Navigating The Overlooked Abuse Culture in STEM as a Person of Color

“I was shocked, and while I had heard him raise his voice before, berate and belittle his lab members at lab meetings, and grow impatient and annoyed with us, this rage felt new to me. Not even my mother has yelled at me like that. But I didn’t become indignant; no, I immediately launched into a rambling apology. I figured I deserve this. This is what grad school was, data or die.”


As a kid, I thought of scientists as almost mythical creatures, far removed from reality. Scientists weren’t just regular people; they were geniuses who descended upon the world to bless us with their intelligence. And to top it all off, all scientists looked like Albert Einstein, a classic archetype of an old white guy with crazy hair who ran around yelling “EUREKA!” as discoveries were made.

Of course, this notion was dispelled as I grew up and it dawned on me that becoming a scientist was a real and attainable possibility. I was ecstatic because I loved biology. My college coursework towards a degree in the biological sciences was demanding, but it also excited and motivated me to work towards learning all I could, satisfying that scientist thirst for knowledge. My short-term goal was to get into graduate school, to get the training I would need to become a researcher, although my training began as an undergraduate.

I joined a research lab my junior year, and as an undergraduate, I worked under the guidance of Master’s students in the lab. My university was mostly undergraduate-serving, not a research-intensive university by any measure. Despite that, I rarely interacted with the principal lab investigator (PI), my boss, who mostly delegated most mentoring to graduate students. Being new to the research world I figured that this was merely how things went.

With hard work, I graduated and was accepted into a Ph.D. program at a large R1 institution in a college town that shall remain nameless. I was thrilled, and though I was diving into an entirely new environment, my undergraduate research experience just further cemented my drive to become a scientist. I felt that in research, I was in my element. I had the naivete typical of a first-year graduate student. If you’re in grad school, you know what I mean; everything and everyone is the most interesting EVER. My excitement amused the older grad students, who told me that the novelty wears off very quickly. I was unfazed.

My first two years were fantastic. My lab rotations were great learning experiences, and I chose a lab in which I would stay. I passed my qualifying exam and advanced to candidacy, a significant milestone in a Ph.D. program. I reached the point where I could finally focus on nothing but my research. Before this point, graduate students split their time between lab and coursework, which can limit lab productivity. With my complete focus centered on research, I felt I could finally advance my projects with full force, fulfilling the desire that drove me to graduate school.

However, in my third-year things began to sour. I was the only person of color (POC) in my lab and my mentor/PI was a white male, which was not out of the ordinary since PIs are overwhelmingly white men at my school. I worked diligently and stayed focused on my projects, but when I hit roadblocks in my research, I was afraid to ask for help. My undergraduate university was very diverse, but suddenly I was the rare POC in this hi-impact research world. This awareness permeated my consciousness. I felt like faculty and peers in my department saw me as the dumb POC student who was only here to meet university quotas, and asking for help entirely played into that fear. This led to needing to prove to everyone that I belonged here, even though for a “typical” Ph.D. student being accepted into the program and passing the qualifying exam is proof enough.

Afraid to ask for help, I struggled for weeks troubleshooting my experiments. My PI began to grow impatient with me from the lack of data I was generating. I remember being called into his office one day and, anticipating the reason why I sat and immediately began to profusely apologize for not providing him with data and finally admitting that I was having trouble with my work and needed help. I reverted into a child being reprimanded by my mom as I stared at my shoes awaiting a response. My mentor’s advice was to “read the literature” and to ask my lab mates for help, saying that he “expects to see results from me real soon.”

Before I left his office, he added: “You know, you should be in lab more if you’re truly dedicated to figuring this out.”

I think it noteworthy that at that time I was spending 12-hour days in the lab, six days a week. Not enough time according to my PI.

I took my mentor’s advice. I was dedicated to my science, and I wanted my mentor to see that. I figured I would also come in on Sundays and ask my lab mates for help. My labmates were no help, telling me they had no time to help me and directing me elsewhere. Every single person in my lab shot me down. I had trouble making sense of the literature, and being increasingly overwhelmed could still not figure it out. I eventually emailed another researcher working on something similar and asked for help.

I was called into my PI’s office again, and with dread, I went to face him. I walked into my mentor yelling “WHERE IS THE DATA??” I was shocked, and while I had heard him raise his voice before, berate and belittle his lab members at lab meetings, and grow impatient and annoyed with us, this rage felt new to me. Not even my mother has yelled at me like that. But I didn’t become indignant; no, I immediately launched into a rambling apology. I figured I deserve this. This is what grad school was, data or die.

