The lab can be one of the greatest places in the world to make live long friends. Spending countless hours in a tissue culture room late into the middle of the night, sharing similar frustrations when experiments don’t work or talking about how your PI does not have a clue what they are talking about can really bring people together. This is also compounded by the fact that you will spend some of the most formative years of your life with these people. They’ll be the first people you see in the morning, the last people you see at night, and the people that you will spend most of your time socialising outside of the lab with.
However, pressure in every profession can push people to the edge and increase tensions between lab members and in some cases result in bullying. Unfortunately, education does not prevent bullying from occurring in academia and is sadly somewhat a regular occurrence within labs and surprisingly is still found to occur at the higher levels among faculty members.
For PhDs and Post-Docs the constant pressure to perform both technically and mentally can be a lot to handle. In some cases this can get the best of people, with envy being a consuming emotion that results in tension between lab members. Resenting other people in the lab due to their success no matter how big or small can result in the abuse or coercion of others and in some extreme cases result in bully’s tampering with their victims work and stealing their supplies.
Intimidation from other lab members is not the only place where this mental torture comes from, with many PI’s being some of the biggest bully’s within academia. On many occasions I have watched group leaders shout openly at their students, berate their work and on more than one occasion throw their lab book out the window.
One post-doc that I use to work with would go MIA for a few days after meeting with the PI, just to relieve the tension within the lab. Another lab beside me would orientate a magnet on their freezer in a certain way to represent whether the PI was in or not, so much was the fear of dealing with her. On another occasion a PhD student friend of mine suffered intimidation for months from her PI and eventually was fired without cause. When they approached the HR department within the college they were told that the Professor was ‘too powerful’ and the college could do nothing to resolve their cause, leaving them with no choice but to leave quietly.
If you are suffering from bullying within the lab or know someone who is, directing them towards your university counselling service can always help. If not, lending a helpful ear or discussing your problems with a member outside of the lab might help them/you see the bigger picture and allow you get confront the problem.