Toxic academic mentors

Unfortunately for potential scientists, professors don’t receive any formal training in mentoring – and a disastrous mentoring situation can derail a trainee’s career.  Although some professors go out of their way to think about mentoring (see Acclimatrix’s post), and many want to be good mentors, the truth is there are some downright awful ones out there.  So what creates a ‘toxic’ mentoring relationship?  To me, the worst relationships happen when the person in power (the mentor) takes advantage of the mentee’s work without sufficient regard for their career and mental health.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been part of a department where there wasn’t at least one professor that “everyone” knew was a toxic mentor.  Some examples include:

  • One who drags out a student’s defense date for years because of limited resources for that type of research (doesn’t want the competition)
  • One who blocks mentee publications or degrees by putting up unreasonable and unethical roadblocks
  • One who prefers mentees from their home (non English-speaking) country, but keeps around one American at a time to be an editing workhorse.
  • One who publishes mentee’s data (or allows others to do so) without discussing in advance with the mentee.
  • One who goes to former mentee’s conference talks, and then scoops them by using his/her plentiful resources to crank out the research (and publications) faster

I had the unpleasant experience of being involved in a truly toxic mentoring relationship. My first postdoctoral advisor (let’s call him Professor B) had a lot of stereotypical old school professor-type characteristics such as an inflated ego, micromanaging leadership style, and perhaps a bit of sexism to boot.  From my end, I arrived burnt out after a marathon finish to my PhD research one month before a huge project was to begin. More importantly, I was used to a lot of autonomy and independence and so right from the outset Professor B and I had different views on the appropriate advisor-postdoc relationship. We clashed from early on and our relationship devolved steadily.  Particularly important was that we had terrible communication, largely due to Professor B’s inability to match the tone and words of an in-person conversation (always polite and supportive) to emails on the same subject (passive aggressive or aggressive aggressive, and always carbon copied to everyone). Also terrible was that he would constantly forget he had ok’d my project decisions, goals for progress, and the format of the work I was expected to produce – and then when I disappointed him in some way he suddenly would change his mind and become irate that I had been lazy/wrong/insubordinate. In this way I was faced with shifting expectations that I could never meet. Most hurtful of all, it was obvious that I was one of a few special targets, while he was satisfied of similar levels of engagement or effort from others in the group.

Coping during a toxic mentoring relationship

So, how did I survive in the lab, as things got worse and worse? Not particularly well. Therapy helped, as did planning to leave the lab after two years instead of three.  Mostly I vacillated between doubting myself and wanting Professor B to burn in the heat of 1000 suns. One of the only things that kept me sane, and in science, was knowing that it wasn’t all or even mostly me… half of the graduate students in the group left without finishing during my two year position. Commiserating with Professor B’s current colleagues and departing and past mentees was fun, if not particularly constructive. A few things that did help me (some of which may be useful to any frustrating work relationship) were:

  • After a meeting in person or on the phone with your toxic mentor, write a summary of the conversation that includes any decisions that were made, and email the ‘meeting summary’ to your mentor/peer. Getting everything in writing is key, and saved my ass countless times when Professor B wanted to accuse me of various types of negligence.
  • If you are a trainee, cultivate a relationship with other professors at the same university – particularly within your department.  If things go really south they might have your back (but see below).  Additionally, if you do some work with that additional professor you could get a recommendation letter from them, making the hole in your CV less obvious.
  • If you are trying to complete ‘products’ (papers, talks, reports) with your mentor, try to get others involved as well – particularly people who can be your ally. I found the best way to have my opinions listened to were to (a) route them through a co-author or (b) contact my co-authors immediately after I stated my opinion in email, and have them write back confirming that it was a good idea.  Obviously this only works if your ideas are sound and your co-authors are willing to be your ‘hidden ally’. In my case this has worked multiple times and my colleagues’ relationships with Professor B are still sound.

