So I'm a summer student at a lab and I feel thoroughly abused and I just wanted to know if this was normal. I only have a two-month summer this year as a medical student and I wanted to do some research, hopefully end up with a publication. I could have done clinical research and guaranteed myself a paper but I wanted to work in a wet lab because I really liked it. I had a very successful undergrad honors project in X-Ray crystallography and I figured there wasn't enough time to be trained in a completely new field, so I chose the only X-ray crystallography lab in the city. When the PI and I first met to discuss working with each other, I said I don't care much about financial compensation but I would like a publication. He said he would give me an independent project with good publication potential, and we ended on a good note.

However, when I started at the lab a month later, I realized that he switched projects on me without telling me, and was having me work with this abusive and condescending PhD student who was verbally and emotionally abusive to me (he once yelled at me because I did serial dilutions for a bradford assay standard curve instead of pipetting each volume and told me to 'go get a degree' before changing a protocol). The PI and I never spoke with each other and only the PhD communicated with me (now I realize that the PhD has been continually badmouthing me for whatever reason). But the PhD doesn't spend any time at the bench himself; just tells me what to do. I have no creative freedom to do anything, and I am basically his high-functioning robot. He is very closed minded and is not open to even the smallest of suggestions and never admits he can be wrong. This didn't mean I didn't work any less hard, I was consistently working 12 to 16-hour days. The PhD did not do any bench work, and he stays in his office all day.

It was honestly torture for so long, and last week, which is my third last week at the lab, I got crystals. I was really happy and like any other normal crystallographer, I want to optimize these crystals and get data. However, the PhD told me that the PI wants to crystallize another construct. He now wants me to screen this other construct (that I already screened with no results) in the cold (which is obviously not pleasant) and doesn't care much about the crystals I actually got. I told him that I didn't want to, since I won't have time to follow up on these experiments (only 12 working days left) even if there were results and Id like to focus my efforts on optimization. I directly emailed the PI about it yesterday, and he said that was fine, but do one more simple assay, which I agreed to.

However, I was sick this morning so I couldn't go into work; however, just 2 hours later, the PI sends me a rude email planning out my last 2 weeks for me day by day (which consists of way more hours than the 8 hours a day that I'm being paid for including five 13-hour days), and telling me to have my lab book signed by him at the end of the day. I have no doubt that the PhD badmouthed me to him.

As a summer student, not a grad student or a postdoc or even an honors student but a summer student, I feel completely abused and I feel like my hard work at this lab will not only end up with no publication (even though I got crystals....) but also I feel like my hard work and the abuse I endured at this lab isn't even being recognized. I'm honestly not sure what to do. I didn't have to do research this summer at all but I liked wet lab so much that I decided to go into this lab; now I feel undermined and disrespected and I have lost all the passion I ever have had for research.

I'd honestly like to quit right now but that probably means that my name won't be on the paper even if they end up using my crystals or even if my crystals give diffraction data that they end up using for a paper. Seeing as publication was what I wanted, I'm in a bind. So... sorry for the long story and rant... but what should I do?

P.S. Oh, another thing that's f'ed up about this lab; the lab tech is married to the prof and she's constantly spying and reporting. It's really scary.

  • 7
    I only have a two-month summer this year as a medical student and I wanted to do some research, hopefully end up with a publication That is very ambitious, maybe your expectations were too high, regardless of relationship issues you experienced with the other researchers.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 16:24
  • 4
    Yes for sure. I didn't mean that I wanted to be the first author of a Nature paper. I was hoping they'd give me a figure or something to do on a project that's already 80% of the way along and I'd be 5th author 2 years down the road but since they gave me a bigger project than that, I tried to do a good job to the best of my abilities.
    – guest
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 16:28
  • 14
    You need to talk to the PI... If you don't like what the PhD student is making you do, and you want to change that, you can't just wait for something to happen. Go talk to the PI and explain whole situation from your point of view. You should not be working 12-16 hour days as a summer student anyways, particularly if there is no one else in the lab (my university has a rule about working alone in labs). That is not safe, nor is it healthy.
    – Mewa
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 17:11
  • 1
    I agree with @Mewa. Also, check at the department/University admin for help with abuse if you don't feel confortable. They can help you.
    – Emilie
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 17:49
  • 1
    "I have lost all the passion I ever have had for research." Hang in there and don't let this one really, really bad experience determine who you are. Learn something from it.
    – mikeazo
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 18:39

2 Answers 2


Is quitting an option? It really depends on which part of the world you are from, but if you are from North America and if you are a medical student, you pretty much have a guaranteed future ahead of you, so a paper doesn't matter so much in the long run, right? I might be missing something, in which case OP should clarify.

  • 1
    I'm a med student from Canada and quitting is definitely an option, and an option I'm leaning towards. You're not missing anything except that I like to be civil and I can't construct a civil email of resignation after how much I've been abused here...
    – guest
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 19:33

Currently in similar situation (though not as abused as you, honestly that is too much), so I get that it is exhausting not only physicaly but mentally. When I had the motivation for the publication I didn't really mind working extra hard for my goal. I didn't mind a "higher degree" student telling me what to do when he really didn't knew what he was doing. But now towards the end of theproject I just want to be done with it, all the promises made at the start about amazing publishable results I know they are just not coming to an end so I'm just focusing in doing what I HAVE to, and nothing more.

I would suggest you do the best you can in your8 hours of work, but as soon as that clock strikes the end of working day do go to the PI and tell him you are done for the day and you have some important issues to attend (after all, you PI does want you to go to him at the end of every day and show him what you did). I dont know much about crystallography but if you only have one week left I'd say to focus in keeping the PI happy as well as you mental and physical integrity. If by now you don't have results that may be publishable by themselves (e.g. you will need data and support from the PhD and the PI) there is no point in starting a dispute with them, but DO keep your ground at the same time. If they won't do extra for you, don't do extra for them (especially if they limit you and giving extra won't bear fruit)

  • 2
    Good luck with everything to you too! I decided to quit myself, but since you /have/ to be there, I'm so sorry you're in a similar situation... no one deserves to be treated that way.
    – guest
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 22:52

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