“I’m the boss, get it? Do what I say or get out of my lab.”
I can’t remember how many times my academic advisor said this to me.
He didn’t just say it to me.
He yelled it.
He yelled at everyone in the lab at one point or another.
Or he made fun of them.
Or called them stupid.
There’s nothing wrong with yelling or joking around in general.
I played sports in college and had tough coaches and tough teachers of all kinds in the past.
I admired strong leadership. I like it when leaders crack jokes and give me a tough time.
As long as there’s a point to it.
My advisor didn’t have a point.
He wasn’t a strong leader.
He was just a bully.
I joined my advisor’s lab in 2006. He had just got his first RO1 grant funded. He was now a full professor with his own lab, on track for tenure.
There was an atmosphere of teamwork in the lab. We even had joint lab meetings with the big lab next door.
Everything was great.
My advisor liked me and I liked him.
He was happy, patient, and willing to train me most of the time.
But things change.
It All Came Crashing Down
In 2008, the economy crashed. Funding was extremely tight. Labs throughout the University were shutting down.
My academic advisor couldn’t get another grant approved.
He only had a few years left to get tenure too.
It was stressful.
A person’s true character doesn’t come out until tough times hit.
I didn’t know that then.
I do now.
The entire atmosphere of the lab changed overnight.
Suddenly, my advisor started badmouthing the advisor next door.
He stopped going to the joint lab meetings.
We still had to go.
But he quit.
For over a year.
It was weird.
I came into lab one morning just in time to see one of the technicians run out of my advisor’s office crying.
She literally ran.
All the way down the hall.
Balling her eyes out.
A few months later, she left.
A few months after that, one of the graduate students in the lab was forced out…
By my advisor.
He fired his only postdoc too.
One day, my advisor called me into his office and asked me what I thought of someone else in the lab.
I said I don’t know.
“He’s just not cutting it. I want him out of the lab. I’m going to take his name off of the next paper”
I wasn’t sure why my advisor was telling me this.
It was a wake-up call.
It was the first time I realized my advisor wasn’t fit to mentor people.
He wasn’t a mentor.
He was a backstabber.
If you crossed him, he would do anything he could to ruin your career. I saw him do it time and time again.
Until then, I just assumed that I was immune.
He would never do that to me…
The following year my advisor did everything he could to push me out of the lab and prevent me from graduating.
He pitted others in the lab against me, deactivated my key card, and tried taking my name off of papers in press.
He yelled at me and threatened me on a weekly basis.
I had to have multiple meetings with my Department’s chair and with various Deans just to get my degree.
Eventually, I made it out.
But at what cost?
Professor Or Bully?
There’s nothing better than a positive professor who inspires you and trains you, sometimes toughly, to be a better scientist.
There’s nothing worse than a negative professor who tears you down, makes you feel stupid, and doesn’t support your career.
Nowadays, the latter is all too common.
Every week, dozens of PhDs email Cheeky Scientist with subject lines that read “academic advisor abuse,” “afraid of advisor” or similar.
Most academic advisors have too much unregulated power.
There are not many other jobs where one person is given full control over the fate of several people (technicians, postdocs, students) without any management experience or training whatsoever.
Unlike other teachers, most STEM PhD professors are not trained in teaching.
This is why there are so many cases of professors harassing and bullying people.
If you think this seems dramatic, you’re wrong.
While I was in graduate school, two professors killed themselves after being charged with harassing students.
A third professor abused a student for years while the University’s lawyers protected him until he was finally convicted.
This happens at even the most prestigious institutions.
How can people like this become professors?
How can they get tenure?
I used to ask myself these kinds of questions a lot when I was in graduate school.
The question I should have been asking was…
How did I let myself get into a position where my entire career was in the hands of someone who had no respect for me?
It was my fault.
I ignored the warning signs.
I slowly gave away more and more of my rights and self-respect until I had nothing left. I failed to set up strong boundaries for myself and my career.
Don’t make the same mistake I did.
Instead, carefully research your academic advisor before joining his or her lab.
Read your university’s graduate school handbook.
Understand exactly what is expected of you and exactly what is expected of your advisor.
Don’t ignore the warning signs.
If an advisor shows signs of being one of these 3 personality types, stay away.
3 Academic Advisors To Avoid
1. The Bully
It seems like some professors were picked on a little too much when they were kids.
Maybe they were made fun of in school for being nerds.
Or bullied by their own advisors.
I don’t know.
These professors want revenge.
They can’t go back in time to get revenge on the people who picked on them.
They get revenge by bullying you.
They run their labs like tyrants–like monarchs ruling over their own small kingdom.
The truth is…
Bullies don’t have any power.
No matter how much they say they do.
If you have to tell people you’re powerful, you’re not.
You’re just insecure and narcissistic.
Stay away from power hungry professors. They don’t care about you, they just care about is ruling over you.
2. The Sociopath.
There are a lot of manipulative professors in academia.
These people will act like your best friend one moment, then…
Tear you down the next moment.
It’s like they have multiple personalities.
They’ll act deeply disappointed with you just because you weren’t able to play God and get them the exact results they wanted.
They’ll position other graduate students and postdocs against you, belittle you in lab meetings, and do whatever they can to frazzle you and lower your self-esteem.
To control you.
The first time a professor attacks you passive aggressively, builds you up only to tear you down, or flip flops on decisions that affect your career–get rid of them.
Or at least get help.
3. The Holier Than Thou
Is there anything more annoying than a smug professor?
He or she is supposed to be mentoring you, but instead…
They make you feel stupid.
For no reason at all.
These professors don’t care about teaching any real life or career lessons.
They don’t care about growing you as a scientist.
All they care about is elevating themselves above you.
They dying to prove their intellectual superiority over you.
Instead of challenging the heavyweights in their field, they challenge graduate students and new postdocs.
They bring down the people their supposed to be training just so they can continue to feel important.
These smug professors lash out against anyone who does anything differently.
They smirk at graduate students who ask about alternative career tracks.
They laugh at postdocs who apply to PhD jobs in industry.
Because misery loves company.
They chose to stay in academia despite how bad things are now and they will do whatever it takes to justify their choices, including making you feel stupid.
Some will even go as far as sabotaging your attempts to leave academia.
If a professor is doing this to you, tell someone.
Don’t stay silent.
That’s the worst thing you can do.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help
No matter what lab you work in, pay attention.
Set firm boundaries.
You deserve it.
Record everything. Keep a daily written log of all of your meetings and activities.
Not just a lab notebook.
A career journal.
It could be the one thing that protects your career if your advisor tries to take advantage of you.
If your advisor is treating you poorly and you’re worried he or she will try to kick you out of the lab (or country), then talk to a counselor at your University or contact us privately here and we will help you.
If you want to leave academia but are worried about your advisor finding out, then conduct your job search privately by joining the Cheeky Scientist Association.
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.