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.


128 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

      • I second you & that was exactly what I needed to do with many abusive workplaces I’s in, hire a great lawyer to make them behave towards humans in a civilized & humane manner, I didn’t do that right after all the tremendous abuse & harm they did to me, & am the one suffering from unemployment, the victim living in the aftermath of the perpetrators crimes!

  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!

      • Good reply, I totally agree and I am in the same situation: I lived the worst nightmare in my last almost 1 year and half and can’t wait to move from there. And yes, people like bad bosses should not have to be allowed to waste the life and the time of other people. Horrible experience..

        • Even you have your paper out, how do you get away with the reference? Your potential boss will eventually ask his/her opinion!? I totally understand your situation. Suffering at the moment but too weak/little to strike back…

      • I do have totally 4 first author papers from previous researches (one is from PhD ONLY) not very high impact though but I haven’t found any real job (not getting good recommendation letters). literally, I always thought I had a good relationship with my supervisor but he shut the door one day and accused me of misrepresenting my background skills then he basically really didn’t care about my work anymore. while my colleague made progress in his project (he cherished boys!) I literally was doing the same thing over and over. I was so scared to leave. I asked why we cant go a step beyond I heard we have the budget problem! I cant believe how I finished my Ph.D. with a mediocre comment from committee members cuz they weren’t in my shoes to see what was going on. I found sb else the same place that I didn’t know him at all as a postdoctoral advisor just to try to improve the holes that I didn’t achieve in my Ph.D. but seeing me doing things my own way made him angry alot and not checking everything with him before doing. I am the 1st person in the lab. worst he reminds me every day that I don’t have good recommendation letters. I am so worried now if this can happen in every postdoc trainee start time ? Should I deal with it? can the relationship get better? if I loose this opportunity literally no coin is left for me to move to another place and not really anyone in the academic field to support me. would this be an end of my science career? I just regret now why I didnt have connections in field…

        • I’m not sure what I would do in your shoes. It’s a hard position because your relationships (the letters) along with papers are what you need to succeed. Work in any field is a large part making the boss happy. Figuring out how your PI wants things to be done and doing them that way is a good way to get a better relationship.

    • 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.

    • I managed to get two TT offers without a letter from my postdoc PI. It is possible. (Mine was much like yours – even to the point of telling me “don’t be who you are” when I was getting ready to give a talk.)
      It helped to have great letters from other people. I think there are enough jerks in academia that it’s not a mark of doom to have worked under one.

    • Run !! Leave asap. You will find a job later. My adviser ruined my PhD. Today I am an ABD and after a year I’m still depressed. I went to counseling for two years trying to get help and be able to finish the program but didn’t work either. I talk to the chair, and two deans and nobody believe me. Psychopaths can be very charming.
      Read about psychopaths, this will clarify things. They enjoy hurting people, and he will continue to do so making things worst for you. Your self confidence will be very damage after this experience. I am even afraid to look for a job now

      Good Luck !

  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

  7. I appreciate this post greatly. I thought I was going crazy. I’m a sixth year student and feel like I’m no closer to graduating. My mentor keeps moving my defense date around. I have a large first author paper I’ve been trying to finish but my monitor keeps adding more experiments to it, large experiments that take months to complete due to their complexity. Now, I have to redo the work I had conpleted in this paper a while ago because she wants everything blinded. Furthermore, I have been pulled into several collaborations where the.other PIs are getting impatient about me not having their data completed. Then, because I’m the senior student and the only one that knows how to use the confocal, I’m required to teach the younger students. I work 12-16 hours a day and get chewed out for being slow (well, I’m working on everyone else’s projects!) I was told I have one more year on my F31 so basically I’m being kept around for cheap labor. My committee members won’t help me. My fiance is freaking out because he is worried about me. I’m always crying, sleep deprived, and sick. I know I need to see a psychiatrist. The kicker is that my labmates could get away with murder. They hardly work and I end up cleaning up their messes.

