When trainees go bad

Toxic work environments – including lab environments – are bad for everyone. They are utterly destructive to those involved, to the rest of the lab, and to the PI. We have discussed toxic mentors, problematic advisors, and mentoring styles, with the goal of understanding how to identify toxic situations and how to survive and get out intact. These situations are especially despicable due to power imbalances between PI and trainee.

But what happens when it’s not the mentor but a trainee that is the major source of problems in the lab? . This is a very different issue from toxic PIs – there isn’t the same kind of power imbalance, and there is much more protection for the PI than there is for trainees. Nevertheless, a problematic individual in the lab can cause massive amounts of stress for both the PI and the other trainees in the lab. We don’t often talk about “toxic” trainees, or even “difficult” trainees, or trainees that are making everything more difficult for everyone. Perhaps we should.

To be clear, I’m not talking about normal life-issues such as a relationship breakup, a family situation, a mental health issue. Anything that causes stress. Experiments failing over and over again. Unhappiness simply from being in the lab – whether that’s doing research, the specific research, or a personality conflict within the lab. It could be due to a personality conflict with the PI themselves. These things happen all the time, they are hard, they are often transient, and they rarely cause serious problems for other people in the lab.

I’m talking about the rare cases when something/someone spirals out of control and, despite attempts at interventions, has an ongiong negative impact on the other trainees in the lab, the research, and you as the PI. What would you do if one of your trainees came to you and described a situation in which they felt that one of the other trainees was causing major problems? That they, or others in the lab, felt unsafe with this person nearby? That they were concerned that research was not being done appropriately or others’ work was being sabotaged? Or even that they were disruptive and making everyone miserable? What if there are different stories being told to different people in the lab, keeping everyone off balance? Or academic misconduct? What if over the course of a couple of months, several other people in the lab had commented on the bad behavior of one person, and this corroborated your own observations?

When do you decide that a situation is “too much”?

What would you do?

More to the point, what CAN you do?

On the face of it, having a trainee in the lab that is causing problems seems like a simple issue to fix: the PI can intervene in some way to disarm the problem, call on other people in the department/program to help, and if necessary remove the individual from the lab. But few things are this simple. What happens if you talk to the person, develop a strategy for moving forward, and… nothing changes? No-one really wants to push a trainee out just because they are having a difficult time, but at some point problems can become untenable. And (appropriately) there are safeguards for both students and employees to ensure fair process. In most institutions, you cannot terminate a post-doc or employee’s contract (after the probation period) without a lot of detailed documentation. Similarly, most programs cannot kick a student out of a lab without long running documentation and intervention by other faculty in the program.

Beyond what is possible, there is also fear of the rumor mill. If I remove a trainee from my lab for documented and egregious behavior, what is to stop rumors spreading about my unfair treatment of the student in question? Every program I have been a part of – whether as a student, post-doc, or faculty member – there has been a story on the grapevine about vindictive PI that was meaner than necessary to a student who ended up leaving the program. Sometimes this is the real story. More often it’s a much more complicated, longer running and frustrating story than that – a story that the student body cannot know due to privacy issues. There have also been (less frequent) stories about trainees that have terrorized others in the lab, and the PI was unwilling or unable to do anything. Again, the story is always more complicated.

In the end, regardless of the outcome, the PI usually survives, maybe not without scars, but what about other trainees in the lab? What about potential students who took one look at the lab and ran away? What about that lingering sense of guilt that perhaps there was something that one should have done, or could have done, to head off the situation before it spiraled out of control? And how can “next time” be prevented/avoided?

I’m also curious as to how many people have experienced someone in the lab (either as your peer or as your trainee) that was destructive? How did you deal with it? What support did you get? What support was available to the people in your lab? How would you do it differently next time?

20 thoughts on “When trainees go bad

  1. Interesting post, thank you! The only incident I’ve seen so far was with a non-matriculated student who wasn’t ‘officially’ a graduate student in the department. Based on his course performance and interactions with other students we saw the writing on the wall re: future problems. I had been ambivalent about the ‘probationary’ semester we suggest for a lot of our potential graduate students, but now I am fully in support of it. Much easier to keep a student from entering than kicking them out!

