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I recently, successfully defended my dissertation (2 months ago) and have been working as a postdoc in one of my committee member's lab since then.

My PhD advisor is a malicious person who enjoys being mean to those who can't fight back. I had, apparently foolishly, thought that leaving her lab would remove me as a target for her abuse. She told me many times during my studies that she would not let me pass my quals/defense. Fortunately, both only required a majority of my committee, not unanimous, to pass so I eventually tried not to worry about this. During my defense, she failed me, one committee member failed to show up due to a death in the family, and the other three members passed me and had very complimentary things to say about the quality of both my written and oral defense. I then went to work as a postdoc in the lab of a committee member who was actually helpful during my PhD, one of the three who passed me.

In the past week at my new job, new lab/building but at the same university, I have been told twice that my PhD adviser is telling people that I am a bad researcher and that I made a coworker in my PhD lab do all of my experiments for me.

This is categorically not true. In fact, the coworker who supposedly did all of my work is a friend who I know is not encouraging this story. We became friends when I trained her after she joined the lab. Additionally, multiple people (PhD students, lab techs, etc.) have come to me asking for help in several experimental planning matters that they have been unable to resolve on their own. So apparently, the PI/professor level at this school all think I am incompetent because of my PhD advisor while the students/techs all think I can help them resolve issues.

I hate this. I deeply regret joining my advisor's lab for my PhD, but not the PhD itself. I had thought I was finally free to develop a healthy mental state about my work and future career plans, but she has managed to once again undermine me. I am now beginning to regret even continuing on at this school. While the work I do now is great and I do enjoy it, I do not enjoy being bullied from afar by my former advisor.

As I see it, I have two options:

  1. ignore the PhD advisor who is actively trying to ruin my career and future prospects at this school while maintaining my own personal work ethic and hoping that people will see the truth...or
  2. try to fix my reputation among the professors, but this is highly problematic and may end up labeling me as a troublemaker or something

I see no "good way" out of this mess, but am leaning toward option 1. However, my partner is pushing me to start option 2.

What should I do?

Thank you in advance to everyone for your input.

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  • 22
    Third option: a lawyer.
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 3, 2023 at 7:38
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    ...or ombudsman Oct 3, 2023 at 11:03
  • 6
    I've seen pretty much this exact thing unfold with a close friend in a non-university research facility. The good news is that the PI was known to do this sort of thing, so her attempts were generally ignored. My friend did not lose any relationships over the incident (but one) and simply went to work for a different group. The PI even attempted some false accusations, but those were immediately shut down by her own group and her bosses. Eventually she moved on to undermining other, more important people. No one ever thought worse of my friend because of this incident. Oct 3, 2023 at 15:22
  • 5
    Option 3(b): Move to another institution ASAP. -- I wonder if bad-advisor's gaslighting degraded OP's confidence to the point where they didn't think to search for jobs outside current university, and so stay in bad-advisor's sphere of influence? Oct 4, 2023 at 13:38
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    @joseph h The only thing I can think of is that 2.5 ish years ago I stopped covering for her when she was being unsafe. I did not report her, because I still wanted to graduate, but I ordered my own dosimetry badge/EHS pick-ups etc, because she would tell me its fine to just pour down the drain or not to worry about the radiation badge because it never leaks gamma rays. But, I do not think this is it either, because she told me before my quals earlier that she wouldn't pass me. My grandma says its because she's jealous that I'm smarter than her, but I don't think its that either.
    – Baffled
    Oct 4, 2023 at 13:44

8 Answers 8

68

Why is it you think all the other professors there think you're incompetent? The three of them that know your work best, besides your advisor, all thought you earned a PhD; one of them hired you to work with them as a post doc. If your PhD advisor is a malicious person, it's quite likely this hasn't escaped everyone else's observation, and they may already know to ignore her. At least in my world, it's incredibly unusual for someone to earn a PhD without their advisor's blessing, and it would be quite a statement about what other professors thought of her if they were willing to override their decision. Professional politics and courtesy may prevent them from stating this more explicitly than they already have.

Anyways, I don't think there's really a right or wrong answer here about how much to push back. You could take the "high road" and let the people who know you best speak for you when you need it: when you're asking for recommendation letters, for example.

