhappy in the lab. From now on, I want to work in silence as much as possible, and I don't want you to touch me without permission." This is obviously a bit rude, but at this point there is little hope of a good relationship with him; a hostile-but-silent relationship would be an improvement.

Assuming this conversation doesn't go as you would like, I would write a friendly e-mail saying you want to reiterate what you discussed in the lab. In the e-mail I would avoid blaming him and just frame it finding a lab environment that works for both of you. I would then either cc or forward that mail to the advisor, just saying that you want to keep him in the loop. If that still doesn't solve it, then you have little choice but to ask the advisor for a meeting. If he keeps touching you without permission (and it makes you uncomfortable), you can report that to the appropriate office; such things are taken super seriously.

As for his decision to be a co-author on papers, I would simply ignore that, and leave him off the papers unless he actually contributes something.

  • Thank you, this makes sense. I will try talking to him much more forcefully. I get along well with everyone else in the lab, but have not collaborated with anyone else on research, so I do worry that my advisor will think I'm the common denominator like you said. I will try to talk to my advisor to work out a plan for co-authorship but I worry a lot about bringing interpersonal issues to him. – bobthecoder Mar 20 '18 at 5:06
  • Expanding upon some of the advice here: if he ain't getting hints, be explicit. State that wearing headphones is a signal that you don't want to be interrupted, and so forth. If he's aware of what he's doing but doesn't care, then this isn't going to help, and neither is much else beyond escalation to authority, but in case he's simply not good at social cues, having explicit instructions, delivered assertively but not aggressively, may help. – Flyto Apr 16 '18 at 12:21
  • (for avoidance of doubt, I do not think that what he's doing is remotely OK - especially the touching - and it's not your responsibility to help him deal with it. But at a pragmatic level, it may be worth a try if you haven't already) – Flyto Apr 16 '18 at 12:24
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You need to have a discussion with your advisor about the situation, if it is as untenable as you claim.

Before you do, however, may I suggest that you consider rescheduling your day, if possible? You said your labmate does not show up until 5 pm in the afternoon, while you arrive at 8 am. That gives you from 8 am until 5 pm to work on your project without your labmate hanging around. I would plan my day to spend as much of the time between 8 am and 5 pm in the lab, and then conveniently "disappearing" to the library between 5 pm and whenever you want to leave. Use this time to catch up on journal reading, emails, and any other tasks that you otherwise wouldn't have to work on because you're busy in the lab. This may give you the time to be productive and get some results to show your value, if you think that's a concern you need to deal with before speaking to your advisor.

The other issue is dealing with your labmate deciding to be a co-author. That's actually the bigger issue here: unless your labmate makes substantial contributions to your paper, he shouldn't be a co-author. Moreover, he shouldn't be deciding unilaterally that he will be a co-author. It's your research, and you should have some say in who collaborates with you. Now it's possible that your advisor might want to get your colleague "out the door" and might ask you to collaborate on a paper or two. However, if that's the case, that should be something to determine via discussions with everybody involved. [Note that the question is "nominally" about undergraduates, but the advice there applies to any research situation.

  • Thank you. I will try to talk to my advisor this week. I should have been more clear in my question, my labmate tends to show up at all times of the day (not just 5pm), so I can't guarantee a schedule where I will have time away. He has also been trying to adjust his schedule to come earlier to "work" with me, and will sometimes show up early and waste my day. I was also concerned about the co-author issue. At this point he takes so much of my time that I don't think any collaboration is a good idea. I'll talk to my advisor about authorship since I don't want to get into any disputes. – bobthecoder Mar 20 '18 at 3:23

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