I was a post doc at a large US university for a year and after took another postdoc position in my home country. My mentor was a tenure track assistant professor. It pretty soon became clear that working together was going to be difficult due to different ideas on how to approach and manage projects. Furthermore, I might eventually not have been the best fit for that position given the somewhat different topic of my PhD work. This ended in a complicated work relationship, in which several requests on my side calling for meetings to discuss ways to improve the situation were ignored.

All the while, in my opinion, I was treated abusively: in group meetings in front of the whole lab, I felt humiliated by unconstructive discussions and was called out for the too little progress I made. In smaller meetings with up to two other lab members, I was shouted at by my mentor and told I didn't deserve my PhD etc. Sometimes, reasonable questions of mine were answered in a passive-aggressive way. Furthermore, the significant amount of time I spent in helping more junior lab members in their (very ambitious) projects was not appreciated.

At the time, I asked a university official in charge of postdoc affairs for advice. I was being told that a formal complaint at HR or the department head would most likely have no direct consequences. I furthermore feared retaliation, mostly because my J1 visa and housing depended on that position. For these reasons, I did not take any further action.

At one point, I decided to quit the lab after the initial agreed-upon one-year duration of my stay. Two and a half months before I wanted to inform my mentor in a one-to-one meeting about my decision, but two e-mail requests for that meeting ("to discuss the fact that my contract ends", which is how I worded it) were ignored. I eventually managed to get hold of my mentor after a group meeting and in the following conversation, after asking me why I think the whole thing didn't work out, they did not acknowledge any wrongdoing or unprofessional behavior on their part, even after I brought up several examples.

Other, more junior lab members (PhD and master students; I was the first and only postdoc) reported similar incidents of unprofessional behavior, but also didn't speak up. My guess is that they, too, were fearing retaliation and didn't want to jeopardize the relationship with their supervisor.

My question now is how to achieve the following (in decreasing order of importance):

  • have my former mentor improve their behavior so that they treat future students and employees better
  • if that doesn't happen, make sure their propensity for unprofessional behavior is known to the tenure committee
  • be sure the other professors in the department know that both sides are to blame for what happened; that is, restore my reputation
  • find closure: I'm going to leave academia for industry soon, but feel my academic career could have been more successful and my stay in the great city this lab is located in even greater had it not been for the terrible time at work (although this might possibly be hard to answer and / or worth of its own question)

While I am aware that there are several questions on this site about similar issues, I believe mine is different because I left that lab a year and a half ago. I fear that, after such a long time, simply contacting the department chair will come across as bitter and and as wanting to retaliate at the end of my academic career.

edit:

As per Dan Romik's suggestion: I'm not only interested in advice how to achieve the above goals, but also whether this is actually adviseable. Also, as the time span of 1.5 years indicates, this isn't a super urgent matter for me. But I've been thinking about this question for a long time and I really appreciate all of you answers, most of them taking very different point of views! I don't know which one to accept - a natural choice would be to follow the suggestions I find most promising and see how it works out. Although not being accepted, this wouldn't make the other answers less valuable.

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    Were you payed for this year? Have you produced any research outputs to account for the salary you received? – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 14 at 13:23
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    It is common on this site that people writing answers will sometimes challenge the premises of the question and instead of (or in addition to) answering the actual question will try to tell the asker not to do the things they’re thinking of doing, when that’s not the kind of advice they asked for. (To be clear, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad practice, and sometimes do this myself.) You might want to clarify whether you only want specific advice about getting consequences for your mentor, or wouldn’t mind also getting more general thoughts about the advisability of the whole idea. – Dan Romik Sep 14 at 20:08
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    You simply cannot achieve those objectives (except of course the one regarding leaving academia). You should have made the complaint at the time. But again, you were advised correctly that as a postdoc, no power to damage a prof's career over such issues, was placed in your hands. But the complaint would help add to the pile of evidence against the person, for example, if they punch a student someday or something. Consider that you may have only got that opportunity because they drove away others before you, rather than being regretful about what might have been. So it was always doomed. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 14 at 22:05
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    Isn't it worrying that most of the answers simply suggest to let it go? What about the future students and postdocs? This just made me realize how poorly academia handles cases of abuse. – user347489 Sep 15 at 0:34
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a rant, not a question. – Bob Brown Sep 15 at 2:11

First, there is probably little that you can do to change anything. It has been too long. People won't remember, and as you say, it will sound like sour grapes.

