I just started my 2-yr postdoc, but things have gone sour really fast. So, I really need some career advice as to what to do. Over several months, I did the interviews with the supervisor and the lab and things seems to be really great (although I got a strange feeling that the lab members were trying to deter me from joining, see below).

I joined the lab last week, and the condition of the lab and the equipment was really poor (but the supervisor said it was great...), but I got along with the supervisor and the lab great. However, this week took a turn for the worse. My supervisor has been vicious with me for several days and we have had a major conflict almost everyday this week, which I believe is a bad sign when something like this happens when starting a position. The other members of the lab said that the supervisor is frequently is overbearing, micromanages, and has "lost it" on them for reasons as asking for vacation. As I said, I met with these lab members via Skype over the summer and I felt that there were trying to warn me not to join the lab, and today they confessed that this was true. One of the lab members did file a complaint against the supervisor. The situation was that the supervisor typically makes numerous phone calls during weekends and the one time the lab member did not answer, the supervisor was furious with her. She then made a complaint to the appropriate person in the department.

I am concerned about the supervisor and more concerned that this is not going to help my career at all since the mentoring by this supervisor is poor quality (this is how the other lab members feel after being there for almost 2 years. They are leaving immediately after that). She has promised a good work environment, additional pay to the NIH base pay, flexible time off and great equipment, but all of this is not true. The other lab members confirmed that this happened to them too. Basically, this supervisor promises a lot of things and does not deliver.

So with all of that being said, is it wise for me to leave ASAP and look for a better opportunity OR is it best to stay put and complete the 2-year postdoc (or most of it). I don't favor leaving a job this soon and would rather give things a chance, but this place has been extremely BAD. Furthermore, the lab members feel that this is not a good workplace and confirm that the behavior of the supervisor will continue (they have their reasons for staying, but really regret joining). For these reasons, I don't feel staying is beneficial to be perfectly honest.

I would rather not have to ask for advice about this, but I am in an uncomfortable situation and any advice is extremely appreciated. Hopefully I expressed this clearly... I'm kind of a mess right now.

EDIT: I have resigned from the position. But, I have obtained a new position with someone I know well and has helped the careers of people I know. Aside from the conflict with the supervisor and the experiences of other people in the lab, the position I'm resigning from just does not offer any development for my career as per my impression prior to arriving in the lab. Unfortunately, what attracted me to this position was not the reality. Even giving this position more time would not change the condition of the equipment I have to work with (and the lack of equipment), the lack of safety practices in the lab, nor would it change the supervisor's lack of organization, leadership and the control of her emotions. Also, I discovered that all of the current lab members plan on leaving within the next few months. Past/current postdocs typically do not last more than 2 years.

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    You already know what to do. Don’t walk. Run. – JeffE Oct 12 at 2:48
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    "She has promised [...] additional pay to the NIH base pay, flexible time off [...], but all of this is not true." You should have a contract that specifies your pay and working hours/time off. Your supervisor should not be able to influence this at this point as it is solely an administrative issue. So, I don't understand this part, but it should be a deal breaker for everyone except very desperate people. – Roland Oct 12 at 6:43
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Oct 14 at 23:43
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    @RH88 With all the descriptions you provided, it seems the supervisor is an abusive person who does not care about the students. No matter you (or other lab members) decided to leave or not, please do a favor to future postdocs (and also to yourself) and report this to a higher authority (e.g. department chief, labs director) in the university/institution which the lab is part of. The supervisor needs to be understood or reminded that he/she cannot break the code of conducts and the contracts you have with him/her. – today Oct 16 at 23:04
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    @JalapenoNachos Mental health is more important than publications. – JeffE Oct 17 at 20:53

14 Answers 14

With all else the same, given an choice between staying in a bad situation that cannot be resolved or leaving it, the decision is easy.