Nonetheless, even with these coping techniques, I received such negative feedback every time I produced something that my productivity declined to well below what it should have been for that time period. As a result I have a hole in my CV that has definitely hindered my career.  Even more significant is missing a letter of recommendation from that time (although for awhile I was using Professor B’s letter, since he told me in my exit interview he would be happy to write me a positive letter – luckily I was warned that the letter was, in fact, pretty awful). Unfortunately for my sanity, projects in my field typically last long after your official time at an institution ends –particularly given the slow progress I made while I was there.  I’ve had to continue to work with Professor B since I am continuing in academia and need to get at least a few products out of that time (and I’m actually very interested in the work). But there’s nothing like that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you open an email, wondering what implicit or explicit job-related threats (i.e. “do what I say or I’ll write you a bad letter/tell on you to your new boss/etc”) it will contain this time.

Academic bullying

Now that I look back with a clearer mindset I think I experienced ‘workplace bullying’, which has five main axes (only two or three of which I experienced, but that was plenty!):

  1. Threats to professional status – including belittling opinions, public professional humiliation, accusations regarding lack of effort, intimidating use of discipline or competence procedures
  2. Threats to personal standing – including undermining personal integrity, destructive innuendo and sarcasm, persistent teasing, name calling, insults, intimidation
  3. Isolation – including preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation, withholding necessary information, keeping the target out of the loop
  4. Overwork – including undue pressure, impossible deadlines, unnecessary disruptions.
  5. Destabilisation – including failure to acknowledge good work, allocation of meaningless tasks, removal of responsibility, repeated reminders of blunders, setting target up to fail, shifting goal posts without telling the target.

Academic bullying can be particularly hard to curtail because once tenured it’s almost impossible to force a professor to stop taking mentees – the only time I’ve heard of that happening was when a professor physically endangered the lives of their students.  Sadly, once a relationship goes downhill a mentee has few options (other than finding a new position). Other professors in the department (even the chair) aren’t likely to go to bat for a victim of academic bullying – you’ll be gone in a few years, but they have to work together forever.  Even ombudsmen, nice in theory, have no power other than providing a safe space to air grievances. The best ‘solution’ is to avoid getting into that position in the first place.

Avoiding a toxic relationship

It was only in the months after I arrived that I learned that it was well known around associated departments that Professor B had a so-so mentorship record. Of his very few previous postdocs in a long career only one had successfully published with Professor B, but had been fired. So, how do you avoid working with an academic bully in the first place?

  • Check a potential mentor’s CV to see if previous mentees at your level reached the benchmarks associated with that level (i.e., did Ph.D. students graduate, publish; did postdocs get publications and/or faculty jobs).
  • Get the scoop on your potential mentor and research group from students or postdocs of at least one different research group – one thing easy to forget is that the people you meet while interviewing are those that are generally successful in the group.. or they wouldn’t still be there!
  • Listen for subtle (or not-so-subtle) cues and warning.  I actually was flat-out told that Professor B had an iffy track record, but I didn’t listen as hard as I should have.
  • And most of all don’t think “It won’t happen to me”.  It’s hard to predict who will or won’t get along with a mentor with an iffy track record – and the stakes are high enough it’s not worth the risk!

Being an academic bullying survivor

Now that I’m almost done working on projects started while I was working under Professor B, I’m hoping I can continue to work with the data we collected together on more equitable terms – and if we can’t, I’ll be able to cut loose from Professor B for good. One thing I’ve struggled with is how open to be with people who want to work under or collaborate with Professor B. Is it my responsibility to warn them using details and specifics, given that it might get back to him? Given our power differential I’ll always be at least a little vulnerable to his lashing out. But one thing I don’t want to do is sweep what happened under the rug or pretend it didn’t happen. At least for now I’ve settled for brief, honest answers when asked, along the lines of “my experience wasn’t the best but I know that others have had great success” or “you should try and talk to a few other alums from the group before you decide to join it” – and only providing more details when pressed.  I’d be interested to hear others’ tactics for hinting in a way that gets the point across without leaving oneself vulnerable.