    • Forget the shrink. Hire a lawyer. Start litigation procedures. That will shake him up and get the attention of his superiors. O’wise your self esteem will shrivel up, your fiance will leave because he cannot bear seeing you in such distress, or because he doesn’t recognise the ‘crazy lady’ as the confident young woman he proposed to. Sue the SOBs. Even if you don’t take it all the way to court, you should receive enough compensation for a deserved and necessary vacation, and Professor Abusive Liberal Bully learns a valuable lesson, and will hopefully retire. Do it before you’re too exhausted to remember your name.

      It’s personal for me. One of those academic goons destroyed my daughter. Didn’t know till it was too late. They’re cunning and use conflicting messages and sleep deprivation to keep their victims on the borderline. He knew she was far from home. Good luck.

      • Ladybard,

        I find your advice quite intriguing – I too am in a situation similar to what others have outlined. For me it is a bit different, in that, I moved halfway across the world, from stanford the UK to start a postdoc position. I’m only 7 months into this position and, from the moment I got here, I’ve dealt with a PI who continually has beat me down, ridiculed and belittled my work to the point I feel worthless and absolutely wasted. I had an amazing PhD career with over 10 publications but this postdoc has been the first time I’ve truly hated going to work, even though, my project itself, is quite fascinating to me. I’m a bit at a loss as to what to do, but the fact is my current PI, lets call her professor A, has evolved from the constant micromanaging and belittling to outright slanderous and bullying behavior. As an example she recently told me she doesn’t believe anything I say and that she, talking with other students in the lab (I’m the only guy) has been told I’m a liar. I asked her specifically for proof and she said she has none. This is indeed harassment and slander. The issue is, for me, that I’m in the UK. I’m American and my boss is from eastern europe, The fact is the UK laws on these things are different than in the US, however, in some ways it seems there’s some more support – this is what I’m in the process of figuring out right now. One big issue I have, which others have mentioned, is that while I have allies back at my old university, I do not have any here because I’ve only been here 7 months – while she’s been here over 7 years. I’ve got a doctors line out of work because she told me she initiated some formal thing to question my integrity – citing things such as my housing situation or my vacation locations – but regardless the fact is I can’t bring myself to work with someone who would do such a thing – and mind you didn’t give me a whole lot of time to get settled and get into the current position. As a result, she has initiated measures to push me out, because the 3 yr contract is very hard to break in the UK – so she’s also initiated some formal thing to force me to sign in from 9 to 5, something that is more than just demeaning but is against part of the reason I even entered the sciences. I’m very good at what I do, although the mistakes I’ve made have been amplified and catastrophized by this woman to the point that I do currently feel worthless, I am half a world away from my home, and have no funds to get back/would lose so much (ie would have to pay back moving costs if I leave earlier than the contract) – but prof A is forcing my hand. I’m debating taking too many of the valium the doc’s given me because I feel there’s no reason for me to even keep trying, I’ve failed and I’m worthless – ultimately that’s what I want to do, I won’t, but I’m feeling trapped. Anyway, thanks for letting me vent.

    • Dear Rebecca,

      It’s been a while. But I still want to reply you. I was in your situation for the last two years. Please see a therapist. These experiences are traumatic and you need a person to talk to. Set a boundary of working hours and look for a way out, a job or a post-doc. Once you have a way out, bring it up to you PI. Say it like, I have to start by XXX. I want to have things finished by XXX. Talk to your committee members on your future position. Once they see you have a place to go, they tend to be more willing to help out.

      Hope that helps.

