Feb 29 2012 Published by under advising, faculty, harassment, students

An undergraduate recently wrote to me about a difficult situation. I don't want to reprint her entire e-mail because it might have identifying details, so I will describe the general situation below (I told her that I would do this, and have her consent). I will, however, use the student's term for the professor in question; that is, she uses the term PI, indicating the professor in charge of the lab in which she does research, but not someone who closely advises her research.

This student has been doing research in a lab at a large university for several years, and her work is going well -- so well, in fact, that she recently gave a presentation on her research at a conference. The conference was far from her university, so the various members of the research group who attended the conference stayed in a hotel.  The student was pleased to get to know the PI of her research group better at this conference, as she seldom interacts with him in the course of her research in his lab. Her happiness at attending a conference, presenting her results, and having more interaction with the PI turned into anxiety when he texted her to ask if she wanted him to come to her hotel room one night. She did not text him back, and she has not talked to him or seen him since this incident.

This part is in the student's own words:

I really enjoy the research that I'm working on, and I love the group I work with, so quitting and finding another paid undergrad position seems unreasonable. I wouldn't put it past my PI to never speak of it again, but if he does, I'm afraid I might say something wrong. .. I want to go to grad school and expect to get a letter of recommendation from him in the near future when I start applying.

Have you ever been in a situation like this?  What should I do?

I know that this letter will seem very familiar to those who have experienced similar situations and/or who have read about other incidents like this in other posts. I wanted to post this anyway so that this student can get a range of responses and advice, which I expect may range from "Don't do anything" to "Report him. He's a creep and may be doing this to other students."

Although in some ways the situation is clear-cut (professors should not proposition their students), it is a difficult situation for the student. She has been doing her work, doing it well, and getting excited enough about research to want to apply to graduate school. Now she is worried and doesn't know what to do.

I hate to think about this student feeling anxious when she is doing her research, and worrying about asking this professor for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Will this incident factor into his opinion of the student? Unless the professor proactively apologizes sincerely to the student, says he has never done anything like this before, and affirms that he thinks highly of her work, she is likely to worry about this until she graduates, and perhaps beyond.

The student worries about saying "something wrong" if the PI brings up the incident. If he does bring it up, I think that saying "That made me uncomfortable" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, whether or not he apologizes. It tells him that he crossed a boundary he shouldn't have, and that his behavior had consequences. An undergraduate student shouldn't have to tell that to a professor, but this entire situation shouldn't have happened in the first place. If the student then turns the conversation to research issues and/or career plans (graduate school), maybe they will be back on track with their professional relationships.

Even so, I think it might be worth asking around about this professor, especially if the student feels comfortable talking to others in the research group -- a female grad student or postdoc, for example. If this professor is in a habit of propositioning his female students and creating a climate of anxiety in the research lab as a result, this information needs to get to someone in authority, if not the department chair, then an organization on campus that can provide information and advice. It would be good if the text messages are still on the phone.

But mostly I hope that readers who have dealt with similar situations can provide some ideas and support, to help this student through this anxious time.




77 responses so far

  • Anonnie says:

    This happened to me but at an art school, and two decades ago. (he called one night from a club). I made an excuse and it was never mentioned again. We're friends on Fb now.

    Sounds like the PI got the message. Maybe he was drinking and would prefer to pretend it never happened.

    She's applying to grad school in the near future and she suspects already that he will never speak of it again, so it's hard to get too worked up about. I'd chill. But yes, save the text message.

  • Anonymous Coward says:

    I cant say I have ever been in such a situation, nor would I ever send a female colleague a message like that(Im a guy)...but how I would handle such a situation if I was this girl is this:

    I would ask to have a meeting with the PI in a semi-public location (cafeteria/library) and explain that she doesnt want to jeopardize any relationships with her lab group, cause any drama that would effect her future, or offend the person in question...AND make it very clear that his question made her uncomfortable and was potentially* inappropriate given the PI's position and her status. He may not be aware that he did anything wrong, best way to handle this is diplomatically, but it does need to be addressed.

    *-slight, very slight, possibility that he had other than obvious motives.

  • femalephysioprof says:

    Another approach is to mention (in a semi-public place) something like this: "Dr. PI, I was so excited to present my research at that meeting and to see many scientists in action describing their newest research. Thank you for the opportunity to go to the meeting. By the way, I got a text from you while we were at the meeting. Even though I am sure it was meant for someone else, it was a little strange and made me uncomfortable." This has the benefit of communicating the true excitement the student feels in the wake of the meeting and her discomfort, while at the same time giving the creePI an easy way to save face. This could be communicated during a brief, pre-arranged meeting.

  • Colleen says:

    Granted this was 20+ years ago, but a tenured female faculty member ended up with a bad letter of recommendation this way. She thought being a lesbian was the best excuse ever to turn down advances from a professor, he apparently felt slighted anyhow and wrote her a bad letter.

    Obviously given her tenure status she was able to move beyond it.

  • Femalebiochempostdoc says:

    When I was an undergrad, I did research and was supervised by a male grad student who asked that I be included as an author on a paper that was coming out from the research. The lab head somehow came to the conclusion that the grad student and I were dating (we were not, and I had done my share of the work)--possibly because male grad student was very supportive of my work and paid a lot of attention to my scientific growth.

    At the end of my research stint, I asked if the lab head would be willing to provide a letter of recommendation for grad school. S/He said it was "premature" (despite 2 conference abstracts and a journal paper I had contributed to). I took it as a sign that s/he would not be supportive and moved on to another lab the summer before I applied to graduate school. There, I worked very hard and got great recommendations and got into very good programs. Nobody at interviews asked me about the lack of recommendations from the first prof; it has not affected my progress through graduate school and I have not been in contact with hir. There were also other instances of harrassment in that lab which I did not report, but saw that my future in that group was limited.

