I am international postdoc and 7 months into my 1 year postdoc. My PI is very young and the lab is relatively new. I chose this lab because after the interview I was convinced that the PI and I had similar research interests. I had also made sure the work would be experimental in nature since that is what I am an expert in.

The research direction proposed seemed interesting and I have enjoyed working on the project. But there is a major mismatch between our attitudes. I do appreciate him taking the time out to listen to my research plan and goals but I just cannot bear the abusive nature of the PI. In my 6 months time he has humiliated me in front of the whole group twice (both for journal clubs), saying my presentations should be much better than what it is. The theoretical aspect of my work is not of my interest and he expects me to know each and everything about it even though it's a new topic for me. There is zero tolerance for any mistake or unanswered question.

Long story short, I feel under-confident and bullied I am convinced that I need to look for a new position and have already started contacting some potential advisers (no luck yet).

My questions are the following:

  1. How do I survive the remaining 5 months of my postdoc with an abusive mentor who has unreasonably high standards?
  2. I have been so stressed since the past month that I feel unfit for any position. How do I regain my confidence?
  3. How do I find a position without a reference letter from the current adviser?
  • 1
    Have you talked to other people at your university? I would recommend seeking out someone local to talk to about the situation: other postdocs in your lab, the department chair, the university ombudsman (if one exists), the international student services office (if one exists).
    – Anonymous
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 23:58
  • 4
    If your university or your healthcare plan offers access to a therapist, find one. If you cannot leave yet, they can at least help you sort through this situation and distance yourself emotionally a little, so that you will be less impacted by your PI's attitude.
    – nengel
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 1:28
  • 4
    1) Is it only you that gets a harsh treatment in journal club? Perhaps it is just the PI's style, and you should not take it as a sign of the PI's opinion of you. In my department, we ask very tough questions and criticize a lot during internal presentations because our philosophy is that you want your friends to be your worst critics (so all future presentations seem easy!).
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 3:42
  • 3
    2) How do you know the reference letter will not be good? I know people who receive good letters from professors that are also occasionally very critical. The best tactic to take with those professors is "Thank you so much for the criticism, it is really helping to make me better." When someone improves because of my criticism, I tend to think well of them, not poorly.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 3:45
  • 11
    Your question didn't convince me that you are in a toxic environment. It might just be a clash of different cultures combined with lack of open communication. I'm just putting this out here because (1) others (potential future advisors) might see it similarly, and (2) it might be something that could be fixed. Just my two cents after reading the question; maybe it's a useful perspective.
    – user9482
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 6:34

1 Answer 1


Although I may not have stood in your shoes as a post doctoral scholar, however I hope I can give you some insight on the behavior of your PI.

How do I survive the remaining 5 months of my postdoc with an abusive mentor who has unreasonably high standards?

First and foremost, don't take it personally.

If your PI is for lack of a better word an a**. I doubt there is anything you can do to change that. On the other hand, what you can control is your perception and acceptance of such negative behavior.

Peeling back the emotional layers, is there truth to what is being said? Is there a fundamental misunderstanding on your part of a given subject matter? For example, if your PI berates you in public on not knowing that 1+1=2, you can approach the problem from two (among many) views. One is emotion: your PI just humiliated you in front of your peers. The other is the core issue at hand, knowledge, does 1+1 really equal 2?

With emotion: you can perceive it with the desired emotion or you can dust it off with nonchalance. Reply stoically "I didn't know that, thank you for pointing it out to me". Address the outburst and move on.

If you don't let hate (and in this case, a severe lack of tact on part of your PI) get to you, it robs the abuser of their satisfaction (if it was intentional). If it wasn't intentional, then it is a rather rocky learning process for your PI as one day, when their supervisor (or senior faculty) sees this going on, they will get their a** chewed out for humiliating their people or find themselves without anyone who is willing to work it them, effectively being an academic pariah. (Yeah he/she is smart, but he/she is a pain to work with, let's not).

With knowledge: it will be up to you to determine if you are in fact, in the wrong. If so, adapt your understanding with newfound knowledge and move on. If you are wrong, you are wrong, there isn't much more to discuss. If you are right... well... ask yourself if it is worth the battle to prove to a belligerent PI that they are incorrect.

I have been so stressed since the past month that I feel unfit for any position. How do I regain my confidence?

Take a moment and look at all of the struggles that you've accomplished and overcome thus far. Your graduate tests, qualification exams, writing a dissertation, defending you thesis, buying your review board's favorite foods, for the last >4 years of your life. Putting up with an a**hole for the next 5 months in comparison is a drop in the bucket.

Keep your eyes forward on the goals you've set for yourself and what kept you going all these years.

How do I find a position without a reference letter from the current adviser?

My understanding of a reference letter, is to have someone who is knowledgeable of your work ethic, vouch for you. I believe there would be more than your PI whom you've worked closely with this past year. A faculty member perhaps?

  • About 1) There is a lack of understanding on the theoretical part of the work which is not my strong suite and that is the only section I am berated for. I do not question his criticism, my only issue is none of my misgivings are addressed in the one on one meeting. It is only in group meetings and my presentations where it is put across to me that I need to know more than I do on the current subject matter. I am trying my best to deal with it by reading and taking some online courses. About 3) I do have good letters from my Master's and Graduate school PI's.
    – Amsherg
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 12:15
  • 1
    (1) If there was one thing I've learned about interpersonal relationships, it is to praise in public and criticise in private. Although you can bring this up to the PI, it might be a futile endeavor. One day your PI would find themselves without anyone who is willing to work for or with them. (3) then that will suffice. Keep in touch with them and move on.
    – Bluebird
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 15:10
  • (1) In addition to criticizing in public, he once casually joked with a grad student that if he doesnt get a funding soon he will be firing me! And this was less than 4 months of my joining. Anyway the list is long, but i will try my best to improve the situation from side (3) Hope it works!
    – Amsherg
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 16:40

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .