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What To Do When The Principal Investigator In Your Scientific Research Lab Doesn’t Like You

abused by your principal investigator | Cheeky Scientist | phd supervisor bullying
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

“Shut your mouth right now or I’m writing a letter to your Department.”

I didn’t know what this meant.

The principal investigator in my lab who was also my academic advisor and chair of my thesis committee was NOT happy.

He was stressed about getting tenure and had been taking it out on his graduate students.

I tried not to be timid or afraid but the simple truth was he had a lot of power over me.

In fact, he held the keys to my future.

I couldn’t publish a paper without his approval.

I couldn’t set a thesis defense date, let alone graduate without his approval.

I couldn’t even go to a conference or networking event without his approval.

None of this seemed to matter when we were getting along.

But now that he was stressed, it did matter.

Now he was doing everything he could to exert his power over me and make my life miserable.

First, he withdrew his support.

He stopped offering guidance of any kind to me and to other graduate students.

He even stopped going to our lab meetings for over a year.

Second, he started actively working against me and other members in the lab.

He tried to remove my name and two other lab members’ names from a publication that was in press.

When he failed at this, he met with our departments to plead his case that this publication should not count towards our graduate school progress.

Third, he started verbally abusing people until they quit or until he was in a position to fire them.

He fired a postdoc, then he made a technician cry so many times that she quit, then he forced out a female graduate student for not “crying too much and not being smart enough.”

I was next in line.

My Academic Advisor And I Used To Get Along, Then…

My first year of graduate school was great.

I joined my advisor’s lab in 2006.

He had just received his first RO1 grant and was now a full professor with his own lab on track for tenure.

He had lots of money from his University startup package and NIH grant and was spending it quickly.

Whenever I’d ask him for reagents he’d say, “Sure, get whatever you need. The more reagents you have, the more experiments you do, the more grant money we will bring in!”

This seemed like very good logic at the time. I felt like he had a very enlightened perspective on spending.

Lab meetings were a lot of fun back then too.

We’d order a bunch of pizzas and talk about both the theoretical and practical sides of science.

Things were great.

If a difficult issue did come up in the lab, my advisor would step in maturely and reconcile the issue without stress and without letting his ego get in the way.

Then, in 2008, the economy crashed.

Funding became extremely tight and labs throughout the University started shutting down.

We stopped ordering pizzas for lab meetings.

After several tries, my advisor failed to get another grant approved. He only had a few years left to get tenure and things were getting stressful, to say the least.

It was during this period that my advisor started lashing out at his students.

Instead of focusing on writing grants and pushing his research forward, he started trying to hold others back.

Rather than rising to the challenge, he sunk down and initiated power struggles with graduate students half his age.

Why did he choose to do this?

Two Biggest Reasons Why Your Principal Investigator Doesn’t Like You

There’s nothing better than a positive principal investigator who inspires you and trains you, sometimes toughly, to be a better scientist.

At the same time, there’s nothing worse than an abusive investigator who tears you down, makes you feel stupid, and doesn’t support your career.

In today’s world, the latter is becoming too common.

But why?

Why do so many graduate students, postdocs, and technicians continue to have trouble with the principal investigators in their labs?

The reasons lie in the average principal investigator’s lack of training.

First, principal investigators in scientific research labs lack real management training.

As a result, when these investigators become stressed and are forced to fight for funding or worse, fight for their careers, they lack the leadership skills necessary to maintain their duties as bosses and mentors.

They react to their stress by lashing out or by turning sly and manipulative because they’ve never received one semester hour of management training.

Sure, they may have attended some weekend seminar or may have agreed to some university guideline or NIH stipulation, but they have not been trained rigorously in the management of professionals.

Principal investigators who are put in charge of graduate student and postdoc careers must be held accountable for their management skills, or lack there of.

Second, principal investigators in scientific research labs lack financial training.

These investigators are given thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in public funding without ever receiving a single iota of financial training.

The majority of these investigators are lifetime academics who have no experience in business, economics, entrepreneurship, or anything in between.

Can you imagine giving millions of dollars to someone who has absolutely no idea how to manage it?

Principal investigators should be trained rigorously in both the management of people and the management of money.

Only then will these investigators, who are also academic advisors, bosses, mentors, and thesis committee members stop taking out the stress of academia on their students and employees.

how to approach an abusive phd supervisor | Cheeky Scientist | doctoral supervisor hates you

How To Protect Yourself From An Unsupportive Advisor 

If your academic advisor is mistreating you, don’t sit there and do nothing.

