I am a first-year PhD student in Biology and I am currently working in a lab for a very hard-to-please PI (a new PI who started a couple years ago and only just recruited her first few graduate students). I am very interested and excited about this line of research and I really want to do what I am doing. But my PI's way of managing people makes everyone miserable and I am not sure what to do.

Background: Last fall, I rotated in a lab which I really enjoyed working in and generated some great data, but had to leave, along with the other rotation student, because PI had no funding. In the spring, I rotated with a brand new PI, whose lab I helped set up and started on a project, but did not stay in his lab because his management was very poor - was never around, didn't know or care what was going on with projects, etc, and I was also advised to join a different lab by the academic coordinator who said they thought this PI was not "ready" to handle a graduate student. So then, I started a THIRD rotation in another "new" PI's lab and have been here for three months.

This person's research is really great, but their management seems to focus heavily on threatening language and negative reinforcement. They often send very angry emails to the lab. When this person is feeling "iffy" about you because you didn't get fantastic results or you responded to an email too slowly, they will tell you to your face that you are not worth their time to mentor if you don't "try harder." I recently gave PI a sequence alignment, but accidentally gave them the wrong version of the sequence, and as a result, they said they would not be willing to fund me as an RA. PI actually made the same mistake when they did the sequence comparison (which is OKAY! It is an easy mistake to make!), but they were just so harsh on me for the mistake. All their communication with me makes me feel that, despite my good merits, progress or improvements, they disapprove of me or are angry with me. They deal with my labmates in the same way and my labmates have often expressed their worries and stresses to me over this. I should note that some of my labmates are well-accomplished, highly dedicated post-doctoral researchers who devote ALL of their time and efforts to their work. The dynamic in the lab overall is not very good, in part because people feel increased anxiety from the PI's anger or lack of professionalism in expressing themself. It is really a huge distraction from my work whenever PI is talking about kicking me out of the lab. I go from focused on an experiment to panicking about what to do or who I should talk to.

I still respect this person as a scientist, but I feel at times that this harsh style of management/dealing with people is too much for me. I am not perfect, but I am trying very hard and have made so much progress on my work, I just wish PI would recognize this. Almost in my second year of graduate school, and with the school potentially not able to support me with a TA in the future, and with me working in my third lab, I am extremely stressed out by this situation. I feel that, if I do not make it work in this miserable lab, I will be kicked out of the school and then lose my chance to earn a PhD.

What is a good way to deal with this type of advisor and how to keep clam and focused in the lab with this kind of stress? Any advice is appreciated.

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    As several professors here have previously pointed out in other questions, Don't Walk, Run ! – Shion Aug 8 '13 at 5:15
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    @Shion The OP's problem is where to run. It's already his third rotate. IMHO, he needs to figure out a way to stay. – scaaahu Aug 8 '13 at 5:25
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    Don't walk. Run. Abuse is simply not acceptable. Don't accept it from your PI. You need a new advisor, and from the sound of it, a new department that doesn't hire so many jerks who aren't "prepared" for students. Get out. – JeffE Aug 8 '13 at 11:34
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    P.S. I really like this kind of questions. in part because it shows that academia isn't always about success. One thing I know for sure: You can't be good researcher and have good results under such harsh environment. – seteropere Aug 8 '13 at 12:29
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    I just thought I should add that this PI is not just threatening/talking. They do indeed have a history of kicking out a lot of people (EIGHT people, I've learned). – user8088 Aug 8 '13 at 14:48

Don't walk, run.

This kind of behaviour should be viewed as entirely unprofessional and unacceptable in any working environment; it astonishes me what gets politely overlooked in the academic world. What you describe is bullying. While the work may be exciting, it is doubtful that you will ever be able to flourish as an independent researcher facing daily abuse from your supervisor and suffering the toxic secondhand effect of your supervisor abusing your colleagues. I cannot imagine that after several years of that you will still be able to maintain the same level of enthusiasm for your work, and perhaps for academia altogether.

First off, I'm really sorry about your situation. It's certainly not a nice boat to be on, metaphorically speaking...

Since you have omitted any information about where you live and work, I don't really know what rules and regulation apply, likewise what the "norm" of a PI - grad student relationship is over there. So I will try to keep it as general as possible.

