16

This post is an attempt to reformulate this misunderstood question. I (and others) did add clarifying information, taken from the OP's comments, to the question, but I believe the whole Q&A&discussion sequence got so muddied that a fresh start would be the best way to get good answers to what the OP was actually trying to find out.


There is a professor in OP's department who only takes students who are willing to commit to spending all their waking time studying. He manages to effectively excludes students who have families or close personal relationships. He wants only students who will dedicate any free time left (after doing their required work) on related reading in their field.

The professor doesn't come right out and say, "Only single people who are driven to spend every waking moment on their studies are welcome in my group," but effectively, that is his policy. Quoting from OP's comments:

One way I hear about how he "weeds" out the normal people is by telling them how much work it takes to succeed, and gives examples of previous "successful" students, and what their lifestyles were. I suppose he says something like: "this is how much you know from being an undergrad, this is how much you need to know to succeed in this field, here is a humongous list of topics you should know before you can competently do research with me, come back to me when you're ready." But I don't think that's all he does.... I think he intimidates prospective advisees with his demeanor, and so this fact along with his reputation leads to him select students who work day and night everyday.

This professor is in the United States. He is very good in his field and manages to get students who fit his requirements; but it doesn't seem right to OP (or to me), and we would like to know:

Is there any way of blowing the whistle on such a professor?

  • 13
    Care needs to be taken that one can interpret the statements as selecting nolifers, rather then weeding out uncommitted students. Perhaps the method is just to scare easygoing people away? There are some people that "masquerade as monsters to discover heroes". Better have some proof, or it will backfire badly (it probably will backfire in any case - a whistleblower has to be prepared to sacrifice themselves for the cause, unfortunately that's the dynamics of the situation). – Captain Emacs Oct 10 '16 at 2:42
  • 1
    To quote Law Abiding Citizen: "It's not what you know. It's what you can prove in court." Unless the professor wrote it in a signed e-mail or was recorded saying such things, i'm afraid it's just hearsay. I think the only realistic solution is as Captain Emacs suggests - whistle blowers who have either no vested interest making a sacrifice, or, accept that this is the reality and that the trust-based PhD system is no longer what it used to be. If PIs want to run their labs like companies, the workers should receive overtime. We can see how long such predatory PIs last in a free market. – Wetlab Walter Oct 10 '16 at 3:14
  • 10
    I think Captain Emacs' comment is very important: the way you have phrased the question, it makes it sound like what the professor is doing is unambiguously unethical, which it isn't. Honestly, the interactions of the OP in the related question signal to me that the OP was ranting about the perceived "unfairness" that other people work really hard. – Lentes Oct 10 '16 at 5:25
  • 9
    Asking whether one can "whistle blow" is presuming that the answer to the question "Is this practice legally problematic?" is yes. Until that is determined, this question isn't relevant. – eykanal Oct 10 '16 at 13:10
  • 4
    From what is written here I fail to see OP's problem. The advisor does not force the students to stay at work all that time. Nor does he seem exploitative (e.g., lots of menial work for no career advancement). He just expects full commitment. So why shouldn't he — after all, not everything has to be average. Students are free to either fulfill these requirements or look somewhere else. And to be honest, this question also raised thoughts like 'hearsay', 'speaking for others', and 'trying to clip wings to avoid looking bad'. – Daniel Wessel Oct 10 '16 at 14:21
20

Along with several commenters, I think that first we have to understand and agree on at least one unambiguously unethical or illegal practice is being committed before we can discuss whistle-blowing. I find myself having to stretch rather far to see such a practice here.

We are asked to consider a professor "who only takes students who are willing to commit to spending all their waking time studying." I think this could be an exaggeration, because

This professor is in the United States. He is very good in his field and manages to get students who fit his requirements;

Devoting all your waking time to studying is highly unwise and unhealthy. Even in the short term it does not lead to increases in productivity, and it will lead to burnout in the (not so terribly) long-term. Such an advisor would likely burn through his students faster than he can get them, and if too many students burn out, the professor's work will be affected and also other students will notice and not want to sign on with him.