60 thoughts on “Toxic academic mentors

    • Hi
      I did 3 years postdoc a renowned institute of USA. But, I got pregnant after marriage. When mentor knows he starts giving so much stress and I left the lab. I am job less from 15months. I attended more than 40 postdoctoral interviews and most are positive. But whenever they are getting my postdoc mentor’s reference letter they are not willing to hire me. My PhD mentor is tired after writing so many positive letters.My PhD is from Other country.So when I am interviewing here in usa for job they wants a letter from my postdoc mentor in USA. I requested him several time for a decent letter but he does not care. What I will do. A person /a PI is so strong and powerful in USA,who can destroy A person’s whole career and make him/her struggle economically.If I remove his name nobody is contracting me. Please suggest me how I can save myself from this situation and will get postdoc job in usa. I published 2 papers from his lab in reputed journal and more paper will come near future.
      I really need a job.

  1. This is an excellent post, and I am really sorry you had to go through that kind of toxic shitte with your post-doctoral mentor.

    Not very important, but the word “mentee” is just horrible. There is no such verb as “to ment”. How about “trainee”, “protege”, “apprentice”, “student”, etc?

    • never ever liked ‘mentee’ either – we have lollies (candies, sweeties) here called Minties ….. that is what I think of when I see ‘mentee’. d.

      • I meant to finish the above by saying I like Comradde PhysioProffe’s idea of something like ‘protege’…. but the seriousness of the post should not be overlooked by these trivia.

    • “Mentee” is a real word, though — and while “ment” isn’t a verb, “mentor” is (ah, English!). Certainly, I see “mentee” used a lot in formal training and documents, and people often talk about the “mentor/mentee” relationship.

  2. Indeed. Never think “it won’t happen to me.” Or “I’m better than that.” Or “Oh, I can handle it.” Any way you slice it, it will drain you of the energy you need to do great science. And it will hurt your career in the long run. There are so many great people out there to work with. A red flag, even a faint one, bears serious consideration. Don’t worry, you will find someone else to mentor you who is full of greatness.

    Also, there are a few stories out there of ombusdpersons who have been able to make a real positive difference. Most folk don’t even know they exist, but they can be a fantastic resource. It takes courage to go, though.

    That’s one of the biggest issues – talking about it. It’s a cycle of abuse. Just like a family. And very hard to talk about – particularly if you continue in a similar field, as it haunts you.

    So keep your eyes open for red flags. It may be hard to swallow at the time, but you’ll save yourself a boatload.

  3. Thanks for sharing- this topic should get much more attention.
    Another idea when talking with people in a lab is ask about good and bad experiences with the mentor and as a graduate student or postdoc, followed by how the challenges were addressed. If more than one mentee gives the same negative answer, it may be an indication at a lack of mentoring in that area.

    • One thing you should remember is that when asking people currently in the lab, you may not always get very straight answers. This can be for several reasons. They don’t necessarily want to be seen as that person who is complaining about how much their life sucks, and also they might not necessarily see the problems as being down to their mentor but as their own fault. As such, they also might not want to colour your opinions with their experiences, preferring to let you make your own mind up without interfering. If they’re not planning on leaving soon, they still have to work there for some time with the boss, and don’t want to deal with the fallout if it looks they’ve been bad-mouthing them. This is especially a risk if they warn you about things and you ignore them and take the job anyway. They might also think you’re a good fit for the lab and actually want you to come because you might make things better.

      • Anon is right, straight answers are tough. Listen to what people in the lab don’t say when you ask a direct question. For example if you ask “How do you get along with your advisor?” and the answer is “I’ve learned a lot in this lab”, that is a red flag. It sounds fine, but it is a total avoidance of your question. Be very direct, ask about the mentor in a variety of ways, ask everyone in the lab and if you can’t get a straight answer, it’s highly likely there’s a major problem.
        Another good question (works great for asking letter writers about a potential hire, too) is “If you were to make the decision again, would you choose to work with this person?” follow with why/why not. Listen to what they say, listen doubly to what is not said.

