Ask Your Comradde: Halp! My Career Is Hostage To A Sociopathic Mentor!

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.


  1. DukeOfOmnium says

    I’m not a PhD or candidate, but it seems to me that if you snitch on your mentor, especially if he/she still has influence on your work, it could make you toxic in your field (as with any other whistleblower). Sure, it would be bad karma for the mentor, but at considerable cost to oneself. Wouldn’t that be a legitimate fear?

  2. Juan Lopez says

    In the post doc text I didn’t understand something: where does your funding congress from? You mention 3% and 5%, but where’s the rest coming from?. Obviously if the boss is paying for it, the expectations are different. Not that this would justify half the crap.

    PhysioProf knows better than me, and has more experience. But, I did have my own personal sociopath as post doc mentor. Not the same as phd advisor, which helped, but similar. I also did the paper submission thing, and had a few blowouts.

    My suggestion is different. Suggest you don’t go nuclear. It would hurt him, but it would hurt you too, perhaps even more. I suggest you design a plan for independence, and discuss it with him frequently. Do not suggest that you are planning to move away, just that you want more independence in the same place so that you can get more funding. Tell stories of how you have been told that people don’t see you as independent and are therefore not finding your grants. This may be the case already, actually. If you propose to leave, he will panic (it’s obvious you are very important to his lab) and get aggressive. So you have to find a way by which you move up makes things better for him. But always insist you will still be there to do his shot. Eventually you will cut the cord, but you first need to have a hand on the other side. At that time, he will try to kill you, but it will be too late.

    At another stage in my career I tried the chair option. I was threatened with being fired for not giving my “mentor” a manuscript draft on time. So I went to the chair to ask if this was part of the requirements for my position. It wasn’t. Lo and behold, soon later I found out that the chair and my mentor were good friends, and the chair likely told my mentor everything. The chair will back a prof anytime over junior people. Use this avenue only as a backhanded way to send messages to your mentor, but do not assume that the chair is on your side.

  3. Drugmonkey says

    Only a single year on the job market isn’t enough to abandon all hope, is it? There is still potential for a quiet escape.

  4. qaz says

    In the person’s letter, I notice no discussion of talking to the chair of the department, to other faculty in the department, in their graduate program, administration, etc. Are there any networks this person can use to help him/herself?

    I would also caution this person to try to get an outside perspective. Not to say that the advisor is not a sociopath, but we only have one side of the discussion here and sometimes things can be different from what they seem. Is there someone who knows both parties that the letter-writer can talk to in confidence? What about former students of this advisor who have gotten out?

    There’s no question that this person has made the independence mistake (single advisor PhD – postdoc – and now junior faculty). If the person wants independence they will have to move. Are there colleagues in the field that the person can talk to? It may be that the person needs to step backwards to find a postdoc in another institution. Also, I suspect that there may be a lot unstated here. Why did the person stay with this advisor? Was the advisor always this sociopathic? Has the advisor decided that the letter-writer is their lab-manager with a fancy title? Is the letter-writer really a lab-manager with a fancy title?

    I would caution against going nuclear except as a last resort. Remember that nuclear war is mutually assured destruction. And your advisor is likely to have more hardened missile silos than you.

  5. jmz4 says

    I’m still just a postdoc, so I don’t know much about this type of situation. Is this usual at all? If the poster is writing R01’s, then its a tenure track position, right? It seems like she/he’s being treated as a research associate professor or investigator or similar perma-postdoc position.

    I guess my suggestion would be to try to rally some people that attest to her work conditions and can write letters on her behalf for future job prospects, stop doing her boss’s work for him, and when he complains, follow up with the threats as outlined by CPP (preferably after you get the letters).

    The other option would be to get him to persuade the institution to give her a more substantial commitment in terms of a real position (or is 3% normal where she is), preferably in another department and try to drift away slowly. As DM notes, 1 year isn’t that long of a time. You might have to give people on the committees time to figure out your situation.

  6. Ola says

    I’ve seen more than a few situations like this by remote, in biosketches – folks trying to renew their first R01 and they’ve got maybe one senior author paper and the rest are first or middle author with the former (ahem) mentor as senior. To a letter, these individuals are Asian immigrants, and the “mentors” are graybeard doods.

    The response I put in the pink sheets is quite simple – GROW A FUCKING PAIR!

    Seriously. FFS who even thinks about taking a faculty position with less than 20-40% baseline salary support (lemme guess, Harvard? MSKCC, Stanford?). Who the hell is so blind as to accept a position with no startup funds?

    But cutting to reality, I note that the original email is very scant on the details of what exactly has been threatened, what power the mentor has. If the mentor is the Dept chair, well you’re shit outta luck. But I suspect the mentor is just an ass, in which case I’d say go for it, test the boundaries, see what happens when you say no. Just make sure to have some dynamite handy for when spoiled-kid gets upset and tries to throw you under a bus.

    The other thing you HAVE to do is develop independent collaborations. Get out and be middle author here and there with other labs. Get a side project going with another lab, not using any resources of the mother ship. FFS pay for yourself to go to a conference (as a postdoc I paid my own way at more than 10 conferences in my final 2 years) – getting your name out there and recognized is an important part of breaking out. If assbucketmentor’s old buddy college approaches him at a meeting and mentions having bumped into you as a colleague/independent, that will go leagues toward assbucket recognizing you as independent. If you get invited to review papers and be on grant committees, again that builds the case with the chair and assbucket takes another notch downwards for holding you back.

    What’s absolutely clear is that you will gain absolutely no credit in the field at large by staying with the status quo. The good news is, if you’re good, there are likely people in the field who know you’re good (and maybe some are your assbucketmentor’s rivals) so you would be wise to use them in your fight. Use them to get invited as a speaker. Use them to get onto editorial boards. Use them to get promoted. Use them to get onto study section. Sensible folks know an assbucketmentor when they see one.

  7. Trebuchet says

    Not an academic, though I’ve had a bad boss or three. However, it seems to me the “nuclear option” stands a high chance of leaving you radioactive. It’s a tough choice.

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