    Is switching research groups an option? It's much easier to do this as an undergrad, and possibly desirable, to get a feel for something different before grad school/industry job. I'd also talk to the ombudsperson at your school.

  • anon says:

    She should go to the undergraduate head/director of her department. This person is required to maintain confidentiality and do nothing without her permission. They can better advise. Honestly, I would not expect a lot of useful help since this student is in a bind; if she stops work in the group, it will hurt her grad school applications. I would NOT talk to the PI about this; you don't confront a predator. If you decide to stay in the lab, try and avoid situations where you are alone after working hours (and certainly hotel stays...although having a roommate can help there too). It's a crappy situation and my heart goes out to this student- good luck whatever you decide.

  • biophys says:

    Does the letter-writer have an Ombudsman's Office at her institution? Many schools (including mine) have policies such that if these sorts of situations are brought to the attention of a faculty member or dean, they are required to follow up/alert someone higher up/otherwise do something. But the ombudsman's office is independent, bound by secrecy, and not required to report things but can talk about one's options and help one figure out who to speak with should she decide that is the route to take.

  • Anonanon says:

    If this is the only thing that this PI has done wrong, I'd ignore it. Confronting the PI or mentioning it, even obliquely, is more likely to have a bad outcome for the student.
    But it is certainly worth seeking out (female) allies who might be able to give info on whether PI has a known reputation for creepiness, and to provide support if anything else happens.

  • Given my experience with this kind of situation, I would be astounded if the PI was not aware that this kind of behavior made the undergrad uncomfortable. That it does is a feature, not a bug.

  • DJMH says:

    Eww. Yes, I would bring it up with a TRUSTED grad student/postdoc/tech in the lab, both to get a bead on whether this guy is well-known to be creepy and to have a chance to share her anxiety about continued work in the lab. A decent person will say something like, "Oh crap, that is awful; I will personally make sure that you can avoid dealing with him while you're finishing your research here, and if you are concerned about the quality of the rec letter, I will write an additional one for you explaining the situation. Here is the name/number of a trusted higher-up and you can choose to report this or not, depending on your stomach for it." So, basically what FSP said.

  • Another person in this situation says:

    I would recommend that the student find out if there are counseling services available at her university, and go speak with them about the situation. They should be able to advise her on what the appropriate university regulations are and what the potential ramifications are of any path she might choose, and the safest way to proceed down that path. I did this when a fellow student behaved inappropriately towards me, and I feel that it was the best possible thing I could have done.

    Another option, instead of talking to the professor or the department chair, would be to go straight to the relevant dean, who would be further removed from the action and less likely to have their own prejudices or agenda about that particular person.

    Unless this text message was clearly a mistake (ie, it got sent to the wrong person), I would definitely lean towards reporting it, though.)

  • Pascale says:

    I would, for now, act like I never got the text. PI may be embarassed about it, and perhaps relieved that he hasn't heard anything from the student. If PI brings it up apologetically, several readers above have made great suggestions to accept apology and make a clear return to a professional relationship.
    If PI makes another move of some sort, he's toast. Reporting is risky professionally, but he must be stopped. For this student's sake and for others.

    • Hermitage says:

      I would second the suggestion to ignore the text. I know PIs who specifically make offers to come to student's hotel rooms at night (or just show up), so their student can get in one last practice run before the 'big day'. It could very well be said PI was making a similar offer, and as an oblivious buffoon, did not see the connotations behind it. Or said PI could be a creep. Either way, pointing it out will probably make the person defensive and jeopardize Awesome Letter Writing on the student's behalf.

      • Science Professor says:

        I didn't provide the details, but if I had, there is no way anyone could interpret the texts as an offer to come and help the student with a practice talk.

        • Anonnie says:

          Sounds like you left out some crucial details for interpreting the situation...

        • Charon says:

          You absolutely left out crucial details then. I was recently at a conference with an undergrad I'm supervising (I'm a postdoc), and they [opposite gender of me] asked to come to my hotel room... to pick up their poster. (For various reasons I brought both our posters in my tube.)

          Stories like the one you related, along with the associated reaction, are why I was so uncomfortable with this. Wanting to avoid even the appearance of the appearance of impropriety. Of course it was fine because they just picked up their poster and then we walked over to the conference.

          But you leaving out crucial details makes people like me freak out over completely innocuous things.

          • Anon says:

            This is enough information for me: "he texted her to ask if she wanted him to come to her hotel room one night"; that, and that the student is worried about the repercussions of her not responding to this text. The examples of benign situations are unconvincing; so what if an undergrad asked a postdoc to stop by their room to pick up a poster. Was it late at night? Was the student alone? Did the postdoc ask to go to student's room at night? It doesn't sound like it. So how is that the same as a professor inviting himself to a student's hotel room at night?

  • anonomouse says:

    I say no confrontation with scumbag PI. It gains you nothing at this point.

    You can talk to a person in a position of authority, but in certain situations at certain institutions, such as potential sexual harassment, they are required to report events. Failure to report such an event can lead to pretty serious legal issues. Of course, your mileage may vary with this advice and I am a not a lawyer.

  • bam294 says:

    As a female RA, grad student and post doc, I was often asked by various male and female PIs to meet them in their hotel suites and even homes when their spouses were out of town. This sounds totally sketchy, but the hotel suites were times when I found other students and techs were going to be there. I have to say, I still didn't love being in the room where the PI slept. I wonder if anyone else was invited and perhaps she didn't know?

    I agree wholeheartedly that the hotel room is not a cool place to meet your PI and I don't go to the rooms of my students (and vice versa) at meetings because everyone needs their space.

    I would NOT go to the head of the undergrad program nor would I talk about it in the lab or with other students - then you will look like you are on a smear campaign. If work is going well, you are just smacking a hornets nest and making a whole lot of trouble for someone who never actually asked you to have an inappropriate relationship. An awkard encounter in a hotel room to save the cost of going to a bar, perhaps. A thoughtless suggestion from someone who should know better, absolutely.