Second, find a way to heal yourself and put the experience in the past. Seething anger, even when justified, will probably hurt you more than resolve the past abuse. Make sure that you go into future positions with open eyes, after exploring the environment before you dive in.

Third, while this doesn't excuse the behavior, your mentor was then very likely under a huge amount of stress and had no experience with the situation he was in. A tenure-track assistant professor is under a lot of pressure to produce for himself. That pressure alone, combined with inexperience might explain (not excuse) blow ups and inappropriate behavior. It may be that his own fear of failure was such that any provocation, no matter how slight, caused an overreaction. Perhaps he knows more now and is in a different place in which abuse of colleagues isn't his first response anymore. You can hope that is the case, but you can't affect it much. There are jerks (and worse) in academia.

There is no excuse for the situation you faced, of course. But if the institution isn't willing to address it, there is little you can do effectively and without blow-back on yourself.

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    Thank you for your answer. It is in line with my suspicion that there's little I can do. I agree that my mentor was (is) under a lot of pressure. Their complete lack of self-reflection in the exit conversation and other information I have gotten since make me doubt that they know better now. As for your last paragraph, I am not sure the institution knows, as also the official I talked to did, on my request, not take any action. It is well possible, though, that word about these and similar incidents spread in the department. – user96212 Sep 14 at 14:53
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    I do think that being under pressure does not excuse treating people badly. – Wolfgang Bangerth Sep 14 at 17:29
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    @WolfgangBangerth it may not excuse it, but it can explain it. Since people aren't perfect. – mathreadler Sep 15 at 22:51
  • @mathreadler -- I have no tolerance for faculty treating students poorly, pressure or not. – Wolfgang Bangerth Sep 17 at 2:48
  • @WolfgangBangerth Are you saying you can't take the pressure of others pressure regulation? – mathreadler Sep 17 at 7:16

Academia is built on professionalism and goodwill. In academia people are expected to be experts of highest possible calibre, excellent in both teaching and research, capable of managing both funds and people, communicate complex ideas to various audiences, predict and mitigate risks, meet and exceed expectations of colleagues and stakeholders, achieve impossible and remain calm and smile all the time. This is a glamoured picture of academia, produced by the success-centred culture of modern society.

Reality, of course, is somewhat different: academics are people, too. We have strengths in some areas, but we need time to pick up the other skills. Your PI was good in securing external funding but not so good in managing meetings. You were good in helping other students but not so good in achieving the goals set for you. From what I see, you both under-performed in your roles.

I understand that you are frustrated and want to make sure there are consequences for your former PI for not standing up to your expectations. I assure you, not meeting the publication goals of the first grant is going to result in quite real consequences for your PI. It will be very difficult for them to secure another grant, which very likely will result in not having a tenure. Your PI's actions were possibly explained (but not justified) by this pressure.

Some years later, this brief encounter with your former PI will be only a small insignificant episode for you. I am not sure what you want to achieve for yourself by going after your former PI in the way you described. You want to hurt their career? — arguably, you already did quite well in it.

I would suggest to reflect on this episode and think about your future career. What could've you done better to reduce the unprofessional criticism and tunnel it into a more constructive way? How would you respond if a similar situation happens in industry? What procedures does your future company have to help resolve such issues? What makes a better professional and how you can become one?

I wish you good luck in your future career.