If you do feel it is necessary to escalate, your post doc advisor is probably the person best positioned to help advise you on how to proceed. Since you're still at the same institution, if you choose to escalate I would recommend doing so within the reporting structure of your institution. That may involve going to the department chair, or it may involve a separate third-party review process. At some point, you may be in a room with the chair, your former advisor, and your current advisor, and there will be an expectation of some adult professional conversation among you, which your former advisor may or may not be capable of.

Try to stick to what is meaningful to you going forward, not payback or revenge against your advisor. It's quite reasonable that you value your professional image, and are proud of your integrity and the integrity of your school. It reflects poorly on the whole department to have unfounded accusations that graduates have not actually performed the research that earned them a degree. Your advisor looks especially foolish to make this accusation about her own student, since monitoring your progress is her job. It would be as if the chef were whispering that the food they serve is expired. They are also implicitly questioning the professionalism of the other professors on your committee.

Likely a process like this will have the most value if there is some specific behavior you would like to stop; you won't be able to order your former advisor to change her opinion of you as a researcher.

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    I hadn't realized it until you pointed it out, but you are correct that I am just assuming the professors dislike my work. I will try to be more level-headed in the future about that. Thank you also for putting it into perspective, I had never looked at it from the angle of the other professors not believing her, But again, now that you point it out, she is well-hated by everyone I've met here, prof/students/janitors etc. Thank you for your input, and I will just continue to do my work and let both of our reputations grow as they will.
    – Baffled
    Oct 2, 2023 at 19:54
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    @Baffled No problem. Probably worth a conversation with your current advisor (assuming you have a good relationship), even if you don't plan to escalate anything, they'll probably be able to reassure you. You could phrase the conversation as "I've heard these rumors about what my former advisor is saying, and I don't think anything needs to be done but I wanted you to be aware", unless you do decide something should be done.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 2, 2023 at 19:58
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    @Baffled It's very reasonable to be upset, you haven't done anything dramatic unless there's been some incident with spraypaint and the former advisor's car you're not telling us about. Sounds like you got out of a bad situation. Best of luck in the future.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 2, 2023 at 20:11
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    @Baffled Well-hated, even by the janitors... that's quite an accomplishment. 🤣
    – Mentalist
    Oct 3, 2023 at 4:25
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    @Mentalist That's one of my favorite stories! Our breakroom developed a ceiling leak, and until they could fix our new water feature, they put a trashcan under it to catch the water. They did not use either of the cans in the breakroom itself, or the cans in the breakroom across the hall. No, they went down the hall, past 2 other rooms/offices, and used their keys to get into her office and take her office trash can.
    – Baffled
    Oct 4, 2023 at 13:50
14

Don't worry about it. It makes your PhD adviser look worse than you.

If people work with you and know you're good, and your old PhD adviser randomly has it out for you they will ignore it other than maybe feeling sorry for you. Maybe they would even feel all the more impressed you got to where you are with a lunatic PhD adviser.

Even if my PhD student was bad, I wouldn't try to hurt them. I take a responsibility for them when they become my student. Good or bad, I want them to succeed.

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    Thank you for your comments! I will continue with my work and do my best to ignore her in the future.
    – Baffled
    Oct 2, 2023 at 19:57
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    @Baffled I'm sorry this is happening to you. It is unfair and childish which unfortunately happens in our profession sometimes...
    – user479223
    Oct 2, 2023 at 20:03
10

Trust me on this, I've been a faculty member for 35 years. We know some of our colleagues are crazy and abusive (and who they are). We sometimes take concerted steps to protect students from these kinds of people, and from what you say it is clear that some people took steps to protect you; during your qualifying exam and during your PhD defense. So don't worry about any of this, it is just extra stress that you don't need in your life. Get on with your work, protect your mental and physical health, and try to enjoy your life. I don't know where you work or in what field, but if you were in the US and in my field I would strongly suggest to you that it would be a good idea at some point in the not far distant future to find a position at some other university-- not because things are bad with your current post-doctoral advisor, mainly so you can get a fresh start in your own mind as much as anything else. Obviously I know nothing about your other circumstances or even how realistic that is, I just thought I would throw that out there. But that is not to imply that you should be concerned about whatever crap your PhD advisor may be throwing around. It's more to help you put the stress of what you put up with behind you. By the way, that advice comes from personal experience (even though one difference is that my struggles at that same stage of career development where mostly of my own making).