    You not texting him back sent a message. If its now awkward, bridge it.
    If its shaking you to your core or you really have a bad 'vibe' I agree with folks to handle it in a causal manner, something along the lines of "I'm sorry I couldn't meet you upstairs after my presentation. I was pretty beat and I hope you had fun with the other folks who were able to come" If he says, "it was just you" The take the opportunity to say, "then its really good I didn't come, because that would be an awkward situation for me and I really value this relationship."

    You may also want to start posting pictures of you with a large male friend carrying his weapons and talk him up as your boyfriend.

  • Anon says:

    Pascale is right, If PI makes another move of some sort, he's toast. She has the text recorded in her phone, she should keep it.... so she will have proof if needed.... Hopefully it was a one-time-thing and it will not happen again, but she needs to be prepared....

  • Anon says:

    Why does this guy even have her number? Perhaps this is the only thing he's actually done so far...I'd be very leery.

  • annakarenina says:

    Do talk to an undergraduate advisor;even if you decide to do nothing, as it sounds like you want to, it's great info for them to have on some sort of confidential record. It may have happened already, or it might happen again, in which case it goes from a (temporary) slip of judgement to a pattern....

    • anon says:

      except that that kind of "confidential record" doesn't do as much as people think. Unless you are willing to write it down, it doesn't exist. I thjink it is to protect the rights of the person you accuse; they have to have a chance to refute it. Or so I was told when I dealt with a similiar situation; the supervisor I was reporting had a long history of identical behavior with many people, but none had documented it properly and so this person had no record of misbehavior (and it was known by folks).

  • former post-doc says:

    Conferences are fun, but they also have a tendency to make these situations occur. Something about "not being at home in the lab but out and about" that brings out crazy behaviour.... and not all the time it's obvious for the "higher rank" to realise exactly how stupid and unacceptable their behaviour is.

    If the text is the only time the PI has approached it and made a comment like that, I'd ignore it and make the most of forgetting it and not waste energy worrying. (I know though, that it's hard to do.) I had this happen to me by my PI, he asked me to come to his hotel room and have drinks etc... I felt uncomfortable at the time, but honestly don't think he really got the inappropriate wibe, although it would pretty obvious to me that you don't invite a 28yo woman to your hotel room if you're the higher ranked and older male etc...

    I never mentioned it, he never asked again, end of story.

    I'm not sure that the letter writer will benefit from bringing it to someone else's attention UNLESS this is something that he's done before or will repeat. I might check with other females to see if this has happened, but more likely than not, I'd do nothing. Wait until you're out of the lab, then maybe bring it up with people in charge...

  • John Vidale says:

    I'd recommend the semi-cowardly approach of emailing him to say his message crosses a line PIs should not cross. Perhaps it is gentler to take the approach of informing him with the assumption that he just doesn't know the rules. And detailing the situation to the appropriate watchdog in the department, again, lacking evidence to the contrary, taking the tack that she thinks he just didn't know any better. And telling him that she has done so. An in-person discussion could be very awkward.

    It's important to get the issue on the record in case future (or previous) cases come to light - the appropriate action the current problem warrants is not clear to me, and probably depends on details I don't know. It's important, though risky, that he know it is on the record so he thinks twice before trying it again.

  • DRo says:

    I would stop by his office without warning, and tell him you are very interested in graduate school. Ask him which programs he would recommend. Then ask him if he would be willing to write a supportive recommendation letter for you (do not forgot to specify *supportive*). If he says "yes of course", I would take his word for it that he will write a good letter. If he hedges at all, I would find other potential letter writers.

    I would not bring up the incident during this meeting. If he doesn't bring it up, let it go. He will probably be relieved to see that you are ignoring it and will never attempt anything with you again (I am going on the assumption that he had been drinking before texting you). If he brings it up to apologize, say "yeah, it made me uncomfortable but I figured it was the alcohol talking". Then let it go. If he brings it up to make another pass at you, take it to the chair and dean.

    A few other commenters have suggested that maybe he didn't realize what he did was wrong. Unless he is very very very old-school, I seriously doubt this is the case.

  • Anonymous says:

    I second DRo's advice. And I would go farther and recommend *not* talking to other people in the department about it (including the chair, the undergrad advisor, grad students etc.). As an undergrad (or grad student, or junior faculty member), you do not know the political undercurrents - who is allied to whom, etc. - and reporting him could easily backfire. What he did was wrong and inappropriate, and he should be stopped, but it is too risky for an undergrad. Get your letter, get out, make connections with new people in your grad program so you don't have to ask him for any more letters, put him down as a conflict of interest on your proposals and manuscripts.

    (And if you are concerned about some future legal biz down the road, by all means keep the text and tell someone *outside* the department.)

    • anon says:

      if you're worried about internal conflicts/problems, you can go to your dean- I was not suggesting what the next step after talking was, but keeping the text is not good enough to have this on the record.

  • Anonymous says:

    I would definitely save the text, seek advice from the graduate counselor's office, or whichever office is responsible for sexual harassment situations like this, keep everything confidential until she graduates, and not seek a letter from this creep.

    The truth is, if he thinks he can sleep-and-get-away with an undergrad when he is the PI of the lab, he cannot possibly respect her professionally, even though being excited and successful at work she deserves that respect, support and mentoring. Realistically, do you really think he is going to write a glowing letter for someone junior, who he thinks more as a girl-to-sleep-with than a successful young scientist-to-be, particularly after she has not returned his advance? I have tried in vain to work with senior men in my field who had made advances at me, no matter what I did, his interest always boiled down to whether he could sleep with me. Once he realized I was never going to do it, the interest disappeared. This happened consistently in two separate harassment situations. Creeps like this have one-track-mind and remember, he gains nothing by writing her a letter, unless he uses it as some form of control to get her to say yes.