“I DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOUR EXCUSES. YOU ARE A GRADUATE STUDENT AND SHOULD HAVE FIGURED THIS OUT BY NOW. IT’S BEEN OVER A MONTH. ASK FOR HELP IF YOU’RE TOO INCOMPETENT TO FIGURE THIS OUT.”

Incompetent? I was so thrown off by this word that I just nodded my head and walked out. I immediately went to my lab mates and told them what happened. They were unfazed.

“That’s how he is. Just get used to it and try to stay out of his way.”

How was I going to stay out of his way? He’s supposed to be my mentor. He is supposed to help me become a better scientist and provide me with guidance. In this unfamiliar world, my mentor was supposed to be my lifeline. But this new reality, was this what science indeed was? I asked around among other students in and out of my program and found out that my situation was not unique. I heard about the girl on the 5th floor who was belittled and yelled at daily by her PI, whether in the lab or publicly during her seminar talks. You could often find her crying in the hallway. I heard about the guy who left his lab in his fourth year because he couldn’t handle his PI calling him stupid anymore. I heard about the many people who just quit their programs altogether because they couldn’t handle working long hours only to get yelled at when an experiment doesn’t work as planned.

“This is just what grad school is.”

Some of you reading this might even be thinking that very same thing—that this is what grad school is and I should toughen up and get over it. If this is how scientists are cultivated, we have a problem. Crushing a person’s spirit and resolve is not how we create leaders and innovative thinkers. I am in lab daily for 12-14 hours, getting paid $1800 a month only to be yelled at by a man who calls himself a mentor? Did I work my ass off for this? Coming from my undergraduate lab I grew to be independent, but I was not prepared to work completely alone with no help or guidance. I needed a mentor.  Isn’t that what grad school is supposed to provide?

Of course, not all mentors are this way, but it is far too common and accepted. Ask any graduate student, and they either have a similar story or know of someone who does.

It is hard enough to be a POC in a mainly white field. I have come close to quitting so many times that I have lost count and always talk myself out of it because I’m afraid. I don’t want to set a precedent of how the white people around view POC in the sciences. I was also raised not to confront authority figures. I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am, and I think that if I speak, I lose everything I worked for.

What I’ve written is just a glimpse into my experience; my PI has continued to yell and tear me down. He repeatedly backs out of mentoring me, avoiding my questions. Because I have to teach myself most things I move slower than my peers. This rate of progress allows him to think I am stupid.

I was compelled to recount my experience because I feel like no one wants to talk about abusive PIs out in the open. Mental health issues run rampant in the graduate student population and we do not need mentors making it worse. The PI/graduate student relationship is based on mentorship, leading to the creation of two colleagues. Despite the importance of mentorship, a PI’s mentoring capabilities are not typically evaluated when being hired for professorships. Hiring faculty is all about the science; how many publications and how exciting the planned research is.

I have resolved to put up with this abuse; there is nowhere else to go except to another lab where I could be walking into the same situation or worse. I no longer have the intense love for science that I did before. The abuse stole that from me. At this point, I just keep my head down and work towards finishing my degree to move on to something outside of academia.

Image: Nick Youngson – http://nyphotographic.com/

Tagged with:

3 thoughts on “Navigating The Overlooked Abuse Culture in STEM as a Person of Color”

  • This is one beautiful well written article that makes me sad as flashbacks come rushing into my mind as I read through the article.

  • Me too, with flashbacks. Stay strong. If I can give one piece of advice, from personal experience, I’d say to try to let go of thinking about how your advisor should be behaving, because you can’t do anything about it. It sounds like he’s not going to be helpful, so it’s up to you to find other help. Keep looking– maybe a collaboration or committee member? I switched labs in my 4th year of PhD, which I am forever grateful for, though it’s very specific to your situation if you can do that. Take care of yourself.

  • I’m very sorry this has been your experience, as grad school should not be this way. Being a grad student is certainly hard, but being ignored, yelled at, and abused by a mentor or lab mates should have no part in it. Consider changing labs, or as others have said find another informal mentor.

    There are many fantastic people in the world with a love of science like you have. In my experience, finding some of these people to talk and work with in both the near and long-term makes science very fun. Perhaps you can meet new collaborators or mentors at scientific meetings, elsewhere in your department or university, or thorough the internet.

    I think a critical part of science is a dedication to learning new things in a rigorous way, which it sounds like you have. I hope you keep at it, either as a grad student, academic, scientist with the government or a non-profit, and/or citizen scientist, or any other way you wish. There’s lots of ways to do science and no shame in finding the right path for yourself, whatever that may be. I wish you all the best!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: