How to deal or move away from toxic supervisors

I think I lost count of all the messages I got from fellow students asking for help because they don’t know how to deal or move away from toxic supervisors. I initially wanted to share my own experience only. But I think this wouldn’t have been powerful enough to provide resources, support and motivation. So I decided to ask people to share their own experience publicly or anonymously so that everyone can identify themselves in one of the following cases and act accordingly. I also want to say that I feel incredibly sorry if you are reading this article and you currently going through such a poor mentoring situation yourself. I really hope this can be helpful!

The fact that some PIs are brilliant scientists doesn’t necessarily mean that they are equally great mentors!

Maria’s story (Maria is a fictional name)

During my postdoc, although I got an almost 1 million dollar grant thanks to my results, my supervisor told me that, unfortunately, he had no more money to pay for my salary. Instead, he hired a girl from Europe that suddenly start repeating my experiments. I was already too tired and frustrated, so I made the decision of leaving that lab. I applied for a job in a lab that I collaborated with. They hired me and this is where I have been working since. I was always sick and stressed in that lab, I had to go to counselling. I was always questioning myself, thinking whether I was not good enough, avoiding speaking in public. Looking back, I am proud for leaving, proud for not begging for a contract extension like many others do because we never know how long job hunting will take. I am glad I kept a great collaboration with other labs so that when I contacted them, they hired me right away. Leaving the lab also meant that I didn’t finish my project and publish my data. I had to give up the paper because I just couldn’t get in contact with my ex supervisor anymore.

I left the lab although I had to give up on my paper. I was just protecting myself!

Maria’s story is horrible! She also mentioned that the only reason why she was never accepted by her labmates and PI was because of her accent and she was a brown girl. Maria was never told this straight into her face. But she did hear those individuals making fun of Indian scholars because of the colour of their skin and accent. From an academic point of view, Maria’s supervisor was a bully as he left her out of the paper. If you are also discriminated against because of your heritage and accent, it’s useful to know that is illegal. You can learn more about this here.

Joanna’s story (Joanna is a fictional name)

I should have known that my relationship with my advisor would be problematic since he offered me the opportunity to work in his lab. He initially promised a salary, then said he didn’t have the money to pay for it. I had already left my apartment, packed and made all the arrangements to move to another continent. My scholarship was supposed to be 20 hours of work on his project, take 3 classes and do research for myself. In reality, we were supposed to be in the lab from 7 am until 7 pm every day and not do any homework or any related classwork during this time. He also constantly screamed at us for not working enough and not progressing at the pace he wanted us to move forward. The situation escalated when he told us to write and submit an abstract for a conference. In order to raise our chances to get accepted, we should have written 3 extended abstracts about studies we hadn’t even started yet. When I asked him where we should have the results from, he told me to invent them. I really did not want to start my PhD career with faking data and results. So, I asked my best friends from the program for help. They were shocked and after talking to her advisor, who was the department chair at that time, the chair called me in and asked me about the whole situation.

I reported my supervisor’s misconduct because, at that point, I had nothing to lose!

The department and the university reacted, questioned him and took me off his lab and his professorship. After he fought out a settlement with the university, he left in the middle of the semester, leaving various PhD students and untaught classes behind. I managed to settle my situation, but I am still sad that the only consequence for him was losing his job. He is still running around like a shiny professor giving keynote presentations, workshops and conferences as a visiting professor around the world.

Anna’s story (Anna is a fictional name)

I was awarded a scholarship for my first Masters in research straight after my undergraduate degree. It involved, training in animal work. Everything was going well,  my supervisor adored me at the time. Up until the day of my MRes exam. My final MRes result was scraping a pass, I completely failed my project. Luckily for the rest of the MRes course, I did very well so it stopped me from failing overall. I went to speak to my supervisor and she instantly said it was all my fault because I wasted time (why did she never address this before?). Also because she knew I was married she believed it was marital stress. She said: “no one is going to take you on as a PhD student so I will keep you as a PhD student.” There was no actual grant funding, the funding and salary were to come out of her discretionary. At the time I felt like I owed her for this kind gesture and I was relieved and promised I would prove myself. Once my PhD started, she would constantly act agitated with me, any problem in the lab would somehow be my fault. Anything I didn’t know meant I was incompetent for research. Any mistake I would make, she made me feel like I didn’t deserve the opportunity. I was naive because I always assumed she cared because that’s what she would tell me. Although the team and the group were impressed with my work ethic and had no complaints, my supervisor didn’t want to acknowledge it. At one point she even said to me “no that’s because they think this is your first year in research when I told your second supervisor this is your second year, she was appalled”. Around the time of my confirmation exam, I was working a lot in another institute collecting samples. So, I was not present at my desk with my primary supervisor. One day, she called me over and, ignoring the fact everyone could hear, she told me “How do you think you will pass your exam? You don’t even come in, I have no idea where you have been wondering about!”. I was doing my best and she thought I was wondering about?!? I would email her daily about my progress to make sure she was aware of what I was doing too.

I remember in that instant I decided I would quit so I said to her “I’ll leave!”.

When I requested to leave, the head of postgraduate studies told me a student could not leave a PhD just because a project wasn’t working. However, after explaining my circumstances and how I felt, it was clear I was not given adequate guidance and supervision. I was advised to stay until my confirmation exam and make a decision after the upgrade. The exam went well and I got loads of compliments which made my decision to leave grow stronger! After my upgrade, I went to my supervisor and told her I passed and did very well. I also told her I still wanted to leave. She turned around and said ” good, leave, research is not for you, I always thought so. You should become a science teacher or find something easy for yourself.” I quitted within 9 months, I applied for further PhDs and was lucky to get a doctoral training programme in medical device innovation at UCL. Since then, I have been a co-author on a paper and I have had two babies. I am in my final year, looking forward to finishing this journey.

Martina’s story

During my Master’s degree, I too had to face a difficult time of having to change a supervisor. In Slovakia, we were expected to be in the lab during the entire 2 years of our Master studies, spending several hours a week in the lab (in between other talks, seminars and practical courses). All of my classmates started working on their projects right after the semester began. My situation was different, my supervisor never sat down with me to discuss the project and I felt lost, at a time I even felt like science wasn’t for me and that I was the one to be blamed for the situation. I almost considered quitting science! When I asked him about the project, he would dismiss me as if he was too busy at that particular moment.

A couple of weeks later, I felt that I was wasting my time and decided to confront him.

He started to yell at me saying that if I was so smart, I would have come up with my own idea for a Master project myself. After a few minutes, he admitted that he actually did not have funding for a normal project.
I was angry but relieved – the issue did not lie only on my shoulders. I approached another group leader at our department and explained what had happened and I was in urgent need of a Master thesis project. He came up with the most exciting idea combining organocatalysis with a solvent-free reaction set up. I loved my new group instantly, enjoyed the lab work to the very last bit. I defended my thesis with ease, passed my state exams without any issues and even managed to publish my master project as a first author peer-reviewed publication.

Bottom line: unsupportive supervisors can and should be left behind, don’t be intimidated by them

Hope this help and, as Martina said, if you ended up in a toxic and abusive environment, please do not blame yourself for the situation. This has nothing to do with you but most likely your PI is just a bad mentor that should not be given the duty of educating and training students!

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