  2. Excellent post. From past experience, I can only echo the “documentation” point, which saved me once. Even if you only suspect something and are not sure, take notes. Our ombudsperson will also act as a confidential documentarian, which can be useful if you want to (or need to) go public later. The graduate program directors, department chairs, ombuds office and dean of students are all good resources for this kind of issue. Ultimately, a destructive trainee is an unhappy trainee, and getting them out of the lab is probably best for their career in the long run.

    • Yes, I echo this… three pieces of advice … documentation, documentation, documentation (if possible keep paper copies of electronic notes or emails as backup). If the situation resolves itself, no harm is done – the notes can help you develop as a mentor. If the situation gets nastier, then contemporaneous notes of yours or reports of conversations with others can show that it was an ongoing problem, not a vindictive act on your part. (In another situation, documentation has saved my head, and my sanity).

  3. I was tormented by a horribly vindictive trainee (a peer) in my lab for all of graduate school. The PI did not know what to do and so did nothing. The former trainee continues to be vindictive and sabotaging, but now that I am no longer a student, I have no protection. The rumor mill has not been effective at buffering this person’s assaults on me and my career. I wish the PI had done something to help me while in graduate school. I think about leaving academia every day because this vindictive person makes continuing my career look so dismal.

    • I also find it frustrating that most of the comments here so far are about documentation, i.e., saving your own bum in the event that the university needs to get involved. I agree that it’s important to protect yourself, but please also remember that your job as a PI is to help protect your students when a toxic peer is harming their career. You have a job. Your students don’t. Yes, protect yourself, and document, get the ombudsman involved, do whatever you need to do. But please don’t stop there.

      • I am sorry if you read my comments as protecting one’s own backside. I imply documentation to be just that – recording all aspects of the case, with everyone (including the suspected “stirrer”)’s interests mentione. You don’t know how it is going to pan out at the end, so it is important to make sure everyone’s viewpoint is commented on, so that it can be used (or not) if necessary later. A one-dimensional opinion would not be nearly so useful.

        • … and I read a later post after writing this … “gut instincts” should also be mentioned in any notes you make, even if you do not use them in formal discussions later. I agree they are important, even if just as an early indicator of a bad fit.

      • This happened to me, too. I was bullied by two senior grad students starting the day I arrived on campus. The worst part wasn’t even that my PI didn’t know what to do, but that she blamed me. It was two peoples’ words against the word of one new student, after all. She even made me apologize to them. And then I just had to keep living with it. To anyone out there who is experiencing a situation like this: go talk to your graduate ombudsperson if you are being bullied. The sooner you go, the better, because this documents your situation. There are resources out there to help you!

        • is it common to have grad specific omsbud? My large R1 only has a faculty/staff omsbud. So grads can access the person if they are a TA, RA or PA but not if they are on fellowship.

  4. When I was a postdoc in the 90’s, there was one graduate student in the group who single-handedly made the atmosphere very toxic. He was an arrogant a$$hole to everyone in the group except for his girlfriend (who was also in the group), stole glassware from everyone (even from other groups), was a horrible lab citizen, etc, etc. Making matters worse, he was incredibly thin-skinned and took offense very easily. For instance, he repeatedly put up photos of scantily clad women on the screensavers on the group computers but rather than taking an hint the first few times we replaced the screensavers with something innocuous, he pitched a fit when the women in the group finally got fed up and put up a picture of shirtless men on the screensaver. Almost much everyone in the group got into screaming matches with him at one point or another.
    Our advisor was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and the rest of the group was pretty easy to get along with too. We hesitated to go to our advisor with the problem, thinking it was something we needed to deal with on our own. So naturally the situation festered and got worse. After I left, our advisor witnessed one of the screaming matches. It turns out he had no clue that the one student was such a problem. I don’t know if anything changed after that, but in retrospect we should have brought it to his attention much much earlier.
    Now that I’m on the other side, I try to keep an eye on potentially toxic situations in the group, and the students know they can come talk to me with their concerns. It’s tricky, though. I’ve got one student who likes to “stir the pot” and get other people in trouble, so I have to take that with a grain of salt. In the past I’ve seen how one or two bad attitudes in an office can bring the rest of the officemates down.

  5. A student in my cohort was dismissed from our program after failing the re-take of her quals. Officially it was due to academic performance (which was definitely poor) but unofficially it was because she came into conflict with so many people in the department. She was needlessly confrontational, tried to bully other students and staff into doing work for her, and had a shocking lack of self-insight. A few months before her dismissal she made some wry comment about how she was “learning that a lot of people in are afraid of conflict” and I remember biting my tongue very hard. No one was surprised or particularly sad to see her go.