      • Hello! I am so sorry to hear about both of your experiences, and especially the USAPostdoc’s! I absolutely agree with Joan – and in the UK I would recommend contacting Human Resources at your university, and getting them to refer you to Occupational Health. I think this should get you therapy on the NHS (the National Health Service). You might be better off arranging your own counselling privately, since the NHS is likely to take a long time to do anything about it – BUT if you go through the Occupational Health service and Human Resources, your boss’ name goes on the referral, and it will be on the record that you, under her management, have had to seek medical help for stress. This will not be good for your boss’ reputation, and may stimulate her to mollify her behaviour. I would also recommend joining the union (the UCU), and getting advice from a caseworker. You might also try informing your funding organisation, and/or finding out what their policy is on the management of postdocs. Your boss and department do NOT want to be blacklisted…

        Thanks very much for this article, and all the discussion – toxic mentors really can ruin your life, health and career. I had a toxic mentor for my PhD, and am currently struggling with another one. I am continuing to work out how best to react. The advice in the article is helpful for academics in the UK, as well as the US – and it’s especially important to remember that the other department members are very likely to stick up for their colleague, even if they are nice people themselves, and wish you no harm. I suspect that this is because academics in the UK are often so overworked and worried about their jobs that they have a very deep instinct to huddle together to survive, like Emperor penguins in the Antarctic.

        However, nobody likes to feel that they have dirty linen that threatens to become apparent. Hence your boss may realise she has to be more careful with you, if she knows that her behaviour is potentially visible to others in the university/the NHS itself. You have to play with this instinct very carefully, because it can work against you. If you state too clearly that you know your boss has behaved appallingly, and are willing to show it, he/she and their cronies can take fright, and decide that they have to silence or remove you at all costs. Hence, never do or say anything that can be interpreted as a direct threat.

        As in my PhD, I am waging a slow psychological battle, which requires huge patience (hence therapy, yoga, hot chocolate in the afternoons, sick leave, weekends away, whatever it takes…). I am finding that I need to use a combination of subtle carrots and sticks: I need to indicate gently to my boss that his/her life is going to get more unpleasant if he/she continues to be horrible to me, for a variety of reasons, while giving him/her an incentive to be nice. The most important thing is not to get angry in public – punch your pillow instead. If you get angry, she takes control – and also in the UK one pretext for firing people is that you can ‘prove’ they are difficult and rude. You always need to have some grounds for contending that you are being kind and conciliatory, which means you have to swallow an awful lot with a smile on your face. I like to think that this gives you iron in the soul…

        It is also so important to continue with your academic work, somehow. I find that’s what sustains me – and hence I try only to take action to defend myself, rather than attempting to fight back. I am trying to find a balance that enables me to get on and publish, despite everything.

        It’s very hard that you have to go through this in a strange country, without your family and friends nearby! I agree that the sheer disgust at your toxic mentor’s behaviour can be particularly hard to live with. It is very important to battle for your own integrity, even if you have to make some incredibly cynical calculations. UK academia is under huge pressure at the moment, and is changing faster than anyone can keep up with. The fact that your boss is also from outside the UK is also an important factor. It may be making her more insecure and defensive (remember Brexit..), and it means that she will have her own perspective on the UK system. If she hasn’t grown up or lived for a long time in the UK she may not understand the deeper cultural logics and habits – even though these are changing very rapidly, too.

        I hope you manage to find a support network, somehow. The best way to do this is through a hobby, or faith – either of both gets you to communities outside the university, which are a good source of perspective, sympathy and sanity. Good luck!

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  11. So I’m not alone!

    I just got out of a program where:

    1. Students were harassed and intimidated, and threatened if they spoke about it.
    2. My advisor changed my research goals every month or so, and kept me lingering around assisting others’ projects like a tech without my own project, for a full year, and then asked me if I would do a PhD in her lab without receiving a stipend. I could only stare at her when she asked me this.
    3. A lab in the department closed down because of the PI’s misconduct.
    3. My advisor made me assist a student who told me he lies to her about how he prepares his lysates, and when I reported his statements to her, she dismissed the fraud as a small thing and claimed I didn’t understand how he spoke (he’s not from the US, so apparently he’s a “poor communicator”.)

    I’ve never seen so much bullshit in my life.

    I didn’t care how I got out, I just wanted to get out. I’m looking for work now and going back to grad school only when I know my advisor is a good, honest, ethical, decent human being who embarks on my thesis journey with me knowing she/he is training a future colleague, not bringing in a set of labor-hands at the bench.

