Today I want to discuss the toxic environment of research labs in India. I am myself an Indian, and instead of sugarcoating things, I take pride in stating the truth as it is. No matter whether you are doing a Master’s degree or a Ph.D., or even if you are postdocs, everyone is facing a highly toxic work environment in research labs. This is mostly created by the lab members themselves including the mentors/ PIs. The situation is the same in almost every research lab in India, including reputed institutions such as IITs.
But before that, here is some background about me: I have worked with labs in four different countries, including India. I have had my primary education, Bachelor’s, and Master’s degrees, and a short postdoc position in India, and earned my Ph.D. in China from SCUT. My lab experience started with my Master’s degree wherein we were supposed to do a short project to obtain the degree.
The levels of torture you will experience in a lab depend on your position. If you are a Master’s degree student trying to gain some experience by working on projects or learning new skills, you are in for a surprise — you can’t learn as expected. You will gain some experience but not the way you thought it to be.
You’ll be humiliated by unprofessional people
Working in an Indian Lab, you are more likely to gain experience in getting humiliated, experiencing partiality, how to be a house help, sometimes racism, and very rarely in lab experiments.
Mostly, master’s students are kept isolated from lab projects. As a master’s student, you will not be provided with any more details about the project even if your senior Ph.D. student or PI needs your help. PI will tell you that you have to do it with a limited amount of information and do not dare to ask more! The reasoning behind keeping the project secret is that they think you will overtake their project.
Lack of Trust
It is unbelievable! A Master’s student who is new in the lab with completely different expertise is suspected to “overtake” the project and is not provided with the full project details. It is based on real events. And, don’t expect any authorship but sometimes you might be lucky to get one when the assignee is desperate for the task but don’t get your hopes up.
You are an over-educated doorman
This doesn’t end here. We all know that Professors have multiple labs, a couple or more for wet lab experiments, and separate computer labs. So, if you are working in a separate lab without any “senior” over there and you wish to take a tea/coffee/lunch break, then you are supposed to lock the lab and hand over the keys to the “seniors”, and take it back on return. Not only this, you will be preparing refreshing beverages/tea/coffee for the Ph.D. students at the very moment they ask for them. And yes, don’t expect any help in return during your experiments. You might even get to hear some heated comments from the PI if you refuse to follow the “orders” given by the “seniors”. Eventually, this leads to a delay in your thesis submission.
I have seen many dedicated students crying and begging their PIs to approve their thesis without any valid reason for delay. On top of that, their PIs show them the power of holding their thesis while the students are helpless.
Ph.D. : The beginner course in surviving bootlicking workplace
Now, let’s move on to the next level in the game, i.e., Ph.D. At this level, for starters, you must choose your role. You have to decide whether you want to be a “torturer” or a “victim”.
The Real-Virtual Assistant with superpowers
As a naive Ph.D. student, you will feel isolated from your lab mates, you will not get any help from your fellows at all, others will try to cut you off, especially the “favorite person” of the PI(Let’s shorten it to “PI’s pet”). If you are not a threat to the PI’s pet, then you are fine. But if you are a “threat”, then you are up for trouble.
In that case, you have two options, one – lick PI pet’s boot, two – just keep working on your own, avoiding eye contact at all cost – like opposing gang members do in movies. If you are perceived as a threat to the favorite person of the PI in any way then your Ph.D. journey will be hell without an escape. You will constantly be humiliated by your PI even if you are working day and night in the lab. The reason is that the PI’s pet is passing wrong information to the PI about you. That way even if you have done quite significant work, it will not be of any value to the “trained eyes” of your PI. I have personally witnessed this multiple times although I didn’t happen to be the threat in this case.
You can be pulled out of your project/authorship anytime without any valid reason but the PI’s pet does not have to work that hard. He only has to stay in the lab till late hours or midnight, then come late in the morning having the keys to the lab. And you are not even allowed to ask him where he was or why the lab is closed or tell him how long you waited.
Judges in the faculty
If you think that the only people you have to deal with are in your own department, well, you are wrong. You will be judged by the other faculty members too. They will judge you on everything starting from appearance and your personal life. If you are a punctual person arriving at the lab on time (which is early, by Indian standards) and leaving on time after completing full working hours (which is also early by Indian Standard), then you will be passed on and judged as an unprofessional and wasted scholar who is just enjoying the life from fellowship amount. Indian labs have a toxic work environment wherein you work till late midnight hours while also coming late to the lab. If you try to leave early, your lab fellows will try to undermine you and your PI will hear about this.
Imagine being in this toxic environment every day, where you are not even certain that you will get your degree or what will happen. Eventually, you get depressed. Ph.D. students have committed suicide just because their PIs kept holding their thesis or their papers. Moreover, you can’t utter a word about your suffering to any other professor or faculty member because you are not supposed to do that. Maybe this is high time we recognize the problem and stop harassing students in the very first place.
Struggles of PI’s pet
You may think that PI’s pets are just enjoying their lives, they don’t work much, and stay happy. This is not true. They have struggles of their own. They have to keep an eye on lab fellows and keep track of what they are doing, whether they are going to publish any high-impact paper, and how can they protect themselves against their imaginary “threats”. Besides, they have to run errands for the PI. Sometimes, pay the bills of the PI, buy groceries, do a pick and drop service for their kids, or sometimes even cook dinner. I have seen many scholars doing all these kinds of stuff just to be in the good books of their PI. Sadly, it doesn’t help them for long. They succeed in gaining the trust of their PIs and later on in manipulating them. But in the end, they receive the same final treatment. Their PIs hold their theses and don’t let them finish their Ph.D. until certain expectations are fulfilled. So, all this hard work is for nothing. You can say “what goes around, comes around!”
