8

I work in a lab in experimental psychology at a pretty prestigious research university. I have worked there for a while (this is currently my fourth semester) for about 8+ hours a week, entirely unpaid. I have worked on menial tasks (data entry), more theoretical things (experimental design for complex studies), and of course actually running participants. Despite doing all this and doing it well, I really get the feeling that my graduate student (in our lab, each undergrad is generally paired with a grad from the start) is definitely not aimed at my success.

For example, our PI told me that she would support me in my pursuit of an undergraduate research grant, but there was some miscommunication about what exactly I'd be writing it on, so she told me to consolidate my idea with my grad student's very similar idea and go from there. Grad and I met and she completely shot down everything I said (very odd, since the PI liked my idea and had told us to work together) and actually recommended I write the grant on her behalf for one of her studies that I had nothing to do with. When I pointed out that the grant was specifically for undergraduate-designed research and was not intended to be used for grad students, she gave me some weasel-y response about "that's how things are done." I didn't write the grant, because I didn't feel good about potentially taking away one of the few grants exclusively for undergrads from another undergrad who legitimately deserved it.

I wanted to apply to complete a thesis in our lab -- honestly, that was a large part of working so long and hard in just one lab. However, Grad told PI that I was having problems with communication and that I seemed "extremely stressed," prompting PI to ask me if I really thought a thesis was a good idea. The hilarious part about that is I had literally just had a meeting with Grad that week and told her I was having a great time in life, the semester was going well, etc.; in fact, Grad told me SHE was stressed lately, not the other way around. There have been no communication issues, except once I was late for a participant because a friend had a medical emergency. (The participant was still ran successfully, by the way, and this is 1 in literally dozens of participants I have ran with professionalism.)

I just am starting to feel paranoid she is out to get me, or at least to step on whoever she has to get to the top. I also was kind of expecting authorship of some kind since I have done SO MUCH on this one study (been working on it for 2 years now, from "PI and I were talking about this new idea..." to training other research assistants on the study because I know it so well) but as it draws to a close, I get the feeling that authorship isn't a thing that will happen for me. I feel I have legitimately done as much as she has, and it makes me a little angry that she will get authorship when she sits on her laptop and says "looks good" while I work with other new RAs and has never ran a single participant for her own study. This makes me feel like I could have had a better professional benefit from being in another lab, but as the deadline for formal application for Honors rapidly approaches, I feel absolutely stuck and frustrated.

Thoughts? Ideas? Am I losing my mind?

closed as off-topic by Ben Crowell, vonbrand, scaaahu, gman, David Richerby Jan 23 '16 at 1:26

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "The answer to this question strongly depends on individual factors such as a certain person’s preferences, a given institution’s regulations, the exact contents of your work or your personal values. Thus only someone familiar can answer this question and it cannot be generalised to apply to others. (See this discussion for more info.)" – Ben Crowell, vonbrand, scaaahu, gman, David Richerby
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 25
    This sounds like something you should discuss with the PI. – Nate Eldredge Jan 21 '16 at 4:35
  • 5
    Request a direct conversation with the PI, prepare a list of factual issues; make clear why you worked in the lab. Facts. You might state the fact that the grad student talked about being stressed and you not understanding why she presented you as such; but this is not the core. Make clear that you are very interested in working in the lab, but that you feel that through this dynamics you have been excluded from something that you believe you should have been included in. Your PI seems reasonable, but you need talk to her. Don't badmouth the grad student, just give a status report. – Captain Emacs Jan 21 '16 at 18:25
  • I hate how people rush to close questions as off-topic. It was closed in two days, and yet here I am three years later enjoying the read. It has a great answer, through which I learnt about 'gaslighting', which I had never heard about before. It has plenty of upvotes. And yet, closed. – Bzazz May 10 at 11:31
11

In reading over your description, a few things stick out to me as very problematic. My concern is not the past issues - but how you'll be able to handle future issues with people like this, because you will encounter people like this no matter where you go.

The first issue is that you do not seem to have a healthy line of communication with your PI. If the PI said, "hey, that's a good idea, write that up as a grant and talk with X for help", and X shot you down and suggested something that sounded unethical...things should not have stopped there! Directly after you should bring it to the PI, with "I did what you asked/suggested and something odd happened. Do you have a moment to talk about it?" The goal is not "telling on" someone - it's clarifying with someone who is responsible for the work done in their group and has more experience than you. Perhaps you misunderstood the grant process, or perhaps they were trying to con you into getting them a grant in a way that was fraudulent. In either case, it's the PI's role to help you, by explaining the grant system or by revising their instructions to you (and now being aware that their grad student is acting 'funny').