Let's start by looking at your options, you can:

  1. keep wishing that the PI will eventually realize your efforts and give you a break
  2. accept the constant stress and harassment (yes threatening someone is a form of harassment)
  3. leave the lab
  4. communicate your concerns to the PI

(1) and (2) are pretty self-explanatory. Let's consider (3) for a second, why would you want to work in a lab like that? I know that cultures vary and level of respect and fear professors command is scary at certain countries/cultures but I honestly don't get why you would be willing to put up with that. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that working in a lab like that will make you work harder and get better results (and I sincerely doubt this will be the case in the long run), who cares that you got a publication in a fancy journal if you hate your life every day. I am possibly dramatizing it a bit to make my point clear. Honestly if you have been doing research with 3 different PIs and none are sound to work with, I'd consider some other uni/lab.

Lastly (4); communicate your concerns. You have mentioned that other people have similar problems with this PI. Gather some good arguments; enriched with facts, numbers that cannot be easily denied... Then try to get a 1-to-1 meeting with the PI, and simply tell the person that s/he is terrorizing the lab, and it's hurting peoples mood and ultimately effectivity. If you make good, logical points without diving into emotions and thoughts and beliefs, you could actually make your concerns heard right there and then.

If the PI in question completely ignores your concerns, and ultimately tells you "my way or highway" then one option would be go pursue your legal rights. I don't know what the situation is where you work, but in Sweden PhD students are actually employed by the university, and thus by the state (exceptions exist, but that's beside the point). So you have certain rights assured by your employment. Even without a formal employment, i.e. only a student, you should have some rights and some representation towards the faculty. The student unions here in Scandinavia are pretty strong and well connected. They actually work together with the faculty and university administration to catch up, and deal with issues like this. I would recommend you to try and see if there is a similar concept in your university.

That's all I got, hope the situation resolves itself soon. Good luck!

Sorry to hear about your situation. But as others pointed out, based on my own experience, I have following pointers:

  1. In my personal experience, there is no way the situation will get better. Your PI is less likely to be punished for her behavior. So when a thief is not caught while stealing from a cookie-jar, the encouragement for the thief is to steal more, and more, and more. So, you should assume that you are in for abuse for a very long time. It would be a wishful thinking that she would change, and you cannot base your decision on something that you can't control (i.e. change in behavior of your PI).

  2. The second question: How common are these situations? Answer: Shockingly common. It is one of the biggest shames of modern academia. It really stems from a general culture of immunity and impunity - a "cozy club" in which faculty members operate and protect each other. This does not mean you have to accept it as a fact of life and continue to take abuse. Road accidents are also common. It does not mean we stop driving in a car. The key is to be more careful while driving, more careful while choosing the next PI: do your research, meet students, email former students/postdocs, keep thinking of alternatives. Academia is like a lawless country: if you complain against your adviser, her friends and colleagues would be the judge, jury and prosecutor. There is no hope of a fair trial. During the course of your complaint process, you will face character assassination, slander and even more harassment. So, do not even try to "handle" the situation by going through the official complaint process unless you have resources for legal recourse.

  3. Things have gone so bad these days that I see news of lawsuits by grad students every now and then. For example, check these ones out:

http://chronicle.com/article/My-Adviser-Stole-My-Research/135694/

http://www.gwhatchet.com/2014/02/23/in-rare-court-appearance-gw-will-face-former-graduate-student-alleging-emotional-distress/

https://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/blog_posts/1747

As is the case with other fields/sectors, only appropriate laws and legal action can flush the corrupt advisers out. Turns out there is more awareness on such issues these days, and this has not escaped the attention of even some lawmakers. For example, see this:

http://www.wyden.senate.gov/news/photo-gallery/student-right-to-know-before-you-go-act-introduction-and-discussion

  1. Suppose you decide to stay and take the abuse for several years or even a decade. Would that make you a successful researcher? Most likely the answer is in negative. Your PI's exploitative conduct and toxic work environment would not let you think independently. The very fact that you currently think this is a good lab and you are working on the best topics is already a sign of some brainwashing you might have suffered. A lab is not good if its citizens are mistreated. Period. A thesis topic or research field is not good if you work on it in an environment of fear. Period. Compare this with scientists forced to work in a concentration camp: they are mistreated, they don't publish and nobody knows such researchers. Look around you - you will find that most the successful students who came from reputed labs have stories of how good their relationship with their advisers were. Do you have such a story to tell? No. Would you eventually have a nice story to tell? Less likely.

