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.

73 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

  2. Thanks for this post and for the many comments that show me that I’m not alone. I had a fantastic experience as a PhD student with all of my committee members and other mentors. Now that I’m a postdoc, my “mentor” and I have an extremely toxic relationship that just keeps going downhill. I’ve been here a little over 2 years. At first, he seemed very nice and positive, but things took a sudden change, and I have never figured out why. Since then, they just have gotten worse and worse. Today he sent me an email that literally said I do absolutely everything in research wrong and that I need to step up my standards and impress him. He’s impossible to impress. Many other students and postdocs have also had problems. I have tried in the past to address this in multiple ways. I’ve led a seminar/workshop for my group on working personality styles based on the DISC assessment – which highlights how there are different personalities, working styles, and approaches that work for everyone, and that we need to respect the personality types and needs of our collaborators. He hated it and basically said in front of everyone that MY personality type is wrong. How can you tell someone their personality is wrong? Aren’t we supposed to celebrate diversity? Anyway, this type of indirect trying to improve working conditions totally blew up in my face. So has confronting him directly about the way he talks to me and how it makes me feel (after a specific incident where he complained about my actual VOICE being irritating in front of my PhD student). I’ve been writing down everything that’s said in our meetings and emailing it to him later so that he can’t say we didn’t agree on x or y when we did, but he still changes expectations and goals all the time and says that he can do that if he wants as the leader of the group and because it is HIS money (he points this out all the time). So nothing is helping.

    And to make it all worse, I’m worried about my ability to get a job because I have no idea what kinds of letters of recommendation he’s writing me. I know that I cannot simply not have a letter from my postdoctoral supervisor in my faculty job applications – it would be a glaring omission. And I’d like to think I can explain the situation a bit and count on a little understanding, but I know that in todays incredibly competitive job market, any negative mark can get you thrown out of the applicant pool, whether that’s a less-than-stellar letter or a missing letter from a prominent person, or a missing letter combined with an explanation. I’ve never had trouble getting along with any supervisor (or student) before now…the way this one person could derail my whole career is massively depressing and unfair.

    What can I do about 1) continuing to work with this guy until I get another position without going nuts or losing too much productivity, 2) my letters of reference for faculty positions, or 3) what can ALL of us do about this on a larger scale? Individual jerks should NOT be able to ruin someone’s life or career. And what can I do to make things better for current and future members of my group?

    • In the similar cases that I’ve heard of that worked out, the postdoc was able to find some other faculty member in their department who knows about the situation. In that case, this other prof writes the letter vouching for your excellent skills and worthwhile contributions. I’ve not seen these letters, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they also have some brief, professional, reserved statement as to why they’re writing the letter instead of the advisor. I hope you can find such a person in your department…

    • Do not eat or sleep until you have a paper, *any paper* accepted for publication. Then immediately get a job anywhere else.

      PS “Individual jerks should NOT be able to ruin someone’s life or career?” Sorry, but let me be the first to welcome you to planet Earth.

      PPS Have you submitted your paper yet?

      • Yeah I agree with Michael Tomasson that it is essential to get out as fast as possible. I don’t know what field you are in, but for example in neuroscience most people post-doc for at least 5 years and I would imagine that another 3 years of this would not make you happy. So if you’re in a field where a much longer post-doc is required, I would find another post-doc position asap. Good luck!

    • You definitively can allow yourself to not have his recommendation letter. It is a bit more difficult but it is not impossible by any means, specially in Academia where interviews are way more informal than in industry and you are normally given the chance to explain why you are not using him as referee.

      I didn’t and I won’t use my former PI as reference (I wrote a comment about my past experience bellow) and, to date, I haven’t had any problems in any interview either in Academia or Industry. However, what I will say is that try not to be to honest when asked, go for a mild answer like “it was not a good fit for me and we had personal disagreements” or something in that line.

      But yes, get out as soon as possible because the way I see it you are risking more staying there than jumping out.

    • Run, don’t walk! This sounds like my 1st postdoc mentor. You will NEVER make this person happy. Find a better mentor immediately. Try to be pleasant when you tell them and leave gracefully, but above all get yourself to a better place. You will not regret leaving, regardless of whether you published (they may never let you anyway).
      Once you’re in the next position, ask good people who are in the position you want next to act as an official second mentor. Meet with them regularly and get their advice on your career. Then when it is time for you to get recommendations you will have an additional person to vouch for you.

  3. GermanPostdoc – Leave. As soon as you can. You are not in the right lab. From the sound of things, this can get worse and leave you with a compromised future in addition to making you miserable and tearing down your self-confidence. You will need the help and advice of trusted faculty on how to handle this when you apply to new labs but it can be done. You will need to be up front (at some point) and you should get advice on how to do that and how to craft your cover letter. You CAN start anew without harming your career in the long run. I once had a great student whose first postdoc (with a very eminent PI) was a disaster. He was able to recover, do a second postdoc that was very successful and get a TT faculty position at a prestigious university. I can’t promise you a TT position but I can promise that you will happier somewhere else.