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    Thanks for your honest answer, with which I partly agree. I admit some frustration on my part and agree that we likely both underperformed. I, however, strongly reject your notion that I'm looking to "go after my PI". I want them to have the career they work hard for, but most of all I'd like future employees and student to be treated appropriately by them. As for your last paragraph, I think this is an important point. I agree that there are quite a few lessons to be learned from this experience which will help me in my future career. – user96212 Sep 14 at 15:10
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    @user96212 Not only you want to change your PI's behaviour, but also inform PI's tenure panel and colleagues of his/her lack of professionalism. Tenure panel would not "improve" your PI, it will simply deny them tenure and kick them out of academia, what else do you expect? Seriously, if this is not retaliation, then what is? – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 14 at 15:22
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    Please read my bullet points again: if my former PI doesn't improve their behavior, then the tenure committee should know that. If they learned from that episode, then great! I'll be (in fact, am) happy in another job and they will be in theirs. But (repeatedly) treating one's subordinates in such a fashion is, IMHO, not a "weakness", but a disqualification for this (and any other) profession. I realize, though, that evaluating whether they improved their employee management skills is not my responsibility, probably rendering this specific bullet point moot. – user96212 Sep 14 at 15:35
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    @Dawn the problem is that some abusive advisors manage to be successful despite (or in some cases because of) being abusive. There is no guarantee that any negative consequences the mentor will suffer are sufficiently negative to cause him to change his ways, or that they are anything on the same order of magnitude of negativity as what OP suffered. The more correct parenting analogy would be if your kid did something stupid and broke someone else’s arm (while possibly suffering a couple of minor scratches herself). – Dan Romik Sep 14 at 20:15
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    This answer seems a bit arrogant in some of its assumptions. “Some years later, this encounter will only be a small insignificant episode for you.” How do you know that? You are not the OP. Furthermore, your answer suggests that the mentor has already suffered equal consequences in the form of not getting publications. Recall that we’re talking about abuse here. Relatively speaking, a few publications here and there do not necessarily constitute a punishment of comparable magnitude. Maybe the mentor really should lose the possibility of tenure, as it may help to prevent such incidents later. – Shalop Sep 15 at 4:33

tl;dr: Don't waste your life on this but do take some action against the abuser. It will help you inside and also do a greater favor to the field.

As other answers stated, you faced a tutor pressured by a tenure track, and chances are your actions will result in little more than largely wasting precious time. However, I do believe something ought to be done about that.

What you describe is a typical situation in modern academia: staff abuses power and everyone else takes it, for fear of career & reputation retaliation, and the rotten ambiance keeps growing. The typical result is: almost everyone who was afraid of "having their careers ruined" by their abuser drop out anyway, leaving to the others staying a message that abusing others is totally cool.

I find this circle both irrational (i.e. why not stand for oneself if dropping out was a plan anyway) and pathetic (a system sustained by passive-aggressive fear of feeble workmates).

Mind that a fighter should be ready to getting hurt. If you expect to harm others without any consequences, you've just become like your abuser.

Provided you're willing to stand up and send the message to this person, think carefully what are your options. From your post, I think the shortest path to achieve your goals is to somehow neutralise this person. You cannot expect him/her to mend ways after so many having confirmed that abusing others is the sure way to the top. You should aim at having this person seriously exposed and if possibly sacked. If you're thinking of taking this affair merely lightly, just be bold enough to call and/or meet directly the maggot and spell out your best swearwords in the face.

There are several ways of exposing bad behaviour. Take a look, for instance into the following websites, tailored for academicians: (i) http://www.qcist.com; (ii) https://www.ratemypi.com. Contact his prior advisees, and gather their complaints, stories. Organise a meeting or online group to discuss these; ask them whether they'd like to speak out. Offer them help, blog about the joint experience. Tweet about it, give interviews, raise some drama! -- there's a lot of open support offered to harassed ex-academics nowadays. Do you think there might be any published misconduct in this person? Carefully read his/her publications and look for any glaring issues (plagiarism, data manipulation, apparent conflicts of interests). A scientific retraction is guaranteed to leave a permanent blemish, and attracts a lot of bad publicity. Suit up and go back to your institution, and formally complain to the administration; leave a written letter and rate the place online (e.g. Glassdoor.com ).

Take one thing for a fact: abusers are usually greater cowards than any fighter. In reality they should, as they have way more to lose than you. Test it out and you will find that. Also, what is the worst this person could feasibly do to you? Are you sure an academic has any actual power or relevant contacts outside of their department corridor? These people (and perhaps you) pretend to believe the world is contained inside their small ivory tower.

