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.

63 thoughts on “Toxic academic mentors

  1. I am having a similar experience in a biochemistry dept. My PhD does not like women much and I am the only one there that is female currently and am belittled almost daily now. I have seen him in the past though with other women We had a female medical student a while back and asked her if she was sure she wanted to be a doctor because she could actually kill people. He never says anything disrespectful like that to the male med students. We had a female tech a few years ago and she was good and had come from a lab a Yale where she did well. He didn’t care for something and began calling her into his office daily to chew her out so everyone could hear. He accused her of misrepresenting her background and she was as honest as could be. Then he said the same of her former boss and she got really upset and could not be in the lab with him anymore and went to sit in a lab far away to do her work. She did not stay long. We haven’t had another female for the last 3 years but me. When he has a beef with me he calls me into the hallway so everyone can hear all his criticisms. But he is very good to the guys and so they assume it is me. No one on my committee or any of the other faculty would ever support me as many of them are afraid to tangle with him. He is a very forceful and vocal foe and is one of the top funding sources. It is weird because this has happened before in the past and some outside of the department know that but no one connected to me knows that

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