Opinion guest column

Unionize for a grievance procedure that puts students first

Every graduate student deserves fair treatment and a healthy lab environment

I enjoyed my first nine months in my lab without incident — I got along with my PI and was nearing completion on a body of work that would result in a first-author publication. But one October evening, things changed. My PI sent an email accusing me of breaking equipment that I hadn’t touched in weeks. When I tried to defend myself, she called me “combative” and called my communication style “unprofessional.” She told me that I was a bad lab citizen, even though as lab safety officer I devoted hours every week to managing lab waste and keeping my labmates safe. My PI made several unreasonable demands in the following weeks, including that we work at least 60 hours per week and respond to Slack messages within one hour during the workday, a rule that completely disregards the fact that students have classes and experiments that prohibit swift responses at all times. When I tried to communicate my concerns, I was again accused of “giving pushback” and being disrespectful.

To resolve our “communication issues,” my PI set up a meeting mediated by a “neutral” third party from the Office of Graduate Education (OGE). Unfortunately, the mediator had already talked to my PI and was biased in favor of her perspective. The mediator tried to frame the situation as if I were an obstinate student who did not respect authority, when the reality was that I was communicating realistic work expectations and advocating for myself in a healthy way. I understand healthy communication because I spent two years at a biotech company under several different managing scientists. My managers confirmed that my communication style was professional and often solicited feedback from me. I was shocked to find that here at MIT, healthy dialogue was apparently unacceptable: the “resolution” of the mediated meeting was that I would obey my PI without communicating concerns or offering feedback. I felt silenced and powerless.

My relationship with my PI continued to deteriorate, and eventually I decided that it was time to find a healthier lab environment. I could no longer even discuss science critically without being told I was disrespectful, making it impossible for me to grow as a scientist. I negotiated the process of transitioning labs over several meetings with my PI and another faculty member. Judging from the experiences of others in my department, I expected to wrap up and leave in two weeks. However, my PI demanded that I stay until I completed a long list of tasks and refused to commit to a concrete deadline until the faculty mediator intervened. They decided I would stay for six weeks. Unfortunately, I had already set up a rotation in the lab I wanted to join. For six weeks I worked in two labs at once, often staying until 10 or 11 p.m. to finish my experiments. I was physically exhausted and frequently felt depressed.

Adding to my distress, my PI cut me out of the writing process for the paper based on my work. We had a mediated meeting to negotiate authorship, but it turned out not to be a negotiation at all. My PI declared that I would be the third author, after the postdoc who would finish the experiments and another postdoc who had performed a single preliminary experiment. I responded that I felt this was unfair, given that I had engineered the strains, developed the assays, and obtained the key results. Furthermore, I was on good terms with the postdoc who was to finish the work, and she agreed that it would be fair to do a co-first authorship. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the meeting was that my PI would have complete control over authorship.

My experiences with MIT’s current processes for conflict resolution and lab transition were strongly negative: I was powerless to resolve the conflict with my PI and I struggled to advocate for myself during the transition period. I support unionization and signed my union card because I believe our union is essential for correcting the systemic power imbalance between students and PIs.

The current avenues available for students to resolve advisor conflicts are woefully inadequate. Students can resolve issues one-on-one with their advisors, or they can have meetings mediated by “neutral” mediators from OGE or Ombuds or by another faculty member. In cases involving harassment or discrimination, conflicts can be reported to the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office. However, all of these “neutral” entities are administered by MIT and are thus incentivized to prioritize the interests of the institution over the interests of individual graduate students. As a result, exploitative and abusive PIs remain in their positions with no incentive to change their behavior, while students are treated as dispensable and may need to switch labs or even drop out of their program to escape toxic situations. 

Unionization will change this paradigm by introducing a more student-oriented grievance procedure to resolve conflicts with PIs. We can win a union contract that contains protections regarding work expectations, harassment and discrimination, and retaliation concerns. If a PI violates our contract, we can file an official grievance. For example, I could have filed a grievance about my PI’s 60-hour workweek demand. Once a grievance is filed, mediation meetings can be used to resolve the conflict. If desired, a union representative (UR) can be present at these meetings to advocate exclusively for the student’s interests and provide support. I believe that the meetings about my advisor conflict and lab transition would have been more positive and resulted in fairer outcomes if a UR had been at my side. In the case that the grievance cannot be resolved through mediation, it can be brought to a truly neutral third-party arbiter. Excitingly, Columbia’s graduate student union recently won the right to neutral, third-party arbitration in cases involving harassment and discrimination. 

In addition to flawed conflict resolution processes, transitioning labs is a messy process that leaves students vulnerable to exploitation by PIs. Recently, the RISE campaign won new guidelines around lab transitions including guaranteed transitional funding and time limits on wrap-up and hand-off duties. Transitional funding decreases the power that a PI holds over a student; I received transitional funding, and it is hard to express the magnitude of relief this gave me. Unfortunately, MIT can revoke these protections at any time. Our union can guarantee that we keep these protections by including them in a contract and can extend these protections to students who choose to switch labs for reasons other than an unhealthy advising relationship.

Graduate students and PIs share a common goal of producing top-tier research. Currently, the processes for resolving disputes are one-sided and do not promote fair or cooperative resolution. A union grievance process is negotiated and agreed upon by both parties — graduate student workers and supervisors — and ultimately ratified by graduate students as a part of our contract. Fair conflict resolution is essential for a healthy workplace, and every student deserves a lab environment where they can learn and reach their full potential.

Help win a fair grievance procedure by signing your union card and voting yes to form our union.

Erin Reynolds is a third-year graduate student-worker in Chemical Engineering and an organizer for the MIT Graduate Student Union.

Maddie Dery is a fifth-year graduate student-worker in Chemical Engineering and an organizer for the MIT Graduate Student Union.

Kaylee McCormack is a fourth-year graduate student-worker in Chemical Engineering and an organizer for the MIT Graduate Student Union.