Washington Update

NASEM Summit Highlights Importance of Ability for PhD Students to Transition Laboratories

By: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm
Thursday, October 28, 2021

In mid-October, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) hosted the third annual public summit of the Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education. The first keynote session focused on reducing and preventing harm caused by power differentials, with a particular emphasis on the dynamics between a research advisor and graduate student member of the laboratory.

Departments at many universities have vastly different graduate admission processes, funding structures, and resources. For example, departments like political science may admit graduate students with five years of funding guaranteed from the department and independent from a research advisor, whereas most biology departments are reliant on research advisors funding their PhD students. This puts graduate students in biological sciences in a precarious power differential as their livelihood is intimately tied to their research advisor. Recommendation 5, diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between trainees and faculty, and Recommendation 6, provide support for the target, from the NASEM consensus report on Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offer insight on how to diffuse these precarious circumstances.

Graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) raised concerns about policies employed in various graduate departments, including the need to guarantee transitional funding for any students wanting to change research mentors. This effort is ongoing, but thus far students in an unhealthy advising situation are guaranteed funded transitional support without needing to provide evidence.

At Vanderbilt University, biological science PhD students are generally admitted one of three ways: as part of an umbrella program with a group of departments that utilizes a system of trial periods for research advisors and environments, into a single department that utilizes a trial period for research advisors and environments, or directly into a single advisor’s laboratory. In the latter case, the student is supported directly from that research advisor’s funds from the day they arrive on campus. Recognizing the power dynamics that disproportionately affect the directly admitted students, the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology recently changed a policy for directly admitted students. Now, directly admitted students can change laboratories if needed, and 12 weeks of funding will be provided by the department. This should be sufficient time to do two laboratory rotations to identify a new research advisor.

Additional examples of innovative programs, policies, and practices to prevent and reduce harassment can be located in the Sexual Harassment Collaborative Repository.