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  • Thank you for your comments! After I complete my postdoc here, I am hoping to get to another university. I had thought that leaving her lab would be enough, but I miscalculated.
    – Baffled
    Oct 4, 2023 at 13:53
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    Let me guess... it's really difficult to unseat these “crazy and abusive” faculty members? (Short of them being found guilty for some some large scandal or legal fiasco.) It's really too bad that there aren't mechanisms in place for either removing such people or shutting down their abuse with certainty, while protecting others from retribution. I can imagine it being a real energy drain for both students and other faculty. Meanwhile there are probably more qualified people out there for whom there is unfortunately no position open. A problem for society at large: jerks flying under the radar.
    – Mentalist
    Oct 5, 2023 at 1:28
1

It may be worth talking with the chair of your department in private about this, if only to make them aware.

During grad school, I had a somewhat similar experience. There was a particular professor who, for reasons somewhat beyond me, did not care for me and failed me on orals exams where other professors gave me a pass with flying colors. This set up a strange situation where I discussed with the chair whether I wanted to leave with a masters or continue my PhD. I stated that I wanted to stay and the chair suggested that I simply avoid this professor when it came research. My impression is that they recognized that this professor did not care for me, but given previous behavior of this professor this didn't mean I was a bad student. I told the chair I did want to continue and life has been fine since.

It's unkind that a professor would treat you this way but if they start to get a reputation for picking odd battles with students, very likely other professors will take their gossip with a grain of salt. If you can find a group that you can productive with this is likely to be more important than what your advisor said.

0

To start with, overall I agree with this answer: https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/202469/13240

If your goal is to get this person to stop slandering you, your supervisor, chair, and omsbudsperson may be able to help. However, in my opinion, someone who has been

  1. abusing you for many years
  2. continued abusing you after the end of your professional relationship

is unlikely to stop simply because the university says to stop. Even if the professor is fired and banned from campus (a very unusual outcome), the abuse might continue.

I am not a fan of lawyers as a way to resolve disagreements (for one thing, they are expensive). However, for persistent abuse they can be helpful. I suggest you talk to a lawyer about

  1. A restraining order.
  2. Seeking damages for slander.
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  • 1
    This person's behavior sounds more similar to domestic abuse than the typical "PhD supervisor is a jerk" situation. Of course, we might not have complete information about the situation. Oct 5, 2023 at 15:08
-1

Sounds like a common thing in graduate school these days. I've failed out of 2 master's programs and 3 PhD programs. Today, I am a PhD candidate but it was because I got out of a toxic work environment and joined a new group. Show her that you're stronger than you think and keep working there. If you quit, it means she wins. I'm preparing for the day I graduate to notify the ones who said I would continue to fail in graduate school and life.

-1

I was in a similar situation with one prof when I was starting my PhD and I chose the "fight back" way. I was as mean as the prof and was openly ridiculing him during meetings. Not very mature, maybe, but quite efficient.

One of the exchanges I remember was him saying "all these simple researchers who belive in simulations really do not understand physics", to which I replied "you know, it requires some intelligence to understand simulations so I get it that you are completely lost".

He was 80, I was 20.

This is definitely not for everyone and is tiring.

I also had a friend who was in a similar situation. She initially wanted to fight back the same way but knowing her very well, I told her that she would be spending her time wondering how she could have handled it better.

She eventually decided to openly call the disciplinary group/court at her university and officially raise a harassment case. She made it very public and people were called as witnesses. It ended well, there was an official warning for the other party and since the prof was a coward (as in your case), he never tried again.

These cases are draining energy at an alarming rate.

-5

If your PhD advisor has tenure, then she most probably has a group of faculty members who will support each other through thick and thin, like if one of them have committed research misconduct or misspending of research funds. This means, you probably won't get anything in your university that requires a vote by tenured faculty. But this will not affect decisions that are taken individually by faculty who are not in her group.

1
  • That assumes that that faculty member managed to accumulate a clique/club around them. Which is sometimes the case, but all the OP has said indicates this is not the case here. This response is therefore not suitable for the present question. There are many questions on SE where this might be a more fitting scenario setting, but not here. Oct 4, 2023 at 13:59

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