However, let us assume for the sake of argument that a professor is only willing to take students who devote, say, 100 hours a week to work for him (not so far from "all their waking time"). Although thoroughly unadvisable, I don't know what rule would be broken by setting this ridiculously high bar for student workload. A student and an advisor must both choose to work together in order for this to take place. (For students who have not already been admitted to the program, the department and university has some role to play, at least in vetting the process.) In this choice there are competitive aspects on both sides: given that throughout the academic world the vast majority of advisors would (sanely) require much less of their students, it is not clear why a student would choose to work with an advisor under these conditions unless they foresee an amazing long-term benefit to their career.

The only legal angle I see is that if an advisor terminates a student for failing to do more than 40 hours per week of work in a lab or other environment where specific duties are being done and can be timed: that would probably be actionable. But it seems to me that an employer can ask an employee to complete tasks that would take that employee (or most, or all employees) more than 40 hours a week and can terminate the employee if they fail to complete those tasks.

The idea that advisors specifically require students to have no "personal life" just sounds a little silly to me: an advisor has no right to know a student's marital or relationship status, and in academic environments I'm familiar with there is no natural path for an advisor to find out this information if the student does not want to reveal it. Hinting that a student should not or will not have time for dating, family life, other hobbies or whatever is much as above: obviously highly unadvisable on the professor's part but probably not really actionable. If a professor saw a student's wedding ring on Monday, made a point of asking about it, responded disapprovingly and then terminated the student on Tuesday for no compelling reason, then whistle-blowing would be in order. In the absence of such egregious behavior it's hard to see what can be done.

Graduate students often feel that "they don't have a choice" and must put up with poor behavior or poor deals on the part of their advisor. I think the best thing that we can tell students is that they do have a choice. Healthy academic programs should engineer and foster mechanisms for students to stand up for themselves and switch out of bad situations. Students should not assume in advance that they are enrolling in a healthy academic program. They should be very hesitant to work with an advisor whose current and/or former students are unsatisfied.

5

The Obama administration recently (2016/5) released new overtime rules: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/05/18/obama-administration-releases-final-rules-overtime-pay-including-some-exemptions

If you are in the USA, please reference the Department of Labor final ruling:

• Graduate and undergraduate students: Generally, the Department views graduate and undergraduate students who are engaged in research under a faculty member’s supervision in the course of obtaining a degree to be in an educational relationship and not an employment relationship with the school or with a grantor. As such, the Department will not assert such workers are entitled to overtime.

Undergrads and grad students are exempt because the relationship is seen as educational. However, this can be overruled if the tasks or relationship is no longer educational - i.e., you were washing beakers every week on week with no change. However, note that even if you were dissecting rat brains every week on week with no change, that is unfortunately the tedious part of research. So there's a lot of hair splitting.

The key word above is "generally" - and the key question is whether your taskmaster / professor is abusing the relationship. But the DOL tends to side with universities, so I think it would be hard to make a case.

It's much easier if you're a postdoc because post-docs now fall under the category of employees for whom overtime pay is required.

Postdoctoral researchers:
o Sciences: Postdoctoral researchers in the sciences are not covered by the teaching exemption. These employees are generally considered professional employees and are subject to the salary threshold for exemption from overtime. DOL has been working closely with NIH and NSF regarding their mutual interest in this area.
o Humanities: Many postdoctoral researchers in the humanities also teach. To the extent that they have a primary duty of teaching, they will be subject to the teaching exemption and not entitled to overtime compensation. If they do not teach, however, and earn less than the new threshold, they will be eligible for overtime.

tl;dr: If you're a postdoc, you have some recourse. If you're a student and the 'work' could fit under the category of bona fide research then you have little recourse - except the usual: tell everyone you know to avoid this program; talk to your department chair; talk to the university ombudsman; etc.

-2

When facing a thorny problem, I like to start by brainstorming, listing every approach I can think of. (The second step is to see if any of them can easily be eliminated.) Here's what I've come up with:

  1. Meet with a dean, with an informal concern.

  2. Approach the press.

  3. File a formal (internal) university grievance, based on your university's specific policies.

  4. File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

  5. If your university has a graduate student union, file a grievance through the union.

  6. Guerrilla tactics.

Did I leave anything out?

Now for a commented version of this list.

