Case Two: Bullied or Mentored?

RCR Casebook: Mentor and Trainee Relationships

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Kara is a pre-doctoral student who works for a very demanding principal investigator (PI) in psychology. Dr. Srichaphan considers himself her mentor even though he seems to offer no constructive guidance.

She considers herself an expert problem solver. The trouble is, she can’t figure out how to solve her problems with her mentor. Not only is he exacting and demanding, but he also is exploitative and intolerant—finding fault with her for not being able to keep up with the rigors of academic and clinical studies even though he’s the one who’s overloading her with too much work.

The last straw is an invitation to be a “guest lecturer” in a section of her mentor’s undergraduate cognitive processes class. She can’t very well say no. It would only make her look inept. Still, it couldn’t come at a worse time. The research study that Kara is primary coordinator of has just been halted—it turns out one of the protocols needs many changes, and some of the changes will have to go through the IRB again. They are complex and require careful thought. All the protocol forms will need to be filled out again, the consent forms revised, and the study procedures redone. These changes will have to be made quickly since the study cannot resume until the IRB approves of the new modifications. 

For those being mentored

“Trainees should know the following to avoid problems:

1. How much time they will be expected to spend on their mentor’s research;

2. The criteria that will be used for judging performance and form the basis of letters of recommendation;

3. How responsibilities are shared or divided in the research setting;

4. Standard operating procedures, such as the way data are recorded and interpreted; and

5. How credit is assigned, that is, how authorship and ownership are established.”

-ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research

Meanwhile, the undergraduate section of the class Kara’s been given to lead is so large that it’s fast becoming like a full teaching load. The course is not going well because the syllabus that her mentor developed was not well thought out, and many students are coming to Kara’s office to complain. One of the complaints is that there is a cheating ring among some of the students. When she tells her mentor, Dr. Srichaphan blames it on her teaching. She is so taken aback that all she can do is splutter that it’s not her fault—the cheating ring extends to other study sections as well and may even have begun there. Ignoring her protests, he informs her that she needs to provide assistance at a clinical rotation site.

Kara can’t believe her ears. She feels like she will crack under the strain if one more thing is added to her load of duties. Just the thought of arguing with her mentor makes her queasy, but she does her best to remind him that she has her own coursework as a doctoral student and has two term papers due in the next three weeks. She begs him to assign someone else to the clinical rotation. He frowns. “It’s gotten to the point where you cannot handle your research and teaching responsibilities, evidently,” he goads her.  Kara, who prides herself on her “can do” style, finds she simply cannot do all that is required of her. She’s on the verge of retching from nerves. Her mentor is not impressed. He shakes his head and tells her that science is not for the faint of heart.


What should Kara do?

Discussion Questions for the Facilitator

  • Why do you suppose Kara has let things get to this point? Has she been exploited in any way?
  • What internal (personality) characteristics and external (situational) factors do you suppose have combined to make it so difficult for Kara to solve this problem before it evolved into a full-blown crisis?
  • Why do you suppose Kara, the expert problem solver, does not solve this problem easily?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen if she does nothing?
  • What’s the worst that could happen if she seeks a new approach to getting through this?
  • How might Kara ask for help? From whom? With what likely result?
  • What expectations were set for Kara at the start of her graduate program by the program director, the graduate school, Dr. Srichaphan, and herself?
  • Can you offer an example of stressful or disastrous situation based on your own learning experiences? How did you deal with it, and what lessons did you learn?

Source URL: https://ori.hhs.gov/case-two-bullied-or-mentored