    I have known other female students/postdocs who got burnt this way. Some reasons why reporting is important: (i) she feels she has done something about it (ii) she cannot get harmed if she insists that the report stays confidential (it is her legal right) (iii) leaves a documented trail should he try to predate her again. It might be important for her to get some written acknowledgement of her report and condition of confidentiality from the office for sexual harassment as well, so they keep to their toes.

    Confronting a predator *never* works. He will likely deny everything, feel threatened, blame her (almost always this happens), and bad-mouth her to the lab to save face.

    Hope my two cents of experience in this mater helps.

    • Anonymous says:

      Sorry, I meant undergraduate counselor's office, i.e., whichever office is responsible for dealing with sexual harassment situations undergrads face. She must make it clear and maybe get it in writing that her goal is to report confidentially to leave a record of the incident, get advice on how to proceed, and not have the report made public as she is worried about retribution.

  • DrDoyenne says:

    The PI doesn't know he crossed the line, in this day and age? The text message was sent in error, asking to come to a student's hotel night? I don't think so. Even if he had been drinking, his actions reflect his intentions toward this student.

    I think it's much more probable that this PI has done this before (than this being the first time or an error). He may even have been successful in the intimidating some other unfortunate student into going along with his request. If challenged, he has likely claimed that the text message was innocent or sent in error---as several respondents here seem to be willing to believe. Never being reported is how such predators persist.

    I don't recommend talking to this PI alone, even in a semi-public place. She needs a credible witness if she decides to confront him (and that's how he will interpret her actions no matter how much she says she enjoys doing research in his lab). Also, don't think about secretly recording any conversation, as this may be illegal. This type of situation calls for someone professional and in authority to help this student. Without such protections, she should avoid meeting with him or trying to handle it on her own.

    I don't recommend "asking around", as this may put the student in danger of being charged with slander.

    If the student can get letters of reference from someone else in the lab or department, she won't have to rely on this PI (and at this point, I doubt he's going to write her a glowing letter). Also, we're talking about an undergraduate here, not a post-doc for whom a letter from the PI is more expected.

    Timing is critical if the student chooses to report this. She can't wait until after the PI writes a bad letter (or kicks her out of his lab). It has to be on record beforehand.

    Bottom line: if the student decides to take any action, she needs to get professional assistance from someone in authority...and soon. If not, she should wrap up her work in that lab as quickly as possible and move on.

    • Anonymous says:

      Agree very much with DrDoyenne. I have learnt the same the hard way. This is also a test of the institution on how they handle the students rights. I do not agree at all with some commentators here that his text could have been innocent, though I am surprised he sent a text rather than a phone call, as now there is a record.

  • John Vidale says:

    I don't buy the "too risky for an undergrad" attitude. Undergrads are small in the power structure, but when they have a deserving message, the Chair and ombudsmen should listen. In all likelihood, the PI will listen to a message delivered in a well-intentioned, non-confrontational way.

    The undergrad would rise in my estimation should they effectively deal with the situation, and failing to report it only compounds the problem. At some level, people need to take responsibility for making their environment the way it should be. Some of the most valued and highly recommended undergraduates in the programs where I've taught are the ones who attack tough problems constructively.

    • anon says:

      "At some level, people need to take responsibility for making their environment the way it should be"

      I have to say, as a student who has been in a situation like this, I HATE when people say that to me. We always give that direction to the people with no power; why should I sacrifice my career before it even starts to report someone- who probably will remain in their job? This student is supposed to report her undergraduate advisor for the good of future students/others- and then what? She will lose the ability to get that rec letter and will be a much less competitive applicant to gr adschool. This is the kind of change that must come from the top down. My advice (which I was given) is to do what you need to do to get through this with your career intact. Get it on the record, confidentially, at least.

      • postdoc says:

        Yeah, but at a certain level, this is life: we have moral obligations, and it's not always fair. Not everyone escapes unscathed.

        In this particular instance, however, I would definitely try talking confidentially to the higher powers first.

        • Anonymous says:

          Anon student who has been harassed, you are right. Why should we risk our career to change the system. I think the key thing is to protect yourself. That is why I recommend to report confidentially to the neutral undergrad higher-up who IS responsible for your safety. Your right to confidentiality, including whether steps should be taken or not, is a legal right. Exercise it. Not reporting anything tends to compound the problem, as the creeps do not go away, and when you try to report the fifth incident, people tend to not take it seriously and ask "why now?" There is waaaaay too much victim blaming going on in academic as well as popular culture. So confronting the predator is both risky and unproductive. But laws of harassment reporting should protect your confidentiality as well as whether they should take action (not sure about the taking action part, but I think I am right on this one too).

        • anon says:

          same anon: you assume that we have the power to make a change; we face a heavy cost and have little to no influence. Given that, why should we bear that cost?

  • David says:

    keep the text and tell an undergraduate advisor and as soon as you apply for something else have that advisor (or someone in that persons network) discover if the written letter in negative in anyway that displays the PI held a grudge.
    The student need not see the letter but someone in power should to determine if the PI was nasty.

  • John Vidale says:

    There seems to be confusion in posts about whether (1) the message is likely to be an inadvertent error, or alternatively (2) a complainant should give the offender the benefit of the doubt in allowing the possibility that it is inadvertent. My posts, at least, were advocating the latter for diplomacy, while interpreting that the situation is most likely not the former.

    It seems a legitimate question, however, whether the offender realizes the seriousness of the situation. Many people are prone to engage in risky behavior, apparently without considering or understanding the implications.

    • nonymous says:

      There's a difference between pretending you believe it was sent in error, giving everyone an out, and naively believing the same. I think the advice is act *as if* she thinks it was sent in error. This way, if something additional happens she has a documented history (saved text), and if nothing happens, she hasn't invited an unnecessary backlash.