Of course, all is never exactly the same. When the balance is uneven, I hold at the point where you are that following your passions and desire for healthy growth is the most important factor. You can and will end up in situations where leaving has worse consequences than staying and you must therefore resolve the issues at hand or let go (and stay where you are). Is this case really to that point for you? I sense not.

As you weigh the various concerns, realize that you owe the lab only the respect that you will never be dishonest. The promptly, professionally delivered statement that "I am leaving because this is not the fit that I really wanted" is all that is required at the end of the day.

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    re "given [the] choice between staying in a bad situation that cannot be resolved or leaving, the decision is easy": i have been in that situation twice now in my most recent career moves. The trick is actually keeping your head out of the sand, talking to your friends/family/mentors/coworkers-you-can-trust, actively introspecting... doing all that to ensure that you are aware enough that you are in that situation. Earlier in my career I made the mistake of keeping my head in the sand in bad situations... and the bad-situation blew up in my face resulting in not smooth transitions. – syn1kk Oct 12 at 12:39
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    @user32882 You can always say screw it and leave, in principle. But then you have no income until you find a new job. It might be hard to stay in your home. You can't provide for your dependents. It's not actually that easy for most people to leave their job without another job to go to straight away. – David Richerby Oct 12 at 16:40
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    @DavidRicherby I completely agree. What I mean by saying "screw it" and leaving is doing it in the safest and most reasonable way possible, not by losing it all of a sudden and quitting your job in a split-second decision. I am talking about the deliberate, planned outcome of weeks, perhaps months of applying for new jobs and going to interviews without your current employer necessarily knowing. The second you start looking for a new job is, to me, the first step of saying screw it and leaving. The idea is to not quit a job until you get a new job offer. – user32882 Oct 13 at 4:47
  • @user32882 OK. When you said "screw it", I thought you meant leave immediately. I fully agree with your expanded version. – David Richerby Oct 13 at 15:35
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    When saying "I am leaving because this is not the fit that I really wanted," bear in mind that "this" might also be more precisely expressed as "abusive 'mentorship', poorly equipped lab, fearful co-workers, and dishonesty about the conditions of employment" CC'ed to HR along those lines might also help—not you personally—but future postdocs and their averted misery. – Alexis Oct 16 at 15:48

You, and only you, are responsible for your own happiness.

If you don't leave, you'll be miserable for 2 years. A poor postdoc now might also damage your future career, although probably not fatally. Are you OK with that? If so, by all means stay; otherwise, nobody is going to intervene to improve the equipment in the lab, make your supervisor less abusive, make you happy, etc.

In the end it's your decision to make, but I would strongly incline towards leaving.

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    "You have a right to your own happiness." Not sure about that, but everyone is definitely responsible for their own happiness. – Mast Oct 12 at 5:37
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    @Mast I was going to quote the US Declaration of Independence, but then realized how that is jumping the gun. Edited, thanks! – Allure Oct 12 at 5:40
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    @Allure the Declaration of Independence says people have the right to pursue happiness, but it doesn't say they have the right to catch it if they decide to chase after it! – alephzero Oct 12 at 8:07
  1. Start looking for new positions immediately and make this your primary occupation.

  2. If you can cope with the working conditions, consider staying until you find a new position. Set a high bar for this. Your mental health matters more than having the job, presumably. Workplace bullying might very well be illegal where you are; consider gathering evidence and submitting it to the local police or relevant university services, if those are reasonable options.

  3. If you can not cope with the position, leave.

In any case, tell your former advisors and other senior people whom you know that the person is abusive. You should have been explicitly warned before going there. Spread the word among all the people you know well, and who trust your judgment.

Spread the word of their abusiveness by telling what happened, with evidence where possible. You can also tell how you reacted to the events. Either do not describe your guesses about the motivations and other unverifiable factors, or at least be very explicit about what they are. Stick to the truth, because you might be challenged, and then you will rather defend your version of what happened, rather than your guesses about what someone else was thinking and feeling.

