4

TLDR: I am being targeted by an institution where I previously studied/worked and would like to leave academia entirely without giving anyone the knowledge of where I'm going next.

Backstory:

I finished my master's at a lab where I was one of targets of bullying. I mean, my advisor threatened to lock me up in a room with this other person until an analysis was done his way; I was called all sort of labels by supervisor ; constant rummaging through my personal notebooks and one time journal; gossipping; intentional mischaracterization/relay of information. I asked the supervisor several times for feedback and all I get are positive remarks, which kind of put me in the twilight zone. I was also not allowed to do anything in the lab without the approval of the lab manager, a PhD student, and him. Any suggestions I made were shot down, and some were implemented later without acknowledgement that I had contributed to them. At one point, I asked him why he accepted me because it doesn't look like he needs or wants me here. He said that I'm here to do experiment X and leave. It sounded to me that my role is to be a technician's assistant and not a master's candidate. It also sounded like neither he nor anyone wanted to be my mentor.

The straw that broke the camel's back was when previous supervisor made a racist remark about a group of which I am a member. That emboldened even one of his undergrads to use a racial slur around me. I decided to leave and in retrospect if it weren't for the support of my family and the lab manager, I wouldn't have had the ability to show up to my defense.

The problem is that me leaving triggered a whole other set of events. From my observations, my previous supervisor likes to not allow his students to be independent scientists. That way he can keep them under his control and influence.

He has already sabotaged my application to PhD program at a different school. So I went back to undergrad to change fields. I still missed lab work and needed the money so I applied to work as a technician at a lab there. The head of that lab ended up calling my previous supervisor probably because I left the latter out of the list of references. Since then I have dealt with assumptions from people, cryptic references, dismissive testimonials, outright rudeness from people. In one of my classes, we had to analyze the behaviour of people in a scenario that is verbatim one of my encounters with my previous supervisor. If it were more generic I could have dismissed as coincidence, but really the scenario itself was so nonsensical that I have no confidence asserting that it is common.

I left the second lab after 2 years because I could not trust the people there anymore. Now, I am at a third lab to finish a thesis project for my degree. I thought that this lab would not be connected but recently they had been forging new relationships with close collaborators of previous supervisor. Things were going well at first in the sense there weren't any referential or odd remarks. Recently, however, I'm not so sure I can trust them either.

So here I am. I am jaded and distrustful of anyone who asks me anything personal. I plan to leave academia for good now. But I don't want to leave to live yet the same patterns in industry, and to do that I have to make sure no one can relay where I'm going next. The problem is I don't have a fraction of the manipulation and influence prowess of these professors so I can't convince someone to not disclose or share that information to protect me. Moreover, since it looks like more and more people are being recruited into helping said supervisor, I feel like I'm trapped without references unless I submit to his will.

Has anyone successfully dealt with people like previous supervisor and gotten away from them? Any advice is greatly appreciated.

  • 3
    Is your field so small that this guy can reach out to anyone in your vicinity? – Captain Emacs Dec 19 '19 at 17:57
  • @Captain Emacs The original field is small. The field I had wanted to switch to is an offshoot: it's not the main field of previous supervisor but he can transition to work in it if he wanted to. – travellingHedgehog Dec 19 '19 at 19:13
  • 5
    I would suggest getting counseling. If the situation is as you say, you are probably a bit traumatized and could benefit from discussing it with a professional. It's also possible that your perception is a bit skewed, and a professional can help you work through this. I wish you well! – cag51 Dec 20 '19 at 1:30
  • @cag51 Thank you for your suggestion and wishes. I'm currently going for CBT counselling to that end. – travellingHedgehog Dec 20 '19 at 3:09
7

I plan to leave academia for good now. But I don't want to leave to live yet the same patterns in industry

You may find industry to be just as bad or even worse. People with power can be very nasty.

Now, I am at a third lab to finish a thesis project for my degree. I thought that this lab would not be connected but recently they had been forging new relationships with close collaborators of previous supervisor. Things were going well at first in the sense there weren't any referential or odd remarks. Recently, however, I'm not so sure I can trust them either.

Due to traumatic past experiences, you have developed a "paranoia". It is highly unlikely that your previous supervisor (who seems to be a big shot, with multiple "close collaborators" and a large enough lab that he can treat his lab members disrespectfully and continue to have enough members to sustain his research) has the time or desire to go out of his way to badmouth a former undergrad to a group that is distant enough away that the connection is only through his close collaborators. He might even want you to succeed in this new lab, so that you are content/happy there and less likely to bother him again (asking him for letters of references, making complaints to his university administration for abuse/racism/academic-misconduct/etc.).

However, I appreciate that you will not be able to easily trust anyone anymore. You are vague though, about what happened that made you not so sure you can trust this new lab, so I'm limited in how much I can help you there. But what makes you think you will be able to unconditionally trust people in industry? You may consider also exploring this stack exchange: https://workplace.stackexchange.com/. You may find stories even worse than the one you've described here. Finally, part of your lack of trust for people, is in fact healthy, because as you get older you'll learn that you can't trust many people in this world.

Has anyone successfully dealt with people like previous supervisor and gotten away from them? Any advice is greatly appreciated.

In the comments, I've given my email address and you can perhaps tell me which field you're working in so that I can see if I can help. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding the right lab, distant enough away from the previous one. Luckily this happened during your undergraduate years. While it will be impossible for you to fully appreciate this, you are in the very very early stages of your career (considering you did a masters and two undergrads, I'm guessing you are 1-2 decades behind my colleagues and I, so still very young). This means that the stakes are very low, and there is still a chance for you to have an upward rise in your career, which will help you to forget about all the nasty things that happened to you during your undergrad years. Trust me on this. When you get to my age your troubles as an undergrad become almost irrelevant.

| improve this answer | |
  • thank you. I will email you with further details but in short one of the biggest barriers for me working with others is that I don't trust myself to conclude if they are trying to help or hurt me. – travellingHedgehog Dec 19 '19 at 20:42
  • 3
    I understand. You are thinking too much. This is what academics tend to do (we are very "cranial" people). But you don't need to think about it too much more because I will tell you what they are trying to do: most of them are trying to hurt you, not to help you. It can be the same in industry. If you have considered teaching at a high school, you might run into this problem less often, unless you're in a situation where they hire two young (new) science teachers and the school only has the capacity to keep one on permanently. Just focus on doing a good job with your lab work. – user1271772 Dec 19 '19 at 20:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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