The Hidden Abuse No One Talks About In Graduate School

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The Hidden Abuse No One Talks About In Graduate School

As a young woman of color in academia, I often get asked by other youthful intellectuals if I would recommend getting a Ph.D.

You see, I received my Ph.D. at 27, my fourth one by 28. I travel the world and post pictures all while attending school and working full time. People come to my site for travel and realize I did it all while going to school and can’t seem to calculate how I afforded it, how I possibly had time for it, and how I hadn’t buckled under the rigor and financial stress that comes with achieving a Ph.D. And then ask how they can do the same.

But these questions all make me feel uncomfortable because the answer is I have buckled.

And I bucked frequently. Suicide was a real option for me. Therapy and travel literally saved my life. If it wasn’t for forced vacation and affordable access to mental health professionals, I can’t promise that I would be here today.

What I haven’t said is, the hard part was not the intellectual part, nor the 100 hour weeks working multiple jobs full-time. It was not the financial stress of eating Ramen noodles every day or carrying on long-distance relationships.

It had everything to do with the abuse I received by mentors, institutionalized racism, and the broken and unchecked system of academia that drove me to feeling so much pain that I barely made it out alive.

In addition, the unchecked power of mentors in academia scared me from speaking out and telling my truth. Would I ever be able to get a job? Would I be black-listed? After revealing the human rights violations and mental health disorders of my advisors that go unmonitored, what would happen to me?

Well, I’m not sure I ever have to worry about that since they dumped me off and haven’t given me a second thought since graduating. And for the present moment, I’ve completely stayed away from traditional academia after really dissecting the layers of institutionalized sexism and racism that goes on in the American University system. And yes, their abuse continues on current graduate students and is not limited to just my program. This is a world-wide phenomenon. It makes me cringe thinking about it.

How Do You Know Academic Abuse Is A World-Wide Phenomenon If You’ve Only Gone To One School?

Well, the truth is…I didn’t know. I talked to friends in other programs and they were the only ones coaching me through it, urging me along. Saying the angrier I felt, the closer I was to being done. And so I felt less alone, rage and frustration seemed like a norm, like this was just the process I was supposed to go through. Like they were hazing me.

But I didn’t really know how common it was until I did a podcast on academia and finally talked about my real experience. The jealousy, the abuse, the threats, all of it. Then I received a message from a professor thanking me for talking about my own abuse. She then told me her story about the gaslighting and microagressions she was receiving in her Math Department. I posted the message up on my Instagram. What I didn’t expect were the hundreds of responses that streamed in after we both revealed our journey through academia.

I realized I needed to keep these stories and store them somewhere safe. So the following is a breakdown on common problems that grad students around the world are experiencing. They are all anonymous.

This article uses the following terms: People of Color (POC), Women of Color (WOC), Men of Color (MOC), PI (Principal Investigator) and is prefaced with topics not ever discussed with young intellectuals and intellectuals of color when signing up to get an advanced degree.

[The following narrative originally appeared on Instagram stories. All DM’s are indicated in italics.]

Academia Is Not Safe

The Message That Started It All.

I listened to the podcast yesterday and could totally relate to the jealousy part. In my case I was lucky I didn’t experience it in my PhD program but now as a faculty member in a community college math department there are White women in their 50s and 60s acting like the plastics in Mean Girls. I dealt with their crap last year and am trying to figure out how to rise above that bullshit but only because over 50% of the student populations in Latinx and I’m the 1stLatina to EVER be hired full-time. Thank you for naming what I believe is also going on in this toxic department (that’s almost 100 years old) because it makes me remember it’s not me who has the problem, it’s these women, and they’re just jealous I have a PhD and I have no problems with classroom management even if I’m new and look like I’m 10 years younger than my age

[Kiona] Omg do you mind if I post this? I can cross your name so you will be anonymous. But THIS is what WOC have to deal with in academia. And honestly I wasn’t strong enough to stay. Women like you are heroes to me. Bc I couldn’t handle the Whiteness and the cattiness. It affected my mental health so much. So I left academia and am unsure if I want to ever return. So whenever a WOC asks me if she should go for her PhD I hesitate saying yes. So I would love to point people to people who ARE still in it

Yes, you can post if you edit my name out. But to tell you the truth I don’t think I am that strong. I’m waiting it out because the Regina George of the group is supposed to retire in 2 years or so. I’m also worried about my mental health so I’m making allies in other departments and meditating almost every day. Also there is a Latino who was hired with me that’s now my bff in the department. If it doesn’t get better and that woman doesn’t retire though, I don’t’ know that I can stay.

[Kiona] Thanks for being so honest. I don’t blame you.

Academia Is A Health Risk…

Especially To Marginalized Groups And Fosters An Environment That Encourages Suicide And/Or Physical Implications.

For me, I talk about my suicide story very rarely. But it was one of the darkest moments of my life. The sad thing is that, every single one of my friends had experience some sort of physical manifestation of the stress they were experiencing as well. I had friends who were hospitalized and started peeing blood.

You lose hair, you lose weight…and we joke that it’s a sign you’re almost done with your Ph.D. when you’re on the verge of killing yourself or your mentor.

[Response] Sounds like my department! I lost a third of my hair in my Ph.D. program, got scarlet fever (the skin on my palms was peeling), and became prediabetic. I don’t think I regrew the hair but I did reverse the prediabetes and it took the student health center 3 different visits from me until they figured out what was wrong. I thought I was dying. Not to mention the time they sent me to the ER alone on a wrong diagnosis because the docs in the student health center refused to look at a pic of my mucus.

I have seen first hand how the institutional racism of higher education is a serious health risk or both WOC as well as MOC. The health issues include both physical as well as mental. Once the students I had worked with graduated they fled the academic scene…for their sanity as well as their physical health. Those who choose to stay had to find a way to insulate themselves as well as any students they attempted to protect. Choosing to work in academia is like choosing to go to war everyday.