    Good luck!

  4. My reply comes from personal experience and having seen others go through similar situations.

    From my experience (direct & indirect), the toxicity can wax and wane but never goes away entirely. For some people, things can end on a good note, but for many, and by your description, likely for you, it may not end with your advisor recognizing your true strengths.

    I’ll respond to each of your questions 1-3 in turn.

    1) Work to get out of this position. Take the energy you’ve used to convince him that you are amazing and put it toward applying for other post docs and jobs.
    Making lists of what the advisor is doing negatively can help you to catalog and compartmentalize for yourself and to have evidence for others if needed, but it also can make you angry and non-productive.

    To balance this, you should also make a list of all of your strengths, skills, and interests. You need this to outweigh the negativity you are getting. You have strengths and need to recognize them. You might even ask other colleagues to help if you need it. But you need this list and confidence to help you apply for positions. And you deserve to feel good about your accomplishments and future potential.

    2) Assume that the reference letter will be negative and don’t risk asking for one. I have seen other people apply for jobs without including a particular advisor (PhD or postdoc). The cover letter or reference list usually comments on this briefly, saying something like, “Due to recent personal difficulties, I have not asked ____ to supply a letter of recommendation.” I think there are also other posts/blogs about how to handle this as you apply to jobs. These people have gotten jobs, and I never heard them say that they were not considered because they didn’t have a letter from a particular person.

    Your advisor treating you negatively may be a way to control you and keep you from being able to leave. So don’t allow this person keep you from getting another job.

    3) This is really hard. Institutions favor those who bring in money. So sometimes people who have mildly to severely negative qualities get special treatment because they are valued by the institution.

    At one institution, evidence like you have was brought to the administration and they had a conversation with the faculty member. This has led to some small improvements, but the major problems still remain. The institution has not pursued penalizing this faculty member.

    Every institution/administration/department is different, and some will take your evidence to heart and take action. But you will want to weigh the costs and benefits of sharing details. You are in a better position to do this once you have a job lined up.

    If you want to ask questions or have other comments, I will check back.

    I do wish you the very best. And remember that this person does not define who you are as an individual or an academic.

  5. I had a toxic PI during my last postdoctoral stay. Scientifically? He was great. As a mentor? well, he was not a mentor. I don’t think I was bullied but I do think he blurred the line of being abusive a couple of times. That PI was/is very young and very successful because he is a very bright scientist, however he didn’t want to mentor (he told me so several times) despite telling me again and again that he wanted to help me. By helping me, he meant micromanaging me, writing my papers for me (“because you postdocs are too slow and we can’t waste time”… apparently he never was a postdoc himself..), preparing slides for presentations for me… to the point where I was awarded to give a talk after the a Nobel Prize in a conference I tried to “grab” my presentation for himself (he was told I was awarded for being a postdoc, he would not be allowed to give the talk). Aside from all those “mentoring” issues, and despite being a lab in the US, I was the only person in 8 years (8 years!!) in that lab that was not from that PIs nationality (he is not American). Most of the reagents and buffers were not written in English, I was implicitly excluded from some of the meetings (even meetings about my projects) because they wouldn’t be in English. None of the postdocs that left that lab went to faculty positions, I am in touch with most of them…. granted, we are not that many because that PI is young but not even 1 out of 5? I left after 4 years because due to my visa status quitting sooner would have meant to leave the country. I got my green card and I left, or as it happened “you are not leaving, I am terminating you”. I think red flags are relatively easy to spot once inside but not that easy from the outside: no grad-students? Red Flag; same non-American nationality in the lab? Red Flag; No postdocs in faculty positions? Red Flag; everybody in the field rants and hates him (sometimes quite literally)? Red Flag. But when you are a very new PhD from another country excited to have an opportunity in front of you, those are Red Flags you don’t see or can’t see.

    In his defense, if it is a defense, I’ll say that I was a problem for him because I was expecting a mentor and I’ve always being very vocal, polite, but vocal nonetheless. That was a huge headache for him.

    On the bright side, I was always honest with possible candidates without giving too many explanations. And more to the point, his new postdocs (he got 2 more in these 2 years since I left him) and his first grad-student in his career as PI are all his same nationality. So I am sure that it was a combination of things: bad mentorship skills (or none, for that matter) and cultural barriers.

    It sucks, and it sucks big time when, like in my case, my confidence in my skills and brains went to the sink, but I think it’s looks actually more difficult to recover and move on that it seems.

    I am happily working for another PI, excellent as mentor, but I am done with Academia.

    Good luck to you and to everybody in this situation!

  6. Pingback: Mental Health in Academia | Tenure, She Wrote

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