Acknowledgment: Thanks to everyone who talked to me about this both on twitter and in person. Please join in the discussion – I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

We think a lot about mentoring here. About who we want to be, what we need, how to GTFO of a toxic situation (and help others in similar boat). I’ve been thinking about the role of my female mentors, and about my role in mentoring students and trainees.

There is a question I get asked with some regularity, it is “Why did you do your PhD and post-doc with women mentors? Was that on purpose?” The answer to the first question is “because they were doing the science I wanted to do” and to the second “yes, it was very much on purpose that I worked with people who were doing the science I wanted to do”. I usually answer that way, because I’m obstinate and I intensely dislike the question that is actually being asked – did I choose to work with women because I am a woman? Continue reading

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. Continue reading