Everything That Happened With My Toxic Former Advisor

I’ve mentioned my toxic former PI in some past blog posts and rather heavily on my Twitter.

I wanted to write a post to get the whole story out there in case anyone was interested in how I ended up dealing with him! I also really wanted to let others who may be going through similar situations know that it will be ok.

Something important to keep in mind about faculty advisors is that just because they’re professors, just because they’re in positions of power, it doesn’t mean they’re infallible human beings. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect, can do no wrong, and are always right.

It sucks how in academia we’re so beholden to the faculty member because it seems their opinion is really important for academic careers, when in reality they have little to no mentorship training and many can’t even properly run labs.

Overall History of Behavior

During grad school, there were many times where he used what I mentally called “public shaming”, where he would put you on the spot in lab meetings and kind of make you feel bad if you didn’t answer something correctly or hadn’t thought to do something, whether that’s to run a control, look up how a reagent works, etc. At first it wasn’t so bad, but got worse the longer you spent in the lab, because you “should know better”.

He also overvalued working and had a poor work-life balance.

What made me think he overvalued working and had a poor work-life balance was that he never really took time off. He worked on grants on the weekends and I think I’ve only really heard him say he’ll take time off like twice during my 6 years knowing him. He celebrated undergrads who stuck around and worked during the holidays. He oftentimes commented on how people aren’t as hardworking as he remembered and that he used to spend hours in the lab late into the night during grad school. It’s like he was actively reminiscing about those grueling days in the lab…hoping we’d also act that way?

He was pretty bad at controlling himself when he got angry or I openly disagreed with him, which led to a few heated conversations.

He also interrupted a lot. I remember literally Googling “how to respond when your boss interrupts you” or “how to help your coworker speak when interrupted by boss”. This happened a lot during lab meetings and he’d ramble for like 30 minutes at a time.

Finally, he talked a lot of shit. One time, I walked past his office and he was talking with the postdoc in the lab and I just happened to hear him say, “(my name) isn’t great, you know…” He did the same to others where he’d talk about them to me.

There were probably other things, but I’ll get into the meat of the story.

Staying On as a Postdoc

I’d ALWAYS been open about how I never wanted to be an academic and wanted to get an industry job after graduating. I never, ever told him I wanted to do a postdoc. I brought up industry internships with him before, too. So he knew I wasn’t dying to be a professor like him.

In my job search timeline post I go into detail about the past 9 months or so and how I landed my job as a medical writer, but when I defended, he wanted me to stay on as a postdoc and said some things such as:

  1. You still have work to do to finish up your Ph.D. paper.
  2. The job market’s going to slow down during the fall and winter, so it’s best that you stay around and try next year.
  3. I could hire anyone but I’m doing you a favor to keep you on because I know you need the money.
  4. We have to scratch each others’ backs – you can do bioinformatics, I can provide you with salary.
  5. This postdoc will be great for your job applications.

Looking back, I really should have just quit for my mental health, if anything. I found a job in less than 3 months and I would have made it on my savings. I was absolutely miserable continuing on in the same lab I did my Ph.D. as a postdoc. It was absolutely not what I wanted to be doing and not what I imagined myself doing after defending.

I told him that I’ll put my job search on hold during the fall to wrap up some work from my Ph.D. and finish writing my paper. I was hoping that I’d land a job at a good place in my research and paper-writing where I could peace out but it was hard because I was doing a lot of experimental stuff that I couldn’t necessarily leave once I started replicates. My PI was really clear about that – I could leave if I found a job, but I had to finish replicates if I had started them.

Not entirely sure if that stipulation was because hiring someone to replace me would be hard and would delay the project, because he had absolutely 0 idea what I was doing (bioinformatic gene expression analysis), or other factors.

Anyway, as I describe in detail in my job search timeline post, I signed my job contract in early February. I was stoked and set up a Zoom meeting to let my PI know, and my email really only said that I had an update for him about my job search.

The Fateful “I Got a Job” Zoom Call

I started off the call saying that I got a job, and that I signed the contract and that the company signed the contract too so it was set in stone.

He didn’t smile, didn’t congratulate me, made kind of a disgusted face, and asked what job it was.

I described the title, the company name, etc.

He dryly congratulated me which totally sounded like he said it just out of obligation, and then asked me about the samples I was trying to prep and was troubleshooting the protocol for. I told him that I was at a good place to leave everything for whoever replaced me because I hadn’t submitted any samples for sequencing yet and had established a few parameters based on my troubleshooting.

He asked me about my paper and if I had made the edits that he had requested and gone through his latest comments. I told him that I hadn’t and that I could get that done over the next week since I’d be ramping down my labwork to prepare to leave.

He went OFF.

He said I had to finish the edits by Monday (in 3 days), and that “ramping down labwork” isn’t really going to be many hours in the lab. He said that he wished I had gotten the sample prep and sequencing the triplicate to work before I left for my job.