Postdoc struggles: You are a Volunteer
Now, let’s talk about another level of torture, i.e., postdocs. In Indian research labs, to work as a postdoc, you have to apply for a grant. If it gets accepted then you will get a job there otherwise you may work without any payment. It is quite common in India that before joining a lab as a Ph.D. student or as a postdoc, you have to work for free till any of your grant proposals are accepted. This period can be anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, sometimes even more. This could be argued as something good too because that way you will get familiar with the lab environment. But actually, this is an opportunity for your PI to judge you before employing you. The parameters on which you will be judged include the above-mentioned points and how much PI’s pet is comfortable with you. I have myself heard some professors saying that they prefer to appoint those (Ph.D. or postdocs) who have worked in their labs for 2 or more years for free.
But you have to keep in mind that you are not more experienced in research than the PIs pet and ‘his fellows’. You will notice that PI behaves differently with you in front of his pet. You might even be subjected to a ‘preliminary test’ in which the PI’s pet is an “expert” and you have to prove yourself by serving free work to the PI. However, proving yourself is not the point here. PI already knows that you are an expert in this task but he wants your help because they are
1. getting the job done without spending any money,
2. making their pet happy, and
3. not admitting that they don’t want to spend money on this.
If you are hired as a postdoc in a lab with such an environment, things aren’t any different. You will be treated the same way until either you learn the art of licking the boots or you finally quit. If you think being to the point, doing your work, and leaving will make things better, then you are wrong. You will still be treated the same way. But it should not bother you because you work, you earn, and live your life. Another problem is that most Professors in such labs are not open-minded. If you try to mention a point or a drawback in their plan or a project, they don’t take that very kindly. This is worst for any scientific studies. You cannot suggest anything, you can’t criticize. They are your overlords. Just nod your head and say “Yes Sir/Ma’m! you are absolutely right!”, and you will be fine.
Do the ritual and you are family
The professors get invitations to write several chapters in books published by journals. It is a common “ritual” in Indian research labs that if you are a new member irrespective of your position whether an intern, a master’s student, a Ph.D. scholar, or a postdoc, you have to write a book chapter for them. This chapter can be from any field of science – irrespective of your experience and expertise. In my humble opinion, you can write a book or a book chapter only on a topic you are an expert in. Contrary to research papers, in books, you don’t say much about other authors or reference things, you elaborately present your ideas in your own words. This is necessary because the purpose of a book is that you are teaching something to others in which you are experienced. Now, it is beyond my understanding how Bachelor’s or Master’s students who have just started to learn their respective fields, who are new to writing even research papers, are supposed to write a whole chapter? and for some, the topics belong to absolutely different domains of science they work in, how can they be an expert in another domain just because they joined a lab?
If you are faced with this, you have two options, either you manage to do it anyway because you need money or you quit the job because you think you will not grow in such an environment. Those who are not working for the sake of money and are passionate about their field of study would eventually choose the latter option. This is not just one chapter or one-time gig, if you decide to continue your job, you will get the “golden opportunity” to write more such chapters. A good leader knows the potency of his team members and assigns tasks to them according to their expertise to get things done efficiently.
The sad truth
Ph.D. students suffer in toxic environments in India and the ones who are making them suffer are sadly one of them. Why? Because it is a vicious circle. You do a Master’s degree or an internship from such labs, you learn to behave like this and you pass it on to the newcomers. This behavior then extends to the faculty level, so on and so forth. Most of the scientific people reading this article can relate to it one or the other way. You can be a victim or a sadist in the same lab. If you are a victim of this environment, then I would suggest you keep working harder in a scientific way, such an environment will collapse under its own weight. Some labs don’t grow and run out of funding, some stop getting students, and some get only losers. So, Keep up your good work and don’t pass on this trait. If you are a sadist, then stop this. It will not land you anywhere.
However, I have seen some very good labs too, where PIs always greet you with their beautiful smile and discuss ideas, allowing an open and professional environment without being too bossy. They won’t force you to work during your internship and will keep good ties with you. I have also worked in such labs in India but for a very short period of time. But such labs are rarest of the rare. Students working in good labs are very fortunate.
Experience outside India
I have experienced things differently outside India. The most noticeable difference is that you are treated with dignity as a professional and expert. You would never hear anyone talking over another. Mentors or PIs talk and discuss ideas openly, they ask for suggestions, and take things positively. The PI has nothing to do with your personal life. If you are walking your dog after your office hour while PI is working hard in his cabin, it has no significance at all. Everyone is treated equally in the lab. All of the members are open to learning new things from each other including the professor himself. You always feel welcomed in the lab, no one judges you based on your personal life or the way you dress. In China, no one batted an eye even when I started praying in the lab (to save time). They were quite respectful and never entered the room in which I was praying, just not to disturb me. You can grow there and do innovative projects, failures are not discouraged. Even if the professor has lots of projects pending, they will always ask you first for your opinion on whether you would like to do something new. They will ask for your permission first whether you wish to get involved in any other project.
Indian research labs need such kind of environment, where researchers can breath freely and be innovative. I hope people find it useful and start focusing on innovation, ideas, and science like an educated society, instead of falling into such a hellhole.