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    I absolutely cannot condone the manner used to recommend to "spread the word ... all the people you know ... (this person is abusive)". Bad-mouthing anyone by labelling them as abusive, regardless of the validity of the statement, is absolutely NOT professional and may border on being unethical. I hope this post might be edited to make a recommendation "spread the word" that is followed by what and how to do so in a professional manner rather than in a seemingly vindictive one. – Jeffrey J Weimer Oct 12 at 17:05
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    @JeffreyJWeimer I stand by spreading the word if someone is genuinely abusive; otherwise, they will continue the abuse. I edited in a couple of words to have you spread the word among the people who trust you, not everyone. – Tommi Brander Oct 12 at 20:40
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    The best way to "spread the word" is NOT by calling a person abusive. It is by framing the incidents that occurred in an un-qualified, objective manner. The actions were abusive. Whether the person behind them should be labeled as abusive is a not a call the OP is qualified to make, nor should he be asked (indeed here told) to make it. Certainly the OP should not be told to call a person abusive regardless of the trust leve at the other end. By example, since your reply has not recognized this, would I be OK now to label you as dense? I have a lot of folks who "trust my judgement". – Jeffrey J Weimer Oct 14 at 18:27
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    Factual statements are not unethical. Assuming OP is telling the truth, it is quite obvious that this supervisor is abusive. Insinuating that a person is 'dense' because your opinion differs with theirs is, however, unethical. – user2258552 Oct 14 at 23:54
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    @JeffreyJWeimer You make a good point about sticking to verifiable claims. Thanks. I added a paragprah. The way to tell that someone is abusive is precisely to tell what happened and stick to the truth. – Tommi Brander Oct 15 at 14:11

The quicker you leave the easier it will be for everyone. A postdoc position is usually a transitional stage which isn’t good, overall. Thus, don’t waste your time on one which is already gone bad.

There are professors looking for postdocs by the dozens. Spend all resources and time you can muster in networking , and try to avoid your predatory supervisor. You don’t owe this person anything.

When you got all contacts you need for the best, take your time at home packing, and then let them know you’re leaving. Probably your supervisor will be taken aback (usually postdocs are desperate and will just accept any abuse) and show nicer faces. Don’t fall for apologetic rhetoric, and just move on. Make sure you make good friends with your labmates, ad they’re probably good fellas.

Good luck!

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    "Don’t fall for apologetic rhetoric, and just move on." − Yes, this very much. Manipulative people will almost always use a sweet tongue to keep you in their grasp. People who truly regret their actions will make concrete and public amends, not just exercise their tongue. – user21820 Oct 12 at 14:27
  • In this case, even if they offer concrete improvements to your working conditions it would be a bad idea to stay based on that. Your supervisor has lied to you before, so there's no reason to think that she won't lie to you again. Even if things improve in the short term, those improvements are likely enough to disappear if they're not things she believed she should be providing in the first place in a work environment. – Curt J. Sampson Oct 15 at 5:54
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    –1 "A postdoc position is usually a transitional stage which isn’t good, overall." – Alexis Oct 16 at 15:50

Your supervisor has a department manager. Escalate this. There is no reason that this should be treated any differently to abuse from a manager in any other place of work.

Before you do though, make sure you have evidence to show. If you were promised a top notch lab, make sure you have evidence of how the current state of the lab and equipment is not up to standard. If you were promised extra money, get your pay slip out. If you were promised flexible time off, make sure you have all the emails from when you have requested time off and been refused. And most of all, make sure your meetings with her are never just one-to-one, so that there are always witnesses to her behaviour.

You may find that her boss doesn't like her either, and they'd like a reason to get rid of her.

Worst case, the department manager does nothing. In that case you're no worse off than you are now. From what your describing, it's already about as bad as it gets.