Having analyzed the situation, let's come to the solutions:

  1. Is there a way you could quit this lab, say today, and have your studies continued? Is there any such way? If the answer is yes, then you have to "run" to that solution. Like someone said, "don't walk, run". The sooner the better.

  2. As a student, you don't want to lose any of your years, and want to build on whatever best you have got. People like your PI know this and take advantage of the student's psyche by making false promises, threats, baits and harassment. You have to liberate yourself from this psyche. If you could transfer to another university, may be credit a few more courses, go through the admission again, it would benefit you as an independent person and researcher. You have to understand that the situation would not improve, and there is a good chance you will get a better PI in a better place.

  3. Finally, instead of feeling inferior, you have to realize that your PI indeed likes your work. But she thinks it is beneath her to appreciate your efforts. Also, she has figured out that she can get more work out of you by berating you. That itself tells you two things: you will not gain anything by trying to "impress her", and that you are really good to go somewhere else.

I encountered an abusive adviser in my PhD. It took me five years to come to terms with a sad fact that I was being exploited, that there were no returns or brighter future prospects, and that I was really a good student who could easily transfer to other universities. So, I changed to a better university and benefited a lot from working with the best in my field. Looking back, I feel I could have taken this decision much earlier if there was a stackexchange thread on this topic :-) It is never too late. Run, run and run to something, not away from something.

However, the "clean break" that I was looking for didn't happen: after I quit my previous lab, my adviser tried to take back my thesis citing "national security concerns" (yes, he did play that card). I complained to the Dean, and my thesis was published. My adviser contacted my new advisers and tried to put a negative recommendation. He slandered my character before my colleagues. When we found out that there was not much he could do, he turned to something completely unthinkable: my brother was a PhD student in the same department. My adviser contacted his adviser (who was another jerk) and conspired to kick my brother to out of the university on false accusations - all in broad daylight. I and my brother went through the official complaint process, but nothing happened. No one heard our side of the story. In the meantime, 8-10 more students quit my former adviser's lab in less than two years. A few months later, the university gave the highest recognition to my former adviser. This is what a "cozy club" does.

I wish you good luck. Just RUN.

  • +1 for excellent, candid summary of the situation. "Academia is like a lawless country". Well said. Having said that "you have to realize that your PI indeed likes your work". There is no way of knowing what the PI really thinks. – Faheem Mitha May 13 '15 at 7:33
  • That's true. But my experience tells me that only the most productive and bright students are at the receiving end of the harshest harassment. What does that tell us? That their work has more value for the PI. So, in this context, I said that PI actually likes the student's work, otherwise there is nothing to gain by harassing the student. – roalddahl14 May 13 '15 at 18:56
  • Well, the PI might be a horrible person and treat everyone like that. Without more data one cannot say anything. And if a PI harasses a student to work harder, it might be because he/she genuinely believes he/she is lazy/unproductive, and the PI just wants the student to work harder. – Faheem Mitha May 13 '15 at 19:51
  • Agreed. But why would a PI constantly threaten to kick out a student, if the PI really has best interests of the student at heart. Should the PI use only "stick", or both "carrot and stick", if the student is indeed lazy? – roalddahl14 May 13 '15 at 21:19
  • Who says the PI has the students best interests at heart? I don't quite follow your point here. – Faheem Mitha May 13 '15 at 21:52

It really does sound like you are better off leaving. For one thing, since he really does kick people out, what will you do if this person does kick you out later on in your PhD? I'm assuming here what you seem to be implying in your question, but have not stated explicitly - that this lab will be your home for the remainder of your PhD.

I've also suffered abusive conditions, though as a post-doc. (Although the PI in question did not generally kick people out.) I think it is unlikely to get better. These kind of people don't change unless they are forced to, and academia tends to be very undemocratic, and my experience is that department officials are loath to interfere unless they benefit in some way. E.g. if they want to get this person for some reason, they may use his behavior towards his juniors as an excuse, but they won't really care. (Something like this actually happened in a department I was in.) Your setup certainly sounds very undemocratic. Even if the PI is pressured into behaving better (unlikely by the sound of it) it will still probably not be a positive working environment.