    • Here’s one: Academic mentor in UCD Ireland seduces recently bereaved American student. He has a ph.d psyche. Provides her with all sorts of ‘you need me’ labels. Makes sure she does not get the First Honors (She gets a 2nd) for an automatic scholarship to Oxford – where she’ll be out of his control. She gets away, he stalks, harasses, torments her, breaks up her new relationship. Mind you, he’s only 30 years her senior. Gets her a scholarship to a Seminar in France, follows her, shares the rooms that her mother pays for – unaware of this.

      He’s a drunk and hacks away at her trust with her mother. She gets away again, for a few years, finds another Dubliner, gets pregnant, Mentor moves right in, takes over, while her mother is coping the with the mood swings of her daughter’s pregnancy and the anguish generated by this manipulative monster.

      They don’t just destroy careers. They destroy lives and family. I don’t know their whereabouts. My poor grandson is now under the control of this monster – who has his own adult children and grandchildren. Of course they don’t want the nasty drunk around – draw lots to see who has the misfortune to have him at Christmas.

  12. I just saved a non profit therapeutic center for Veterans with PTSD from a vicious takeover by an academic Ph.D candidate. Basically, the employees would be writing her thesis for her (only they didn’t realise that) while she grabbed the copyright on even their identities!!! SUNY, NY. Un-be-lievable. It is possible that she was working on behalf of a corporation.

    Once the ‘commie ethos’ took over academia, honor and ethics went out the window. No one should endure the abuse described on this line. Self esteem erodes and before you know it you start thinking like a victim. There must be some way you can pool notes and resources and expose and put a stop to this. How about a dissertation on abuse in academia!!!

    • Your ranting about “commies” and academia are meaningless. All the situations you describe are based on a LACK of oversight and control from above, not as a result of it. I’m sorry to hear about your daughter, but you’re generalising hundreds of thousands of academics on the basis of a single experience, which is preposterous and completely unreasonable by any measure.

      • You certainly prove my point! We are discussing TOXIC mentors, halogenated – or is it hallucinogenated – not the entire realm of academia. And no it is not a ‘single’ experienced, but an ONGOING one supported and sustained by other TOXIC colleagues of this obnoxious man. If you are an affronted academic, then gather your colleagues together, and demand higher ethical standards from your cohorts, because while I know many good people in academia, I could write a very long list of villains in the halls of Higher Learning.

      • Hardly a ‘single’ experience, halogenated. Too many for this space. Certainly upheld by the many concerns of students bullied by academic mentors – mostly commie sympathisers.

        • Ladybard, you’re on notice. Please keep your comments topical and respectful, and in line with our comment policy. Your comments about “commie sympathizers” are clearly meant to be pejorative, and really don’t have a place here unless we’re specifically talking about politics (which we aren’t).

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  16. Oy, I feel for drmellivora. I have weirdly the almost exact same thing going on, the professor’s name included. Your list of workplace bullying is exactly my experience.

    However, I am in Germany. An order from the boss, no matter how ridiculous, has to be obeyed (Nürnberg doesn’t really sink in after 70 odd years). The run along Nixonian lines here, if the boss says it, it has to be the right thing. So while there is workplace bullying, it can simply not come from above according to the Germans. If your co-workers mob you (the use the word mob in this bullying context here in Germany) you might make a case. If your boss bullies you, you are shit out of luck. In my case, his micromanaging also means all others are completely dependent upon him (as he likes) and there is no chance someone else will even dare to take your side in ongoing arguments.

    The result was me being dragged before the administration, having to listen to a long list of things I allegedly had done wrong (from the Professor’s side) and the pressure to end my conract. If you quit, get fired or end you contract before the end date in Germany, you lose minimum 25% of your unemployment benefits. So now I have to either quit, spend the rest of my contract waiting for the infraction they will use to fire me (workplace pens at home, for example) or get a doctor to attest that the situation at work is hazardous to my health.

