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I’ve seen a few similar posts but am hoping someone might have specific advice regarding cutting ties with an abusive ex-supervisor. For context:

I started working in this supervisor’s lab as an undergrad, and was hoping to go to another university for an MSc. My supervisor recommended I apply for a research fellowship in case I changed my mind (which I naïvely did), and then lashed out when I asked for references to other programs and refused to give them to me as he wanted me to stay in the lab. This was during covid so I felt pretty trapped + coerced into staying, but thought i’d graduate quickly and make the most of it. The next 2 years of my life were literal hell, as I tried to graduate and the scope of the project crept to an unmanageably large level. During this time, 2 other Msc students either left the lab or the program completely, a postdoc quit and everyone was miserable because of how abusive he is. When I finally graduated, he expected me to continue working for him despite me clearly stating my intention to leave, and was shocked/berated me when I handed in my official notice.

All this to say that, since I graduated last year, I’ve been doing some (unpaid) work for him from time to time as a courtesy and to wrap up some analyses from the project. However, the scope also keeps creeping, and now I feel trapped all over again. If I stop, he will sabotage my academic career, and likely take it out on all of my old lab mates who have become good friends (trauma bonded lol). How can I stop doing work for him as I genuinely don’t care about the publications anymore and would prefer to have zero contact with him?

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    Thank him for the time you've had together, tell him you need to move on, and do so. You might want to seek a bit of counseling for yourself too. Jan 7 at 23:12

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How to deal with an abusive situation as the one that you find yourself in depends very much on the surrounding cultural environment. If you happen to be in Korea (for example), my advice is not going to be very pertinent, because I never lived in Korea and know few Koreans well. It also depends on what is the institutional climate. In most cases, colleagues of your professor are to some degree aware of this behavior and their lack of intervention is troublesome. To me, it indicates a lack of oversight.

However, often you can put some breaks on what is happening by going to another faculty member and ask for advice, basically telling them what you just told us. That faculty member might turn out to be helpful. In many places, you will now find ombudsmen to help the powerless deal with abuses by the powerful. Even if complaining is not culturally acceptable, they can help. If there is none, since the bridges are already burnt (berating you for leaving means your advisor broke the relationship with you), you could directly go to the head of the institution, who will in all likelihood not do anything, but who is now put on notice. The head might react if there are enough negative fall-out to the behavior of your advisor.

If you are really done with academia, you can just leave. You gave your notice and that is that. You cannot protect your lab-mates any better than the previous bunch could protect you, and you have no obligation to try to do what is impossible. There is only a limited influence of your professor outside of academia.

If you are not done with Academia, then any advice on how to proceed will have to take your cultural environment into account. You basically need to find another mentor.

If you live in a Western society, then you are not asserting yourself well and might need some professional help to learn this skill.

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