  4. I had a similar experience. It was so bad that I decided to quit last fall, even though I had no new position lined up. I just didn’t want to live with the belligerence and threats anymore.

    This summer, I found out through my network that several postdocs and even former co-PIs have had similar experiences. And I wondered, why hadn’t any of them said anything? Why were people telling me this information *after* my bad experience? Why hadn’t he developed a reputation for this behavior, if so many people had had similar experiences? The reason was that everyone had decided to not say anything, except to the people whom they knew very well.

    When I was applying to grad school, I dodged a bullet when several students and faculty made it clear why they would not recommend working with a particular “big name” in my field. I didn’t make the mistake of thinking it would be different with me, and I’ve always appreciated their candidness. Unfortunately, because so many people kept their bad experiences to themselves in this case, I was added to the list of casualties. 2 years of my postdoc life have been lost, and because of that, maybe even my academic career. That’s the cost of not speaking up.

    • The cost of daring to speak up can also be one’s career. Years ago as an new MD on my first job, I received a call about a former mentor, and told the truth about his unprofessional behavior, his nasty temper and abusive outbursts. Somehow it got back to him. My career wasn’t worth much up to that point, but afterward, the former mentor destroyed what little hope I had left. Looking back, I’m not sorry that I told the truth. Someone benefited from it. I only regret that I chose this career in the first place. I’m still trying to change professions and will probably continue trying to get out of this field for the rest of my life.

  5. I, too, am sorry any of you have had to go through experiences like this. Some of the suggestions made would be helpful to others in similar circumstances, but they take great courage to implement and a good deal of self-awareness and forthrightness. So congratulations to those who have come through bad experiences and moved on to other things. It might seem like a ‘gap’ in your life, but hopefully in a few years, it will seem an insignificant gap. It makes me proud to hear how people are coping, and hopefully bringing this behaviour to other peoples’ attention so that (at the very least) readers can be aware of it and (at the most optimistic) it can be a step in stamping it out.

    I like the suggestions of writing things down straight afterwards, and also writing to other co-authors or colleagues, if there are some who are suitable and will stand by you. This must be some comfort, to find these people.

    It is an experience everyone should be able to avoid, but sometimes we find ourselves inadvertently in situations where people behave badly. It is heartening to see that people are discussing strategies about how to avoid, or at least survive, when these things happen.

    Well done, survivors. Hope it all goes better for you from now on.

  6. Just like several of the previous commentators would like to say that I am so sorry that you had to endure this toxic relationship. I am a graduate student and just 3 months ago I walked away from my lab. Upon doing so, I had know where else to go because the funding climate at my academic institution is very very bad! I felt so sorry for myself and I blamed my self repeatedly for the situation not working out. I agree, with you suggestion of paying close attention to all of the red flags even when the red color is a bit faint. Needless to say, there were MANY red flags that I encountered before and after joining the lab that I recently left. I was even told upon joining the lab that, “People will not like you if you join my lab”. That was a HUGE red flag, but I did not listen to those words carefully, I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to admit that this probably was not the best fit for me. Sad to say I was a complete victim of “Workplace Bullying”. My previous professor exhibited 4.5 out of 5 (and no I am not kidding). The funny thing is that is own secretary told me many things and I did not believe them. Sometimes it’s hard to take what someone says because you don’t know what angle it was coming from. People told me not to stay there after my rotation, but they did not provide sound proof or reasons why. This is such a huge problem because no one will ever know the true face of the situation.

    I had spend 2.5 years working in this lab and as a graduate student that is like suicide, but I could no longer work for someone who was trying to rob me of the essence that made me who I am. He challenged my personal character and would publicly insult me in front of other faculty and peers. I knew I was intelligent, but I began to doubt myself and I became really broken in the process. However, upon leaving I felt liberated and I knew that I had made the right decision. It may or may not take me longer to earn my degree, but I am so happy to know that I have moved on and I am proud I had the courage to do so. When you are a student, it sometimes feels like you have no power, like you are at the mercy of these “human” beings. But you do have the power and their opinion of you will not make or break you. Dr. Charles Drew once said, “Excellence of performance will dismantle any invisible barriers generated by men”. I firmly believe that! Their words are only their words, NOT YOURS! So never feel you have lost yourself or ruined yourself by doing what is right. There is ALWAYS more than one way to get to a destination. We have to start looking at not only our POSITION in science but our POTENTIAL in science. During my time with my toxic professor I had become intellectually un-invested in the whole experience. The key is to TRUST yourself and BELIEVE in yourself. We simply can not make a rational happenings out of irrational starting materials!

