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Right after I graduated by BSc degree in Chemistry, I joined the group of a professor as a research-assistant who was willing to work with me for a few publications before I could be admitted since I only had a second-lower honours degree. Long story short, I worked there for two years, and at the end of that, I had a episode of mental breakdown where I needed to be hospitalised. With all the stigma surrounding mental health,my PI just didn't believe me, saying "I don't think your problem is that important", and "you may take leave if you want since it is your right, but there will be consequences to this". I ended up leaving, did a Masters degree, and am now trying to look for PhD positions.

I am now trying to look for PhD positions again, but I found out that my old prof has been speaking to other professors about me in particular. My old PI also hasn't published any of my work, and nor has he published any work since 2016. I happen to be in some city in Asia where the scientific circle is really small, so almost everyone knows one another.

Every time I get interviewed for a position, I inevitably get asked why I left my old prof. How am I supposed to explain this away?

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If you are going to reveal your past mental health issues as part of the application process then you may as well also say that your past PI reacted unreasonably to your leaving. I don't think you need to "explain that away." Not everyone acts correctly and it sounds like you were treated badly.

It only becomes an issue, I think, if you don't want to reveal that past, for whatever reason. That is your right, of course. In that case, you should depend on recommendations from others to carry you forward, as well as the publications you developed under this PI. Your written materials need not necessarily mention that he was, in fact a PI. However, if it comes up in an interview, you can mention as much of the past as you need to. His name will likely be present somewhere in your materials and it is possible he will be contacted, so be prepared for a full explanation even if you don't introduce it yourself.

But if you are asked directly why you left, you can start with "an unresolvable conflict with the PI." Whether that is enough or not depends, but what you decide to say further is up to you.

But a lot of questions on this site detail various kinds of unreasonable conflict with advisors and PIs. so it isn't a unique problem. Your application materials need to stress that you will be a success.


While your geographic constraint seems to work against you here, it may also be that the opinion of the PI isn't necessarily very positive. So the fact that he is talking about you may not matter as much as you fear. But the only way to find out is to get out there and speak for yourself.

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  • The geography really works against me here. It is crazy, but in the specific field where I work, almost half of the people in it come from the same pedigree, meaning that half of the profs in my field were labmates sometime in the past. And it wasn't just my illness that had triggered his reaction. My PI has been abusive to me and my colleagues for a long time now. He has done crazy things like throwing a chair across a locked room, and other strange rules. There was also no way I could have complained about it since HE was the person in charge of student complains, and so I left. – Waif Oct 9 '18 at 15:19

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