Thank you for sharing so candidly. I’ve never talked so openly about my experience in the Ph.D. program I left 5 years ago. I did attempt suicide and was hospitalized. And even after, I was dropped from my fellowship but still tried to finish the semester. The mental and emotional exhaustion was fucking hard, especially when it felt like I had to show up every time to school not only fellow grad students but professors and department heads on their racism. And the faculty of color that I did reach out to, bless them, were incredibly busy trying to survive being faculty in the Whitest English department. I left with nothing, not even a Masters and I still to do this day struggle because I did belong there, and convinced myself that I didn’t. I’m actually looking into going back to academia (not to my original program) after all these years but I don’t know anyone who wants to return after an experience like mine. Anyway, just thank you. It’s not talked about enough and it needs to be.

My experience echoes theirs. I’m currently on leave from a purportedly “progressive” Ivy Ph.D. in English. I’ve never quit anything in my life but being in the middle of nowhere nearly killed me. I can’t make myself definitively let go of my goal but I also can’t face returning. I feel stuck. I can take four weeks before they withdraw me. I’m starting my third year on leave. My committee chair was a huge reason for me leaving. In the time I’ve been gone, we’ve lost four professors of color. Most of the POC friends and colleagues I had have left for similar issues. Some managed to graduate but did so while living away from campus and without finding. Thank you for bringing light to this issue and creating a space for people to see they aren’t alone. Congrats to you for finishing.

Oh my goodness. Thank you for posting this! You and the math prof have legitimized my feelings about academia. I’m finishing up my masters and I have been struggling so much with the culture of it. I’m in a field that is majority old, White men. Everyone is cliquey and bitchy (for lack of a better word). I’m definitely White passing so I get a lot of leeway for the most part. But as some one who is adopted and also Indigenous (mixed actually) I’ve struggled with identity and all of the people in academia don’t get it and think that it can be pushed aside and ignored (because they don’t have those problems). It’s like mental health and things outside of academia don’t matter. My dad wants me to do a PhD but that will not be happening because of the toll academia has had on me the last three years. Sometimes I wonder how academia can sustain itself…Again thank you, thank you to the math prof, and all the POC in academia for paving the way for others. Also sorry for emotionally dumping on you. that was kinda my long way of saying thank you for talking about this and of course all the other topics you cover.

My Ph.D. was relatively smooth-sailing compared to some of my friends’ experiences, but still it was a fucking emotional roller-coasted which brought on mental health issues. Wouldn’t simply recommend doing a Ph.D. to anyone either. Surviving academia….Errrrrmmm not sure if I can do this in the long run since it’s soooo competitive, though I still enjoy research.

Hi. Don’t yet have a Ph.D. But I am in my second Ph.D. program. During my first Ph.D. program, I felt like from the get go I maybe wasn’t in the right place. I wanted to leave (and should have) after my first year…really my first semester. It would have saved me so much heartache and trouble. Long story short, I didn’t pass comps and was told I couldn’t stay in the program. What a way to confirm the Imposter Syndrome I was ALREADY experiencing for a couple of years. I essentially went through a huge breakup. I was depressed, harmed myself, felt the lowest every in my confidence. And couldn’t get a job because now I was overqualified. After reflection and talking with a mentor, I decided to pursue a different program. And I am in a much better place. Of course some days I questions why am I doing this again but my passion is in this type of research. Do I want to stay in academia once I finish, idk probably, but I am passionate about my research areas. Anyways, just wanted to share. It’s been a very hard challenge to get by. It was one of the lowest points in my life…I ran away from my family and went to live with my mom because I was so depressed and embarrassed. Really hope I don’t have to go through that again.

Obviously speaking as a White person, but I would SO hesitate to recommend academia to anyone, let alone a WOC. It’s shit for White women, and I have heard enough stories about what it’s like for WOC to have SERIOUS reservations.

I’m the only Latinx person in my cohort. It’s fucking draining trying to get a doc in urban and diverse communities in education with other non POC. I mean these other students are leaders of schools and they are so fucking unaware. I’ve intentionally sought out spaces where there are only WOC. It’s helped a ton. But like her, I have to take up this space. Thanks for sharing this topic. It’s something I brought up to my committee chair of how they are taking care of my mental health.

You’re making me want to go back and get my Ph.D. just to throw a (middle finger emoji) to the White establishment that is academia.

I got my Masters at Texas State and I had the best experience, but that was because 2/3 of my advising profs were WOC. The other was honestly one of the wokest White women I have ever met. It makes me so angry and mad that people have negative experiences in trying to achieve their educational goals and dreams. I’ve debated getting my Ph.D. for a few years and this seriously sways me more towards just going for it.

Thank you for sharing this! I’m a Latina and I’m on my third year of my PhD. My mental health has been awful since I started my program and, sadly to say, being a WOC definitely doesn’t help. I’ve seen several graduate students who are POC but not even on of the tenured or tenured track professors as a POC. It just sucks!

Wow this hits home so bad. This was the reason I originally left academia in the first place. I was struggling with my Masters dissertation, was involved in a research project and doing random jobs to try and pay the bills (no funding). Meanwhile I was being chased by the University to pay extension fees that I just couldn’t afford. Ended up quitting and moving back with my mum, went through a very deep depression and feelings on not being valuable and my life having no meaning anymore because I was not in that world anymore and that had always been suck a big part of my identity. Ended up waitressing for 8 months and saving every penny to move to the UK and after 3 years of hustling got accepted into my Ph.D. and there is definitely some anxiety but I do feel like I know myself better and will be able to handle things differently if things to go South again. Sorry for unloading all of this on you, I never really talked to anyone about this before. I had no idea this was so common, which just shows how much more we need to talk about it. I appreciate you and this space so much, thank you.

Real talk. I remember going to one of my professors for guidance and she basically told to suck it up. Once I graduated they wanted me to stick around and teach in the area and I straight up told them no. I’ve never been so unhappy in my life as when I was working on my graduate degrees. Folks are always trying to give me extra credit for two masters degrees and all I can think is that I barely made it out alive.  