The second issue is your description of that odd conversation you had about being supposedly "stressed"? That sounds like a textbook description of a method called "gaslighting", and yes - it's supposed to make you feel crazy. The point is you are supposed to go "wait, why would they say I'm stressed, I'm not stressed - am I? I didn't think I was stressed..." and then you get stressed, and you start to doubt your own experience of reality. And you are supposed to start getting defensive and searching your memory for any time you screwed up to try to justify their behavior, and start talking about that one time even though no one asked about it to defend yourself, etc. See what happened there? You'll start to look and feel crazy, because no one sees the crazy nonsense you were attacked with. It's a tool of emotional abuse and manipulation. They are also seeking to do it by proxy and poisoning of the perceptions of others, which is a sign of further aggressiveness.

Add the ethically questionable 'flexibility' which appeared to have a self-serving bent to the use of multiple tools of aggression and manipulation, and you've got yourself a lot of red flags - enough to make me suspect you are dealing with someone with malignant personality tendencies. These people aren't fun to deal with and prolonged exposure is a danger to one's welfare and goals. Take this possibility seriously, and begin taking steps immediately to protect yourself.

The third concerning issue is authorship. This can feel like a difficult subject to discuss, but again this requires you talk with your PI. The relationship with this person is far, far more important than any jag-off grad student - your dealings with them is fundamentally important, as it is with any direct supervisor relationship. Authorship is not a reward for abstract merit or seniority - it's a question of "who directly and significantly contributed to this research effort", and you should not ever be a position of having worked on something for even weeks yet not getting proper acknowledgement - let alone years! Again, this is largely controlled by your PI and you must talk with them about it, not simply allow yourself to dwell in the feeling that maybe you are going to get screwed.

Overall, full and effective communication with your supervisor/mentor/PI is crucial here. If you have it, people like this get put down early and they are like cockroaches - once the light is on, they scatter, because you aren't in a position they can easily take advantage of. If you can't have that relationship with your PI, honestly the research they do doesn't matter. No matter what it looks like on paper, if the PI won't have a good opinion of you because your relationship is poor (due to a lack of communication and the resulting sabotage that becomes so easy for people to pull off), it's better that you spend your time elsewhere so you can have a good relationship and a good, solid reference.

So your task will be to talk with your PI and figure out what the issue is. If you can have a good relationship, authorship is dealt with fairly, you can bring future concerns of an important nature to him straight away, then so be it. You'll need to be careful of your issues with the grad student - don't think they'll just act like a reasonable person all of a sudden.

Once those issues are ironed out, then you can also decide whether or not you want to try out a different lab using your new found knowledge of how to handle things. When you've grown skilled in communication and relationship management with people like your PI, life goes much easier - and you'll find that people like the grad student you encountered seem to just be able to "smell" that their tricks won't work, and more often than not they just focus their attentions on easier prey. But without that core relationship building and communication, you'll be taken advantage of by every unethical and manipulative nutter you come across, and they'll swarm to you like a bunch of blood-thirsty mosquitoes.

10

Regarding authorship, it's the PI who would determine whether you get authorship, so I see this as a separate issue from Grad's awful (by the sound of it) behavior. As @NateEldredge said in the comments, you need to discuss the authorship issue with the PI. However, I suggest discussing that question on its own merits and not in connection with the fact that Grad was offered authorship. Don't imply that Grad hasn't earned or doesn't deserve authorship -- that is between the PI and Grad -- or that you've worked harder than her, since I feel those are weak arguments that won't help your case, nor will they make you look especially mature or classy. Just make the case that you earned and deserve it. If PI brings up criticism of you that she heard from Grad, be ready to refute that criticism, but do so in an objective, factual manner and without involving your grievances against Grad in the discussion.

Secondly, with regards to the more general problem of Grad acting to undermine you at every turn, that by itself may merit a discussion with the PI, but again I advise you to separate the two issues, and perhaps deal with the authorship issue first if you feel that is more critical. When you are ready to discuss this, I suggest documenting the precise issues that you see with Grad's behavior and having that documentation ready for the discussion. Again, stick to factual, objective statements as much as possible -- focusing less (or even not at all) about how she made you feel, and more about precise things she said or did.

Finally, if you try these suggestions and the PI was dismissive of your concerns, or if experience tells you that these suggestions are certain not to work, you may want to consider taking the matter up with higher authorities, such as the department chair, or recruit the help of various support resources (e.g., student union representative, university ombudsperson). However, given your description of the problem, it sounds like it may not be worth escalating the case to such levels. It will ultimately be unproductive for you to work in a lab whose PI takes advantage of you and doesn't respect concerns that you have about the work environment, so sadly in such a situation the best option may be to simply find another professor to work with.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.