How not to train your graduate students

I guess I’ve been failing to keep up with the educational literature, because I haven’t seen any articles that recommend screaming at your students until they break down and obey your will. I think I might be reading the wrong journals — is there a “Journal of Pedagogical Bullying” that I’ve missed?

Somebody’s been reading it, anyway. Like a certain engineering professor at UW-Madison.

Graduate students described the work environment under engineering professor Akbar Sayeed as “toxic” and “abusive.” The professor called students “monkeys” and “chimpanzees.” One said he compared them to “slaves” who must learn to endure pain because it would last only four or five years.

Turnover seemed constant. Some students joined his lab only to leave within a few months, even though it meant losing their financial stipend.

The churn put more pressure on Brady, who came to UW-Madison in 2010 to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering and worked as a research assistant in Sayeed’s lab. Despite Brady and others’ attempts to address how Sayeed’s behavior drove students away, the tirades continued and Brady’s responsibilities mounted. He trained new student workers on top of his own research, pushing his degree further into the future.

“Exploitation may not be too strong a word to describe how (Sayeed’s) behavior impacted (Brady) in his position as grad coordinator,” a report on Sayeed’s conduct would later say.

How can such a situation arise? How can it persist? If I heard that kind of story from a student or witnessed a colleague doing such things, I’d be be bringing it up to the chair, or to an HR committee, or straight up to the chancellor. If this behavior were brought up in a tenure review meeting, Sayeed ought to have been out on his ass. But UW-Madison let this untenable situation fester for years, until something happened that required the university to sit up and pay attention.

In 2016, Brady’s seventh year on campus in a program that typically lasts five or six, he started secretly recording Sayeed screaming at students in the lab. He hammered out his thoughts in a Microsoft Word document, describing a siege mentality among students in the lab. He arranged a meeting with a trusted faculty member that fall, one he had turned to the year before with concerns about Sayeed.

Brady never made the meeting. In October 2016, at age 28, he killed himself.

Jesus. You’ve got a professor who is driving students to suicide. What do you do?

If you’re the University of Wisconsin, you put him on a two year leave, during which time he is snapped up by NSF to work there. They also declared that this death was an “extreme and isolated” case. It doesn’t sound isolated at all to me — this is a systemic problem where an abusive, bullying professor could function without oversight or correction for years and years, until he pushed it just a little too far. It shouldn’t take a student suicide to set off alarm bells.

Sayeed is returning in January, which I find unbelievable. This is the kind of outrageous failure and persistent ethical lapse that ought to end his career. He’s even confessed and admitted to serious anger management problems!

In response to the university’s investigation, Sayeed admitted and apologized for his unprofessional conduct but denied abusing his authority as professor, making threats or intentionally delaying Brady’s degree. He said that if the department had taken action in response to students’ complaints, it may have “altered some of the outcomes.”

If only the administration had prevented me from bullying, this wouldn’t have happened, says the bully, placing the blame elsewhere.

If you’re wondering how he had a job in the first place, all is explained.

Since he started working for UW-Madison in 1997, Sayeed said, he has done everything he can to advance his students’ careers and secured millions in research money.

I hope, since the university won’t take appropriate action, that the whisper network among students at UW-Madison guarantees that he never gets another graduate student, and that this disgraceful behavior means NSF never trusts him with another penny.


  1. wzrd1 says

    Note to self – do not hire any UW – Madison graduates, unsafe investment.

    As for said “professor”, a modest investment in helium and a few high altitude weather balloons would’ve been in order…

  2. raven says

    Jesus. You’ve got a professor who is driving students to suicide. What do you do?

    I will point out here, that this isn’t all that unusual.
    I’ve seen it myself, although mostly from a distance.

    One mol bio professor at Harvard had a reputation for putting his students on difficult projects and then verbally beating up on them when they didn’t go any where.
    He is credited with at least two suicides and was eventually tossed out of Harvard.

    I tangled with himself myself once and got my share of abuse.
    He had a hair trigger temper and was an expert on abuse and insults.
    He also wasn’t a good scientist, having tried to prove some elaborate theories that turned out to be completely wrong.
    My crime was calling him on some of his claims…ones that turned out to be wrong.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I worked for a Nobel-laureate professor at MIT, named Sam Ting. Who had his grad students working double shifts at minimum to keep from getting booted out, longer to keep moving forward. As undergrad techs, we were little more than hired-hands. We thought we were being tortured by constantly having our working hours shifted around all hours of the day at his whim. We had to look at the grads, to see who was really being tortured, as many would sleep on duty as having only a 2 hr off shift time for sleep.

  4. raven says

    Jesus. You’ve got a professor who is driving students to suicide. What do you do?

    More common than professors who drive grad students to suicide, is professors who drive grad students to get the hell out of their toxic, flailing, failing labs.
    It’s really all you can do, and exactly what you should do.

    I’ve seen more cases of this.
    The abuse FWIW, doesn’t have any point.
    These are simply very smart sociopaths with hostile personalities who abuse people because they can.
    They are sadists or some other intrinsically wrong personality trait.

    I saw one guy who eventually drove all his grad students out of his lab.
    The lab collapsed because there was no one to do the work and he couldn’t function without someone to abuse.
    Word got around and he couldn’t get another supply of victims either.
    I knew his wife or rather his ex-wife.
    He also abused his family until they got the hell out and filed for divorce.

  5. raven says

    I put the phrase “Big Problem with suicide in grad school” into Google.
    And got 73 million hits.
    One example is below.

    A toxic culture of overwork’: Inside the graduate student …
    h ttps :// www. stanforddaily. com › 2019/03/13 › a-toxic-culture-of-overwor…

    Mar 13, 2019 – Editor’s Note: This story contains references to suicide and mental ….. of the University to discuss the major issues facing graduate students.

    Mental health problems and suicide are common in grad school and this is a well known problem.

    I didn’t read the Google capture copied above.
    Things to do today and there isn’t any need anyway.
    I already knew it was a problem, I just didn’t realize how big a problem it was.

  6. asclepias says

    One of my friends in graduate school switched advisors because her original advisor didn’t think women belonged in graduate school (he was an immigrant from Russia). My immediate question was why he ever accepted her as a student in the first place (though I’m glad he did, I love her to death) if he felt this way.

  7. jrkrideau says

    Then there is the graduate student who takes more direct action.

    I remember, many years ago, when a graduate student at one of the universities in Montreal, highly upset with the bad treatment he was receiving from his advisor simply walked into the advisor’s office one day and shot him.

    This may have had a salutary effect on the treatment of graduate students around Montreal , who knows?

  8. says

    Although the article doesn’t have any details, I’ve heard that his position at NSF was abruptly terminated, and he was escorted out of the building. That’ll be a big black mark in his record, and I suspect he’s going to have a hard time getting NSF funding in the future. There’s a story waiting there for some intrepid journalist.