I know we’ve talking about epi Ph.D. programs but I wanted to say thank you for this series of sharing experiences. I’ve been highly skeptical of going for the doctorate because truthfully I dropped out of medical school before due to mental health and isolation. I was one of 5 (out of 40) non-White students and the location of the school was so White, I (being Eurasian) was regularly discriminated against at the grocery store, bakeries, etc. that at a certain point I couldn’t live there anymore and left. But it’s also why I’m so motivated to do work with mental health/epi! Like fuck that situation Ima do better and show proof of this bullshit nonsense that happens.

A friend shared your story with me. I just wanted to say that yes, academia is a draining toxic experience. I moved back to my city and did online courses after my first year because I was physically ill. It took me two years to get health enough to come back. And now after 1 year back I’ve run into depression and anxiety issues. I just started counseling and it takes so much strength to say yes this is what I want and I’m going to work through the toxicity to be a doctor. I do it because I think of how lucky I am to have two femme POCs (1 Indigenous!) as co-chairs of my committee. And if I can be that person for someone else in the future, it would be amazing. I have them for support but I was still isolating myself because that is what I felt like I was supposed to do. But now that I’ve said hold on, I’m struggling, and they’re helping me. I worry about putting more work on them but they tell me they want to be there to help me get through. And that’s what I want to do for others in the future. And because I want the research that I’m doing to be done by someone like me, not an outside. It’s hard but reading all these stories, I know you see that you really aren’t alone and there just needs to be some light shed on the process so that people can reach out. I went into this without knowing what it really meant, I was told I should apply and I did and here I am 4 years later struggling but persisting.

Academia Is Predominantly Run By White People, Even In Cultural Specific Related Topics, Leaving No Room For The Advancement Of People Of Color And Causing Unsafe Toxic Classroom Environments.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 82% of U.S. professors are White and 55% of them were male. However, the number of White students graduating with a doctorate degree is 43% in 2015, according to the National Science Foundation.

With more POC students graduating than ever, why aren’t they reflected in the staff? If there are so many POC Ph.D.’s, why aren’t we being hired and why don’t we have specific support systems surrounding us?

Im just starting my Ph.D. and I notice the lack of diversity in the department I’m at! Almost everyone is White. This is one reason why I DO want to continue in this field. It’s gotta change and diversity hires be damned!

YASS GIRL YASSSS. you always give me so much life calling it out like it is!!! I’m a grad student in NYC studying env policy and sustainability management and the topic of Whiteness in the field of sustainability and environmentalism is constantly discussed with in class which honestly gives me so much hope about the way future leaders of environmentalism and sustain are thinking about this issue. I’m gonna bring this up in my Environmental Justice class today, especially cause we just did a reading about the disenfranchisement of people of color by big orgs like Sierra club and the influence White academia has had on the non-advancement of solutions for the environment.

Hey Kiona! I’m not going for a Ph.D., but I just thought I’d share something from my university. There was a grant offered to a lecturer to head a “decolonization” of our department (not exactly sure what this entails). He also happens to be a White man from Australia.

I’m not POC, but I did a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and it’s a total boys club. Not easy for anyone who isn’t a White male. Was super hard to get a postdoc (White male was chosen over me every time even though app encouraged women and minorities). Once the job told me, they wanted me, but the older White man needed a visa. Eventually I left and went to industry because it turned out to be more fair. So sometimes…it’s hard for just women, regardless of color. Just something to think about as well.

Please erase my name if you ever use this in the future, but I am so glad that you addressed this. I’m a few weeks into a program that is supposed to address racism and classism in education and I have been debating whether or not to quit. I’m a White first-Gen college student I chose to focus on classism because I feel that it’s inappropriate for White women to take up spaces for WOC when their experiences and perspectives are important. When I pointed that out I was labeled a racist and was sent information on White fragility. They actually turned it around on me. As if somehow saying to a room filled with predominately White women that we shouldn’t speak for others was problematic. I was really looking forward to having the chance to work with POC to increase their representation in education but I underestimated how much academia doesn’t want to hear from anyone other than middle class White people.  Even if I stick to my struggles as someone from “working class” they dismiss It because it’s not as bad as what students of color face. Which I’m cool with if POC say to me, not White middle class women. They need to let people speak for themselves.

Academia Awards Programs With Diversity Hires And Inadvertently Creates Cultures of Racism.

To address the diversity issue, universities have started giving extra funding to departments for “diversity hires”. In theory, that sounds like it would solve the issue. But I’ve seen it play out in real life and let me explain how it’s inherently racist.

Diversity hires are not viewed as based on merit, but a “pass” due to skin color.

POC Ph.D.’s are QUALIFIED. POC Ph.D.’s are arguably more qualified than any other Ph.D.’s because we have had to operate in an inherently unequal system. To be hired based on skin color or ethnicity downplays our REAL LIFE INTELLIGENCE

To financially reward a department based on skin color or to fill a diversity quota is simply buying Black and Brown bodies.

Diversity Hires are akin to an academic slave market.

POC faculty often have to perform roles outside of their job titles. They are often diversity consultants for their departments and unofficially act as therapists for their students of color who deem them as safe spaces in toxic racist environments. Not only is that emotionally taxing on POC faculty, those job roles are not reflected in their salary or pay grade as they are not getting paid any extra for those roles and often come in at lower salaries than their White counterparts. We aren’t even discussing the abuse they receive by their own departments and primarily White institutions.

In addition, the act of “purchasing” a Diversity Hire for financial gain is similar to “purchasing” an intellectual body to work the academic slave plantation at the benefit to the department with no evidence that POC hires are being compensated fairly or given the credit they deserve due to the initial transaction being based on skin color and/or ethnicity.

Diversity Hires Encourage Gossip And Bullying.

When a POC is hired based on their skin color and/or ethnicity, then labeling them as DIVERSITY HIRES, in real life it leads to whispering and bullying in the department. As in, “They’re just a diversity hire. They’re not really meant to be here.” And if a POC faculty member brings up an issue that may be related to insititutionalized inequity or improper treatment, they are then gaslighted and branded as “difficult to work with” or a “fire started”. That is called gaslighting. Gaslighting is ABUSE and sets up the faculty member to receive toxic treatment from their peers.

After this happens enough times and the POC faculty member endures enough abuse and glass ceilings, there is an exodus of POC. Never a reprimand, consequence, or cultural and mental training for the problematic White person. Universities do nothing even if they see that pattern.

