On the Importance of Well-being

Dear Labby,

I am a second-year grad student and have recently chosen a lab in which to do my thesis. The lab’s research is focused on a really exciting area that I find fascinating and fundamentally important. Lab members have expertise in many of the techniques I want to learn, and the PI is dynamic and actively involved in leading.

However, soon after I joined the lab, I became aware that one of the senior post-docs and the PI are involved in a sexual relationship. This seems problematic for two reasons. Other members of the lab feel that the post-doc is getting unfair advantages in authorship and recommendations for awards. And even more critical, my institution has a policy that clearly prohibits sexual relationships when one person is the other person’s supervisor. It’s my understanding that such policies serve to protect junior trainees and faculty members where there is a power difference in the relationship.

I am really uncomfortable and wondered whether I can get guidance from the department or graduate school leadership. Can I just share it with a member of my advisory committee? I feel concerned that I will be viewed as a snitch, but I believe the institutional policy is correct and should be respected.

I just want to do my research in the best lab. I’m worried that if I stay quiet, the situation will get worse. Still, if I speak up, it might be impossible to stay in the lab and keep working on a project I find really exciting. I would appreciate any advice you can give me.


DEAR Concerned:

You are right to be concerned. Our educational institutions must take their responsibilities seriously in training the next generation, while protecting trainees in situations where they may be vulnerable. To accomplish these goals, institutions have established policies that include prohibiting sexual relationships when one person is the other person’s supervisor.

It’s not surprising that two people sharing the excitement related to research could also find themselves attracted to one another. The problem is the difference in status and power and the potential loss of objectivity regarding letters of recommendation, promotions, and other decisions such as authorship or allocation of resources. 

The leadership needs to be informed, and there are multiple ways that the problem can be resolved once the issue is brought to them. One often successful solution is transferring the supervisory role for the individual in question (in this case, the post-doc) to someone other than the PI.  

Labby would suggest that you reach out to a member of your mentoring/advisory committee whom you trust, share your concerns with them, and ask that they keep the source confidential. Similarly, you could go to the dean of the graduate school, the chair of your department, or the director of your graduate program with the same request. Your comments about potential favoritism suggest that others are also aware of the relationship and might be comfortable with joining you in this confidential reporting.

Labby has seen positive outcomes from this approach, and hopefully this will allow all to continue to do the science you love.


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