Early in her Ph.D. program in genetics, which she enrolled in immediately after finishing college in her native Turkey, Tuba Sural-Fehr often felt uncomfortable and lost. She didn't know how to talk to her adviser about anything other than scientific experiments, and even when she was talking about science she didn't think she was communicating well. The problem wasn’t linguistic; it was cultural. “Where I come from, things are more hierarchal. It took me at least a year before I could call my PI [principal investigator] by her first name, for example,” says Sural-Fehr, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a member of the board of directors of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). “It's small things like that that act like invisible barriers.” Years later, she realized that the issues she faced during her Ph.D. program were fairly ordinary, but “coming from a different country added another level of stress.”

Once she became a postdoc, Sural-Fehr gained confidence in her interactions with her supervisor, but she still found them difficult, and she didn't know where to go for guidance. She was in a new city, and her laboratory was in a small, isolated building. It wasn’t until after she joined her school's postdoc association and, later, the NPA that she realized that other international scholars had similar problems. She also learned of a survey conducted at her institution that found that 40% of the school's international postdocs had experienced workplace conflicts—twice the rate of their domestic peers. “That points to something, I think,” she says. “And I see this everywhere. The international postdocs seem to be suffering more.”

Weighing the risks

Most graduate students and postdocs have probably heard stories similar to Sural-Fehr's story, and some may have encountered more extreme cases. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County was recently involved in a lawsuit that accused a professor and his wife, who was serving as his lab manager, of mistreating international scholars. A plaintiff in the case alleged that she and other temporary visa holders working in the professor’s laboratory were forced to perform menial tasks that weren't part of their job descriptions, such as washing out garbage cans. They were reportedly told they'd be fired if they complained. After graduate students filed a complaint on the international researchers' behalf, the plaintiff was terminated, supposedly for unrelated reasons, such as surfing the Internet on her work computer. The termination put her visa in jeopardy.

The number of international scholars working in the United States is sizable: Temporary visa holders accounted for 31% of graduate students and 54% of postdocs in U.S. science and engineering programs in 2012, according to figures published in May by the National Science Foundation. Many university programs, such as postdoctoral affairs offices, offer workshops designed specifically for international trainees. Even so, those trainees can be reluctant to take advantage of such services, Sural-Fehr says. Scholars who, like her, come from countries where questioning authority is discouraged may struggle with the idea of seeking help for work-related problems, she says. Others may be held back by fears about their visa status and possible reprisals.

Getting help

Sometimes conflicts can stem from simple misunderstandings. A postdoc may feel that he’s being deliberately overworked, when instead his supervisor is misinformed about his workload. Such situations are often easily resolved, sometimes with a single meeting, says Sural-Fehr, who has become an advocate for international scholars—at her institution and nationally. The key, she says, is opening the lines of communication, but, as she knows from experience, getting the dialogue started can seem daunting. Some international scholars may also feel beholden to their PIs, who may serve as their visa sponsors, says Mary Bradley, director of the postdoctoral affairs office at Washington University in St. Louis. And some PIs may indeed take offense.

Consequently, international researchers may stay quiet, even when they're advised of the available services and even when their complaints involve serious issues such as racial discrimination or sexual harassment. “They're so dependent on their visas. Some people have families—they have their kids here, or they're supporting their families back home—so they have to have this job, and they need to maintain their visas,” says Sural-Fehr. “It's a ball and chain almost, and it makes it harder for us to speak up even if we realize something is wrong.”


Credit: Courtesy of Tuba Sural-Fehr
Tuba Sural-Fehr

The rules vary depending on the type of visa issued—for example, J-1 versus H1-B—but an international scholar could be forced to leave the United States within a few days or weeks of their dismissal, if they haven't secured another position. Given the risks involved, international students and postdocs experiencing workplace conflicts may want to start with services that ensure confidentiality, such as the ombudsman office, says Margaret Hellwarth, an international scholar adviser at the University of California, Davis. Ombudsman offices are also neutral, and their primary function is to inform rather than advise. They can help international scholars understand the different possible approaches to solving their problems and weigh the pros and cons of each.

Postdoctoral and student affairs offices can offer tips for approaching PIs about mild issues, such as feeling overworked or lacking mentorship. Bradley advises students and postdocs to write an itemized list of their concerns to help them stay calm and on-topic when they meet with their supervisors. She also recommends using “I statements”—for example, “I'm having difficulties managing my workload”—to avoid coming across as accusatory or confrontational.

Changing labs

When a workplace conflict can't be resolved, switching laboratories can be a practical solution. International scholars may assume that their visas preclude them from changing labs, but that's rarely true, Hellwarth says. “When I was in graduate school, it wouldn't have occurred to me that I could change labs. I didn't even know that was an option,” Sural-Fehr says. This misconception persists today, even at schools that make an effort to teach international students about their rights, says Francesco Bellei, an international Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and vice president of the school's graduate student council. “Lack of information is a huge problem for international students,” he says.

Changing labs is a major step. It can mean leaving behind an unfinished research project, and it may raise questions with future employers. An ombudsperson can assist international scholars with the decision process, and international student services offices can help with specifics, such as the visa transfer paperwork. As for finding a new lab to join, discretion is key. Trusted sources within peer organizations, such as school postdoc associations or student councils, may be able to help international scholars search for a new PIs without attracting attention.

Filing a grievance

It's up to individuals to decide whether or not to file a grievance against a supervisor, unless there is a threat of physical violence, in which case school policy usually requires getting the police involved. Once again, the ombudsman office is a good place to start. An ombudsperson can inform international scholars about the types of complaints they can file and the different offices they can approach, both on campus, such as the human resources department, and outside of the school, such as a state antidiscrimination commission. The ombudsman office can also help with less formal options, such as reporting a complaint in an anonymous letter to a department chair, says Melissa Brodrick, an ombudswoman at Harvard Medical School.

Laboratories (and sometimes whole departments) can be insular, but it's important for international scholars to realize they're not alone, Sural-Fehr says. State and national graduate student and postdoc organizations can help international researchers connect with each other and feel less isolated. Many provide guides on visa issues and other useful topics on their websites. It's not unusual for international scholars to encounter difficulties, but they should never feel helpless.

Online Resources:

National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (http://nagps.org/)

National Postdoctoral Association (http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/), which offers visa tips (http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/publications-5/toolkits/quick-guide-to-visas) and other resources for international scholars

Postdoc unions also offer resources for international scholars—for example:

University of California (http://uaw5810.org/)

Rutgers University: (http://rutgersaaup.org/members/postdoctoral-associates)

International Ombudsman Association (http://www.ombudsassociation.org/home.aspx) has more information on ombudsman services

Erica Westly is a freelance writer based in New York.
10.1126/science.caredit.a1400206