I was directed to your stories from @sujanee, and oh man. All the feels. I’m literally sharing stories this week on my page about previous and past grad students who’ve had to switch labs because of being in a toxic environment. Coincidentally, Women Of Color including me. I was told I wasn’t Ph.D. material. And that was told to me by a White woman. So IDK what that says…But I totally resonate with your story. I was heavily prepared to go to grad school as an undergrad, but once I got here I didn’t have the support. Especially as the only Hispanic in my cohort. Btw I’m a 4thyr Ph.D., first gen Hispanic.

As someone who went to get a M.A. to work in higher ed and has been in this draining field with little pay I’ll say it’s hard as a WOC. Why? Well for many reasons you’ve already stated, but then you also feel like you can’t leave your students. You build a space for other POC to migrate to when they have problems or issues with academia. Then it’s hard to leave. Plus, I don’t know if I’d ever get a Ph.D. bc old White men are the worst. Professors don’t have to do better. It’s the part that I think is the most insane. Plus getting hired as tenured is a whole other systemic racist problem. I’ve debated on leaving the field in general bc of the amount of work you have to put in to advance (read: debt). I’m skeptical about recommending higher ed/academia to POC, but I also do believe some schools are very supportive of POC and are really trying to change the narrative. Not all. But no system is free of the isms. That’s the hardest part, for me, for working in any field as an adult.

Thank you for posting this and explaining it so eloquently. I am about to start my Ph.D. after taking a break from academia and as a WOC I can’t say I have experienced this myself, but I have always felt uncomfortable with “diversity hires” and now I can properly articulate why. I made a deliberate choice to not apply to Oxbridge and go to UCL, because they were the first Uni in the UK to be open to everyone regardless of gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc. by my two supervisors are still White and middle class, so I can’t even imagine what it will be like in other universities.

I do slightly disagree about the affirmative action point (sometimes the only way to get to the right ppl who are qualified is by incentivizing financially or offering & for support programs to improve inclusion), but fully agree it’s only a bandaid solution that definitely promotes stigma and makes shit difficult for the person hired. But in general academia just sucks and the pipeline is beyond leaky, it’s broke and fucked and I’m sorry you had to suffer that. There’s a lot of momentum for action right now and I hope it brings more justice.

Perhaps the answer is not solely in punishment for not meeting requirements, but rather public visibility into the lack of diversity into the department or uni. In the private sector, large businesses are often ranked by 3rdparties on this. For example last year the company I work for was acknowledged as ranked extremely low in diversity of sr level leaders. As a result, during the past year we’ve had internal trainings, events and mixers, and town halls to talk about the issue. As a POC, I honestly feel my employer is genuinely trying to make an effort to bring the internal issues to light, listen to us, and make meaningful organizational change.

Yaaaasss! I have to remind organizations of this all the time. you hire for “diversity” but have no internal systems in place to support them. So stop. Unless you’re ready for internal organizational change; which is an entire culture shift and commitment to decentering whiteness.

Science And Academic Papers Are Colonized And Have White Bias, Skewing Data That Influences Policy Over Brown And Black Bodies.

What? What does race have anything to do with science?

Well every field is different, but I was in health so I’ll give you some examples.

When conducting research, biases are introduced before you even collect data.

For example, making a questionnaire on food intake. If you’re analyzing a predominantly immigrant Hispanic population, White People nor Mexican, Central or South Americans, who have never been or lived in those countries, nor anyone else for that matter, has the cultural intelligence to develop a questionnaire that captures all relevant knowledge nor do they have the cultural background to generate a culturally adaptive food programs.

In my experience, Non-Spanish speaking professors think having a Spanish speaker on their team is sufficient. However, that comes for an ignorance of studying a population that you are not a part of. Spanish speakers encompass half of the Americas. That is a huge land mass with incredible biodiversity. Spanish speakers from different areas eat different things and may even have different words for certain foods according to country of origin. They may not even know about certain foods at all.

Without hiring experts in not only science but also culture, and without scientists having the ethics and wherewithal to have comprehensive focus groups centered on the intersections of a population being studied, then you end up with biased tools to conduct your research, skewing your data and eventually influencing policy.

For example, in a study that did not conduct a focus group to discuss common foods eaten by this specific immigrant population, then you end up with questionnaires asking how many quesadillas or Topo Chicos they consume in a week. Firstly, just because Topo Chicos are Mexican doesn’t mean this brand is recognizable all over Mexico. Topo Chicos are a sparking water that is specific to one city in Mexico and are often too expensive to afford, therefore not a good benchmark for water consumption. Secondly, the problem with quesadillas is that they look very different in The United States than they do in Mexico. The American version is made with cheddar cheese sprinkled in a flour tortilla. It may come with sour cream and guacamole. The Mexican version would never come with sour cream or guacamole. It may be made with Oaxacan cheese on a blue corn tortilla stuffed with pumpkin flowers and salsa. The differences in these two are huge in terms of protein, carbohydrates, sodium, calcium, calories, fat, etc. The different ingredients means the term “quesadilla” is not correlated with the same nutritional value as what a Mexican person filling out the questionnaire is actually consuming.

So when a questionnaire asks “How many quesadillas have you eaten in the past week”, this question adds no value. All because of the lack of diversity in higher positions in higher education. White People are not equipped to handle subjects in their blind spots and when there is no diversity, there is no one to point out these biases and preconceived notions.

That was a very generic example. My old colleagues follow me on here and are snitches so I’m leaving out real life examples, but I’ve seen it happen in real life in really terrible ways. And when I spoke up, I was shut down and asked never to repeat that again.

So science is biased and colonized and a huge ethical reason why I discontinued academia for the moment.

Because when science influences policy, the underlying repercussions are that White scientists are influencing policy over Brown and Black bodies.

And yes, the numbers DO lie. And I did not feel comfortable being a part of that.

Thank you Kiona for speaking on this! I’m in conservation genetics and its predominately White and male. They act like they don’t understand me when I say the current conservation system is very colonial and it needs to be dismantled to shift focus on marginalized groups that interact with local species (and have done so for 100’s of years w/o extinction). I have received little help and guidance on trying to find a path towards this type of conversation and have been told I don’t belong in my Ph.D.