I am sure s/he will freeze to the bones when seeing you coming back from the past ready for a fight. On the other hand you will be feeling swell. If you will play this act, you will have to show your face.

Good luck.

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    Actually, I'm afraid that s/he will become enraged and use whatever power they possess to try and ruin your career, not "freeze to the bones". If they have such power, be aware of the possible consequences before you act. At some level of power imbalance it isn't about fairness, anymore, but safety. A "feel good" action that leaves you dead is less than optimal. – Buffy Sep 14 at 17:13
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    @Buffy I know, I am from inside the academia. Everyone is afraid that everyone else is some kind of political warlock. I will not dig into details but I have repeatedly fought abusers. I have had bad scientists exposed and sacked... already as a PhD student, against the dean. It was very hard, and I had no idea. I got my PhD and keep proceeding quite well. Almost everyone is such a coward in the corporate environment, really. Typically the worst they will do is trying to isolate opponents by amateurish gossip (call it LoR) and avoid eye contact. And OP is moving to industry, maybe abroad. – Scientist Sep 14 at 17:20
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    BTW a suggestion to anyone thinking of leaving academia: take a look into associations for PhDs and postdocs, such as e.g. cheekyscientist.com There will surely be some accounts from peers who got back on their abusers, as a reference. – Scientist Sep 14 at 17:35
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    While I appreciate your answer and agree that the circle of not speaking out leading to continued abuse of others should be interrupted, I honestly don't think I'm confident enough to take on a fight on that level. If instead I could say that I didn't do any mistakes in this episode, I would definitely consider it. It is a good point to check whether abuse (not only in my case, but in general!) is part of a larger pattern of unprofessional behaviour - there definitely was one instance when objections I raised about promising data were pretty much ignored. I'll definitely keep an eye out. – user96212 Sep 17 at 9:38
  • "a fight on that level" -- Mind I have proposed a number of lines of action, at different "levels". Certainly you don't need to take all of them, as that would probably cost you too much time and energy. Giving this person bad evaluations (in situ and/or online) and direct feedback (preferentially straight in the face) would probably already help a lot. A piece of advice for the future and to anyone else reading: always resist abusers, somehow. It will happen again, it is probably happening already, just don't let these guys comfortably thrive. – Scientist Sep 17 at 14:33

I’m very sorry you were treated badly and wish you the best of luck with your career.

About your question, I don’t feel I can advise you on how (or whether) to proceed with your plan, but a couple of things I think you need to consider very carefully are:

  1. You say part of your motivation is to “restore your reputation” among the professors in your former department. However I think the actions you are contemplating may carry a real risk of damaging your reputation, both in the department and potentially outside of it (especially if some sort of public scandal ensues as a result of your accusations). Unless your accusations are 100% based on facts rather than opinions and all the facts are impeccably documented, you will be exposing yourself to accusations of lying, exaggerating, making things up etc. Even if you tell the truth and have the evidence to back up all your claims, some people (in addition to the mentor, who obviously will become your enemy for life) may resent you for damaging the career of their colleague and think that your actions reflect poorly on you.

  2. Another very real risk is that the mentor might sue you for defamation, and maybe even win. I suggest famialiarizing yourself with defamation law in the US (and any relevant local jurisdictions). Given how serious the topic is and how much is on the line, I would also recommend that you consult a lawyer before you take any actions that might expose you to a defamation claim.

Good luck!

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    I unfortunately do not have documentation of these instances - this is a lesson I learned: whenever something odd happens in the workplace, write it down with exact date & time, wording and list of witnesses. You never know; maybe it's just the first of many such events. As for 2.): also a really important point! – user96212 Sep 17 at 9:43

I'd just like to add something that stuck out to me:

I felt humiliated by unconstructive discussions and was called out for the too little progress I made. ... Furthermore, the significant amount of time I spent in helping more junior lab members in their (very ambitious) projects was not appreciated.

