Our correspondent is being held hostage by his PhD mentor who refuses to support any attempt at genuine independence and continues to exploit the correspondent’s scientific efforts:
I still work with my old PhD advisor (6 years post phd). I came with him to a new location for post-doc. He didn’t support me getting any other job than a faculty position in the department he works in. I did it (because … path of least resistance? economy? clueless?), it’s 3% effort supported by the institution, no start up funds, this was 5 years ago.
Our set up is basically he gets senior author on my papers, I get office space and lab space (and equipment). Over the years, he’s randomly emailed me on Saturdays writing things like “I need 3 solid pages by Monday for this grant app,” with the “!!” feature in the email subject lines. He’s had me do all the administrative paperwork of IRB, Controlled Substance Use Authorization, Biohazard Use Authorization etc. He’s sent me NIH grant apps asking me to review them for him for study sections he’s on. When I tried to assert myself independently and decline this work, citing that I can only afford to spend time on work that I publicly get credit for, he gets passive-aggressive and then starts asking me about progress on lab work (that I’m supported 5% for).
When I tried to submit a paper without him authored on it (scientifically justified), he found out and asked around the co-authors about me “using their data,” then asked me for the manuscript and then sent me two emails: 1) At midnight: expressing that he should be co-authored and it was non-collegial and unprofessional of me to have submitted; 2) At 1:30 am: the paper is crap and I should retract (sic: withdraw it); it was scientific misconduct, and unprofessional. This was a fiasco that took months to cool down, I still harbor resentment about it.
He hired someone in the lab without consulting anyone, citing he was doing this person (a good scientist) a favor. Then forced me to share my office. I objected saying we should talk about this with our Dept Chair as the 3 of us. I had a conversation with the new hire about the other career options that were available and expressed surprise at this choice. He called me to his office alone, accused me of being unprofessional and non-collegial, dressed me down for being protective of my filing cabinets and couch (I had a 2-seater guest couch that students used to sit on), and told me I was making New Person feel “unwelcome” in the lab because of my actions. I yielded and now share my office with a great coworker (who is now being exploited and I predict career in serious danger because of this). The office situation sucks because phone conversations and meetings are a pain.
I tried to get other jobs (without him knowing because he never gives his blessing when I try, and without his [my PhD advisor] letter of rec), but having failed to do that over the past year, I am trying my damnedest to get independent funding and away from him. Now that tensions have cooled externally (I had dinner at his place), two days later, he’s emailed me, “I need you help with grant reviews for this study section.” Now — here’s how I spend my holidays– I have an R01 deadline on Jan 7, I have two manuscripts to review (at least I get “credit” for this service work), I have two manuscripts that were provisionally accepted in December, and I did some lab work to make things ready for when the techs get back from holiday break. Now he wants me to review grant apps for him …. which apparently was forbidden to have shared with me (like he has countless times over the past 10 years). wtf should I do?
First, a few comments that are too late to help our correspondent, but could benefit grad student and post-doc readers. The absolutely worst thing you can do for your career if your goal is independence is to fail to cut the cord between you and your former mentors. Yes, it is safe and comfortable to continue protecting yourself from the weather under their umbrella. But the unintended consequences can be dire, as exemplified by this extreme case.
Now, what is our correspondent to do? The first thing you need to accept is that you are dealing with a sociopath who has no concern for the ethical and professional norms of the scientific enterprise. This means that there is no reasoning with this person or appealing to their sense of fairness or mentor’s care for their trainees. The corollary is that your only hope for getting out from under their thumb is to take actions that will enrage them and cause them to act aggressively towards you. Unpleasant, but true.
So if you can accept that, then you need to think about main pressure points that can work to your advantage. First, is the fact that your mentor has been grossly violating federal laws and regulations by sharing assigned grant applications with you and demanding that you write reviews for him to submit under his name. This is serious legal and ethical misconduct, and if divulged to the NIH, will create a huge shit storm of a mess for him. So you could turn this fucker in by contacting the SRO of his study section and informing her of the situation. Hopefully, you have plenty of documentation of what has been going on, such as e-mail correspondence and Word documents that you created on his behalf. Once this shit storm rolls in, his power to fucke with you will be substantially reduced.
Second, you need other independent respected voices to vouch both for your scientific productivity and against your mentor’s sociopathy. Do you have senior collaborators who know what’s been going on? You need to consult with trusted third parties.
Third, you can go to the chair of your department and tell her everything, importantly including the gross misconduct vis a vis federal grant review. This can create pressure to your benefit.
There are no easy answers to your predicament. The only way out is to go nuclear on your mentor. And he’s handed you a nuclear bomb.