I’m always so damn late! We’re just starting a science business to promote research development in southern African in AFRICAN ways, not European ways. Science is elite and has been a very ‘White’ profession even in southern Africa. Things are changing but POC still aren’t taken seriously especially by foreign organizations in African countries. For example, my husband tired to get the foundation he worked for to replace him with a local Mozambican[Kiona: This is how you advocate for people] instead of another foreigner. He found two excellent candidates who were just as (if not more) qualified/experienced as him. The foundation refused saving they were more suited to the internship role rather than research co-ordinator. Can you fucking imagine? They refuse to let a qualified Mozambican academic be in charge of research IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY. Just one example I have of many where people are discriminated against in academia because of their skin colour/previously disadvantaged background. And unfortunately, it’s mostly foreign scientists who think like that.

Academic Institutions Use Their Power To Steal From Indigenous Peoples From Around The World

In addition to introducing bias and not being responsible about their blind spots, academic institutions take advantage of their power and privilege by stealing data from marginalized groups from around the world for their fame and fortune.

Remind me of the museum of Mayan medicine in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. They talked a lot about biopiracy. Western researchers coming in and “researching” Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and stealing those ideas for pharmaceuticals and then not giving any acknowledgment to the Indigenous people that taught them.

This is so true and not only that but in my field researchers have even stolen DNA, blood samples, etc. from Indigenous people. We still test vaccines and drugs in African countries where the compensation for research or access to drugs is so low, people are willing to take more risks. The *entire foundation* of anthropology’s based on White men being “objective outsiders” and describing “savage and exotic” culture. It is an apparatus of genocide. 

Yep. One of the earliest examples of biomedicine in extracting something for a botanical source was quinine. Indigenous people in South America have been using the tree bark (I’m blanking on the name) for centuries to treat fevers but Europeans extracted a ton of it to treat their soldiers and missionaries to treat malaria.

I’ve heard this referred to as “bioprospecting”. One of my professors calls out her colleagues all the time at conferences with they’ll say they’ve learned a magic cure, and she’ll ask if the people who showed them the plant/s have gotten compensation or part of the grant money. It’s a real battle. 

Using Grad Students As A Form Of Underpaid Or Unpaid Labor Gives Financial Benefit To Academic Institutions At The Expense Of Student Rights

They teach us that experience is incredibly valuable in higher education. What they don’t tell you is that grad students being trained to perform cheap or unpaid labor saves professors and universities hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, there are no checks and balances for the advisor, therefore exposing the laborer to unchecked abuse.

Example: I was put on three different research projects where I was used to manage a team, execute the project, gather data, and then analyze it. However, I was not given any of the data to use for my own dissertation.

It’s true I got a ton of experience in statistics, data collection, project management, and scientific writing. What I didn’t realize until much later is that for the cost of just paying my tuition, this lab got a free statistician, a free writer, and a free project manager. Normally people get hired for full-time positions for the work that I did. I saved my professor hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, any paper published as a result of my work would go onto give credit to the University as well as the mentor who would then be awarded grants to pay themselves high salaries.

This normally wouldn’t matter, except that I got zero. Sure, I got the experience. But after using me for five years, my mentor gave me the option of working another three more years or asking me to drop out with a Masters. Her use for me was over. So what good was that experience if I didn’t have the degree to show for it?

As a grad student, we do not have the power to advocate for ourselves since our mentors determine the course of our lives.

Going up against them, you are going up against a tenured position where the rate of dismissal is 2%. Academia is built so that the mentors have full control over the advancement of their graduate students and can choose to end their careers on a whim.

There is no governing body that checks to make sure there is no abuse and unjust uses of power taking place between mentor and student.

And just like any institution, the challenging of the status quo is often stomped out by HR officials so as to keep the power held in those benefiting from grad student labor. There may be an Omsbudsman or graduate school board where students are told to bring such issues to light. However in my experience, there is no confidentiality agreements set up here and those boards go onto discuss these issues with abusive mentors who in turn increase the abuse to those who spoke up at all. Because again, there is no one checking on the daily manipulation tools via gaslighting, verbal abuse, and even physical abuse that mentors use on their graduate students. I’ve seen everything from students sleeping in their laboratories, being banished to basements full of mold, and even having a mentor throw physical objects from her desk at students while shouting verbal insults and threats.

As you can imagine, this leads to high drop outs of those enduring the majority of the abuse, perpetrating cycles of toxic environments and not challenging the status quo.

Thanks for bringing this up! There is actually a quiet movement occurring in the States right now to get the grad students doing the work more recognition for their contribution and more protection. Some universities have already passed a Graduate Bill of Rights and I’m on the University of Houston’s ad hoc committee trying to build one for us. Right now graduate students have NO pathways for help/recourse if their PI is taking serious advantage of them/forcing them to stay in the program longer than they should in order to benefit from their labor. [Kiona: Academic Slavery] Unfortunately, a union isn’t possible in our great state of Texas but a bill of rights is the first step forward.

I had a full doctoral fellowship for four years. When that time ran out, my PI wanted me to work for free indefinitely before he would “let” me do my own dissertation research. He was the department chair. I quit. I didn’t have any other choice. I need to be able to eat! [Kiona] Indefinitely lol ok. He actually said, “you’re an American citizen so you won’t lose your Visa.” Like he hadn’t been stringing along the foreign students as well. It wasn’t uncommon for it to take 10 years to get to defense.

Thank you so much for posting this. I am a White woman and had an awful experience in academia getting my Masters. Just like the Math Prof said, it was the White 50-60 year old woman chair of the department who was so jealous, petty and downright mean to female students. My now best friend was brand new to the United States to get her Masters and this woman made fun of her English, basically told her she wasn’t good enough, wasn’t working hard enough, etc on a regular basis. I worked with this woman for a short time and she treated me terribly as well though not as bad as my immigrant friend. We could never figure out what her problem is, but I’m pretty sure it was just her own insecurity and selfishness. I had one mentor in my entire time in school, 8+ year, who I felt actually cared about me as a person rather than someone to use and exploit to their own gain. Research profs usually just want you to produce for them to help their own careers, they don’t actually care about their students as people. I’m working in industry now and it’s better, I kind of want a Ph.D. to prove to the world that I can do it because everyone underestimates me in my field due to my appearance, but have to wait until I’m older and can handle it better mentally. I had a mental breakdown when my mentor left my University one semester into my masters. I only made it through with support from my partner, my friend that I mentioned, and family. so glad you are talking about this, thank you.

