Today was the first day of my PhD. It's a very prestigious institution and I was extremely excited to start. However, it seems there is a general feeling of discontentment with people in the group and I was told some stories that, quite frankly, shocked me to the point where I was legitimately considering packing up then and there.

I was told that the supervisor of this group has extremely suspicious working practises, blocks papers from students to give the credit to 'preferred' students, has insanely unrealistic expectations (I was told that some students were expected to work through the night regularly), blocking people from graduating to get more cheap labor out of them, and many more things. The term "psychopath" was thrown about a lot.

I have recently completed my master's in a group where there was an extremely poor PI with an incredibly abusive and parasitic attitude towards the group. I don't really wish to go into it because I want to maintain anonymity, but suffice to say that I do not want the same experience in my PhD.

As you may realise, I'm extremely concerned that I've made a truly terrible decision and I would like some advice going forward. I realise that this is only my first day, and I am not going to make any rash decisions without more context and experience, but what should I be looking out for? How do I protect myself from abusive behaviour? And, most importantly, how do I decide when enough is enough and I should cut and run?

I would really like to get the PhD as I'm extremely passionate about the subject, so in order keep a science career possible I think if the option to quit is on the table, it would have to be in the first year. I don't however think that a career in science is worth the exchange of the toll on my mental health that an abusive boss will cause.

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    Were you able to meet your current advisor beforehand? If so, how did that experience compare with what you heard?
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 17:04
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    You don't have a lot of actual evidence to back up your fears. I'd suggest you try to learn more before making an important decision. Is it possible that some of the students are just hazing you?
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 17:13
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    I am afraid these exploitation tactics you describe are increasingly common nowadays. If you have any solid, independent evidence (i.e. this isn't someone who just wants to see you off) just pack up and leave as soon as you can. Actually you're lucky to have been warned. I will write you a full answer later when I have more time.
    – Scientist
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 17:31
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    Pack your bags. Start establishing clean exits. Develop good relatoinships with other faculty in your department so that you can switch advisors if the rumors turn out to be true. Keep in contact with the references who helped you get admission to your current deparment, so that you can apply elsewhere if the rumors turn out to be true. Have direct and detailed conversations with your advisor about their expectations for working hours, publication, coauthorship, and graduation, and follow up each conversation with an email summary. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 2:01
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    @Buffy Right, but what does that have to do with how we answer OP's question? Abuse is abuse. The abuser's actions may be more or less understandable, but that doesn't change how the victim or their allies should respond.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:00

3 Answers 3


I believe you should step back and reconsider your options. If you gather any solid evidence supporting what you have been told, start focusing on your next step full time.

Strategically, you must realise you probably find yourself in an advantageous position. I believe you're being paid or at least supported as a PhD student. From what you said, this is exactly where you wanted to be. You have plenty of institutional resources and time in your hands. Make use of these, to your favour. You have received privileged information about serious issues in your group, right at the beginning. Not many are that lucky.

I once found myself in a similar situation. I joined a group far from home, as a PhD student. You know the scene: moving elsewhere, arranging rental, basic furniture, saying goodbye to the world, and there you arrive fresh in the cool morning to start a new life. Within 4 days of work my closest colleague closed our office door during lunchtime, and told me the workplace was absolute crap. That "the boss" clearly only liked having pretty girls as students, and on top of that we were both outsiders from other institutions. So that we would have to live off scraps of whatever is rejected by locals -- funding, data, attention. And I had no salary yet. I seriously considered packing up and leaving. But I didn't. I decided to stay stay and measure myself to "the boss".

Long story short: it worked. For four bloody years. It all proved true. Examples: The "boss" didn't make any effort towards securing my salary, but after I cornered and yelled at him at least he signed the necessary papers: I got the funds. He hinted reallocating my funds to lab equipment "for the girls", but I vehemently denied and summarised by an email statement with copy to others. He asked me to keep raw data file records, I gave him incomplete sets. Etc, etc, etc. Towards the end of my PhD I hired a lawyer regarding a conflict with the department (I had exposed plagiarism by a local big-shot) and clearly seeing a lawyer around reaffirmed a safe distance to my "boss". I was usually left alone.