    I wish upon no one such a miserable existence. I can only say that one should be clear of the expectations from yourself and your boss whenever starting on something as challenging as a post doc position. You might think you are expected to be creative, but might also find yourself doing the most mundane tasks as punishment for being creative without the pre-approval.

    • Hey Marko,
      Forget about unemployment benefits, money, or jobs. You haven’t lose anything Those things can be eventually solved. It is not the end of the world. Another thing is if Germany doesn’t work for you in the present maybe it is not a bad idea to go for a year or two to another country or another city. Anyway, the most important thing here is your health and more important your mental health. That is what you should take care of right now. Do what it takes to move away from that environment, heal and then make whatever decision is best for you.
      Read about psychopath, that will help with your decisions. Do not expect any justice right now because your professor probably already did a good job discrediting. That does not mean that you won’t do anything about it. You can always prepare to tell your story, but In the future. When you are ready you can write a good letter to the university for their records. You maybe able to prove some of your stories or have some witnesses that can testify against him if the school decide in the future to investigate. Or just forget about this horrible experience.
      Move on! You have to continue with your life now. Go somewhere else. These type of individual will destroy your self-confidence. he can leave you devastated. Work on recovery from a psychopath encounter now, before more damage is done. He is not going to stop. Trust me they will not stop ever! They are predators. I’ve been there. Good luck !

      • Lore,
        You are a good human being for caring for others. Your advice is true and perfect. I was in a similar situation in Germany too, I was bullied by my supervisor and I had more of my colleagues. I was on a fellowship and I let it go. The fellowship providers were supporters of my ex-supervisor. I got the impression that German organization is full of racism 😦
        The most important thing to survive such horrible things is positive encouragement. Always encourage yourselves. Restart again. Focus on what you learnt about yourselves. Your strengths. I learnt that my humanity worth more than a PhD from Germany. I learnt that good education doesnot make us better, but it is us who use education to be better.

        I also left bec of this letter of recommendationthing, I am from an Arab contry and I can not handle having a weak recommendation for my qualifications these days.

        I wish u best of luck.
        thx 4 sharing

        • None, you earned my respect and appreciation for your courageous decision. Thank you for telling your story.

          Now let me sing.
          I was on a fellowship and I let it go.
          I was on a fellowship and I let it go.
          I was on a fellowship and I let it go.

          It took me months to visualize letting go of the fellowship, I was so scared….
          This happened (t time) ago, but it still hunts me. I worked so hard and this was so cruel.

          I was on a fellowship and I let it go.

          I need to “let go” everyday and I believe that I can.
          My humanity is more important and worth the scarify. I won myself.
          My humanity worth more than a PhD from Germany.

          I was on a fellowship and I let it go, but I will never let go of my dreams.


      • I agree with Lore that your health and mental health are more important than all of that.
        Marko, you health and intellectual gifts are your biggest assets, guard them well. I hope that you are safe now.

        • Hi noone,

          I understand completely your pain, because I wear your shoes.

          I LOVE lessons learned that you wrote:
          “Always encourage yourselves. Restart again. Focus on what you learnt about yourselves. Your strengths. I learnt that my humanity worth more than a PhD from Germany. I learnt that good education doesnot make us better, but it is us who use education to be better.”

          This is true.


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  20. I agree. Neglect decreases productivity. In my case, neglect started when I asked my mentor not see him alone after hours. That’s the begining of my story.
    Make a ratio of mentees who’ve published to mentees who haven’t and you’ll know more about the mentor than the unpublished mentees.

  21. This sound’s like my husband’s thesis advisor. Receiving his masters was contingent on getting published. Unfortunately, that was contingent on completing a certain part of his research . . . which was contingent on new equipment . . . which his advisor never approved. Then my husband’s funding got cut because he didn’t complete his masters in 2 years. He got the letter informing him of this right before he was going to start classes in the fall, and he suddenly had to find a job and move to a new state. Other people in his research group started moving to new groups to avoid the same fate. It took him years to finally complete his thesis, paying a fee to the university every year he was “working on” the article. No one at the university could do anything to help him. His parents were ready to hire a lawyer.

