Opinion guest column

The professor is always right

MIT must take action to protect graduate students from abusive professors

MIT is fully aware of abuse, harassment, and mistreatment of its graduate students. It is doing nothing to change it.

“Have you looked at your grades yet?”

Frost coated the office windows on this chilly January day. I offered a passing remark, assuming this to be a simple post-vacation ice breaker.

“No, I mean your grade for research.”

He said it almost with pleasure. A bursting surprise that he could barely hold inside without it spilling out. The face you make right before you lay down a game-winning royal flush.

“I gave you a U for your thesis work this last semester.”

He explained how he was Unsatisfied with my research progress. For reasons unknown, he wanted that reflected on my transcript. That permanent document that follows you your entire career, the one interviewers pore over, looking for red flags. 

I fumbled for a response. I had never even heard of this happening to another student. 

“I do not understand. Our last meeting before break — those pages and pages of derivations — I checked them thoroughly. Not a subscript out of place, not a minus sign missing. You— you told me it went well.”

He agreed with me, but apparently mastering how to navigate meetings with his eccentric style was not enough.

I imagine that all happy advisor-advisee relationships are alike. But those of us less fortunate leave research meetings bleeding a cornucopia of colors.

Each meeting seemed independent from the last. Whatever we had discussed or he had asked for, the next meeting could be about something completely different. It was difficult to develop a path forward with these zig-zag meeting patterns. One incorrect subscript and the entire meeting was derailed. It took a semester to learn the ropes, to grasp how to direct meetings rather than be dragged around.

But it wasn’t just the work my advisor critiqued; he went after me as a person. Over the course of that semester, he said many soul-crushing things to me. He told me he thought I “would never finish my master’s,” that “he didn’t have this problem with any other student.” The worst was when he told me I didn’t “think correctly.” How do you attempt to process a world-renowned MIT professor invalidating the very way you form thoughts?

I met with my department head to see what my options were. There were really only two: find a new advisor in a month’s time, or leave MIT.

It was highly unlikely that any professor would take me on so quickly with a U on my record. So naturally, I wanted to get this research grade officially reviewed. I told my department head that I had documentation of my work. However, I was told if I fought, no other professor would take me.

Not only had my professor tanked my career, he made it almost impossible to find another professor. If there had been a third option, transitional funding, I would have had more time to find someone else, to showcase the kind of work I could do when I was not being constantly verbally harassed.

So I left MIT, left Boston, left my friends and the life I had built. The next year was spent desperately trying to find a job. I sent countless resumes into the black hole of online job applications. I attended career fairs at my universities, did my best to hide the blaring stain of my incomplete degree. Why would they take a chance on me when there was a fresh, shiny new graduate in line behind me? Where do you put the asterisk for your spirit being crushed by your MIT advisor?

One of the hardest parts was seeing my classmates on the other side of the table, giving out jobs rather than begging for one. I took a waitressing job, making very little and wishing every day that I was doing engineering work instead.

A year later, a company finally took a chance on me. I thought leaving academia would be selling out. Let me tell you — it is the exact opposite. It’s a magical world of HR departments, harassment trainings, dental plans, and substantially better pay rates.

After five and a half years, I found a way back to MIT to finish my master’s work. This road would have been much shorter and easier if my advisor had done things differently. If he had discussed options with me, transitioned me to full-time work more gracefully, helped me find another professor to work with.

But he didn’t. To this day, I can still hear my advisor’s voice in my head telling me I don’t “think correctly.” Some scars never heal quite right.

I joined the Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) Campaign to help ensure that my story would not be repeated. Shortly after joining, I heard a myriad of horrifying anecdotes, many similar or worse than my own. Any one thing would be a fireable offense in the professional world, but at MIT, the professors are treated like untouchable royalty.

The amount of autonomy given to professors is obscene. In one case, eight different students from the same research group went to their department, pleading for help from a toxic research environment. Nothing substantial could be done. So instead, these tales of abuse and harassment continue to be passed down from graduate student to graduate student like twisted, clandestine folklore — a warning system from current students to incoming students. Students pulling others aside on visit day and saying, “Do not join this group.”

Some very unfortunate students don’t get these warnings. They don’t know that the “Biggest Screw Award” sitting on a professor’s desk literally means he is celebrated for screwing over students. To some, this is all in good fun, a professor who “pushes” you. But for others, this turns into harassment, and being screwed over means your life falls apart.

To the faculty, to the administration, to Rafael Reif: it is time to get your house in order. We don’t want mass emails with nice phrases, supporting the abstract concept of change. We demand tangible actions — mandatory harassment training for professors and discipline for those advisors who are abusing and damaging some of the most brilliant minds of this generation.

Because that next professor or innovator is sitting in their professor’s office right now, being harassed, being crushed, being destroyed — even after they went to their department, begging to detoxify this poisonous environment so they could attempt to create beautiful research.

And you, truly, are doing nothing to stop it.

The Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) Campaign wants to hear your stories, good, bad, and ugly. Please submit your story, anonymously if you wish, to this form on our website. You can also reach out to RISE for support and to help put an end to this mistreatment at rise4mit@gmail.com. If you support our campaign, please sign our petition.

Editor’s note: This article was submitted to The Tech by Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT on behalf of the anonymous author. An exception was made to publish this piece anonymously, in order to protect the identity of the author and to remove identifying information of those involved in the author’s story.