Working in an unhappy environment


I started at my university thinking I could have a new beginning, achieve and develop as a person. Frankly thus far it's been one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Initially I had no friends (I have 2 now), everyone in the lab speaks a language that isn't English (since the vast majority come from a European country and group together), my supevisor spread vicious rumours about me, bullied me, told me I was going to fail my 1st year (although my 2nd supervisor was quick to assure me that was untrue), has very unrealistic expectations (not just with me fortunately), totally unapproachable and generally made my life hell. I'm struggling for fees into the bargain. The post-docs are not at all helpful. If it wasn't for a dear friend, I probably would have quit by now. It's a very unhappy lab, and believe me, I know there's an appalling amount of lab and indeed playground politics. Once I learnt to take a step back I began to feel a little better. But I've never thought I could be in a place that really changes people for the worse. I can take a joke, but I think I'm entitled to ask dumb questions now without having the piss taken. I've now lost a friend in one of the staff simply because I told them without being rude that there was no need to make fun of me in front of a new member of staff and put me down (which I've tolerated in the past but to embarrass me in front of another staff member was a bit much). I re-iterate, I know what happens if you're rude, and it achieves nothing. I've accepted that it's probably more politics and the environment, but this place honestly makes me question what sort of person I am, can I even cope with the demands of a PhD, am I really so intolerant of people? I'm not the Buddha, but I'm not a rabid nutcase either! As far as I was aware, I wasn't being rude or temperamental. I'm doing my best and I intend to finish my PhD because I owe it to myself, the subject is interesting and I fought hard to get here. But I refuse to be a nervous wreck or get involved in any way with the politics here because that is not what I am here for and it wastes time and energy and isn't good for you. I'm just trying to stay calm, be realistic, don't get involved in drama, and stay human! I'd certainly have thought twice if I had even an inkling of what could have happened when I applied. I think I'm learning to cope the right way but any advice from fellow PhDs is always appreciated!(up)


Sounds to me as though you are doing the best you can. I have known people working in some very unpleasant research groups and seen how sressful and miserable it can be if you don't fit in. If the group leader doesn't deal with it's nigh on impossible to change. Some labs are great though - like families. Always pays to ask around first - espeically people who have just left!


So many people in academia are completely up themselves. It affects people differently, some cope with it, but it obviously had got too much for you. I advise you speak to someone in the student union about this, which is what I did when I was bullied by my BSc dissertation supervisor, and I ended up complaining. I can understand that as you still work for them you probably don't think it'll be a good idea to complain but they might give you advise, like maybe on changing supervisor? It's a tricky situation if you want to continue the PhD (I complained after I finished my project).


I'm sorry that you're in such a crappy situation. I don't think I have any really helpful advice except remember that you are not the problem here! Don't let their pathetic behaviour lead you to start questioning yourself: it doesn't sound to me like you've been in the least "rude or temperamental": I think you've been extremely patient with these jerks.


It sounds like you have the right attitude. keep it up(up) Ive been through the same shitty experience myself so I completely understand your situation. I dropped out and I'm currently doing an MSc. Aside from all the crap I had to put up with, I quit because I hated my topic and my supervisor was a two faced little S*&t, Otherwise I would of soldiered on. So I commend you for not quiting. Stick to your guns, focus on getting your PhD and don't get involved in petty lab politics. Fight the big battles, not the small ones:You will get there in the end. I know lots of people doing PhDs and I would describe them as a bright bunch of people but none of them strike me as being exceptionally intelligent. So from my own experience I would think that most people who sign on for PhD programs should be good enough to complete them ( although the path to completion can be a lot tougher for some people than others )

One important piece of advice that I will give you is that you should go see someone about this: your advisor, tutor or who ever in your department is responsible for dealing with student welfare.. You don't have to put up with bullying and there probably would be a good chance that you could change supervisor and project should you escalate your situation to your department and your situation doesn't improve afterwards. Consider that departments can lose funding if students drop out so it is usually preferable that a student changes to another supervisor rather than dropping out.

hope this helps. just send me a mail if you need any more advice 8-)


Have the others been together for a while? This might be a reason why they appear less than welcoming, you know what it is like when someone joins a group after it has been established, it takes a while to be accepted, and if they all speak the same language then they might forget that you do not speak it, it is really easy to slip into your mother tongue, especially if you are trying to explain something complicated. this doesn't excuse them, but may be why they do it (sorry, don't know what area you are in, so can't tell how relevant that is). supervisors vary a lot, as many posts show, so do tale the advice and go and see someone to get this bit sorted out, you are not alone with this problem, sometimes although people are great at their work, they just don't have the people skills some get better, though some never do. When I was at school we had a maths teacher who would never explain anything to the girls as he thought they couldn't do maths - however if you managed to get on without his help and did A level maths, especially pure maths, he couldn't do enough to help you - but by then of course you had found other ways of getting any help you needed, this chap may work on the same principle, so once you can show him you can do it his attitude might change. don't give up though, you owe it to yourself to carry on.


They all come from one country. But they've only all been together as a group since they joined this lab. I'm almost inclined to say that the situation verges on the almost clique-y! The first 3 months I found were the hardest. But as time went by, perhaps I just got used to the situation, and I've learnt who to talk to and when it's a waste of time. There are some that quite snobbish. But can't have it all, right? It used to upset me quite a bit that no matter how hard I tried, it was never reciprocated. I like my subject, but I'm a human being too. But I've got hobbies to keep me entertained, support from family and friends at home, so at least I'm not totally and utterly alone. But then I know it's not a good sign that I don't particularly want to come in every day (not because I don't want to work! But perhaps I'm a little fed up).


The frustrating part is that I when I first raised the alarm, I was told there was no complaints procedure (which I later found out was rubbish). The head of the institute where my lab is based has had plenty of complaints about my supervisor (a woman) but he never does anything about it. One student recently withdrew and changed supervisors. Unfortunately, in my case there was no one who could make room for me, and I did have some reasons for not dropping out and starting again (believe me, they were good reasons). Previous experience with applying for PhDs was downheartening because my grades were fine, but I was always told the reason they didn't want to take me on was because I didn't have enough lab experience (fixed that, I'm doing lots of proteomics stuff, western blots, ELISAs, learning mass spec now). The attitude here is "sweep everything under the carpet and maybe it'll go away". But I did find out about the complaints procedure and who to go to. That did seem to scare the head of the institute a little and he's listening to me a little more. He won't rein my supervisor in, but I know he's on my side. The irony is that NOW my supervisor thinks I've done a good job (so other people in the lab have told me). Nonetheless I had no choice but to write a full grant proposal (not a studentship, a research grant) and learn how to submit it. Whilst it was "good learning exercise, it was a tad distressing to worry about potentially being failed unfairly, writing my first year report and writing and submitting a grant all at the same time!:-s But I'm still here. Tired, jaded, but still here.