Main advice here: being ready to quit makes you ruthless. I wasn't too afraid of dropping my PhD from start so I played all cards. My focus is in getting things done, not degrees. This "ex-boss" is an insecure professional who apparently never had anyone stand up against him before. Also I had full support from a co-advisor who was highly interested in our project, and that guy does have a strong, political personality. I went through my PhD between this delicate balance of power. My "boss" was eerily uncomfortable (I believe scared) in my presence and my co-advisor mediated any significant conflict towards the completion of the collaboration. I finished my PhD fairly easily (from a technical point of view) and today I remain active in the same topic of research.

I am not saying you should do the same. I am not saying it was easy or usually comfortable. Perhaps I should have left and gone elsewhere. But it worked nonetheless. Because I was warned and thus made up my mind, and a strategy. This is what I recommend you to do.

Good luck.

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    I think the piece about having a coadvisor is probably the best piece of advice.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 13:51
  • @Dawn Yes but it can easily backfire, largely depending on local culture. I ultimately had them both ganging up on me a couple of times but the lawyer incident came in just handy by then. It is a nasty, dangerous game. So perhaps moving elsewhere is the wisest solution, but I cannot say for sure as I didn't.
    – Scientist
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:01
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    -1 Yuck. This whole story sounds incredibly toxic and (in the long run) self-destructive. It would have been much healthier, and probably more productive, to leave your advisor behind and move into your supportive coadvisor's research group.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:10
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    "in the long run self-destructive" 10 years elapsed and I am exactly where I wanted at the moment. Plus, I am in fair terms with the ex-"boss", even got a nice LoR he once said he'd never write. On your point about moving groups, yes I thought hard about doing that and perhaps I even hinted but this is not locally simple. Apart from having to wait for 1 year for a necessary re-entry, swapping advisors is generally frowned upon in my country.
    – Scientist
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:14

Based on my experience because I had the same situation before and regret not doing that right decision since earlier time. I do recommend you first to stay for couple of months and try to figure out how this PI behaves towards you, in the same time try to look for another good lab. I am still burning out as since month ago this what happened to me, you can see my post here: Forced to Quit PhD although the hard and proved work

So, I dont want you to be in the same situation, I really appreciate that you are passionate about the subject, however, if you have a poor supervisor S(he) is going to ruin every thing.

Another advice and really important which I regret not doing it is asking the current students and alumni, don't be lured by citation and their prestige and trust your gut.

I hope you can take the right decision and for sure I don't recommend you to leave, however stay, work hard as much as you can and if you have noticed red flags from s(he), you can switch from the lab.


The things you mentioned could've been worth exploring before going to the institution - for example, you could've emailed the supervisor's former students and asked about their experience. But now that you're committed, to pack your bags and leave means a lot of effort has gone to waste. It can't have been easy to relocate & enroll, or if you're an international student, to get a visa.

Now is not the time to take action based on hearsay. Keep doing what you're doing, and if there's truth in the things you're hearing you'll find out soon enough. It should be very easy to see if other students are working late into the night for example, or if they are miserable. Don't think about leaving before you confirm the rumors.

As for when to cut your losses and run, that's easy: when you no longer wake up looking forward to the day, when going to university becomes a chore, when you find yourself thinking you'd really rather be doing something else, that's the time to quit.

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    I don't disagree with you, but I should say that emailing professor's students can be useless as per my experience. When I wanted to do my PhD I contacted one of the students who gave me comments-from-paradise on my PhD supervisor. When I started, I learned they were good friends, and the comments were exaggerated.
    – Pioneer83
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 3:04
  • You don't make decisions based on sunk costs. That's a fallacy. But I agree with the yardstick you propose in the last paragraph. Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 8:53
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    @henning it's not so much the sunk costs as it is the fact that moving now means paying those costs again.
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 9:56
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    @henning More accurately: You shouldn't make decisions based on sunk costs. But you do. Everyone does.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:11
  • @JeffE Right, that's what I meant. As in: you don't do that kind of thing. Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:28

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