  • anon says:

    For context: I was in a similar, though not identical, situation when I was in grad school. It really sucks. (FSP, have you ever had a poll to see what % of trainees have been propositioned by a supervisor, or something along those lines? No one ever talks about this in person, but online it seems as if it's happened to an awful lot of us (although there is a serious sampling bias...). I'd just be curious to know how widespread the issue is.)

    First of all, I hate the part of the e-mail where the student says she is afraid she might say something "wrong." *He* is the one who said something wrong. I know what you mean (that you might affect your letter of recommendation, etc.), but for the record, there's pretty much no 'wrong' response here: you can ignore him, cuss him out, tell the chairman, tell not a soul, etc., and those are all valid.

    In my case, I talked to the PI and told them it made me uncomfortable, it was inappropriate, etc. etc. I thought that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. He apologized very sincerely...and then proceeded to do it again a few weeks later, and again after that. So although that strategy is perfectly logical, it doesn't guarantee that the behavior will stop. However, I know that he still wrote me good letters even after this incident (I saw one of them at one point, and I was also repeatedly told by others what great letters I had, etc.).

    In an ideal situation, I would love it if there were a faculty member that you felt you could confide in, but this is unfortunately also very tricky unless you know someone very well (departmental politics, etc.).

    There is no right answer, but I think I would take the advice of femalephysioprof, but modified slightly. She suggested saying, "Dr. PI, I was so excited to present my research at that meeting and to see many scientists in action describing their newest research. Thank you for the opportunity to go to the meeting. By the way, I got a text from you while we were at the meeting. Even though I am sure it was meant for someone else, it was a little strange and made me uncomfortable." . I think her wording is very clever, but I would amend her suggestion to do this by e-mail instead of in person, just so you have a written record of what you said and a written record of any response from him.

  • LegalEagle says:

    I just took my University's module on sexual harassment, and so I'm coming at it from that perspective. My advice is to tell the young woman in question to just ignore it, except to politely decline the offer and request for it not to be made again, in a manner in which PI cannot deny.

    PI's actions wouldn't qualify as sexual harassment under the rules, as making an advance is not harassment in itself. Now if that happens repeatedly after the person in question has made it clear such advances are not welcome, then this definitely is hostile environment sexual harassment. That's why it's important that she tell him clearly and that she make sure it is documented.

    The only question is whether the institution itself has rules against workplace romances. Mine does, but only when there is a direct supervisory role. Here, PI does not have such a role.

    • Anonymous says:

      Definitions of sexual harassment vary from institution to institution.

      • postdoc says:

        Definitions of sexual harassment do not vary that much under the law. This is a fairly clear-cut case because he is her superior.

        • Anonymous says:

          At my school, if it isn't quid pro quo, it isn't harassment. It's not explicitly quid pro quo. If he refused to write a good letter for her, then yes definitely, but he hasn't done that.

          (I'm not arguing that it shouldn't be harassment, just saying how it would be treated at my university).

          • A says:

            You should realize that your university has an unusual definition of sexual harassment. And I'm not basing that on comparison to just one or two other universities.

    • Femalebiochempostdoc says:

      Making advances is considered sexual harassment at my school.

      • A says:

        Hopefully this just applies to those in superior/advisory capacities? Otherwise a grad student asking out another grad student (once, politely) is sexual harassment. That would be freaky.

  • Anon says:

    Not to be a huge downer, but she may just want to get the heck out of dodge.

    If she reports it, or asks around, or even if she says nothing but this PI does this kind of thing regularly, sooner or later someone will question if he wrote a nice letter for her because of some kind of weird favoritism, or because she threatened to go public with this if he didn't. And that's ignoring the uglier possibility that he's not just a creeper, but a sociopath of the sort who would pretend to write a nice letter and then say nasty things because he had his ego bruised from the rebuff.

    In other words, there is a significant (albeit not precisely quantifiable) chance her Awesome Letter just when up in a poof of smoke through no fault of her own.

    The implications of this for those of you who serve as gatekeepers and who rely on letters of recommendation are left as an exercise for the reader.

  • Respisci says:

    Great question FSP and a variety of suggestions for the student.
    I have a question for the faculty members/supervisors--what would you do if this was a student in your department who came to you for advice regarding one of your colleagues? Would you discuss this with your colleague? Report to your department chair? Tell the student "to let it go"?

  • anon says:

    In response to Respisci, if a student told me about this incident in confidence, I would respect that confidence and never discuss it with anyone, especially the accused colleague. I would advise the student (and also do this myself) to look into meeting with an ombudsman to determine the best course of action, and I would offer to accompany the student to this meeting if she felt she needed the support.

  • anon says:

    Great question, Respisci. It depends on the exact circumstances, but I would:
    - assure the student that I am on their side
    - would offer to go with them to speak to the Chair and/or the Office of ___ at the university that handles such things, and/or would offer to speak to the Office of ___ about it as an anonymous complaint in order to best understand what the students options are without them having to come forward
    - if they, for example, need a letter of recommendation from this person, if I knew them well enough to do so I would offer to write them a letter as well if this would help alleviate some stress
    - i would NOT talk to my colleague about it unless the student specifically asked me to (seems unlikely?), and even then I would incredibly incredibly reluctant to do that without involving the Chair or the Office of ___ in the exchange.
    - I would not tell the Chair or the Office of ___ without their permission *unless* there was reason to be concerned for their safety, in which case I would talk to the Office of ___ immediately and enlist their help as to how to proceed.

    Admittedly, in most cases none of this may actually help...anyone have a better approach?

