“There are many different types of postdoc abuse,” says Yu, a postdoc. “My mentor gets really angry if I get unexpected data and always complains that I don’t work enough. I hear at least once a week that I’m just wasting his money and should be sent back to China.”
While not all principal investigators (PIs) threaten their protégées with deportation, good advisors can be hard to find. Sadly, job postings never warn, “postdoctoral position with a bad mentor available.”
The Varieties of Bad Mentoring Experience
The most common complaint about the mentorship is that it is not actually provided. Postdocs join the laboratory and, after being told what to do, find they are on their own. “My boss wrote a grant for a project he knows nothing about, just because a lot of funding was available,” says Rosa. “Now I work on this new thing, completely unsupervised and without any guidance, while he keeps doing his old research.”
But while some postdocs feel neglected, many would just love to be left alone. Now in her second postdoctoral appointment, Annabel talks bitterly about former mentor, The Micromanager. “She was literally breathing down my neck,” she says. Even though Annabel had 5 years of experience, her mentor had to make sure she was doing everything right. “If I would start preparing solutions, she would lecture me on ions; if I’d go to the walk-in freezer, she would accompany me and talk about the importance of closing the door immediately. Sometimes I was wondering if she was doing anything else, she was so determined to re-train me properly.” Another postdoc, Jefferson, says his PI would follow him whenever he would leave the lab to see where he was and what he was doing.
It's a cliché that postdocs work long hours, but it's often true, and some advisors require it. “I haven’t had a vacation in three years,” says Shayla. “My mentor says that I don’t have children so I need to sacrifice now for a greater career success.” All those hours give postdocs time to develop new ideas but, much to their disappointment, those ideas may not be welcome. Some advisors, postdocs say, design all the experiments, and that--and only that--is what they want done. Their postdocs are left feeling like overeducated technicians.
Indeed, some postdocs are required to serve others in the lab besides their postdoctoral advisors. “I am an excellent servant,” says Lajwanti. Her PI is a clinician and he wants Ph.D. fellows to become established as medical scientists. To that end, Ph.D. fellows are required to work for M.D. fellows. “I work hard so that M.D. fellows can be first authors, or get authorship when they didn’t contribute at all.” All of which helps her mentor prove he offers outstanding training opportunities so that he can maintain the training grant from NIH. “It’s all about politics and getting ahead," says Lajwanti. "Postdocs are there to serve that cause.”
“I’ve been in this lab for four years already," says Donald, "without a single publication.” “My boss published in Science once and now he won’t hear about other journals. I just keep hearing that we need to do more experiments.” While acknowledging the importance of high-profile publications, Donald would publish anywhere at this point. “I would like to start looking for a faculty position, but nobody will take me seriously since I didn’t publish anything as a postdoc.” Donald has considered side collaborations with colleagues, which might help him offset the dearth of publications from his own lab, but Donald’s PI forbids it. He’s been told to focus on his own research and "stop helping the competition.”
Doing What's Write
Good writing skills are vital for a successful scientist, but postdocs claim they rarely have the opportunity to write papers. “My mentor asks me only to write the Methods and leave the more demanding parts to her,” says Mohammed. “I’ve been told to simply accept it as the standard division of labor and that I’ll write when I get a tenured position myself.”
Other advisors encourage postdocs to write but never bother to look at what is written. “My boss asked me to start writing a paper, but after 2 weeks I realized he is writing it too,” says Ricardo. His boss showed little interest in reading what Ricardo wrote. A lack of constructive criticism is common; with bad advisors there is no feedback at all or everything is “fine” (but still has to be repeated ten more times).
“For me, writing was never a problem,” says Bianca. She was expected to write everything, even a part of the R01 grant, while her boss was touring the conferences around the world. “I told him I would write the grant if he would make me instructor, and he agreed.” The PI got the grant, but now he has no intention of promoting her. “He says I need to get my own grant if I want to be a faculty member.”
At least she had an opportunity to learn more about grants. PIs, say many postdocs, rarely speak about details of the grants and grantsmanship; postdocs often have little exposure to project financing and management.
Many postdocs recall being called stupid, and humiliated in front of other lab members. But the harassment sometimes goes beyond the psychological. Sexual harassment also happens, as Kaija found out after coming from Finland two years ago. One of her advisors, married with children, immediately started proposing romantic dinners and trips, since “life is so short and who will notice what we do in this life?” He would touch her knees when they were discussing experiments. She protested, the touching stopped, and she was dubbed “my untouchable friend.” Afraid to be the target of rumors or even dismissed, she kept quiet, but started printing all his emails as proof. In one of them he invited her to “go to the beach together and make love.” When he told her the next morning that he “dreamt about having sex with her,” she consulted the ombudsperson and filed an official complaint.
Perhaps those personality conflicts would be easier to bear if only the salaries were higher. “I was paid $15,000 before the university mandated the minimum postdoc salary of $34,000,” says Wen-Ji. “I knew my PI was running a sweatshop, but I also knew that this is a world-class research institution and I’ll get a better position eventually.”
A Penny Saved
Some advisors even expect their postdocs to lie and steal. “When I take materials from the on-site supply centers, my mentor doesn’t want me to sign up so he wouldn’t have to pay for it,” says Gong-Yi. Instead of buying equipment, he asks her to find other labs on campus where she can do experiments for free.
“My ex PI was so frugal, I had to scrub and re-use all the disposable items,” says Dorothy. She had to work with broken things and deliver good results. When she announced her decision to transfer to another lab, her PI took it badly, refusing to include her as author on any of the publications that may come out of her work.
A Lack of Professionalism
“There are bad mentors everywhere; in every profession you are responsible for your own career and learning how to deal with those kinds of people,” says Anna. Before she entered science, she says, she worked for a guy who asked her to wear her skirts shorter and dye her hair blonder. “In the end I realized that he was just some dirty old man.” Once you learn to ignore it, she argues, you can work more effectively. Many scientists, she notes, lack real-world experience and maturity in dealing with personality conflicts and other workplace problems. “More professionalism in science would probably help everyone.”
Working Hard and Keeping Quiet
Blackmail and fear of reprisal is what motivates postdocs to keep working for bad advisors. Letters of recommendation are so important that a bad one from an advisor could ruin their career. “I was so abused, overworked and underpaid that I decided to leave the lab and go to medical school,” says Steven. “But my mentor was so angry that he sent letter to all the medical schools in U.S. describing me as highly undesirable person.” Steven ended up studying abroad; no American school would consider him.
What to do?
Postdocs expect mentors to provide research guidance, to review performance regularly and to teach them writing, experiment design and project management, and many of them provide it. According to the Sigma Xi postoc survey, satisfaction with the postdoctoral mentoring experience is quite high overall, and only 3-6% report being subjected to, or witnessing, outright discrimination or harassment.
But bad apples are out there, and to get what they want and cover their tracks they sometimes choose to block a promising career, which makes dealing with a bad mentor perilous.
The best advice, no doubt, is to avoid bad advisors in the first place. Practice due diligence; talk to former (and current) postdocs about their experiences, and reject offers from advisors you have reason to doubt. Even if their science is excellent, it's probably not worth it.
But bad advisors cannot always be avoided. If you realize you are working in the lab of a bad mentor, the wisest solution is probably to start looking for another one right away. As one unfortunate postdoc put it, “We may not be able to change the mentors, but we may choose not to work for them.”
Livia Puljak is a postdoc at the University of Texas, Southwestern in Dallas, but stories she tells are from all over. Names, genders, and identities of the victims have been changed to protect the innocent.