I've recently started doing postdoc in an European country.

Since the first day, I am having problems with working in the lab environment. The research group is too individualistic (there is no shared protocols, project and any kind of support) and some people are behaving in quite toxic ways. One of the lab members doesn't even look or talk to us (me and another student) since we arrived here. He ignores and turns away whenever he sees us, as if we are not worth it.

The main problem is the postdoc though. He is too assertive, aggressive and sort of being a bully in lab meetings, trying to get involved in every project and confront you without significant reasons. He even interrupts when he thinks it is boring and not delivered very well or wants you to prove (show RAW data) when he doesn't think it is enough. The PI does nothing and she is so dependent on him, lets him to be a co-PI or the kind of bad boss.

So, basically, I don't know what to do. I know that I can't stay it more and be productive here, but I am in a small country, where all the academic world knows each other.

Do you have any suggestions about finding another position or doing applications at the same university? If you could give some ideas, I'd be very grateful. I totally feel paralyzed.

  • 5
    The things you state: "assertive"/"aggressive"/"trying to get involved"/"interrupts when boring/not delivered well" may be unpleasant, but is not yet the hallmark of a bully; it might be someone trying to enforce higher standards. Can you be more specific about the bullying? I am not saying it is pleasant, and the culture of the lab may not be for you - but it may be a functional, albeit high-pressure lab. – Captain Emacs Feb 4 at 20:04
  • There are other things, which I don't want to write here to keep my identity private, but you are right about the lab culture. It is not for me. I am looking a way out of it, I do not know if I can manage without moving into another place. – ged_sparrow Feb 4 at 20:32
  • 2
    If so, then get out, fast. Do not waste your time. Keep a firm face while you search for alternatives. – Captain Emacs Feb 4 at 20:43

It is unlikely you can fight this culture, and academic settings have practically no good ways to address bullying of this nature. If you find what seems to be one, look for evidence that it has worked for past students. Recently.

Alternately, make the bully your friend. This is not advisable. Alternately, work with people the bully cannot impact, which is a version of leaving. This may be unavailable, depending on your situation.

Calling out this bully may help, but if it does not it will make you a target. Again, it is highly unlikely your institution has any kind of meaningful recourse available.

Your best strategy? Leave. Keep your head down, and start planning your exit now. After you have an exit, cite the bully as the reason to both your PI and HR; it may help others.

  • 1
    I really wish there were better answers. Academe is such a paradise for bullies.... – Industrademic Feb 5 at 21:40

It is a shame that you received no other answers; I have to record my disagreement (and disapproval) of the answer provided by Industrialacademic and I will try to provide my own.

  1. Securing a position in academia, even a first postdoc, is an achievement which everyone can be proud of. After so many years of learning and preparation, this is finally the time when you are not only producing new knowledge, but also are recognised and payed to this. Academic jobs market is extremely competitive and should be proud of yourself that you are on top of this competition. Getting there takes a lot of time, effort and commitment. An advice to leave without a proper fight is in my opinion extremely immature and ill-considered; it ignores the sacrifices you made to get the position you wanted and the responsibilities that come with it. You should not leave because of a single petty bully.
  2. Our academic training prepares us to deal with high-level abstractions, tons of literature and terabytes of data. It does not teach us how to deal with rudeness, aggression or neglect. It is OK to feel insecure, lost and paralyzed when these things first happen to you. You don't know what to do, because, ideally, you don't have to. There is no place for rude and humiliating behaviour in civil society, particularly in workplace, and academia is not an exception here. A statement that academia is somehow more prone to bullying can be only explained by very limited experience outside academia.
  3. So yes, bad things should not happen, but unfortunately, they do. Bullying still happens in many countries, job sectors, environments. It does happen in academia, too. What can we do when it happens to us?
  4. Before anything remember that you are not alone. Universities do have systems in place to help any student and staff who feels uncomfortable and threatened in their workplace. These people are not immediately obvious, but it is easy to find them as soon as you decide that you need to.
  5. However, before you do, take a deep breath and try to make a clear record of the situation. Is this person really a bully? Cultural norms may differ from place to place, and many things which are "normal" in some country can be considered extremely rude in another. Examples include putting feet on chairs and tables, pushing someone's shoulder to say hi and bye, cleaning nose in public, cutting fingernails in public, asking personal questions, asking difficult questions, interrupting someone's speaking — add yours! If a person is doing something that is offensive or unpleasant to you, it may be not because they are a bully, but sometimes, perhaps, because they have a different understanding of a norm. It may be hard to talk with them about it directly (although it is often the best way to clarify things), but remember that you are not alone and you can seek help here. Just don't assume bad intentions when there are maybe none.
  6. Your supervisor seems to "ignore" the problem, which may or may not be so. She may have a different perception of it, and genuinely be unaware of your feelings. You should consider making an appointment with her and formally discuss this. She may be the best person to correct the unwanted behaviour. It is quite possible that she is also not happy with this behaviour, but for some reason prefers to let it slide as soon as no-one is harmed. It is true that people often do not start the fight only because it is a right thing to do. People sometimes need better reason, and you should make your feelings known to give her this reason.
  7. If talking to your PI does not change things, go to the Head of Department and talk to them. It is their job to help you solve the problem. They may need to use their power on your PI, but in many cases it is not necessary, as there are already systems in place to delicately solve such issues. But if you remain silent about the problem, these support systems can not help you.

tl;dr: Academia is hardly a paradise for anyone; it is definitely not a paradise for bullies. You are not alone. Talk to your PI and HoD to seek help and solve the issue. Good luck.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.