“When this person determines the course of your life” !! !! I’m really grateful that you’ve been highlighting being POC and WOC in grad school over the past 2 days. I almost quit my program 3 months ago because of a White male professor that was exploiting grad students and just being petty in a super problematic way if you disagreed with him. I was super polite in an email to him just addressing some of the things he says and does (and I BCC’d the program directors at the time and thankfully, she was a white woman professor in our department who is always advocating for us grad students…) and because I mentioned his behaviour to him and why it’s wrong, he emailed me back something very rude to the lines of he “will ruin my career” and I forwarded his response to the director as well. Not even an hour later he sends another email to me, with her CC’d (not knowing that she’s been seeing it all) stating (word for word): “____has been exhibiting very problematic behavior. I think her attitude to such situations in grad school would be problematic for her future. If our program is too tough for her to handle, she should reconsider her options in graduate school.” [Kiona: Classic gaslighting technique. When they try to make you feel like you can’t “handle” it] Like he straight up tried to get me to quit, because I politely mentioned his problematic behavior – that multiple grad students in our department complain about. Luckily, I’m still here. And got out of that scenario an extra line of funding (I was 4 years funded – now because of that situation 5. And it is only because the program director – well meaning White women, literally broke down and cried that she wanted me here. Since I’m THE only Black person in my department and all. And she wanted to know “why they all leave”—2 have left and it’s either been because of this same professor I encountered a problem with, or another one that I’ve never had a class with etc.) they literally don’t want us here And I don’t ever have to work with him again. Thank God.

I got my Ph.D. recently from a good institution and I can’t begin to tell you the horror stories I’ve seen…But I wanted to share my own experiences. I started off in a lab of a woman PI and it was miserable. She evaluated the competence of her students based on how long they were in lab and by their productivity…I hated it since I already had a Masters in this field and knew what I was doing so I would finish my work and leave at normal times while the others would come early and spend time on the internet…they would start working after lunch and stay late giving the impression that they worked hard while I was a slacker. I produced the same amount of data and wrote a review in the same amount of time but the PI didn’t like me at all. This resulted in a toxic work env where she constantly asked me what I did going back home so early. One year in I just couldn’t take it anymore so I left. Not only did she publish the review I wrote with another author (I was completely excluded), she called the next PI I joined and complained about me and called me incompetent and lazy!!! Luckily my new PI believed in me and I went on to finish my Ph.D. with him…sorry for the long rant but your post just triggered all those repressed memories and I felt like I had to share. I love doing science and I am currently still working in the field but there are some bad people with tenure out there…I am a Brown immigrant if that matters and my first PI was an immigrant too. She was not at all supportive of any female grad students though…

Also FUNDING. The NGO I work with has mostly female department heads but the overall director is a White male. Coincidence? I think not. He is very aware of the fact that he, as a White male, as a better ability to be seen and heard to get funding from the bigger funding agencies. (He is also very good at what he does, it’s not undeserved.) But he uses his appearance to break down stigmas. He regularly goes to networking events and shakes things up with controversial stances on funding strategies. THESE are the people we need to help break down the system and make it fair. True allies that see it and get it and DO SOMETHING about it. [Kiona: Also. THIS IS HOW YOU ADVOCATE]

Girl. I’m in my Ph.D. program – 6th year – and the fucking trauma and micro aggressions that are present every damn day I’m on campus. I’m studying Indig Lit with an Indig Thesis Committee but even so! Constant pushback and constant person reflection on how to survive this mentally and emotionally well. I read every one of the stories you posted and teared up so much because truth. They be speaking my truths. Thank you/merci chok for sharing these stories today. I needed them.

I haven’t listened to the podcast but wanted to contribute. I got my Masters in Texas & it’s keeping me from getting my Ph.D. My White male thesis advisor told me I need to do research on race & crime since I’m Black & when I told him that was traumatic for me he said I need to learn to compartmentalization better. My GA assignment had me (a Black female) enter lynching data which sounds okay on the surface but was horrible combing thru & it’s the only thing she let me work on. I even had an “ally” tell me she was on my side but pushed me so hard to do things in academia that I wasn’t comfy with so I ended up having severe anxiety attacks. I ended up figuring out real soon that many White academics don’t truly care about the well being of their grad students. They care about producing students so they look good. Even if it means sacrificing our health.[Kiona: I have never heard of a department forcing a Black woman to process lynching data despite her saying NO. Well, I heard it today. Wow.]

Oh I can go on forever about this one. I basically wrote an entire paper without my prof telling me why I’m doing the research he was asking me to do. They only thing he said when I asked what it is for is that I’m getting paid for it. Until after a few months I realized that my own research has been published as his work without him even THANKING me for my help or contribution. That’s robbery in broad daylight.

Wow just like me. I had a 4 year scholarship that the prof couldn’t stop me from getting, but he pushed me to my limit with something which is a very long story and he wouldn’t let me change my supervisor or even university because he was also the graduate director of our dept. and said he would not sign my transfer (which I needed in order to change supervisors). He kept me hostage to do slave-work until I finally quite having gone almost 90% of the way by that time.

The Information Produced In Higher Education Is A Team Effort, Yet Nobel Prizes And Awards Are Awarded To A Select Few.

Every time I see the Nobels in Science, I just think about all the grad students who were enslaved for these White People to win this award. Most of the time the Nobel winner didn’t perform any of the actual science or data analysis. Science is a team effort, I’m not sure why we haven’t recognized that yet.

Probably didn’t come up with the idea either. My PI has his name all over my ideas. They encourage creativity and then steal it for their own notoriety.