  • fizzchick says:

    I'm going to N'th the recommendation to talk to an ombudsperson. There is usually one for the university as a whole, or sometimes separate ones for undergrads/grad students. They are trained, they know the specifics of your university, and they will keep things confidential. Random faculty, even trusted ones, are not likely to have the training or resources to deal with the problem. Student counseling services would be another good option - again, trained, confidential, and know who to point you towards for other university-specific resources. Finally, some schools have a special committee that deals with sexual harassment and/or discrimination. Members of that committee are likely to have received special training, and again, will know the procedures.

  • Anonymous says:

    Unlike others who think that this might have been an "one off" example of bad behavior on the part of the PI, I think it is far more likely that he has done this before or something similarly creepy. As has been seen in the comments and in recent episodes in the news, people don't want to believe that this type of stuff happens. It does, and fairly regularly. Folks will rise up to defend the perpetrator with "I know him and I don't believe he would do something like this." Recall the number of people who defended Herman Cain with such remarks. Well, perpetrators do not do this behavior in front of their friends, they choose victims that have less power and less of a voice. It is this backdrop of society being willing to ignore or explain away bad behavior that makes the victims feel so alone and ashamed (wondering why they got singled out as a victim).

    She was able to avoid a potential sexual assault by simply not answering the text message. I don't think that she should put herself in a situation where she is alone with this man because she many not be so lucky the second time.

    I do not think it is a good idea for the student to confront the PI, either in person, or via e-mail, without first talking to someone else about her situation. This could be another faculty member that she trusts or someone in the administration (undergrad advisor, Dean, etc.). Hopefully, she does still have the text as evidence. As other commenters have noted, they cannot take any further action without the student's permission, but there will be a record of what happened.

    If the student does choose to confront the PI, it should be done in a public place (again, I would avoid being alone with him at any time), or with someone else specifically present as witness to avoid a "he said/she said" situation. I think it is very unlikely that the PI will just apologize and things will go back to the way they were before. If nothing else, how could the student ever trust him again anyway after this has happened? No matter what he says, how could she trust that he would write her a good letter after this has happened?

    I think the best thing she could do is to find another faculty member who she can trust and tell her (or him, but I'm thinking a female faculty would be better) about the situation and strategize how she could still get good letters of recommendation from other people, in addition, or instead of her PI's letter. I have done this for a student in a similar situation in the past. The student was in a bad situation with her PI (I can't go into details because they might be identifying), but had done outstanding work and needed letters for graduate school. I was familiar with her work because I'd seen her present and she had been a TA for me, so I was able to write her a good letter with specific evidence of her accomplishments. In my letter I also explained that I had advised her not to seek a letter of recommendation from her PI because there had been friction with him that was entirely beyond her control. I did not go into any further details about the situation, but left it at that. The student did get into graduate school. Although this is only n=1, I think this approach worked. I'm sure my student got into grad school based on her accomplishments, as this student will as well. So, I think finding someone else to write a letter for her like this would be the best solution.

    In response to Respisci, besides writing the letter for the student mentioned above, I did encourage her to report her situation to the Dean. She did not want to, so there was really nothing I could do other than what I did. I advised her to quit his lab, which she did. I certainly did not confront my colleague; I did not want to provoke the same kind of behavior from him towards me, and I was untenured at the time. I couldn't really go to anyone higher up because I only had second-hand information.

    This is why situations like this are so frustrating. It would seem like there should be a straightforward way to deal with what is clearly bad behavior, but in practice, it is very complicated and difficult for the victim to do so in a way that doesn't have further harm as a consequence.

  • John Vidale says:

    Respisci, I think anon at 15:21 has it right, offer the student a range of options, including accompanying the student to talk with the relevant authorities or talking to the offender, either citing the incident or without attributing the tip-off.

    If the student prefers not to raise the issue, it is trickier to take any helpful actions. As anon @ 13:33 said, even telling the guy he did wrong may well not curb his bad habits. Only the threat of the wrath of the Chair or ombudsman is likely to help, and some are incorrigible.

    Re anon@ 16:08 "This is the kind of change that must come from the top down." I think it is clear that the problem is not at the top in any of the places I've worked, UCLA and UW. The ombudsman will come down with a heavy hand if warranted. The problem is identifying where problems lie, and keeping department culture proactively working on it. Without the student speaking up, nothing will happen. And most of us faculty want to hear where the problems lie, and gain respect for those who help us address them.

  • DrDoyenne says:

    The following is the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition of sexual harassment:

    "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment."

    Sexual harassment is considered to be a form of sex discrimination.

    The EEOC takes into account the entire record in determining cases. This student's experience (a single incident) might not be deemed harassment unless the PI persisted or did something in retaliation....or had done this to others and there was a record of it.

    Because it's usually employers, not individuals, who are held liable, an institution would likely want to take steps to stop any harassment or prevent it (usually). For the individual victim, however, reporting can have negative consequences, as several people have pointed out.

    My answer to the question raised by Respisci: If the student reported this incident to me, a supervisory employee in a Federal agency, I would be obligated to take action (at a minimum, report it), even if the student later said she did not wish to pursue it. Failure to do anything could land me in very hot water (or worse, if I did the wrong thing). In this case, I would immediately seek the advice of someone in the EEOC or my agency grievance office as to what I should and should not do...and to establish a record that I responded to the incident.

    For those who might be asked for help in such a situation, here is more: "It is not uncommon for alleged harassers to file libel and slander suits. Information should only be shared on a need-to-know basis. If someone you work with brings a complaint to your attention you should immediately refer them to one of the grievance officers and advise them not to discuss their complaint with others. Document all conversations carefully!"

    This is one of the reasons I carry professional liability insurance.