    I wish you all the best and thanks so much for posting this because after have just gone through all of this, it comforts me in knowing that others have survived and I know I will become a great scientist one day, despite my mishaps. This whole concept of “toxic” mentors sickens me!!

  7. I’m sorry you had this experience. These kind of stories always make me wonder to what extent you can predict what a mentor is going to be like. Especially when interviewing for post-doc positions you have such a limited interaction with someone to determine if someone is a horrible mentor (or if the two of you are just not a good fit). Sure, you can look at publications, look where people end up afterwards and talk to people in the lab, but still…

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. I think there’s a culture of silence in academia that contributes to these kinds of things propagating. I especially like that this is not just venting (though you are certainly entitled to it!) but also proactive and pragmatic. I wish you the very best of luck, and hope you can take some consolation from the fact that someday, Prof. B will retire!

    I wish there was a way to flag these folks somehow, a la “Rate My Professor,” but of course it would be far too easy to figure out who had done the complaining, given how few trainees most advisors have over the course of their careers.

  9. Some of us go to bat for others’ mentees. I’ve got a refugee in my lab from one such toxic environment, and the same toxic advisor has just had a letter put in his file about the treatment of a couple of other students. I took on my refugee because he decided he was not going to get a good letter from his previous mentor, and wanted out desperately…and his former mentor has a rep for writing bad letters without telling the student the letter will be bad.

    The student in question, btw? Is absolutely awesome.

    • Having been a refugee – I thank you. The mentor that “took me in” was amazing – she ran interference where necessary (for years) , and gave me back my confidence. She has gone to bat for several other refugees – and they have all thrived in her lab. It’s amazing to see how much damage a toxic advisor can do, and also how much strength a good mentor can provide.

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  11. Thank you for writing this post. I am a postdoc in a very similar situation and somehow it helps knowing I am not “alone” :-)

  12. I can’t thank you enough for this post. I, too, am I survivor of academic bullying. I agree that it is very difficult to curtail bullying because, unfortunately, other people in the department or university have limited willingness and ability to interfere. Unbelievably, my university actually did intervene (after decades), although my mentor, being tenured, could not be fired.

    Your coping strategies were exactly mine, and they worked pretty well. The most important thing was to have loads of collaborators. With so many eyes on the project, it was difficult for my mentor to misbehave.

    Strangers often ask me point blank what it was like to work with my mentor. I always, always say, “I learned a lot.” If you have truly experienced bullying (and like you, I just can’t get away from this person!) then you know that you never, ever, ever, speak out. I never spoke out, even when my university was asking questions (though they were admittedly vague and open-ended questions.) Even now, writing this reply, I feel afraid.

    The strange thing about my experience is that the people in the lab never really discussed it – or at least we didn’t use that word for it (though in two cases, we did talk later, when we were safely out of the lab.) I think part of it was that the mentor was good at keeping us divided (just put everyone on the same project and let them duke it out.) Some people were bullied more than others, and strangely, the ones most abused IMO were the least aware that they were being abused. On the face of it, I was bullied the least, in part because I could throw a few punches, and my mentor mostly left me alone.

    ALL of the red flags mentioned above apply to my mentor. The biggest red flag is that, to my knowledge, no graduate student from the lab has ever gone on to a faculty position, despite many decades of highly visible research. I did get a faculty position, but I was a postdoc. I’m pretty sure I had a bad letter, just had a bit of luck getting the faculty position despite it.