This is just like that time my professor/advisor took my idea and gave it to another student to use as her thesis AND let her us MY data to do it!

Saaaaame. I’ve got material on this subject for daaaaayyysss. Academia is broken.

Ive had this exact thing happen. Granted, it allowed me to come up with a much better thesis, but it was still fucked up that my work wasn’t just plagiarized but outright stolen and given to someone else to use. My background is in Sociology and Psychology btw.

Ahhh yes thank you! This is all so real. And this problem is not only with White PIs, I’ve had issues with POC PIs as well. Academia can train you to write, think, and behave like a colonizer no matter your race/ethnicity. It’s so so important for us POC in academia to take care of ourselves and each other in these spaces.

Hello! Thank you for talking about this! It made me think of Candace Pert, who protested this in the 1970s. Her NYT obituary talks about it: you for your work! (Although frankly, the NYT obit downplayed the situation. She discovered the opiate receptor in the brain, and the lab chief took credit for her work and got a prize.) Thanks again for highlighting this problem! 

Most of the time I think getting my Ph.D. was a big mistake. They make you think it’s about the science, and don’t get me wrong, the science is fucking cool, but mostly it’s about the propping up the frail egos of all the men who would be nothing without the people they’re walking all over and learning that all of your scientific heroes are actually giant asses who don’t give a shit about literally anyone. Girl me too. I wanted to be a professor. Now I just want the next way out.

I was reading the posts about the PIs in the sciences stealing work and ideas and was thinking how I had it easier in the social sciences with my advisor…until I remembered another professor in the department. A group of us were taking a class with him and one day he mentioned how he was behind on a proposal for a conference, so that class day was spent getting him references for his paper. A couple weeks later he wanted us to look up references for one of his advisees for her dissertation proposal. That’s when my friend and I put our foot down. I said I wouldn’t be doing any more work for her (his advisee) since the dissertation idea we were supposed to research had already come from me and I felt I’d given more than enough. His advisee was a White woman. My friend and I are both Latinas, and he sent us out of the room and treated us like bad students that day because we refused to do work that didn’t belong to us. I never took a class from him again.

Foreign Students Face Exponential Levels Of Exploitation By Their Advisors Due To Their Disadvantage Of Being Separated From Their Support Systems And Gaps In Cultural And Language Norms.

My thoughts on foreign students versus citizens are not developed because I come from a place of privilege (as a citizen and native English speaker). My perspective is heavily tainted and want to recognize that before I proceed.

Foreign students are 100% abused. Many even spend the night in their labs because they feel that is culturally appropriate. Or they may have a lack of social life or domestic support system so they throw themselves into their work. This not only is unhealthy for the foreign students, but also turns out bad for citizens also. When PI’s compare the work of their foreign students versus the work of their domestic students, they may see a discrepancy of output, often opting into foreign students for that reason.

However, foreign students have to jump through massive hoops with visas and work permits just to be employed and stay in school. They have little support systems and many are getting advanced degrees in foreign languages. In addition, systematically, there’s also a cap on how may hours foreign students can get paid while citizens have an increased cap, therefore having more opportunity to make money.

While foreign students bear the brunt of navigating cultural norms, financial instability, increased work hours, and learning in foreign languages, domestic students carry their own workload in addition to aiding foreign students where they fall short.

This isn’t always the case, but in my experience, I felt a lot of frustration working with foreign students. I loved them as people, don’t get me wrong. But working with them was a double workload for me.

For example, when being hired to be a teaching assistant for a classroom of 300 people, my office hours would be packed with students waiting to speak to me while my colleague’s would be empty, giving her extra time to study. When I started inquiring why students chose my office hours over the other teaching assistant, they would say things like, “I can’t understand what she’s saying.” Despite the other teaching assistant speaking perfect English, just with an accent.

In addition, sometimes a lot of instructions are lost in translation or a professor may not have the patience to speak slower to the foreign student. So I would have to translate, re-explain, and train the foreign student at a pace that was comfortable to them. It felt like a lot of extra work, despite me knowing the hardships the other person faced.

In my old lab, international students weren’t allowed to take holidays like Christmas off, even though the university was closed because it “wasn’t their holiday” but also weren’t allowed to take their holidays of because it was a business day. And most international students won’t stick up for themselves (mainly due to cultural differences, based on the conversations I’ve had) so PIs will do even more to take advantage. Personally, I won’t apply for labs that have mostly international students and postdocs, particularly Asian students, because there’s usually a reason why that PI doesn’t have domestic students and it’s almost never a good one.

I also just want to say one more thing: my university, like many universities, has a high proportion of international grad students, particularly in the sciences. And I’ve straight up heard White male PIs say that “foreign students work harder and produce more than American students” That’s a QUOTE. It rubbed me all sorts of the wrong way. For a couple of reason: international students are often so isolated far away from their families that throwing themselves into the only thing that is familiar to them—their science—is like a coping mechanism. And I think that taking advantage of someone’s coping mechanism in order to reap the benefits of their productivity is fucked up. And on top of that, you’re saying that you don’t value your students have a work life balance which is essential to mental health. So it’s straight up taking advantage. And not caring about the human at all. Sorry to rant about this in your inbox. I’m just really over it

This is true for domestic students. Please keep this anonymous but every year I have to choose between Thanksgiving and winter break. Last year I chose winter, so I got the 25-31stoff and definitely felt “lucky”. This year I’m choosing Thanksgiving. Also, one of my best friends (also domestic) asked her PI for four days off because her sister (who lives abroad with her two kids) was coming back to the US to visit. She was flying into Idaho. We work in Houston, TX. My friend asked her PI for four days off to go see her sister who she sees maybe once every couple of years due to international travel constraints and her PI responded, “do you really think you’ve earned that?”  

