A couple weeks ago, I emphasized that most PhD advisors are really good.
In a haphazardly conducted poll, one in four people reported their PhD advisor that was not caring or helpful. Crappy advisors may not be the norm, but we still have 1 in 4 too many.
I’ve seen a variety of situations, choices, and outcomes over the years, and would like to share some thoughts with grad students who are experiencing a bad PI. I’m hoping those of you who have gone through nasty experiences might be able share insights as well. I’ve just been a bystander, and there should be many more voices than my own.
When dealing with a bad PI, I think there are two big questions:
- What can be done to ameliorate the situation?
- When should you bail on your PI and move to a new lab or even a new institution?
How important is your PI to your academic career? Well, usually, very important. But everybody gets different things out of grad school. Here’s a list of good things that grad students might get from advisors:
- Connections to influential people
- Academic ownership of your research agenda
- Letters of recommendation
- A supportive community in the lab
- Middle authorship opportunities
- Freedom to work on what you want to work on
- Access to proprietary stuff (data, methods, field sites)
- Access to specialized and expensive stuff (facilities, instruments)
- Funded research assistantship
- Funds for research
- Support for life balance, such as scheduling for family matters
- Continued advocacy to advance your career
- Connection to a prestigious academic lineage
- Someone that picks up the tab when dining out
I don’t think everybody gets all that stuff from their PhD advisor. I hope everybody can get what they need. (In my opinion, items 1-7 are necessary ingredients for all grad student experiences, though they don’t always have to come from the PI.) Depending on your discipline, some items on the list might be more important or less important.
What can do you do to help minimize the negative effects of Bad PI Syndrome? I’ve seen grad students disadvantaged or screwed over by their PIs in a variety of creative ways, so this isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of issue. It might help to take a look at the list of items above — and also the things I’ve failed to include — and identify what you’re not getting and consider how you might get them.
For example, if you don’t have a supportive group of peers in your lab, are you connecting well with nearby labs? If you’re not collaborating with other people in your own lab, size up the potential for building collaborations elsewhere (which is important regardless). Is your PI supportive in spirit but not an effective mentor? Can you find others more experienced in your life who can take an interest in your career? Senior grad students and postdocs are often more important mentors than PIs, anyway. If you’re not going to be getting an amazing and detailed letter of recommendation from your PI, are there other people on your committee who you know you can count on at least?
The first step to liberating yourself from a bad lab is to diagnose that you are being treated badly and unfairly. I can’t tell you how many grad students I’ve met who are experiencing horribly manipulative conditions, but have decided that this is the norm in academia. Having a manipulative PhD advisor is not normal. Having PI that takes advantage of you is not acceptable. Having a PI that puts their career advancement ahead of your own professional development is not something that you or any other grad student should have to tolerate.
You don’t have to suffer in silence. You have constructive courses of action available to you. One place to start is the chair of your graduate program (assuming it’s not your PI), and also any other trusted professors in the department. Of course, some of these people might be friends with your PI, so this might not work out — but this is clearly something to consider. Your Graduate School also has Deans and Associate Deans whose job is to deal with these kinds of problems.
Of course, there is a power differential, in which the PI has authority and influence. However, universities are — at least in theory — designed to deal with the abuses that come with this power differential. Usually universities side with professors unless a student can clearly demonstrate an incontrovertible abuse of power. Keep in mind that you’re probably not the first one, also that horrible PIs often have a long history of being horrible. If you talk to chairs and deans about your concerns, they should recognize your situation and also be in a position to intervene in a way that protects and supports you.
Before you take major steps, it’s a good idea to discuss these things with a trusted mentor. There are consequences for being a whistleblower, but it’s also a different matter to find a way to repair or bail out of your own situation with a clean landing. Every situation is different, so that’s why I’m making a point of advising any specific course of action. I just want people to be aware that there are people out there in every university whose job it is to protect grad students from bad advisors. These aren’t easy things to deal with, I realize.
Grad school is a springboard. If you’re continuing in academia after you finish, then having a quality experience in grad school is critical to land opportunities for further success. If grad school is a poor quality experience, then it will be much, much harder to uncover opportunities once you finish.
If you feel like your time in grad school isn’t working out specifically because of your PI (meaning = you don’t have access to items on the top of the above list), then aiming to survive until you graduate is probably not a plan for success. Grad school isn’t something that you should merely survive — it’s a training academy and how you emerge from the training really matters. A solid launch from a PhD program is necessary for what happens afterwards. If it doesn’t kill you, maybe it’ll make you a stronger human being but it won’t necessarily help your academic career.
If you’re not planning to try to stay in academia, then having a supportive PI is, maybe, even more important. Because you need to train for your non-academic career plans while in grad school. Preparing for a career in sales, patent law, writing, industry, K-12 teaching, the FBI, whatever — you can’t just jump into this after you finish. Having a PI who is on board with your plans is huge, if you want to be able to build an “alternative” set of skills while doing your dissertation.
Should you stay or should you go? I can’t answer that question for you, obviously. I’ve seen several people stick it out, only to finish and then discover that they probably shouldn’t have stuck it out. Is that you? I have no idea, I don’t even know you, but this is a question to consider.
I suggest that the criterion for “stay” should not be whether you limp out with a PhD diploma in hand. In my opinion, a more useful criterion is whether you will have the ability to successfully move to your next step when you finish. If you are staying, and you’re not getting what you need, be sure that you have strong mentors to work with you to diagnose precisely what you do need.
Beware Toxic PIs. Having a suboptimal PI is perhaps tolerable, but Toxic PIs cannibalize their grad students. You know who these people are. They may initially support and encourage them, but as work progresses, the PI becomes less and less cooperative as the student becomes viewed as an academic competitor instead of a protégé. The students — if they ever are allowed to finish — are deprived of ownership of their own work. Then they graduate without a good recommendation from their own PI, disputed ownership of their own work, and probably not a strong set of publications.
I’ve known a few Toxic PIs. In a high-functioning department, prospective students are steered away from these labs before they even start. (I was the beneficiary of this kind of information once, and now I see that the students who were in that lab before and after me went through some horrible things.) Students in a Toxic lab often skid out of the ride with a PhD, but emerged lucky to finish rather than ready to roll.
I know one person who is traditionally “successful” in academia, who did his dissertation with a Toxic PI. Right before finishing, as things went south, he chose an alternative course. (He may or may not have fully chosen this course — his PI probably wouldn’t have signed his thesis if he submitted it.) Instead of limping out with a dissertation that would keep him in academic shackles — he started over. Brand new. He went to a new university and found a new PI, and did a new and spectacular dissertation. The papers from the first dissertation never came out, at least not with his name on them. On one hand, it was five years of his career that were just gone — poof. There’s no real evidence in his professional life that he had that experience. On the other hand, he had a huge amount of knowledge, savvy and skill that he could apply to his second dissertation — the one that he used to build a very successful line of research.
Do you have any stories, with good or bad ending, or in progress, that you’d like to share?