My experience as a postgraduate research student at Imperial was in complete contrast to my expectations.
A diligent and hardworking student, I was accustomed to high-level problem solving, difficult tasks, proposing and defending arguments and manipulating complex data and ideas. Eager for the challenge that I believed lay before me, I was quickly astounded at the lack of care for student wellbeing and happiness. Over my time at Imperial, I became so frightened of my supervisor that I used to be sick before and after supervisory meetings: a presentation of anxiety which has continued since leaving the College along with vivid ‘flashbacks’ of my experiences. I also had to hide my tears from other post-docs and researchers in the department. To my shame, I remember having to force another co-student who was in tears out of the bathroom to do an experiment which required two people, because I was too afraid to not complete the task. They were in tears because they were so frightened of making a mistake and of what the supervisor would say if they did so.
I was told I “didn’t use my brain”, was “lazy” and that “you women don’t think for yourselves”. At this point I was working 80-hour weeks, and barely eating or sleeping. I’d regularly get home after 23:30, work until 02:00 and be commuting again by 07:30. Despite this, I was criticised for not being a dedicated enough scientist and didn’t love what I was doing enough. During my time at Imperial, I believe that I became a worse scientist not a better one.
Collaboration, sharing of ideas and discussion was virtually non-existent. I was not encouraged to offer up alternative points of view, and upon using peer-reviewed reports to question and critique previously generated data from or methodologies of the laboratory, received verbal attacks of such ferocity I became afraid to speak at all. At no point during my time at Imperial was I welcomed into lab meetings. Indeed; the groups I worked with didn’t seem to have them. I was ridiculed for asking questions which, judging from my academic interactions prior to and after my studies at Imperial, were perfectly reasonable, valid and part of the learning process. I increasingly felt that Imperial students were required to be ‘seen and not heard’. I have been afraid to speak out because of the reputation of the institution and the fear that I would be compromising my future academic career.
Whilst at the College, pastoral support was limited, and I did not feel there was anyone I could turn to; when I tried to raise my concerns, I was made to feel like a nuisance and like it was my fault for having difficulties because I wasn’t good enough to be at the College. Since leaving Imperial, I have tried to access the complaints procedure via student support so that no other student should have a similar experience to me, but the thought of being identified to my supervisor is so terrifying that I have not followed through on the formal process.