  6. My very first grad student was an alpha…person who told my undergrads to ignore what I’d just said, behind my back; replaced the custom software I wrote; brought friends into the lab on a Saturday night (and then posted pictures to that book!) after two explicit “no one in the lab but lab workers” warnings; brought the grade form already filled in with an ‘A’ for me to sign; made sexist jokes and remarks both in lab and in class. This is on top of several more mundane failings as both a grad student and a TA.

    Can you guess the gender?
    Yes, I tossed him with support from chair and grad director. Yes, I’m still suffering on the rumor mill (although time tells the truth like nothing else) and scarred from the experience. Yes, my lab is so much better off.

  7. As well as your own documentation of the developing situation, it may be worthwhile talking to other members of staff – technical staff as well as academics. I have only had these confrontations in lab classes, not in a research lab, but in every case when I have mentioned it to other staff, they have corroborated that the individual was badly behaved with others, or in other classes, as well (in one situation a student physically threatened a technical person). Knowing that it isn’t “just you” can make your decisions feel more rational, and may make it easier to deal with the student (whether that be removing him/her or whatever).

  8. This is an important topic. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had a toxic member in my own lab group yet. When I have had issues with students it’s always because I didn’t listen to my gut instincts (which is not very scientific I know). In retrospect in all of these cases I felt that the “fit” between myself and the student was missing something, but I would be hard pressed to articulate clearly what the issue was. I have learned over time to go with my instincts when deciding which students I let into my lab group. I also ask my trainees to help with the interview process for potential new members. I remember meeting faculty job applicants as a graduate student and I was amazed at how many showed one side to faculty members and a completely different personality to grad students.

  9. Yes, I was in a lab where there was a toxic trainee- his behavior made me leave. He tried to bully me to delete data from the server, openly admitted to me that he lies to our advisor about his sample preparation methods, and he would shout at younger students (especially females) and accuse them of making a mess, and claim everyone was delaying his work. He always rolled in at noon and bought lunch and worked about four hours before heading out. He’s been working on his thesis eight years, and he’s quite plainly a fraud. Another lab member recalls how he shouted at her when she joined the lab. All the undergrads who come to work with him leave within weeks. He’s a jerk, and not a very clever one to boot.
    And yet. Yet. My advisor has chosen to graduate him. I told her how he behaves, I told her about his sloppiness, and I told her he _admitted_ to fraud, and she has continued to give him a stipend, graduate him, and paid for him to go to a conference, and she’ll publish his work and let him defend his thesis. Amazing, isn’t it?

    • I wish it were amazing, but sadly, no. Your advisor is probably just looking out for their own interests. I’ve learned the hard way that the best thing to do is not to bother to speak up unless I have something to gain. Sad, isn’t it? But all too common….

      I want echo what was said above by “anonymous.” If you are a PI, it is YOUR JOB to deal with these situations. Turning a blind eye or sticking your head in the sand is simply not acceptable. This is a great way to lose the respect of the other students in your lab, by failing them in this way.

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  11. It really is important to remember the saw cuts both ways. In my opinion, the absolute worst of bullies is the passive-aggressive one. I’m willing to bet most of you know the phenotype. They tend to be witty, charming… perhaps even accommodating when the right people are watching. They also tend to really overdo the whole politically-correct professionalism thing. But when the pounce, they draw blood. I’ve seen both underlings and PIs behave this way. Sadly, there seems little anyone can do to avoid it, so long as you are working for someone else. Even PIs work for someone… .

    My most recent experience with this was by far and away my worst. The PI was lil’ Ms. Professional, and always talked a good talk. But she was lazy, sloppy and incompetent. And, everyone else paid the price. She even went so far as to place TWO PhD students on probation for her malpractice. I was one of them. When I appealed the probation, she resigned as my mentor, stating for the record “she could no longer advice me because I went over her head to the dean and failed to seek her advice”. Failed to seek her advice??? That would have been like offering the executioner an axe.

    She plagiarized me. She threatened me with termination if I did not continue working while surrounded by wildfire. She published falsified & fabricated data. She reneged on every promise ever made to me. These are but a few examples of the bullying. I not only survived… but I succeeded. I kept working and did not let the actions of an imbecile derail my career. And I think that is the take home message- there are dinks around every corner… so look busy!

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