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    The choice to "escalate this" is not in itself that easy to make. Nor is it perhaps necessary or always possible. Nor should it be done lightly. Ultimately, we have no justification to propose that actions based on rules of intimidation and confrontation (i.e. ESCALATE THIS) are valid to resolve inter-personal conflict. The better statement here is to recommend for the OP to collect objective documentation in case he determines the issue should/must be brought to superiors to resolve. No manager likes to have to do the equivalent job of separating fighting children on a playground. – Jeffrey J Weimer Oct 12 at 16:54
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    @JeffreyJWeimer Absolutely, it's not easy to do. That's why it's essential to have your evidence in place. You can approach your supervisor's boss informally, if that's possible, and say how uncomfortable you are with having to raise this, but you feel it's the only constructive way forward for the department. It's also important to be clear that you're not looking for any personal advancement, you're just wanting to do your job effectively and get the pay/conditions you'd agreed when you started. – Graham Oct 12 at 17:00
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    This seems like odd (bad) advice that is based on mis-applying business logic to academia. Academic departments don't usually have a "departmental manager" who is a faculty member's "boss" and who can "get rid of her" like that. There are Departmental Chairs who can influence such decisions, but probably not in the 2-year time frame being discussed. It's just not how universities work. – iayork Oct 12 at 17:13
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    @JeffreyJWeimer I'm afraid your expectations are unrealistic, because the person on the receiving end may have no expectation that you will be respectful - and in the OP's situation, they may have ample proof of disrespect, lying and generally acting in bad faith. It is perfectly possible to disagree without it constituting "conflict", and if it does then I'm afraid your students are doing exactly what they should be doing. – Graham Oct 12 at 21:08
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    I think this answer does not account for typical power structures in Academia: supervisor in the context of academia typically means a professor, and though there is usually a department structure with someone as head of the department, they are often more like peer to the professor, they do not have the managerial oversight you would find outside academia. Some academic departments may vary, but it very much does not make sense to treat this like a workplace situation. – Bryan Krause Oct 15 at 15:23

Lots of good advice in the answers already, but one additional factor to consider: the next time you apply for a position, you will quite possibly be asked for a reference from your most recent supervisor.

If you leave this situation ASAP, you will have the option of saying "I was only there for two weeks, I suggest talking to my previous supervisor instead."

OTOH, if you tough it out for two years - or even a few months - this abusive supervisor will almost certainly be writing the reference that you take to your next job application. This might not be a good thing.

  • This is excellent advice. However mind that being "asked for a reference from your most recent supervisor" is not the usual practice in many countries, to what regards academic positions. – Scientist 2 days ago
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    @Scientist huh, I wasn't aware of that. Changed "almost certainly" to "quite possibly". – Geoffrey Brent 2 days ago
  • Great! As an example, for a postdoc in China I was only asked for a recommendation letter from my PhD advisor, although I had already gone through two previous positions before (RA & postdoc). On an extreme case, in my home country (in Latin America) no reference letters are ever necessary for any position, including full professorship. – Scientist 2 days ago
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    @Scientist thanks, that's fascinating to know! I've been in academia-ish government work for the last ~ ten years and clearly my experience on this point is less transferable to true academia than I'd thought. – Geoffrey Brent 2 days ago

Having left early once won't impact your career. Everyone who's worth working with will understand. It can even get you some extra respect in an interview. So if you don't have a record of leaving fast already:

Start job hunting.

Leave when you have something new or it is getting to bad there.

Meanwhile: know you don't be there for long and put on your (professional) whatever face and enjoy the show. Or at least don't let it get to you.

Simply submitting to the abusive manager does nothing to break the cycle of abuse. If you are convinced that the manager is wrong, then you must do something.

Escalating the issue in the organization is a good thing, something that has low downside for you and which you can do right now. If the organization defends the supervisor, then you don't just have an abusive boss: you also have an abusive boss's boss.

Submitting to an abusive boss's boss does nothing to break the cycle of abuse. If you are convinced that the boss's boss is wrong, then you must do something.

If you have exhausted your options for escalation, then you have another choice: To get THE LAW involved or to leave quietly. In any case, begin documenting your interactions with your supervisor very carefully right now!