Don’t keep giving away more and more of your rights and self-respect until you have nothing left.

Instead, start setting strong boundaries for yourself and your career.

Speak up about what’s happening and begin making plans for your future.

Most importantly, do your research.

Read your university’s graduate school handbook and take note of exactly what’s expected of you and exactly what’s expected of the principal investigator in your lab.

By taking the right steps, you can protect yourself and your career from any kind of abuse.

Here are 7 steps to take when your principal investigator starts working against you…

1. Create a career strategy and execute it with urgency. 

PhDs who refuse to think ahead will continue to grind it out in the lab for wages that are less than what librarians and refuse workers make.

Their only option will be to work unreasonably hard, do exactly what they’re told by their academic advisors, and have no other option but to complain about the situation they’re in.

The nature of academia is to carefully pursue hypotheses, consider every option, and plan obsessively.

These positive scientific qualities are the same negative qualities that hold PhDs back in their careers.

When it comes to getting a competitive job and getting paid a good salary, you have to operate with a sense of initiative and urgency.

No one is going to come along and give you a great job opportunity. You are going to have to hunt for it.

You’re going to have to learn how to network, seek out exclusive groups to get insider information, and attend courses aimed at improving your business acumen and interpersonal skills.

You need to change your priorities.

Finishing one last experiment, spending one more hour in the lab,  or writing one more paragraph for a grant or paper can wait.

Instead, you must start taking action on the behalf of your overall career, not your academic advisor’s career.

2. Stop sharing your career goals.

No one likes being told that they made the wrong career choice.

This is why so many principal investigators withdraw their support from graduate students and postdocs who announce that they want to transition into industry.

If your advisor is already treating your poorly, the worst thing you can do is share  your goal of transitioning into industry.

You’ve been brainwashed into thinking that your advisor is rational and that you need him or her to support you in advancing your career.

Quit thinking like this. Stop sharing everything with an advisor who hates you.

Don’t give someone who is already against you another target to attack.

Instead, save the details of your transition plan for those who truly support you no matter what you decide to do.

3. Realize your academic advisor is powerless. 

Too many PhDs are afraid to stand up to their advisors.

But there’s nothing to be afraid of, especially if you’ve made a decision to transition into industry.

Negative academic advisors are too focused on securing federal funding for their laboratories to help you advance your career.

They have a very limited circle of friends and very few, if any, industry contacts.

This means they have no influence over you outside of academia.

They are powerless.

Many advisors will try to use their letters of recommendation as leverage against you and other PhD students or postdocs.

If you don’t work hard enough in the lab, you won’t get a letter.

If you don’t walk on eggshells and treat them like kings or queens, you won’t get a letter.

If you decide to leave academia, you won’t get a letter.

Who cares?

You do not need a letter of recommendation from your advisor to get an industry position.

Spending all of your time chasing a recommendation letter is a career-killing mistake that will keep you poor and unhappy in academia for a long time to come.

Stop being afraid and stop chasing your advisor’s approval.

If you’ve decided to transition into an industry position, there’s nothing your advisor can do to help you or harm you.

4. Keep records of your advisor’s support.

Every email between you and your advisor is kept on your university’s server.

You know this right?

You should also know that your advisor is likely saving all the emails you send him or her.

This is especially if he or she doesn’t like you.

Most principal investigators know that things can get uncomfortable in a lab between any two people very quickly.

They’ve been in the system longer than you and have seen what happens between mentors and protégés in tight spaces.

As a result, they’ve learned to be careful.

They’ve learned to protect themselves and keep records to use as leverage in the future should a difficult working situation arise.

You should be protecting yourself too.

If things are becoming increasingly more difficult between you and your advisor, start keeping records of how he or she is supporting you.

Use a personal email address to back up emails.

Take extensive notes during your lab meetings and one-on-one meetings, and follow up with every meeting with an email recapping the meeting.

Most importantly, urge your advisor to commit to timelines and outcomes. If he or she refuses to commit, record their refusal and communicate it to a third-party.

Understand that it’s an advisor’s job to create and foster a safe working environment for you.

It’s also their job to help you advance your career.

Don’t let negative advisors push you around and don’t stay silent if they stop supporting your career development.

Instead, keep records and communicate what is happening to others.

5. Leverage the academic system to your advantage.

Most academic institutions have been around for a very long time.

As such, they’ve developed extremely dense and complicated processes to keep the system running smoothly.

The system is so dense that it can make you feel extremely alone when someone high up in the system (your advisor) withdraws his or her support.

