Committee Member from Hell

From L

There are a lot of reasons I’m a PhDropout, but a HUGE part of my decision to leave academia was the attitude of my advisor and one of my committee members (at an Ivy league school). Both of these professors were men in their early/mid 30s who prided themselves on being super “cool” and super fair with all of the students. Unfortunately, there were subconscious biases in both of them that eventually made them lash out on me. This entry is about the committee member…

I remember getting a bad vibe from him during the lunch with grad students during his interview. He asked us about our research, and when one of the 5th year girls talked about her research on bees, he clearly wasn’t listening and lectured her about how she should be sequencing the genomes of her butterflies. Entirely irrelevant, very perplexing, and we spoke up about it after the interview, but he was the best of the 3 interviewees, so he got hired on.

The first incident was during a small class my committee member taught that was for grad students and a couple of advanced undergrads. It was run like a journal club; during each class, two of us would each have a paper everyone had read, about which we’d lead a discussion. One day I started doing the brief summary of my assigned paper when the professor started aggressively cutting me off, asking questions to the class in a snarky tone, and ignoring me when I offered answers. During that entire class session, he was incredibly demeaning to me and wouldn’t let me finish any of my thoughts. I stood my ground and blew it off, knowing that his wife was pregnant (maybe there was a complication he was upset about?) and that he was waiting on an NSF decision (was his grant rejected again?). Even if something awful was happening in his life, he had no reason to take it out on me, but I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. I get moody when my life is falling apart, too…

I approached my advisor about it the next day, since they were friends. He had the same thoughts I did. Wife? Grant? He closed his office door to call the moody prof and came out half an hour later shrugging and saying the guy had no remorse and that I should approach him myself. I did that Friday at TGIF beer hour. I asked him if we could chat about what happened in class that week and he sat down on a table in the middle of the room full of department members and said “I’m here. Talk.” I started to explain that perhaps I’d missed something about his expectations for leading the discussions, etc. but he cut me off and lectured me about how I’d “disrespected the paper” (because I didn’t go into every tiny detail while summarizing it for a room full of people who’d already read the paper). When I tried to explain my approach, he continued to cut me off and belittle me in front of the entire department. I eventually walked out of the room in the middle of him talking because he got so aggressive and insulting.

My favorite moment was when one of my friends was doing her proposal defense and this guy was on her committee and kept cutting her off in the middle of her talk to fire questions at her in a nasty tone. She almost always had the answer on the next slide and told him to wait, and she’d get to that next. Eventually, her PI took over answering his questions and defending her while she stood at the front of the room smirking at him while he got visibly more agitated that people were turning on him.

He continued to pull this kind of behavior on a regular basis until he left the college and moved to another university. The horrible thing is, he only got aggressive against women in the department who would stand up for themselves. The spineless pushovers and the men were fine, but fiery women who would call him out on being wrong were the victims of his verbal attacks.

He became notorious around the department and nobody was sad when he left. He was supposed to bridge the gap between the two branches of the biology department, but instead of building bridges, he just burned them. Nobody misses him.

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