Make a log of what the supervisor says using direct quotes. Explain the context. Write the time and place, and name each person who would serve as a witness.

If the abuse is not by words, then write exactly what it is the supervisor is doing. Again, note context, time, location, and any other persons who may serve as a witness. It is not necessary to get their consent, but it would be helpful if you knew which of them would probably help you.

Document this crap as long as you are willing to. Then, if you are in the US or the UK (or Canada, Western Europe, or another liberal country) get a consultation with a lawyer. This should not cost more than a hundred dollars / hundred pounds / dozen lunches / whatever.

Even if you decide not to speak with a lawyer, retain your paperwork; don't give it away; keep a copy at home. Let somebody you trust at the institution know that you are doing this. The paperwork will help you emotionally later when you begin to doubt your own rationale for leaving, and it may help the lawsuit that another employee does file.

Good luck!

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    @JeffreyJWeimer, we're talking about intense fights every day, corroborated by others who call the behavior abusive. Would you think it was worse if the abuse was only directed at old post-docs? Male post-docs? Post-docs of a certain (or not of a certain) race/religion/etc? ...and if those things make it worse, then why is it OK now? – elliot svensson Oct 12 at 17:26
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    @JeffreyJWeimer, I'm not suggesting that the individual start with a lawyer: I'm suggesting that they approach the supervisor (presumably this has already happened), then the boss's boss (which would get HR involved), and if they are convinced that the boss's boss (together with HR) are wrong, then to consider getting a lawyer, or to leave. – elliot svensson Oct 12 at 17:52
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    @JeffreyJWeimer, it is never wrong to speak with a lawyer. All the academic due process problems we've heard about (with sex harassment) would not have happened in courts--- they happen in internal investigations. – elliot svensson Oct 12 at 17:57
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    @JeffreyJWeimer, if the employee has signed an arbitration agreement, they are bound to those terms, but they still have the right to a lawyer. insightemployment.com/pg15.cfm – elliot svensson Oct 12 at 18:02
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    @elliotsvensson In retrospect, I have focused solely on the question of whether to leave or not. This was the sole question that was posed by the OP. I have not addressed the question of whether/how to handle the abuse. This is an underlying question, and I must agree that your statements fully address it. Due process is to be respected. To initiate it, the OP should meet in person with the Chair of the Department or, when appropriate, with the Dean of the College, and should outline the situation. – Jeffrey J Weimer Oct 12 at 20:24

I had a similar experience during my PhD, not a postdoc position. I sucked all up and stayed. Had my share of supervisor-bullying and made my days really bad. However, I managed to finish my PhD and got my degree. I can now say to my ex-supervisor: F U without any remorse or mind conscience. I thought of finding another supervisor, but no one can guarantee you a fair supervisor! You might end up with even worse supervisor (that is the truth).

KEEP A RECORD OF EVERYTHING.

Keep a record of:

  • every email;
  • every meeting;
  • every conversation, even casual, in the corridor,

that you have had with:

  • your supervisor;
  • the other lab members.

In the future, you want to be sure that you remain objective and remember facts, not impressions.

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Clearly, you don't want to be there anymore. But I do understand your hesitation to just leave. Inevitably, you'll have to tell the people you're applying to and possibly future employers why you left. Then they'll have the option to trust you, or worry that you're just the kind of person who complains and doesn't play well with others. Unfortunately, due to the power dynamic, and the fact that other post docs choose to stay, you may not be framed in the best light. I have two recommendations to overcome that:

  1. As someone else said, file a complaint, or at least talk to the person above your supervisor. Preferably something in writing, but do whatever you're most comfortable with. That way you can tell any incredulous interviewer that at least attempted to make the situation better - and who knows, you might actually make the situation better, if not for you, maybe for the other postdocs.