    This article also sounds like my current boss, which is why I am leaving. At first, I felt bad that I would never be able to use him as a reference. Then I realized that there is no point in getting a reference from someone that I don’t even respect.

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  23. I’m an undergrad who had a very toxic mentor. I worked with him for three months (three months of him saying sexist things, yelling at me, calling me “ditzy” and stupid, and overall gaslighting me), and though I tried to talk to him first, he wouldn’t admit to any of his behavior (and it was extremely hard for me to say anything critical to him, because I was so afraid of him I couldn’t eat in the mornings before working). He went around the lab and told everyone I was just a hypersensitive crybaby, and the PI believed him. Luckily, I got switched to a different mentor within the lab who has been fantastic, and I like the other people in the lab, but it was the scariest, most isolating experience I’ve ever had (and I grew up taking care of a mentally ill parent). I truly believed it was my fault at first, and I was just being too sensitive, even when he would say terrible things and treat me like an idiot, sighing and rolling his eyes whenever I’d ask a question. I wish there were more accountability in labs and an anonymous way to report bad mentors. I felt so powerless and afraid.

    • I am a post-bacc and have experienced some (not all) of what you went through. It is so tough for us because we are not even in grad school yet and have to experience these things. I have not been sexually harassed, but it sounds like you have. I hope you were able to report what happened to you and move on to a differerent mentor or a related but different discipline. Do not give up on your dreams because of the toxicity and abuse of one mentor. Some mentors are “gatekeepers,” whereas others are “supportive.” Find the healthy and supportive ones.

  24. I’m involved in a situation that’s kind of related. What should I do if I’m a medical student who is being made to accept consequences due to a misunderstanding caused by a Head of Student affairs? That person in charge of student affairs refuses to listen to any of my concerns and said it would hurt his reputation if he did because he did not prevent the misunderstanding. He is known to forcefully say things in order to make other faculty agree with him. And it seems he is working with the dean. It’s kind of hard for a medical student to transfer because transfer spots are extremely rare and difficult to get. I’m afraid of future retaliation and the effects on my future career. I have no idea what I can do.

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  26. I had a similar terrible experience with my mentor. I am a 7th year PhD student in an elite university in UK. My advisor used to be a very nice person until tenure got the better of her. Since then she started playing students against each other. I used to be one of her go-to guys. But a minor squabble on some of her intuitions made her believe that I am toxic for the whole group. She made sure that other students, both within and outside my group, don’t talk to me. If they did and of she found out, she would chastise them and delay their graduation.
    Consequently , my mental and physical health declined and I started taking therapy. I got a lot of counseling from senior professors and university ombudsmen but none of what they said could better my quality of life. My engagement got called off, I started getting blackouts, I survived a car crash. Life seemed to not be fair anymore.
    My advisor eventually did agree to graduate me but does not want me to publish any of my work, if I do go ahead and publish it or even put it up on arxiv, she threatened to send me a legal notice. Now I basically have a bunch of unpublished work in my thesis, in the hands of a toxic mentor who is not interested at all in my career development.
    I wish someone in due time told me about this nasty underbelly of the academia.

    • I hope that you were able to find post-doctoral work that allowed you to publish and advance your career. Here in the USA, there are programs that offer post-docs a second PhD in a related field, which could help when the first PhD does not work out well enough. Also, there are international certificate programs for post-docs who want to build their CV and prepare for a specialty. I hope you were able to find better luck as a post-doc by now.