If if it already late in your PhD, I suggest you discuss funding problems with your department, and sooner than later. Maybe something can be figured out, but the longer you wait, the more difficult your position will become.

As I said in a comment above, if you do move again, check the PI in question out, as far as practicable.

Also, as Jack said, there is a significant possibility that this treatment will end up ruining your appetite for research altogether. You should take that possibility seriously.

You would not come here, if you thought the situation acceptable. Unfortunately the isolation of the PI will have given rise to a wrong self-perception. If you are ready to search for yet another PI, and again some criticism on another person arises, wait (not too long) till you can talk to the PU alone, and say:

  • you are the best PI till now, you have gotten,
  • I have no experience, but isn't the tone quite harsh? - especially as there are still professional unsurities on the side of the coworkers,
  • I am a bit longing already for a bit collegual tone at work

English is not my native language, so formulate the above as short and open as feasible, maybe in question form.

  • that you are missing a bit of lightness, humour, in the day-to-day operation,
  • whether the current team is a bit disappointing; in what respects.
  • Also be sure to give the PI his say, listen: if the PI does not react on a pause: what do you think?
  • Stop if the PI cannot reach over (in that moment). Leave the case open "just wanted to air my mind; thanks for the patience".
  • On a negative reaction: "you are the best PI I had till now."

I doubt, that such a deviation of normal lab behaviour, will come easy, and the appropiate formulation will be difficult.

Of course this advice is a risk, but all other measures are less direct, being less open-minded towards the world.

Here's my quick story with a nightmare PI:

I'm at an R1.

I switched labs after my first year because my advisor was a tyrant. This PI was very unethical and emotionally abusive, and I would have reported her to our IRB in regards to research integrity issues that I saw if my program had a way to do that anonymously (as an aside: it still baffles me that they don't have such a process!). I talked with our department chair who helped facilitate me leaving the lab when I gave her the ultimatum that I'd be leaving the program if I could not move labs. Schools don't like that, especially when you are pre-dissertation because it makes their programs look bad. The department chair basically told me not to speak up to higher levels in the university about what I was experiencing, and quietly helped facilitate meetings with other PIs so that I could move to another lab.

After that, she lost an existing student every semester. Another student took the issues to the Dean, and things seemingly "hit the fan" with this professor and our Department. Two years later she had no students, and was finding it hard to recruit. The thing that still baffles me to this day is that she faced NO repercussions from the graduate school. She lost 5 students in 2 years, and nothing happened to her. They tried to convince her to take an easy high paying administrative position and cruise into retirement, but she refused. Now she has a beautiful lab space that no one occupies, and she still brings in private funding that no one does any work with other than failed post-docs who take a side gig with her as a consultant to move something along for her ever so slightly. I guess this kind of behavior really is tolerated in Academia?

Honestly, I think the best thing to do is leave the lab and go somewhere else. I won't lie and say that it always works out, it might not. Your current PI might make a stink in the field and you might find that moving to another lab doing related work is not possible. You might find that in the department if the PI brings in enough money and has power that moving to another professor is difficult. You have to leave quietly and make it about your interests and a lack of a match in where the work was going, etc. You have to play the hand you have been dealt as shrewdly as you can.

Best of luck to you.

P.S., if your PI is not a rational person then don't expect any direct conversation with him/her to go well. The best predictor of new behavior is...?

  • I have to wonder, how does this person "brings in private funding" if she can't find anyone to do the work? – Faheem Mitha May 13 '15 at 9:29
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    @Faheem Mitha: Research was based on the arts. People giving money were doing it more out of being able to say "we have this great project and are having researchers from this prestigious university look at it." In reality nothing ever happened with money and deliverables never happened. People giving money had no clue they were being taken for suckers. Of course, university didn't care because all they see is green. – bfoste01 May 14 '15 at 9:44
  • That seems rather strange, but ok. My impression is that even with grants, some results are expected at the end of the day, reports and so forth. But maybe it depends on the funding agency. – Faheem Mitha May 14 '15 at 10:00
  • @Faheem Mitha: I wish there was a way to private message you because I'd tell you parties and project involved and I promise it would make sense. But I've probably already said too much here to be identified if anyone I knew read these. – bfoste01 May 14 '15 at 15:44
  • Oh, I believe you. I'm just saying it seems a bit strange. But it's a strange world. – Faheem Mitha May 14 '15 at 16:08

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