#metooresearch Important lessons learnt during my PhD

This story was submitted to us by Aurore Bochnakian (aurore.bochnakian@gmail.com) about her experiences doing a PhD in France!


Hi everyone! This is a story about how I stood up for myself and my struggling friends in the lab where I did my PhD.

I did my PhD in a wealthy Research Institute in France, where scientific integrity is paramount, and labs have money to do whatever experiments they need! A place full of bright minds and experienced researchers. Virtually research heaven. I was young, naïve, and too friendly, and I didn’t know how to defend my interests and how not to fall prey to manipulative PIs. You guessed it, that’s what exactly happened.

I will not go into details, I would need a 400 page book for that, but in very short, we had a PI whose brain size was only equivalent to his gaslighting abilities. Big. Enormous. He would lie to our faces, talk about the university with disdain, not read your manuscript, and think he was above every rule in the country and the Institute. He used to yell at people, threaten them with unfavorable letters of recommendation, and try to enforce made-up rules that are against the law. We even had someone faint from stress when talking to him and had people cry in his office regularly. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting. Like most Ph.D. students, I was feeling burnout. I tried to bring up the major issues with the committee evaluating the progress of your PhD (it was constituted of other PIs of the Institute), and the only advice they could give me was: “clench your teeth, you’re almost done; one more year and you are out”. There was nothing on protection for me and the others in the lab, nothing on potential measures, it was as if they knew but chose to do nothing. That was heart-wrenching! People who were supposed to help were not doing anything.

I was always vocal about the issues in the lab, and so was everyone else in the lab. So much that it came to the right pair of ears, and that person told me that as long as no one filed a formal complaint, there was nothing they could do, even if they knew that things were wrong. So, I and another colleague did it, and the whole machine started moving. There was an investigation, a very incriminating report, and the university I was in stopped giving him students, only for him to turn to another university to get more.

Oh well! At least I gained something from my PhD, and it’s the ability to say “enough” and go to the right people to fix a situation.

No PhD student has to suffer at the hands of their supervisor! If you are in a situation like that, you have plenty of resources to help! Your university, your mentors, other PIs, and if necessary, you have to be ready to file a formal complaint to get things moving.

Do not let the system protect itself! No one will stand up for you! If you don’t do it first, you will not get results!