  27. I am in a similar situation as well. I just entered my third-year Postdoc at a very prestigious university in the US. I was given a warning by a colleague in the department about working with my mentor. I took an informed decision, however, things have gone really bad in terms of my health and my career. I worked incredibly hard, and he constantly abuses me. He talks bad about other faculty members and postdocs to his graduate students. He dislikes my doctoral advisor and always talks bad about her to me. The problem I face is he puts a nice face in front of others (esp. collaborators) and even praises me or gives importance to me in project meetings, but in person, he criticizes/abuses me. I don’t even have a first author paper with him yet, even when I bring it up, he changes the subject (has happened so many times). He deliberately avoids giving me exciting work, instead, he gives me stuff which is not at all challenging. I have lost my confidence completely. He has discouraged me so much, constantly comparing me to others. I have confided in my Ph.D. mentor and other investigators- who are very aware of my skills and they know me very well. Everyone has been advising me to get out. Things have taken a toll on my health with random stress related health issues cropping up. Finally, I have taken the courage to get out of this mess. I just started writing/reaching out to other advisors. Academia is so nasty- I agree WorriedResearcher, filled with politics and non-sense. I wish everyone the very best!

    • It is all very sad how common the abuse is in academia. One would think that individuals, departments and institutes around the world would wake up and catch a hint. Perhaps we they should stop being jerks? There does seem to be some slow progress in certain locations. Unfortunately for many of us, myself included, it will be too late to benefit.

      I’ve had bullying bosses, and just plain bad advisors, some worse than others. I’m on my third postdoc, and of the three, they’ve all been bad. I loved the work, but the PIs have been unhelpful, bullying, and isolating. Athe end of the second PD, I began to see the writing on the wall that science research is probably not for me. I’m in the middle of the third, which has confirmed this. I tried many times to get into labs and programs that were known to be good for mentorship and have healthy work environments. I was never selected, so in desperation to have work (pay bills) and stay in research, I took the few opportunities that came my way. As such, I ended up in toxic work environments.

      My and PD have been in different countries, subjects, under male and female supervisors, younger and more senior. Still the same story. I was beginning to think that I was unlucky until I read this post and the following comments. I also began to understand why women and minorties tend to drop out at high numbers during postdoc phase. I resent the idea that those of us that can’t get proper support aren’t doing enough to find it. Even if one searches for support networks, they aren’t so easy to find. I’ve paid for membership for programs and gone to conferences out of pocket, because I think good mentors are invaluble if they can be found. No luck so far. I think it’s mostly about being in the right place at the right time. As academics, we aren’t strangers to working and searching for opportunities, but there are only so many hours in the day, and sometimes life has to meet us part of the way.

      The bullies do great damage to our confideand career prospects, while enjoying the fruits of success that we are largely excluded from. I’m getting too old or this and I’m tired of being poor for no good reason after all of these years. With a heavy heart, I now leave the professional field that I’ve always wanted to work in.

    • Postdoc7, I am so sorry you are struggling with that. Your description sounds similar to my past situation, but I was only a post-bacc (not even a grad student). I learn a lot from readind this post and replies like yours, which helps me to understand how to best build resilience, identify red flags, and navigate the politics involved in academia. I am reading your comment nearly two years after you posted it, so I hope that you were able to get published and find healthier endeavors.

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  29. As only a post-baccalaureatte RA, I dealt with a toxic mentor for nearly four years. I am not even a grad student yet, but I have experienced both good and toxic mentoring relationships during my endeavors to build my CV for PhD applications. Many of the items listed in this post helped me to better understand what what toxic and what was not. After seeking treatment with three different therapists who said similar things to me about the unethical practices of one of my mentors, I finally decided to leave. But I am still dealing with the effects of that relationship as a nontraditional student, and the current problem of trying to rebuild my recommendation pool after having published and spent so much time with one toxic mentor. I am just grateful that I was not locked into a program as a grad student, but I am feeling the weight of having to play it safe while slowly moving forward to a related but different career path. I fear being narcissistically abused again, but I do not fear good criticism, as opposed to ad hominem attacks and what appeared to be stigmatizing jokes and remarks in public settings or during lab meetings. I was not the only one who has expressed concerns, but I was the only one (that I know of) who attempted to report this mentor to the chair. The chair could not really do anything to repair the relationship, nor did the chair seem willing to correct the mentor’s behavior, so I left. If I had impostor syndrome before, I have it a thousand-fold now. Thankfully, I found non-research mentors as well as a supportive (now retired) and former research mentor of mine to encourage me and offer me advice (after having vaguely taken the blame for a “burned bridge,” so as to avoid smearing my former toxic mentor’s name and reputation). I love research, so thankfully I never burned out from that, but I now have to deal with the traumatic effects of that enmeshed and toxic relationship. I do not know if I would ever be accepted into a PhD program now, but I am trying to start over by pursuing a related but different field.