  13. I’m also professoring at an R1 and am in the social sciences. I can say that this sort of bullying happens a lot in other fields, too. Although many don’t have the same relationships as those of you in labs (with shared data, etc.), we have many people in positions of power over us, and they can make life hell. Sadly, it’s recently been my experience that senior professors who are women are the ones who make my situation worse. (Work overloading, service overloading, getting dumped on with new courses constantly). Women I’ve spoken to have written bullying off as: “I had to put up with this sort of shitte to get where I am, and now you have to, too” Or “There’s going to be BS anywhere you go, so you might as well figure out how to just deal with it.” Really?

    I’ve decided that I have to work out–frequently–and beat myself up at the gym to get out my frustrations. But I also realized that my anger was bringing me down and not those who were making my work situation hell. I’ve temporarily made peace with it and am doing my best in spite of them. And I’m publishing my booty off!

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  16. Thanks for sharing this. I went through a similar situation as a graduate student. Luckily for me though, I had two “mentors”. The first was a big name in the business and put me down all the time. Turns out though, that I wasn’t the only one. He normally targeted women whom he thought were using their brains too much. Those that pandered to his ego were safe. You weren’t allowed to express your ideas or implement new techniques. If I tried to come up with modifications for experiments, he said that things needed to be done the way he thought of them and all his ideas needed to be published. The final straw was him quitting the structured programme I was a member of. This resulted in my contract being terminated, without my knowledge and bigger implications of my visa terms being violated. When I found out, I decided to raise the issue with the science foundation here and that’s when my second mentor stepped in and took over. He knew about the older guy all along, because he was also my second mentor’s postdoctoral mentor. The truth is, there are very few people willing to raise their voice. Either people believe it’s a one-off situation or they just don’t want to get involved. It’s especially horrible for international students who are far away from familiar surroundings and are often unaware of their rights. (I studied in a country where English isn’t widely used except for in science, but they claim to be ‘international’.)
    I recently completed my grad studies, got a good grade and am now looking for a postdoc position. I am however terrified of facing the same thing again and lack confidence.

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  19. I have found this to be very interesting because it is the truth as I have seen it in the past. I have been academically bullied. It is not a pleasure and there is abuse because it is the workplace and the job is up for grabs. Do you fight or retreat?

  20. I work in a ministry with graduate students and post-docs and have seen similar situations. This is the best advice I’ve come across, along with a rich comment section. Thank you for putting this in writing.

  21. This is really horrifying stuff, and one of the reasons I never wanted to continue in academia. I didn’t even get a Masters, and have had a terrific career where one isn’t necessary (journalism.) This sort of abuse is shocking, and the silence and fear even worse, as more people get sucked in. To allow anyone that much power over your career? Shiver.

    I’ve been bullied in workplaces but you can, if necessary, always quit.

  22. Mentoring is a big responsibility. A student needs a good mentor to bring out the best in him. A good mentor is needed for proper guidance. There is always a good mentor (or mentors) behind success.
    And it is a shame to say that there is lack of good mentors. Bad mentoring can drain out d interest f a student. ..

  23. Oh my, did you hit a nerve. The ‘mentoring’ of a family member just keeps giving years after he deliberately blew her chance of a scholarship to Oxford, so that she would stay UNDER HIS CONTROL in Dublin. Imprinted on her consciousness when her father died, stalked her when she tried to get away from him, slandered and cyberbullied her mother, put her son in danger – would not allow her to settle anywhere or have a moment’s peace. Planted suspicion and fear into her mind. Evil, drunken, sob, has connections in Dublin via his former position in UCD.