  • a student says:

    This only addresses part of the issue, but might help with some of the concern regarding the effect of the incident and any subsequent action she takes on a potential letter of recommendation. Since you state that the student appears not to work terribly closely with the PI, whether there is someone else (maybe a post-doc) who is a more direct supervisor who could write a recommendation letter instead of her needing to ask the PI. This might be better even without any potential weirdness from the PI, if there is indeed someone else in the lab who can speak more specifically to her work habits from direct experience interacting with her. I know when I applied to graduate school, one of my letters came from a post-doc who was my immediate supervisor in a lab I worked in, since I spoke to the professor who ran the lab maybe 5 times the entire year I worked there. In fact, one of my other professors (who did know me quite well from several courses and field work) advised me against asking the head of the lab if I could find someone else even in my case all these interactions were very positive, since apparently this person was known for writing very generic, form-letter style recommendations, which is unsurprising given how little he actually interacted with the undergraduates in the lab. I ended up getting in to the majority of the places I applied.

  • SS says:

    This female student should just move on. Stuff like this happens. I have lost count of the number of times a female student who didnt know jack shit tried to score points in my course based on her looks. One person actually tried to dance in my office; I kid you not.

    So, please dont use this incident to harp on your beloved issue of female victimhood. There are enuf female students out there who happily whore for points, just like there are male PIs out there who are total creeps and pervs.

    • Female Science Undergrad says:

      Excuse me, but I'm not going to just get over it. Just because this "happens all the time", it doesn't make it right. This is my livelihood, my career, and my future I'm concerned about here, not my feminist ego, so I'm going to treat it seriously and I don't think I should be criticized for that. I would expect the same advice could be applied to a male undergrad but you just don't see the roles reversed nearly as often enough to earn stereotypes. Whores and creeps may be present in the workforce, but it's aggravating that you could suggest for a second that I should not care about my personal professionalism.

      • SS says:

        Dear FSU,
        I never criticized you for a second! My criticism was directed at FSP and her obsession with how women are so called victims forever. I pointed out to her and her band of feminist followers that women readily use their looks for points as well. Feminists want us to believe that academia is all about sexist, creepy men who professionally and sexually exploit innocent, blameless women.

        As for you specifically, I totally sympathize. A 100% of the blame is on your pervy PI. Your case sucks. But, it isnt a fair world. Sometimes the candy machine eats your money. It sucks. Your PI sucks. Many bosses suck. You are probably not very old. Treat this as a first life lesson. Move on.

        By the way, if this episode pushes you out of academia, consider yourself lucky. You escaped the Phd trap and the postdoc scam. There is no professional community so despicable as academics. These are the lowest of the low, either they will eat you alive or make you one of them.

        Escape NOW! Find a job that suits your skills. Start a business and use your ideas to create wealth. Innovate. Dont leech on society like academics do.

        Live long and prosper. Best wishes!

        • Anon says:

          SS, you are being brainwashed by imaginary beings based on your own definition of feminist, not reality. Also, I truly don't get the logic of your supporting victims of harassment but not others who try to support them.

        • Cara says:

          What absolute garbage. Your misogyny is showing, troll dude. Better tuck it in.

  • sciencecanary says:

    A female student dances in your office and others try to score points using their looks so it's OK if male professors proposition their female undergrad advisees? Logic fail.

  • [...] The short version of the post: an undergraduate student was propositioned by her PI while at a conference by text.  She ignored the text, but is not sure how to proceed.  The comments section on the post is really interesting, with a lot of advice. [...]

  • John Vidale says:

    DrDoyenne accurately states that in many situations advisors are legally obligated to respond, but the legalese admonition "It is not uncommon for alleged harassers to file libel and slander suits. Information should only be shared on a need-to-know basis. If someone you work with brings a complaint to your attention you should immediately refer them to one of the grievance officers and advise them not to discuss their complaint with others. Document all conversations carefully!" is cumbersome.

    I'm fairly confident that only a small fraction of reports lead to slander cases. Certainly, if the grievance officer is readily available, go there first, but talking the incident over with other mature people is the normal response, and the natural way for a community to define norms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. To immediately cloak the response in secret, protracted, and legalese procedures may be necessary for a very screwed-up situation, but often the resolution can be simpler and more effective.

    • DrDoyenne says:


      The legalese quotes were taken from a university website providing advice for staff as to how to respond to these situations (sexual harassment). I think the advice is good, however unfortunate the need to be concerned about legal ramifications of one's actions.

      I agree that it's more natural for members of a community to want to help someone in trouble...and that would be my preference if someone came to me for help. But in cases of potentially illegal or criminal acts, it's advisable to refer that person to someone who knows the rules or has the authority to act or at least get the advice of that authority before proceeding.

      I was confronted once with a possible criminal situation in my lab (reported to me by a technician) and fortunately sought the advice and go-ahead from the campus police and a university administrator before initial inclination being off-base, although it seemed to me to be the "right" thing to do at the time.

      • John Vidale says:

        Perhaps there are two sides to the issue - (1) how to deal with enforcement of laws against criminal activity, and (2) how to foster a community that behaves according to modern standards.

        Often actions fall in the grey area between illegal and simply awkward, although this case seems actionable, if accurately depicted, depending on the rules at the particular institution.

        My waffling is an admission that I think the "right" thing can be a matter of perspective and opinion, and I tend to prioritize healing and collegiality over following the letter of every law, perhaps unwisely, although it has not led me into trouble yet.

        • Cara says:

          If you're a man, I submit that there's no way that could lead you into trouble. It could do a lot of harm to women, though.

          What looks like "healing and collegiality" to a man looks and feels like business as usual to someone who's being denigrated by the same "collegiality" that allowed the PI to think he could proposition her in the first place.

          This isn't about "is it illegal or awkward". It's about the fact that his behavior was wrong, but it could ruin her to say so because some people are more comfortable thinking the poor man just didn't know he was being inappropriate.

          He knew full well what he was doing. He didn't do it because he was overcome with passion for this student's brilliance and lost his head. He did it because he was comfortable doing it, which indicates that he's done it before or at least knew he could create plausible deniability. Again, he could do that because he knew how much people want to keep things comfortable. Or "collegiate".

