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I started my postdoc almost two years ago on a very interdisciplinary subject. Our team includes me, a phd student, a senior postdoc and the PI. The arrangement of our team is somehow unique. I and the phd student are based in the same institute which is the main lab; the other postdoc is in a different institute in the same city, and the PI is appointed at a different university overseas. However, she must visit the main institute for about six months each year.

I have an excellent relationship with the phd student; we share the same personality traits and research habits. We work well with each other and compensate for our weak spots. However, we both have massive issues when the PI is visiting. Unfortunately, we have to share the same office with her at the time of her visit, and she has a completely different, and most of the time intrusive, personality. We were both so annoyed during her last visit that we had to take about two weeks off to just not be with her in the same room.

I hesitated to share personal information with her in the past two years and have a strong "No" attitude regarding keeping the boundaries. Nevertheless, I always tried to tolerate her. But gradually I was worn down by the constant stressful daily moments with her during her visits, and I started to passively ignore her in daily routines such as lunch or asking to go out. I developed a conscious guard against her, especially some daily behaviors, whether about asking how I am doing or asking to do something related to work.

In addition to these personality issues, she has a very questionable (this is absolutely subjective; I have a bit strict ethical and behavioral codes) professional attitude. She does not acknowledge others' works properly, she has a mixed jealousy/envious reaction towards others' achievements, always thinking that she is right, and especially avoiding being held accountable for making difficult decisions on interventions. This resulted in a toxic working environment, preventing me from staying motivated to come to work and do my job. For example, I wrote a small grant proposal this year for her which was 99% my brainchild. I wrote everything from beginning to end, and she proofread the final version and added her profile information. She submitted the grant by putting herself as PI and including me as the team member in the proposal. The grant was accepted two months ago. She once told me thank you on the day she got accepted. After that, there were several internal and external public announcements in our institute and multiple high-level meetings with directors. However, she did not mention a single word to include me in any aspect.

Scientifically, she is mediocre. Unfortunately, she advanced in her career mainly by her soft skills rather than intellectual merits. I just mentioned this because I tend to tolerate harsh working conditions to some extent if I see that I learn something from my advisor, which is unfortunately not the case.

(EDIT regarding merits: This judgment was shaped in my mind over time. I don't question her superiors, but she is working on a hot topic that brings visibility and money to the institutes she is working with. So her bosses might not care if she is just talking about science).

I am now really at a crossroads. I am mentally stressed because of her attitude at work, but at the same time, I invested in the subject so much that I don't feel good if I leave without a publication. I am the only person on the team who can push this particular work forward, and I can't afford to leave it unfinished and move on since this was supposed to be my stepping stone in the interdisciplinary field that I got into in the first place.

My question is simple and also complicated: how can I deal with her for at least one more year until I finish what I have started?

Thanks for your thoughts.

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    Thanks for your question. Just a small recommendation: There is a lot of detail here that would potentially make this person identifiable, and much of that detail is unecessary to the question at issue. I recommend you strip away some of the details (particularly in the first paragraph) to ensure that the PI at issue is non-identifiable.
    – Ben
    Sep 27 at 3:05
  • @Ben thank you for your comment, I made a few edits to remove some potentially sensitive information.
    – Zalit Forn
    Sep 27 at 4:04
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    (1) Are post-docs allowed to be PIs at your institution? (2) What exactly is the problem you're trying to solve? It sounds like your advisor sucks and you have wisely distanced yourself from her as much as possible. Not sure what else we can tell you; is there a specific concern for which your existing strategies don't seem to be adequate?
    – cag51
    Sep 27 at 4:29
  • @cag51 1) no postdocs can’t be PIs. 2) it’s more about surviving. I kinda reached my limit in handling her even with the distance, mainly because every other month she is present physically and this escalates the situation. I am more looking for advice on how to handle such people for short time, because I think my ways will not work anymore, as I am seeing a significant impact on my motivation.
    – Zalit Forn
    Sep 27 at 4:37
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    My friend, I've been there. Leave and save your life
    – stochastic
    Sep 28 at 7:12

2 Answers 2

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Your question boils down to "how can I work with a person with a very different attitude and characters". Build a firewall, limit your interactions with her, be as aggressive in defending your work as she is in claiming it for herself, leave a trace in whatever you do, never keep any scientific/working discussions with her limited to you two but always involve a third party ... and finally always expect the worse from her.

Please do not put the merit in question, like you do when you say "Scientifically, she is mediocre. Unfortunately, she advanced in her career mainly by her soft skills rather than intellectual merits." because this means that who hired her is an idiot, and if you go to work under a mediocre person having an idiot as a boss you should think about your own sanity. Play defensive and spend your time finding a rapid way out, not thinking how to keep on grinding one more year.

You are digging your own grave. You know this carachter since two years, and stil you accept to work with her (that translates in working for her):

For example, I wrote a small grant proposal this year for her which was 99% my brainchild. I wrote everything from beginning to end

You think you are forced to work with her so you could have the "stepping stone in the interdisciplinary field that I got into in the first place." You could not be more wrong than this.

Stop thinking you may remotely profit from collaborating with her (or her group). You cannot, whatever you do with them will be turned by her into something you did for them. Even the publication you are planning is probably doomed, you can be 99% sure that during review she will take the important bits and present at conferences, finding other co-authors willing to work with her and to push forward the publication with her (while yours will be stuck in review...).

Sorry being realist, but you should already think of a plan B: your mental health is at risk, you may get the important pubblication by bearing this mental suffering for one mor year, but why?

If you follow this plan, in 2 years you may have the pubblications, but you will be probably close to traumatized because of the experience ... and it is better to be an active brain barely floating than a dead and burnout brain sitting on a stepping stone.

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  • reg: "it is better to be an active brain barely floating than a dead and burnout brain sitting on a stepping stone." this is purely my opinion, but in my experience a dead brain sitting on a stepping stone makes a not-so-pleasant colleague and a horrible boss, even if the stepping stone is very succesful. I do not exclude that your colleague has been victim of exactly this process and now she is a pain in the neck to work (and "live") with.
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 27 at 8:04
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    thank you for your post. TBH, parts of it are a bit unpleasant to digest, but I can't deny that there is a logic behind them. It made me think.
    – Zalit Forn
    Sep 27 at 8:25
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    we all dig our own grave :) , but there is always a way out, one has to stop digging. Before the grave is too deep to see the expanse of land still to be explored (and before the earthwall collapses).
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 27 at 8:57
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I'm sorry you're in this situation.

I agree with some previous answers, but I'm curious to what extent you have tried handling the situation head-on? Have you tried having a conversation with your PI about this stuff? I'd recommend talking and trying to really understand their motivation, their perspective, and share your perspective, the impact on you, etc. Try to avoid talking in absolutes (right and wrong, etc.), and instead talk about the impact on you; "I experienced this interaction [e.g. writing the grant & not getting credit] as not being valued or supported in my career. Do you see what led me to feel this way? What was your perspective?"

And the other thing I've found to be really helpful in similar situations is to have a conversation about expectations. What are their expectations of you? What are your expectations of them? Is there sufficient overlap to try to find a way to make this work (or even thrive!) for another year, or are the sets of expectations like two disjoint circles in a Venn diagram? If the latter, you probably need to exit immediately. If there's some overlap, you might be able to talk very concretely about what would look like success for your last year of working together from each of your perspectives, and make something happen that both of you feel like you benefit from.

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