  24. I don’t know a lot about academia, still starting out in the world of higher education myself . but i find that the general feeling i get from academics and researchers is one of frustration, one of bureaucracy and the commercialisation of knowledge. i wonder how gratifying university research really is when people are under pressure from sponsors or higher ups to churn out results…

  25. It is great that you have less dealings with such an unethical person.

    Getting everything in writing and involving other people somewhat has always helped me somewhat extricate myself from the Krazy-Glue tight bond some people apply to me when they stick me on their chess boards as a pawn.
    When I start noticing strange behaviors like saying something happened that didn’t or they’re keeping me out of the loop/not including me in the same ways as everyone else, given “outsider” assignments, I make plans, but maintain my end of things as though they aren’t treating me shabbily. Especially if I know I am a good contributor and have identified at least one individual who clearly feels threatened by me. It would be different altogether if I reflected on the quality of my contributions and saw mediocrity or serious deficiencies. I’d raise my bar ^_^ I figure if they want a good person to go away, then I will eventually, and there is no need for me to add to the toxicity. So I make sure everything I can get in writing is in writing when it comes to people who thrive on controlling others and feeling “important”. Someone says this or that, I send them an email later asking about it to be sure, or I ask them in front of someone else. If there is anything a power-monger or self-important person hates more than feeling like someone else has a bit of a spotlight, it’s not looking like they know what is going on in front of other people. They will agree with it or correct it or receive insight from the other person and go with that and add to you, maybe get back at you a little later, but if you can do it in a way that makes them feel important, they feed on that so you might come away with less scars.
    One day you will be freed and your work will matter, your good name will matter. This person will not have much power over you.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences and helping people.

  26. A nightmare experience, but could you imagine being in a relationship/marriage with Professor B? HOLY DISASTER!! You are one strong person to have persevered through this dark academic forest… But, like all dark spots in our life, you have learned much from the experience. Now you know the type of person you’d NEVER wish to marry!!!!

    May you have the very best rest of your life!!!

  27. After reading this, I feel like baking a cake for my supervisor and the other professors who support me in my work! Thank you for sharing on this experience as students never know what to expect when they start graduate studies. No doubt after reading this they will choose more carefully whom to work with, or at least know they are not the only ones living this situation. There is still not enough talk about the mental health problems students fight during graduate studies, and it’s important to make the conversation grow. Congrats on being FP!

  28. You are right, almost every department has a tormentor. I am fortunate to have good relationship with my main supervisors but had some sour moments because I didn’t know when to say ‘No’. I was overambitious and would share everything with my supervisor and co-supervisor ending up being a work horse for them. Most awful, I realised that my co-supervisor made me get new ideas so that his own student could work on them and I was always told that my ideas were useless or impractical. I was very upset over this but have learnt two lesson; 1) no one should know what you think unless you think they really should know it, 2) Don’t advertise your skills, they are for you.

  29. To me, saying “toxic mentor” is like saying “hornless unicorn” or “wingless fairy.” I’m unsure whether mentors even exist, let alone being able to identify when one is being toxic.

    I’m not sure which is worse.

    Thanks, though, for pointing out the characteristics of workplace bullying. Some of them sound very familiar.

  30. This is a hot topic in my department with the grad students. Choosing a horrible nightmare is scary enough to give one nightmares. There are a few stories that I’ve heard in relation to this subject. One is about a student spending three years on a thesis, only to find out after their defense that they had been studying a set with only one element in it. Others are much more frightening, like the story of advisors who publish their students data without acknowledgment. Hope I choose a great advisor. Thanks for the tips and warnings.

  31. Reblogged this on Man of Roma and commented:
    Speaking of Mentors, Masters, Magistri … they are so important for a young man’s mind that they should, so to say, be ‘produced’ with some intelligence. An excellent post.

  32. I’m wondering if this type of experience was typical in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While I am sorry that you had to deal with what you did, I believe the word “bullying” is overused in American parlance these days. If you want to extend the metaphor, then let’s do so: bullies look for people they feel will be perfect victims. Bullies rarely bully strong personalities. Perhaps going into a post-doc or Ph.D. program, one ought to enter knowing that in academia, there are plenty of weak characters who became entrenched there for many reasons. Like the usual collection of human beings in any workplace, there are those who like to do all the things you have outlined in this post.

  33. Pingback: How to Switch Mentors, Part 3: Actually Switching – Is it Worth it? | Bitesize Bio

  34. Pingback: Tenure, She Wrote Turns One! | Tenure, She Wrote

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