My response to that was kind of like the shrugging emoji. I said I was hoping for that, too, obviously. But research never goes as planned and there were serious roadblocks that were causing me to have a hard time with sample prep. A lot of them were out of my control (like issues with our model organism breeding, sample viability, and other technical things).

He said that he was disappointed that I hadn’t “done anything” over the past 5 months that I had been staying on as a postdoc. He asked me how many hours I was spending in the lab. He literally asked me to give him a number. But as I was pondering how to answer, he stopped me from answering.

Yep, he literally said I hadn’t “done anything” and asked me to give him a number of how many hours I spent in the lab a week.

He completely failed to mention that after I defended, he had me analyze a whole new sequencing dataset for a cell type that I didn’t write my dissertation on, and so that took about 2 months to get through analysis and interpretation. I had spent 6 years studying one cell type, but the analysis was for a totally different cell type. Of course it wouldn’t be quick.

I was also doing that experimental troubleshooting and was running into those technical roadblocks related to our model organism. I couldn’t spend thousands of dollars of his money rushing subpar samples for sequencing when the sample viability was bad and the model organisms weren’t breeding well.

Plus, it was COVID and we as a lab had decided to stagger when we worked in the lab. No one was doing 30 hours in the lab for the past 2 years. The other grad student/postdoc weren’t spending any more time in the lab than I was!

He also said that he thought my paper drafts were “bad”.

He said he felt like he “failed” me, and that I was an “okay but not a great writer”.

He said it’ll make my medical writing job really hard and he felt responsible for it.

I was not feeling this conversation anymore, because I had realized at that point that he was going off with little control over his behavior. He was clearly mad I was leaving, disappointed at what I didn’t get done, and was taking it out with personal attacks.

So I didn’t mention to him that my job interview medical writing assignment got a ton of compliments from my new coworkers, direct manager, and manager above her – they said it was one of the best ones they’d seen done by an interviewee.

He also said that my edits took way too long and that he was wondering if I was actually sending him his best work. At the postdoc stage, I should send him “publishable” work, because reviewing papers takes time and he’s busy with a lot of stuff. He said that I “shouldn’t need feedback” and that I should send my best work to him.

This made no sense to me because I always spent 1-2 weeks on edits maximum, sometimes getting them done in a matter of days, and he’s the one that literally took 1 month or more on comments and reviewing my paper drafts. Plus, it’s not like I sent him bad drafts that I hadn’t looked over at all!

He went on to say that students these days are lazy and that I shouldn’t need feedback at all at this point.

He then went on to say that my dissertation draft was “bad” as well, and that I finally pulled through and sent him something acceptable at the very end. He said he let me defend because he knew I was in a bad place mentally – alluding that he wasn’t enthusiastic about my work itself to let me defend.

When I asked him flat out, why he didn’t bring this up during our mentorship when we were working together, and why he was airing all these grievances when I was leaving, he said “no one’s interested in research like I am”. I continued to say that he should be asking for feedback if he wants to be a good mentor.

In response to that, he asked me how he could be a good mentor. What my feedback to him was. Kind of turning the tide of the conversation so he wasn’t the one being put on the spot by me. The audacity!

At that point, I was so shocked by all his outbursts and disrespect that I was pretty much frozen in place.

He wrapped up the call by saying that he hopes that this call wouldn’t put a damper on the 6 years we spent together and that he still really valued our relationship and hoped that I’d keep in touch.

I said “ok, yep, bye” and hung up.

Initial Cutoff

I was so shocked by that call. I slowly put away my Airpods, closed the laptop, and walked into the living room where my partner was with tears running down my face.

I think it was hard for me not necessarily because I wanted him to be happy for me. I already knew he wouldn’t take it that well – the fact I found my way out. It was hard because I thought it wouldn’t be such an emotionally violent call.

He could have easily said “you know, I hoped that the sample prep got done more smoothly but I know that there were some factors out of your control” and I would have been like, “agreed”.

I took a day or two to vent to a friend, cool off, etc. I uploaded all of my data, code, and protocols to the lab Dropbox, signed the papers to end my postdoc (ending a postdoc and leaving the university was seriously just signing like 2 forms and otherwise there was not a peep from anyone at the school), snuck into the lab on the weekend to clean up my bench and desk, and left my keys.

Then I emailed him a couple days later:

Your behavior in our meeting was disrespectful and unacceptable. Effective immediately, I am stepping away from all responsibilities related to the lab for my mental health. I am no longer interested in being an author on my Ph.D. paper. I’ve uploaded all of my work to the lab Dropbox.

He responded saying he was sorry that I felt that way and he was sorry that I didn’t understand where he was coming from. He said that he understands I won’t do any more work and that he’ll work on the paper in the meantime with the co-authors to get it ready to publish. He said he thinks I deserve to be an author so he’ll keep me on the paper.