  • Anonymous says:

    I assume that most research universities are like mine, where there is an academic advising office that is separate from all the departments. I would advise the student to report this to her academic advisor, whether or not she knows this person well. She can request that the advisor do nothing. That way, the incident is recorded, and the advising office may be able to put 2 + 2 together for serial offenders. The student can give permission for the advising office to release the information after she graduates. The advising office should also be able to point her to the institutional offices whose job it is to help students in this situation.

    Does the student know any faculty in women's studies? Does she have any friends who have taken women's studies courses and can introduce her to someone? I'd imagine that such faculty would be a bit more in tune to what the best avenues are, at her particular institution. It's great that ombuds etc exist, but whether or not they will do anything probably varies hugely from place to place. I find it fascinating that male commenters seem to be promoting avenues in the "system" that are supposed to work, or even suggesting that the student confront the offender (this again assumes that the person is a normal person who would behave the way people are "supposed" to behave), whereas female commenters seem more cynical about the "system". Gee, I wonder whom to believe...

    • SS says:

      Seems like the only way in this situation then is to put this PI on trial with a predetermined sentence: death penalty that must be handed down by an all woman jury.

      Now we must all hope that the state in which this happened has a female governor, or else this PI will probably be pardoned before execution. Damn! Why take a risk! I knew there should have been a constitutional amendment that provides for a parallel sovereign status for American women that would be run by a separate legislature. Using the Chinese or Iranian model of democracy, we can have a panel of experts from gender studies departments across the country that will pick and approve candidates who can run for this feminist legislature.

      A better option is to just create a post of a female Supreme Leader (above the President) to run the country. I think America can produce quite a few worthy Fematollahs from what I see on this board.

      • Cara says:

        Oh, grow up. A woman says some guy feels comfortable creeping on her and you decide to troll about feminism. Let the adults talk about the real world.

  • John Vidale says:


    I tried in vain to see the pattern you describe of men vs women in the posts. Which posters are men is guesswork, except me, and I discount more than most the ombudsmen "system" to the extend direct communications might address the problem and because some offenders are incorrigible.

    The comment "Gee, I wonder whom [sic] to believe" creates a false commenter dichotomy, tending to disenfranchise half the world from the discussion by stereotyping.

  • Respisci says:

    Following up my earlier question about how an advisor would respond to this situation if this student was reporting to them about a colleague, I am intrigued that many replied that they would not discuss it with their colleague. If you felt that this colleague did not know the seriousness of their actions (as suggested in some of the earlier posts), wouldn't you want to gently pull them aside to let them know that their behavior was questionable? Isn't it better for them to be informed that way so they can avoid future instances?

    If however you think that they knew exactly what they were doing, they why aren't you reporting them?

  • anon says:

    Respisci -

    It is more about protecting the confidentiality of the student. If I pull the colleague aside and mention the incident to him, he will know immediately who reported him (if she is the only student he made the advance to). There is a risk of making the situation worse.

    As legaleagle pointed out (2/29, 13:38), the Creeppi did not technically do anything wrong. It isn't illegal to send a text message like that (maybe inappropriate, but not illegal), but it is if she makes it clear to him that it's unwanted and he continues to do so anyway. I still think it might be worthwhile for her to speak to an ombudsperson and get advice about what to do. That way, there is some record of the incident beyond the text message itself, which could be important if it happens again either to the same person or to another student.

  • Female Science Undergrad says:

    Thank you all who have replied! I have decided that I will find an appropriate counselor, ombudsmen, or some authority and confidentially, yet officially, document the incident, but that's it. I will also ask them for advice on what to say should he make another advance or bring up the incident. Further, I will focus on getting letters of rec elsewhere. This PI has a lot of influence, but I've decided/realized I don't need him.
    I want to clarify-- he was drinking earlier that night, and there was definitely no innocent way to play it off (unprofessional from all aspects either way). I think completely ignoring the text allows the opportunity for the relationship to go immediately back to professional, which seems to be the case so far.
    Thank you everyone for your support! I feel so much better on knowing how to handle this. Thanks again, FSP!

  • Zinc says:

    With regards the alternative letters of recommendation, it sounds like you have been directly supervised by a grad student or a postdoc - you could have them write the letter of recommendation. As someone currently interviewing prospective grad students, if the letter comes from the grad student or postdoc supervisor I often prefer it, because they will give more concrete illustrations of the student's character/behavior. Also, if the grad student or postdoc writes the letter, it does not seem to me that there is a connotation that there is bad relationship between the student and the PI - many PIs just don't know the undergrads well enough to write the letter. So you could still get a great rec letter from this research experience.

  • Anon says:

    I didn't read every word of every comment so I'm not sure if this got brought up (it didn't seem to be so).

    Every field has men like this and sadly their behavior tends to be pretty well known, although usually written off in a joking manner. Unfortunately this means that other people in the field will take this into accounts when reading recommendation letters that he writes. If she ends up with a particularly glowing recommendation letter, and other people in the field know about his penchant for younger women in the field, I am afraid that some people will immediately assume that she slept with him.

    There are people you can't avoid needing recommendation letters from very easily, like your PhD advisor. But for all the others, I think your letter writers should not only know you scientifically, but also have your best interests at heart. Your PI is not that person.

    Things like this go on all the time and they are rarely documented. I know of a recent example where someone who'd been a member of a department for decades was up for chair of the department and it was only then that anyone stood up and said anything. It was a very difficult situation to deal with however because despite years worth of bad behavior it had never once been officially documented. These people still exist in our fields, in part, because we let them.

    Finally, I don't care who you are, what gender you are, what your student's gender is, if you are in a position of power you should never ever invite yourself to their hotel room or them to yours. There are plenty of more public places that you can meet to go over talks, etc. without putting you or your student at risk.

    FSU, talk to your ombudsman and seek out a new research project. A new project with a new group of people will only make you a better scientist.