100% all of this. I haven’t allowed myself to think about my grad school time much, thank you for giving me a head start. Every time I examine my time I hear my PI telling everyone it was too bad I wasn’t as smart as the Chinese students and I can’t keep on [Kiona: I also can’t imagine what those Chinese students must have been through]

I don’t want to be the White person that is “shocked” by all this. But I am. How is it possible that foreign students are treated like that? Is that even legal??? I have a Ph.D. from a Dutch university. Yes I am White, but we had many POC Ph.D. students in our lab, who are my friends and I am 100% sure these things were not happening. I am certain that also in the Netherlands there are professors benefiting from ideas of their students and YES academia is a team effort (what my professor actually understood very well, I know how lucky I am being able to say that), but not letting foreign students have time off in holidays, paying them less, “forcing” them to work harder like academic slavery…I have to say I never saw that in our lab/hospital. That is just fucked up!

Also US student visas usually do not allow you to work off campus at all, so if you’re at a uni that’s not unionized or where wages are bad or whatever you’re fucked.

All of this. I had two foreign students in my grad program, and it fell on the rest of us to make sure they were understanding everything—especially when we were conducting studies/collecting data. Data analysis was a shit show when the foreign students were involved, though we tried really hard not to blame them. Luckily they were both native Spanish speakers, and we had a lot of non-Hispanic/Latinx fluent speakers in our program.

Yes, and profs feel as though it’s appropriate to e.g. tell a foreign student to come in and grade papers or to do forced research on their freakin’ weekend or on xmas holidays or spring break on short notice just because they can. But they would most definitely not dare to tell a citizen to do such a thing out of fear of getting in trouble one way or the other.

Now trying being a foreign student with perfect knowledge of English speaking like a native (like me). I had the worst of both worlds. I had to do all the work for all the other international students and also got treated like shit because I was a foreign student.

Come on, data analysis is not hard because it is in English. It’s just hard. I’m not a native speaker, but I did my entire Ph.D. in English as does every other student in my country. Basically no one in the academic field is a native speaker in my country. How is it that students without being able to speak English are getting a Ph.D. in the U.S.? And why are you the ones teaching them? All the foreign students (almost a quarter of the students, largest group are Chinese) in my university (for my Masters not Ph.D.) were as good in English as the ‘local ones’. Sometimes it was hard for them to pronounce some of the words, but they knew exactly what they were doing!

The foreign students I worked with were definitely confused about many things in the Netherlands, it was hard for them to adjust and find their way. But doing science was not one of them. And if they didn’t understand it was not me who would have to deal with that. It were the teachers and professors. So I am just unsure of how your system works.

We recently did an informal survey of health in my grad department and found that about a quarter of us had developed or exasperated autoimmune conditions since starting the program, about a quarter of us had developed heart conditions, and about ¾ of us had diagnosable mental health conditions. We also asked people what had happened when they told their advisor and the usually response was “that’s just part of the process” or “your outside issues (like health) are not relevant to your program.” We’re going to do a more formal university wide survey of grad students soon and I expect that things are worse for international students and other people who don’t have the support network to help them hold their health together. This is in a social science dept with a strong social justice/intersectional bent and they still treat grad students as disposable. Anyway thanks for talking about this stuff. It’s really important and I never see people talking about it.

I work in international education (at an English language school with students heading to tertiary) and 100% this is because international students pay more than domestic students, so to get more students in the door most universities lower the English language requirements for courses. Which is completely unfair to EVERYONE—international students struggle because they often don’t have the language skills to get by, but they’ve been told by the university that they do. This is really isolating and often causes them to retreat to either just hanging out with others who speak the same language, or being completely alone. They struggle with the workload but think it’s their fault. Mental health issues are rife in international student bodies all over the world. And it also puts an unfair workload on the other students who need to work together with them—for group presentations, discussions in class, etc. And international students CLEARLY feel this discomfort and take it into themselves and then feel guilty for that, too. So nobody wins. Well, the universities win because $. And when international students fail courses or subjects because of all of this crap, they have to pay to take the subject AGAIN! And the cycle continues. It’s so infuriating and so common.

This is crazy reading this. Myself and quite a few other grad students writing our thesis in Vienna, Austria have also experienced so many of these difficulties. I didn’t know it was so chronic.

So when people ask me if I would recommend getting a Ph.D., can you see my hesitation?

I don’t know how to encourage their dreams and desires to achieve success knowing it is quite possibly a walk into death. I don’t know how to be honest about what they will undoubtedly be subjected to while also screaming for them to do better than I did because I couldn’t continue and promptly left the world of academia after graduating.

We need people who recognize this issue to stay in academia to balance the scale, but often it is so toxic and such a huge health risk, that academia continues to be ruled by people with strong sociopathic and narcissistic mental disorders and also by the White dominating class. It is quite often a threat to life. So leaving a toxic environment is NOT WEAK. It takes a lot of guts, like leaving an abusive relationship, and no one should feel bad for not wanting to return to that.

However, the institution of academia is BROKEN. There is a NEED for a psychologic screening process of mentors and professors to see if they are really equipped and mentally well enough to be in control of other people. In addition, all of them need extreme cultural training in order not to perpetrate violence onto their grad students that aren’t at the intersection of their identities. But most importantly, there needs to be a change in the hierarchy of academia where grad students do have rights. There needs to be a safe passage towards holding abusive mentors accountable with real action.

Regarding diversity, diversity needs to be a requirement. However, enforcing diversity in the form of diversity hires is not fine. Rather than giving incentive for departments to increase their diversity, diversity needs to be the norm and departments punished for not meeting the cultural requirement.

And if you’re a White Person in academia reading this, realize you have all the power to help. Hire Brown and Black people for their ethics and intelligence. Create support systems. Advocate for us. Let us show up how we are, that includes our critiques of your shortcomings, and don’t force us into your ideas of “professionalism” that are really ideas of racism and classism.

I understand that by being a whistleblower, this affects my chances of ever being allowed back in academia. But I feel so strongly about this, that this is the chance I’ll take. I know I’ll be on the right side of history and hope lives are saved in the process.

If you have experienced abuse from a mentor, drop your experiences below. If you have any sources for the higher education experience for other grad students, also feel free to drop them below.


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About The Author

Kiona, Ph.D, M.S., M.A. does not work in institutionalized academia and instead has launched her own initiative in educating through her own platforms. She is in the works of creating a virtual classroom that decolonizes academia and creates a safe space to learn that is accessible to everyone. 

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