  30. Just to keep this going, I’m now at 3rd year postdoc and things couldn’t have been worse than this. Postdoc advisor always checking when you leave the lab, what you’re doing, micromanaging every steps. Proposing to change the direction of the research fell upon deaf ears.

    Every postdocs in the lab want to get out asap. The only reason we happened to be in the same lab is because of massive recruitment at the time and we were naive.

  31. Thank you for this post! Although I have had good mentors, there was one toxic mentor who literally ruined my life by any means necessary, due to his countertransference and vulnerable narcissism issues. Psychological mentors can be the most toxic because they know how to harm not only your career, but also your mental health. They know exactly how to gaslight you and unethically pathologize you in the most unprofessional of ways. There is no iatrogenic harm when the harm done was intentional. And I was only a post-bacc. I have always wondered what horrors his graduate students face. I have seen one of them cry and another get so frustrated that she worked with another mentor more closely than her own. Further, discrimination and microaggressions make for a very toxic environment.

  32. I agree that some advisors can be toxic. But so can students and postdocs. What is rarely explained is that everything belongs to the advisor, three data is theirs because they pay for it and because they are legally liable to their funding agency. The advisor pays for everything, supplies, salaries , ruinous, living stipend and yees even rent on the lab space.
    Sthey are always under a timer to get grants or lose their lab. so the fact that they share all they have with you and all you have to is do the work is actually a good deal.

  33. I had a great masters supervisor in a subject I really enjoyed, he was incredibly knowledgeable, honest and a great programmer, and provided basic suggestions and advice on how to work and allowed me to develop my project quite independently; as a result I really enjoyed developing my masters thesis and worked really hard without needing external motivation / pushing. I was attached to my work and remember it fondly. Unfortunately I think it left me somewhat naive and with a rose tinted view on academic life and supervision.

    My PhD experience was a complete reversal of this. My ‘supervisor’ was an extremely narcissistic manipulator who pathologically lied from the very beginning. I was manipulated and pressured into writing papers in which I was not the corresponding author, and over the years my independence and attachment to the new project was destroyed. Project / paper objectives and methods were forced on me, and I was put into the position of writing opinions I did not agree with about work I felt was just stupid / poorly reasoned. Towards the end I felt disgusted by the whole experience and angry that it had really damaged my enjoyment of research and desire to write about my work, I have a tonne of negative associations with that research area now and I’m not certain what I’m going to do next.

    I discussed the problem with other academics and some small formal action was taken, however as I’ve read in other comments here I don’t think it had any real effect and I think it’s another case of someone in a position of tenure being almost immune to any repercussions from abusing their position and exploiting early-career researchers.

    A serious question is what to do about this phenomenon? I’ve seen it reflected in a number of other posts. Selfishly the main advice seems to be to get out of such a situation as quickly and quietly as possible; however this does nothing to help potentially very many other people walking into the same trap. N.B. for anyone reading this who feels they are in an unpleasant situation with a supervisor, I strongly recommend researching ‘narcissism’, and ‘covert narcissism’ in particular. A long term solution to this problem in society I think is equivalent to solving the psychological problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), i.e. how to detect and deal with such people.

    I’m very interested to see if this sounds familiar to others here, and please share opinions on how the problem can be satisfactorily resolved both personally and for the community. Personally from my basic research one suggestion is to work on exposing the poor behavior in public / the workplace, through increasingly open conversation and confrontation; it may be risky / uncomfortable, but that may be the price you pay for freedom from this kind of oppression.

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