1. Meet with a dean, with an informal concern.

(a) If you're unsure how well protected you'd be in practice, it might be good to find out what other students' experience has been with this avenue.

(b) It might be helpful, in deciding whether to use this approach, to check how much grant money the professor is bringing into the department, compared to other professors.

(c) Even with an informal approach, it would be good to read your university's policies very carefully before meeting with anyone. The Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago has published advice for the specific context of discrimination, sexual harassment, and assault, that strikes me as good advice in general: "In making a report or complaint, or even in informal advising, describe your situation with language that mirrors the language in the University policy. Using such language in email communications is particularly important."

2. Approach the press.

If you want to pursue this, it might be helpful to find a couple of similar cases, perhaps in another department, and to identify some students who might be willing to speak to the press, anonymously if necessary. In other words, some preliminary legwork on your part would make this project easier for a journalist to tackle.

A letter to the editor could draw attention to the problem and raise awareness. It might be possible to ask the college newspaper not to publish the author's real name.

3. File a formal (internal) university grievance, based on your university's specific policies.

See comments for #1.

I took a quick look at part of the University of Chicago policy, and saw a few sentences that started to go in a helpful direction, talking about imbalances of power, but my quick look didn't turn up any slam dunk language. At any rate, for this approach, I think you'd have to work from your own university's specific policy language.

4. File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

This approach is limited by OCR's mandates -- see http://www2.ed.gov/policy/rights/reg/ocr/index.html.

Here's an example of something that would fit OCR's mandates: if a female student were to notify the professor by email she is pregnant, and the professor were to kick her out, also by email, because of that. I'm not sure if OCR would be an option for a male student who announces he's expecting a baby. One could ask them, though.

5. If your university has a graduate student union, file a grievance through the union.

I didn't see anything in the OP's problem description related to employment as a teaching assistant or research assistant, so I feel doubtful about this approach. Nevertheless, it couldn't hurt to talk to a union representative, to at least get their perspective.

6. Guerrilla tactics.

For example, flyers posted in public places warning people from joining the professor's group. I think this is too risky.

Another possibility would be to post online, e.g. ratemyprofessor.com. This seems like a safer option than flyers on bulletin boards.

General note: for all of the above, the whistleblower's position would be strengthened by numbers, i.e. by other students getting involved.

  • 4
    (The downvote is not mine, by the way.) "Did I leave anything out?" I didn't see where you advised the student to try to switch to another advisor and/or program. I would advise any student to land on their feet before trying many of the things you list there. You can still blow the whistle from the comfort and safety of your next academic job. But if such a student decides that living well is a better revenge...that is also their right, certainly. – Pete L. Clark Oct 11 '16 at 4:12
  • 2
    No, I don't know that, and I find it unclear exactly what the OP of the previous question meant to ask. (It got closed for being unclear.) However, I don't see how it is possible to proceed without involving the students of the advisor: e.g. a formal grievance on the part of someone else is not going to go anywhere without the other party's involvement. If we're brainstorming, I urge that some thought be given to what may or may not bring the temple crashing down on the advisor's current students. Proceeding without consulting them has the potential to do more harm than good. – Pete L. Clark Oct 11 '16 at 4:44
  • 1
    I'm afraid I have only the time for a brief explanation. Suppose I am a faculty member and I hear from the Office of Civil Rights, or am approached by the press, or hear from my Dean that I am being investigated for illegal/unethical/exclusionary practices with regard to my students. I will certainly believe that at least one of my students was responsible for this. At least this will create awkwardness and tension with my students. – Pete L. Clark Oct 11 '16 at 18:13
  • 2
    What else happens depends on me. If I am stubborn, I can probably get away with doing nothing. If I am a flighty bigshot, I may decide to move elsewhere and leave the students behind. If I am unreasonable and/or vindictive, I may do something to make my students very upset that the "bystander" did not consult them first and act with their permission. – Pete L. Clark Oct 11 '16 at 18:16
  • 1
    @PeteL.Clark - Thank you for spelling it out. The possibility that the professor would choose the vindictive, nuclear option is something the OP should take into account when making decisions. – aparente001 Oct 11 '16 at 18:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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