  2. The other thing I would recommend is reaching out to your own Ph.D. advisor if you had a good relationship (or any Ph.D. mentor you had along the way). Scientific communities are pretty small overall. So it's possible your advisor could reach out to any potential NEW employers and explain your situation, so when you have to explain why you left after such a short time, they've already heard it from a PEER. That way the power dynamic of that specific conversation is shifted.

  • Thank you for this advice. The impression of leaving early is something I am concerned about. Currently, I'm on option 2 (speaking with a long-time and very trusted thesis advisor). They may have a position in their lab as well. We are going to speak later today. The lab members in the current lab I'm in said that my decision to leave is takes a lot of courage, and they wish they made this choice when they started. – RH88 Oct 12 at 15:31
  • @RH88 Sometimes, just taking a hiatus for a month helps recalibrate everything. I know of post-docs who did so for other reasons. – Jeffrey J Weimer Oct 12 at 17:22
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    @RH88 I understand that, in the narrative of those who endure this situation, leaving is seen to take 'a lot' of courage. In fact, I tend to think that it would take a minimal amount of courage and common sense, a sense of perspective, and the possibility to arrange financial and organizational buffers for the transition. Your colleagues have been kind to you to warn you not to join, and you have been perceptive enough to sense that. Don't fall in the trap they fell in: thinking that superhuman courage is needed to live decently. There are very elegant answers in this post. Thanks for sharing. – XavierStuvw Oct 14 at 6:42

As someone who is in the same situation (i'm currently moving from a bad postdoc lab), just find a new position. Don't wait until things get worse. If the PI is not as everyone says, there's a high probability that they will sabotage you if you don't follow on their steps.

This in itself counts as a signal of a bad lab.

I am sorry to say, but I think the "leave now" answers are false.

You don't know enough from this position yet: your description clearly shows that you are under the influence of a bad first impression.

You don't know your other opportunities yet: if you would know, you would know, what to do, and this question wouldn't exist.

The other people saying that the supervisor is... bad, are still here, why?

So:

  1. Don't do anything before you don't learn this place a little bit better.
  2. Don't do anything before your other opportunities aren't enough clear for you.

Learn and watch. And look for the alternatives, silently.

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    ...and write down, in detail, exactly what your supervisor is doing. You don't need to show this to anybody, but it will help you in all your thinking. – elliot svensson Oct 14 at 17:07
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    So maybe the supervisor really isn't that bad, the other lab-members are just liars collectively plotting against the supervisor and the new postdoc? Not better. I've watched lots of people stay with terrible supervisors. The most common factor seems to be they are very poor, usually international, who feel trapped for financial reasons. Relocating to a new job is expensive. Apartments also typically require long leases that are very expensive to break. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 16 at 13:40
  • @ASimpleAlgorithm I didn't say that he should remain, I said that he shouldn't do any irrecoverable before he learns both his situation and the alternatives well. Yes, these things are hard, but he might be also a "new dog in the flock", i.e. he has to deal with some "inital transient" while he adapts his group. In the place of the OP, I would give them more time (mainly, to clear the crucial thing: why the others won't go, if it is really so bad?), but yes it is quite possible that also I would go. – peterh Oct 16 at 14:16
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm If there are financial reasons to avoiding any change: I think then the correct thing is: collecting money in the first months for the move, and then never allowing to get into such a situation. – peterh Oct 16 at 14:18

I'd focus on your goal and weigh if this environment is the best option among any other options/opportunities you may have for the current circumstances and your goal.

To share my experience and a learnt lesson, it's not wise to escalate emotionally (such as making intense fight- often becoming a prolonged bad relationship), but also not good to stay long in an unhappy environment being silent and isolated. If you can address and resolve it without hurting the relationship it would be great, but if the behavior is repeating to others as well, maybe the chance isn't that high. Like someone mentioned above, try to be objective and observe the person, interactions and most importantly yourself (how you perceive and feel and why, and what you really want to do about it for the best of your interest). You can be clear of what to do if you know what you want.

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