Baby steps toward uprooting toxicity from academia

Passion for science leads ECRs to embark on the adventure of graduate studies. However, this passion is sometimes met with unfair obstacles and biases that hinder their career paths. Here, we discuss how we can all contribute to making academia a welcoming environment where everyone can thrive.

Multiple authors
6 min read
Baby steps toward uprooting toxicity from academia

On a beautiful sunny day, suddenly you receive a text message from a friend, who was admitted to urgent care with complex health issues. Her diagnosis was convoluted due to chronic, untreated sufferings but unfortunately no one was aware of her critical panic attack’.

These, and other equally serious events happen regularly in academic labs throughout the world, but we do not hear about this type of occurrence often as such incidents typically remain hidden in our academic system. This person was a victim of long-term abuse in her postdoc lab, who wasn’t aware of its hidden dangers when she first joined, but had no clear path to seek support from. We need systematic changes in academia to prevent such hidden bullying.

Despite many efforts to improve research cultures around the world, toxic environments remain prevalent within the academic system and have even been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Such toxicity and bullying is displayed in a wide spectrum of mild to severe actions, including humiliations, threats, exploitation, and many more. Scientists working in such environments often face lack of recognition for their contributions to the lab and/or their projects, and often end up leaving academia.

Discrimination is a key element of many toxic environments. Vulnerable targets are often international folks, especially women and other minorities, who are living in a foreign country without family support and often lack a strong social network. International scholars on working visas experience more abuse and salary discrimination when compared to citizens and they typically do not report experiences of bullying because of fear of retaliation, including threats to cancel visas. Such targets are usually at a disadvantage due to visa issues and financial constraints, and such abuse aggravates their insecurities over job anticipation, which leads them to stay longer in an abusive environment. Extreme abuse can also lead to intrusion in intellectual property rights and bias in authorship of publications, which then typically leads to the victim leaving academia with long term severe psychological scars and adverse impacts on their health and well-being.

Perpetrators are predominantly male PI’s, often from the highly-ranking institutions, whose behavior may have been shaped by their own abusive mentors. When a trainee doesn’t go along with their every way, these abusive supervisors (regardless of their gender) incite an intimidating environment, and often start to play a nasty game of taking away projects or responsibilities from the target, or using the target’s own research findings to advance the career of another favored researcher. Women’s research contributions are more often ignored and not appreciated when compared to their male counterparts, which makes it difficult for women to advance their STEM careers. With no surprise, female researchers are also far less paid compared to their similarly ranked male counterparts. On the other hand, domestic male researchers, who have access to more funding and job opportunities, are more difficult to be targeted by abusive mentors.

Unfortunately, abusive supervisors often find ways to leave minimal evidence of their inappropriate behavior. They often lie and pretend to be incredibly nice, especially in public, to keep a good reputation in the scientific world. They may even have high-profile funding, effectively making their institutions dependent on them and rendering human resources powerless. In today’s era, PIs are judged based on their publication records, impact on their scientific fields (h-index), and the number of grants they secure for their institutions, rather than their mentoring capabilities of early career scientists.


How could we, as a community, uproot such toxicity from academia, and set scientists free from abuse? Here we propose solutions for students, institutions, and PIs.

1.  Qualifications alone don’t make a good PI:

Do not get blindsided by an individual’s shiny profile or the ranking of the institution where their lab is based. Do your homework before deciding to work with someone, don’t just trust what is out publicly. Speak to them and to people who have worked with them, both current and previous members. Check for imbalances of gender and race among “successful” alumni. Review the previous members who left the lab prematurely, without publishing. Ask critical questions, perceive whether the PI likes to micromanage, be vigilant during the interview process and see if there is any red flag. Finally, trust your instincts to make the final decision.