I recognized those apologies as pretty fake (“I’m sorry you feel that way” and “I’m sorry you don’t understand me”) and I didn’t like how he was going to keep me on as an author, but I felt good that I wouldn’t have to work there anymore.

I spent the most blissful 2 weeks since I started and finished grad school. In that time, I texted my labmates and told them that I was gone and what I had moved on to, and they were all super nice about it.

I took a ton of bubble baths, watched movies, went on lots of walks, ate all sorts of good food, and really enjoyed my time off.

I then started my WFH medical writing job on March 1st.

The Beginning of the End

The first rumbling of the next phase of my chaotic departure happened in March, when my collaborator emailed me congratulating me about my new job and asking something about the paper – basically, what program I used in one of the steps of my bioinformatic analysis. I answered cordially and directed him to the lab Dropbox because I’d left all that information there.

My thinking was, “I guess they’re moving forward with the paper”.

Then, in April, my toxic former PI emailed me with a draft of the paper for me to edit and a few questions about it. Just seeing that email sent my fight or flight response into overdrive.

I was really torn. Should I ignore his email? Should I tell him again that I didn’t want to be an author? Would he listen? Also, shamefully, there was still a part of me that wanted to appease him and have his approval. It sucked because I knew he didn’t respect me. It felt like the pull a toxic ex has on you. I ended up just ignoring that email.

He emailed and texted me the following week with a longer explanation of how he was wondering if I was still upset and that they needed help with the paper. He also tried to manipulate me by saying that he really feels that I should be on the paper, and that having this paper would be great for my career and that as scientists it’s our responsibility to our funding agencies and to the people we’re trying to help to publish results. He also said that if I was still upset at him, I could email and correspond with the co-authors instead.

Grand Finale

I responded to him by CC-ing the entire lab and co-authors. I first copied and pasted my email from February where I initially told him that his behavior was unacceptable and disrespectful, that I was stepping away from all duties related to the lab, and that I don’t want authorship.

I also went on in the same email to say that I do not consent to being on the paper, they are free to publish the paper without me, and that publications do absolutely nothing for my chosen industry career as I didn’t even include publications in my industry job resume and they never came up in interviews. I said I was disappointed that my request to not be an author on the paper was not taken seriously, and that I had to remind him.

How Things Stand Now

I haven’t seen anything from him since. He probably responded but I have him fully blocked on all channels, so I have no way to tell.

This was a draining experience.

But don’t get me wrong: I don’t care if I’m not an author. They can publish that work if they want, but it really doesn’t matter to me. For my own mental health, I’d much rather just not ever associate with my toxic former PI anymore.

And truly, publications didn’t mean anything when I applied to and interviewed for industry positions – in medical writing, science writing, and being a support scientist or technical support scientist for big biotech/pharma companies.

I literally didn’t have a publication section in my resume and no one asked about papers in job interviews – there were way more important things to assess me as a job candidate on.

But I also feel relief.

I’m so happy I don’t have to work on paper edits on the side while working full-time.

I’m so happy I don’t have to communicate with my toxic former PI anymore.

I’m so happy I got my job without using him as a reference.

I’m so happy that at the very end, I took control and ended things on my own terms.

Conclusion

If you’re struggling with a similar situation, I really empathize. Please feel free to DM me on Twitter or email me using the Contact page on my blog.

My biggest takeaway from this is:

Despite how your PI or academia in general makes you feel like you need to stick around, you have no obligation to stay any longer than you want, and you have no obligation to work on things that you don’t care about and are not getting paid to work on.

It might sound absolutely blasphemous to some, but we have to start normalizing valuing our time and not working on things that haunt us years after we’ve left the postdoc or grad school lab.

If you really want to work on things after leaving a workplace, that’s totally your choice. I just don’t want it to be normalized.

It’s completely unreasonable to expect people to do so in industry. Why let it slide in academia? It’s not like the work is any more important.

What matters is that you’re happy and able to move on with your life in the way that you want.

For me, protecting my mental health was my only priority.


2 thoughts on “Everything That Happened With My Toxic Former Advisor

  1. It’s a shame that your old boss was so negative towards your writing. Your prose is actually amazing! Your words flow and captivate me, and usually I don’t have the attention to read more than a few minutes at a time with blog posts, but this one had me enamored all the way through. I once had a colleague in a similar position. We were undergraduates working in a lab and she was running samples during the very last day when she was supposed to be moving out. It’s hard with science because we are often told that no one else can do our jobs because of our training with specific procedures, but adequate instructions and mentoring, or background documents like the ones you left for your lab, should be enough for someone else to replicate our work. No data is as important as moving on to your next job or taking care of your mental and physical health!

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