When this happens, it’s easy to feel lost.

If you find yourself in this situation, don’t let yourself become stressed, anxious, and depressed.

Instead, be patient and start peeling back each layer of the system.

Get a copy of your university, graduate school, and/or departmental handbook and start reading through the bylaws, guidelines, and policies.

Look for language that commits your advisor to supporting your career and fostering a safe work environment.

Also, look for language that commits your department or the graduate school as a whole to treating you fairly and to sticking to key timelines related to your career progress.

Know your rights and know what’s expected of both you and your advisor.

6. Build a bigger network.

Graduate school is a great time to learn how to network.

You shouldn’t be spending your days just doing experiments and reading papers in some corner by yourself.

Instead, you should be going to PhD and non-PhD networking events.

You should be reaching out to people in industry online and offline to establish key contacts that could lead to job referrals.

This is especially true if you’re in the middle of a negative situation with your advisor.

If your advisor is treating you poorly, your first instinct will be to isolate yourself.

You will think that the best way to protect yourself is by putting up walls to keep other people out.

But this is the worst thing you can do.

Isolating yourself just gives your advisor more power over you.

Don’t cut off lines of communication. Instead, open them.

Increase the number of contacts and overall channels of communication you have to work with.

Don’t let your advisor’s bad actions stay hidden safely in the dark.

Instead, get it out in the open. Call attention to it so you can clear things up and move on.

7. Stop working for your own destruction.

When your advisor starts treating you poorly, working harder is the worst thing you can do.

Yet, this is what most PhDs do at this first sign of trouble.

Their advisors lash out, they get scared, and then they try to solve the issue by working harder.

All this does is train your principal investigator to treat you poorly in exchange for more work.

PhDs are overachievers who want to positively impact the world.

The problem is that this overachiever mindset can work against you when you have a negative advisor.

After all, who are you really working for?

If your advisor starts mistreating you, don’t just work harder and harder in the false hope that he or she will be nice to you or respect for it.

The hard truth is that some advisors will treat you poorly simply because they’re stressed.

Stop chasing the approval of an advisor who treats you unfairly. Stop working for your own destruction.

Instead, channel your energy into your industry job search.

Spend your peak hours of mental energy on making industry connections and designing an intelligent career strategy.

Sure, you have to get work done in the lab. But you don’t have to only get work done in the lab.

Dial it back ten percent and start using at least one hour a day, uninterrupted, preferably in the morning, on your industry job search.

If you’re in a difficult situation with your principal investigator, start taking the above steps to improve your circumstances. Start creating a career strategy and executing it with urgency. Remember, when it comes to getting an industry job, your academic advisor is powerless to help you or harm you. Stop being afraid and start building a bigger network. Most importantly, realize that you deserve to be supported and treated well while working to move your scientific career forward.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • DylanPhD

    Many postdocs take their careers easily. They do not plan their future with foolproof methods. It seems very nice until you have any problem life you faced due to the economic downfall. As you advised, we all postdocs should plan a strategy in advance and make it our first priority. If we do that, we will have an alternative way if the conventional way doesn’t help.

  • chiaruscuro

    “Principal” investigator. Principal. With an A. Not Principle. No one is investigating any principles. Principal refers to the lead, the main person–and could be both an adjective and a noun. Principle is always a noun and never ever an adjective. Both words are never interchangeable! Never. Please fix this!!! Otherwise, great article.

  • Socrates Luciferous

    Where did you go for your Ph.D? Seems like a place to avoid. Please share!

  • PinkRose

    Industry is FAR from the professional panacea you make it out to be and my experiences there are to this day, the worst in my entire career!

    I think it’s best for people to find the environment that works best for THEM and maximize that through the suggestions you mentioned in your article like networking.

  • Guest

    “Take extensive notes during your lab meetings and one-on-one meetings, and follow up with every meeting with an email recapping the meeting…Most importantly, urge your advisor to commit to timelines and outcomes.”
    Really? How should your adviser know what the outcomes will be? His job is to advise you, but he can’t predict the future. A disrespectful postdoc demanding results from his mentor will just run out of funding at the end of the year.

  • Ben

    I would sure like to see institutionalized bullying stopped at the academic level. Here is some advice I wish I knew before hooking up with an extremely abusive PI: Ask the department chair /dean how many students started under the PI and how many graduated? How long did it take them? How many complaints have they had? How many publications is the PI producing? In hindsight, these questions might seem really basic but when you are an emerging undergrad, you just don’t know any better.