2.    Quit and report toxic environments:

Unluckily, if you find yourself in a toxic environment, leave as soon as possible. Nothing is more invaluable than your wellbeing. We recommend keeping all records of emails of the abusers in PDF format retrospectively. If your primary communication to the abuser was text, Whatsapp, Slack etc, make screenshots before your access is removed. Targets of academic harassment can follow some strategies including proper documentation of each incident. They can seek help from trusted independent resources such as Ombuds offices in their institution or external organizations like Academic Parity Movement and get legal protections country wise. Tread carefully when reaching out to your HR/University admin, as they do sometimes end up siding with the abuser. Make sure you come armed with plenty of evidence, and ask for advice from other organizations, including Friends of Sarah. We should make every effort possible to break the invisible wall of shame that surrounds victims and sees abusive supervisors as normal and accepted in science and help victims to find their path forward.

3.  Upgrading the system to improve the evaluation of a faculty:

We need to upgrade our faculty hiring process ‘to weed out bad seeds’. CVs with high quality and impact of published research papers, and mentoring experiences is the initial evaluation criteria for screening of faculty candidates. The candidates are privileged for publishing in high profile journals or coming from renowned scientist/Nobel laureate’s lab. However, resilience, humility, and ability to resolve difficult situations should also be counted in the evaluation process. The performance of the faculty should be evaluated by the  trainees (students/researchers) by implementing a strict regular evaluation system. Here, we also urge that every research institution should implement a mandatory grading system to evaluate PI’s mental and social health periodically based on the feedback from their lab members. Such evaluation will be very useful to maintain the power balance.

4.   Bad recommendation letters require further evaluation of the PI:

Negative letters from faculty due to personal conflicts could be detrimental to the scientific career of the trainee. Before employers take all what the supervisors said for granted, shall we check the history of the supervisor? Whether they have been abusive, history of research misconduct, etc. What we would like to propose here is some sort of evaluation system of the supervisor who writes the negative letters. Although it is hard to trace the negative history of powerful academics, it is possible to track their misconduct from social media/other platforms. We need an alternative venue to evaluate scientists, not to be blindly dependent on the bad letters.

5.    The inclusive mind-set of the PI can change the game:

If we look back through history, it becomes clear that there’s something inherently corrupting about power. So, how do we take steps to prevent bad leadership in academia? It’s all about good leadership skills. The PI should gain the trust of trainees and create a comfortable work environment allowing everyone to succeed, with an emphasis on wellbeing, respect, and psychological safety. They should be mindful of the contributions of each trainee and value them without discrimination. Mentors can provide clarity in lead and focus of the project to the trainees and promote the collaborative environment instead of competitive environment. In true sense, leading shouldn’t be holding the power, but creating an engaging place for everyone to flourish.

In this blog post, we are focusing on preventing toxicity in academia and providing pleasant experiences to trainees by restructuring scientific policies based on the needs of the system. It’s not okay to see any of our friends or colleagues end up suffering a burnout or requiring urgent care with any mental or physical bruises. This cannot be normalized as the fate of anyone who joins academia full of dreams to advance science, cure disease and save lives. It’s not acceptable for us to tolerate the perpetuation of these abusive cycles. To make systematic changes in the workflow, to stand beside the sufferers and empower early career researchers, we need to create an environment for people to feel safe to report any issues of toxic environments or abuse. We  need more evidence of abuse, more reporting-data, more attention, and collaborative efforts from all areas of the scientific community. Finally, we are echoing what Albert Einstein said, "The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it."

About the authors:

Ruchika Bajaj is a membrane protein biologist. She is interested in understanding structure-functional relationships in membrane proteins and their interactions in the context of physiological processes and diseases. Connect with Ruchika on Twitter.

Rio Sugimura is an organoid engineer. He is a PI at University of Hong Kong and the Centre for Translational Stem Cell Biology. His lab studies cancer immunotherapy and the tumor microenvironment. Connect with Rio on Twitter.

Suhaila Rahman is a biochemist/structural biologist focusing on solving the structure of proteins and understanding their function. Beside her research, she is interested in science communication and improving the research culture in academia. Connect with Suhaila on Twitter.

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.

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