From a different perspective, this could be seen as spending a lot of time on something that wasn't your responsibility and that was taking time away from things that were your responsibility. Your priority is to fulfill your specified duties first, then help others as much as possible. If their work not getting done or not getting done correctly was causing you problems, you needed to communicate that to your colleagues so that a solution can be found. Perhaps it would have been that your duties would have been shifted to include what you were doing; perhaps some other solution would have been found. Maybe it was their hope to decrease everyone's workload by getting those students to narrow their project into something more manageable; if so, your enormous assistance may have torpedoed that goal. Regardless, by communicating about it, you wouldn't be unilaterally deciding your priorities are different than your explicitly stated ones.

To put it bluntly, perhaps this other person became frustrated and acted out because they perceived you as shirking your responsibilities and interfering with theirs. Combined with the difficulties you mention coming to agreement regarding project management, they may have decided you were a sort of "trouble maker," so to speak. And perhaps even more frustratingly, they didn't feel they had the authority to be the one to confront you about it. Of course, none of this would excuse any of their behavior (least of all ignoring meeting requests), and I do not wish to defend the behavior. However, it would make the behavior a little bit more understandable, even if it was a totally wrong view.

This is all speculative, of course. We're only outsiders with limited details. But there's more often than not two sides to a conflict, so it's worth considering if the other side might have a point. I get the impression that you know that no one was perfect in this situation, but perhaps there are still important lessons about working with others that you need to be more aware of. So maybe asking yourself the question, "What could I have done better?" is in order. Doing so doesn't mean believing the other person was in the right. It just means accepting the reality that you can only really control yourself and the responsibility of doing the right thing as much as you are able.

  • Well spotted! I do think, though, that the "significant effort" I was mentioning was somewhat of an overstatement. In total, I spent maybe two weeks helping the students. Supporting them (I believe, also to that extent) was by explicit direction of the PI. I worked with the students for a short period of time only, in which I wasn't able to work as much on my project as my PI wanted me to. Perhaps you are right that in this instance, expectations were not clearly communicated and my PI thus was disappointed. – user96212 Sep 17 at 9:57
  • @user96212 All fair. As I said, we have limited details. But the crux of the answer is to take a step back and ask the question, "How can I do better?" And even if the specific scenario I suggested isn't the case, you are in a position to ask that question and come up with answers about what might have frustrated your mentor. – jpmc26 Sep 17 at 16:33

I believe that this is a very general problem, and that there is little one can do. When the criticism comes from outside, there is no reason for anyone to take any action within the institution. When it comes from inside the institution, unless the behaviour is criminal, probably nothing will be done. It's a sad fact that there is almost no open criticism of tenured academics, especially once they have embedded themselves into the system.

I agree with you that we are propagating this system by not commenting, but I couldn't blame you if you don't. I think the chance of further harm coming from commenting is reason enough not to. And of course if you publish the name of the PI online, or reference them somehow, you could be sued for libel.

I like to think that eventually these people will be forced to "change their ways" when people decide that they can't work in these conditions. Unfortunately this is rarely the case, and so there are many PIs just like the one you described.

Most academic fields have at least ten people competing for each position. (PhD programs are notorious for accepting and training far more people than their fields can employ.) This is an unfortunate system, because you, and your misbehaving supervisor (not yet tenured), are both without power. Both of you can be replaced at the whim of the department's leadership.

Why do I mention this? Becausse you propose to engage in a power struggle to make this supervisor face consequences. A power struggle is not going to work, because, unfortunately, you have no power. (In USA in a commercial workplace you might have some leverage: mistreating people gets companies, not just individuals, in big trouble.)

You know, other people, with more power than you and longer-term relationships with this person, have surely taken note of this kind of bad behavior. You were only there a year. By giving your input you may be bringing peat to Newcastle.

If someone asks you, "should I do a postdoc there?" you can certainly recount your experience, and advise against it. But don't do it by email or in writing.

Otherwise, you have more to lose than you have to gain by trying to bust this guy. Chalk it up to experience, don't look back, and resolve never to treat people who work for you that way.

You will most likely find commercial colleagues much easier to deal with than academic colleagues. There's a company somewhere that will benefit from your rigorous training and expertise. All the best in your career.

  • I understand the OP is already on a job and moving to a completely different sphere. There would be no power struggle then. Typically a professor only has (some) influence among his peers and perhaps with a funding agency and/or publisher. These "don't exist" in the real world. – Scientist Sep 17 at 0:05

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