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I am doing a postdoc with a principal investigator (PI) at an American university. Research is going great, with three publications in one year.

But the PI has serious issues. I would say he is a psychopath. I would have probably laughed in the past if someone would have used this description, but now it seems the best description and apparently he has the reputation to be this kind of person and a long list of postdocs who have suddenly left.

He lies endlessly, changes agreements we had (even behind my back, telling other scientists involved I would have agreed to things I did not agree to). If he does not get what he wants, even if it is unreasonable, he starts yelling. He has also been throwing around things in the office.

He also does not work scientifically, I don't know what he does. I have my own money, and he does not want me to leave because of that, but also does not treat me in any way well.

He also threatens me: If I leave, he will ruin my career. I have already an offer from another PI but am super scared that my current PI intervenes and I would lose my visa over that. Apparently he has intervened in the past when postdocs had offers such that offers were cancelled. How should I proceed? I am scared and can't focus, hate myself for that but can't handle the situation mentally. Feel like trapped. I love science and don't want to leave academia.

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    "Apparently he has intervened in the past when postdocs had offers such that offers were cancelled" - where did you get this information from? From your PI or from actual former postdocs? Talk to the latter if you can. – Mark Jul 26 at 10:17
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    Run. Go away from him as soon as possible and expose him – SSimon Jul 26 at 11:58
  • One of my friends was in a similar situation. After having one of his job offers canceled at the intervention of his boss, he searched quietly and left without warning. I'm not sure what your boss can do about your visa, once you accepted and signed an offer elsewhere. You need to talk to someone who really knows the legal aspects. – Magicsowon Jul 26 at 14:44
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    I know it from other prior postdocs that he intervened. I reached out to them as soon as things got difficult. I am, right now, his only student (postdoc or otherwise) at all. – user234 Jul 26 at 16:09
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    This person might be a psychopath except those are usually cleverer and more manipulative than this PI sounds. There may be a serious mental illness or even brain injury involved if they have uncontrollable anger. Find a way out, as far away as possible. Consider which is more important, your sanity or your visa. Get advice from the college counsellor. Say that you are actually scared for your physical safety. Get the counsellor or another trusted person to sit with you in any meetings. Unfortunately these people exist. I was lucky only to meet one during my career. Never again. Good luck. – chasly - supports Monica Jul 26 at 16:54
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In my view you have three options: sit out, leave and stand up.

I share some thoughts about standing up. Your institution must have a behavioral integrity policy. You can talk to an ombudsperson or thrust person. You can do this anonymously. You are not the first and this is important information. Document the cases. Try to find and speak to your predecessors. What have they done in their situations and why? What was their outcome? What advise do you get from your ombudsperson or thrust person?

It takes a lot of courage to walk this route which in the end may lead to a formal complaint against this PI. There is no guarantee for success. Apparently this PI has been protected for a long time already on the expense of people with temporary contracts and lesser power. But it depends on history. You are not the first.

I cannot give you a single advice. If you can emotionally detach yourself, you can sit out your contract. But I understand you bring your own money. I fear he will not let you go easily anyhow. You are valuable to this PI bringing in research results and publications. You are feeding your PI.

If you can’t emotionally detach yourself, you should leave or stand up. When leaving, do not be afraid that this PI may harm your reputation in science. Science is a huge place and your PI will have a reputation too. Trust me, PI’s loosing postdocs, PhD’s and students, not delivering results (publications and grants) are not taken that seriously. Especially when you can show your results.

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    Just reading someones empathetic words helps. And the options make sense. Thank you – user234 Jul 26 at 7:11
  • Re first sentence: A.O. Hirschman famously called these options "exit", "voice", and "loyalty". – henning -- reinstate Monica Jul 26 at 9:10
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    If you have the other offer and you are about to take it, make sure everything is ready so that you can jump ship in one fell swoop. Do take care that your PI does not know your other option, until everything is in a safe way. Is your other offer at a different institution? Good. Is it at your current institution? More difficult, tread carefully. – Captain Emacs Jul 26 at 10:49
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    @henning--reinstateMonica Please clarify. Hirschman identified two options, "exit" and "voice", and described "loyalty" as a factor affecting the choice between the two. So they are not the same as Peter's three options. As I see it: "exit" = "leave"; "voice" = "stand up"; and "sit out" is bearing it in silence, which is not what Hirschman meant by "loyalty". – nanoman Jul 26 at 14:22
  • Some crazy people are worth working with, others not. Try not to internalize the craziness if you decide to stay. Consider whether there is any upside to staying other than avoiding retaliation. – Buffy Jul 26 at 14:32
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Being in your shoes is extremely difficult. But from my related experiences the best option, in my opinion, is to leave this PI. The moment he throws something or yells, immediately raise a complaint with the university. Throwing something at someone with the intent to injure is a criminal offence. Your PI might very well lose his job. Yelling at you is tantamount to bullying you which directly affects your mental health.

It is the duty of your university to provide a safe environment for working. You mental and physical health is under threat. And it is a breach of your fundamental rights. Therefore, give a written complaint with precise and accurate wordings.

But even before that, do not let anyone abuse you or threaten you. The moment your PI does something unscientific challenge him on the face. Ask him such questions over email and demand email responses. Also tell him that his behaviour is causing you issues, again, over email. Build a strong case for yourself. You could think about cc-ing this email to other support structures in your university.

Get an immigration lawyer. You cannot let such people and universities bully you in the name of the visa. This is exploitation and unacceptable in the democratic free world.

Know your rights and under no circumstances let anyone breach it. You are a scientist, you are special, be proud of it and act like one. While you are doing this do not let your research get slowed down. I know it is difficult, but it is a must.

Do the right thing while being smart about it.

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If you believe this person is abusive, the first step is to quietly discuss this with students/postdocs in the group or who are or were otherwise in contact with this person. If indeed this is not a singular issue, then you should quietly talk to either the chair/graduate chair/some faculty member to discuss the situation. Please be sure to establish first that your observations are shared by others.

You will not get any mileage out of the claim he doesn’t do anything academically. The reality is that this person might be instrumental in getting funding for the group, without which the research endeavour is impossible. Moreover, suggesting that someone’s a liar should be done very carefully, as circumstances in research are subject to constant revisions. You need to establish facts not about lying or laziness but about abusive behaviour and/or bullying.

I do not have first hand experience of the type you describe, but I am aware of cases where abusive faculty members were sanctioned by the unit in one form or another, v.g. this person can no longer take students or postdocs until some remedial action has been completed.

While this may not be immediately useful in your case, this kind of sanction also came - in the cases I know - with some sort of anti-retaliation clauses, and other means of supporting the students/postdocs/technicians so they could switch elsewhere without penalty.

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    In general, in my experience, the universities do not care about a particular student or postdoc. They care more about their permanent employees. So from the perspective of OP, it is better if they fight this on their own. It is easier for the university to help a specific person without punitive action on someone else. – kosmos Jul 26 at 22:05
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  • Get an immigration lawyer. We can't give you legal advice.
  • Leave. This PI is abusive.
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