How can we avoid toxic environments?

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A_member_of_the_Marine_Corps_Air_Station_Beaufort_fire_department_is_helped_out_of_his_HAZMAT_suit_as_he_goes_through_a_decontamination_center_at_the_sight_chemical_spill_at_the_trainingIt seems almost inevitable. Good people end up in toxic environments. Once there, they must suffer the consequences, or execute an escape plan, or eventually become the tormentor themselves.

When we choose an academic home, for grad school, a postdoc, or a faculty position, how can we sniff out the places that will undermine us rather than elevate us?

While I’m asking a question and offer some thoughts, I don’t have any pat answers, and your feedback and experiences here can be helpful to others.

I’ve recently learned about a few colleagues who have accepted faculty positions in toxic environments. When they took the job and settled in, they were over the moon, but over time, they realized that they were in bad places. Now, they’re in a position where they realize they have to leave, which of course is not an easy thing to do. Toxic places are very good at hiding their toxicity during the search process.

Likewise, grad students can wind up in manipulative labs that are more competitive than collaborative, which are more interested in using them for their labor than providing them training for career development.

We often have to make employment decisions based on inadequate information. There usually is one in-person visit, which can last from 1-3 days. It’s very wise to do additional homework beyond what happens in this interview, but it’s not likely that you’ll be provided with useful information by doing passive searching for information.

One standard and excellent piece of advice is that prospective grad students should have an opportunity to meet with other students in the lab without the PI present, and have plenty of time for one-on-one interactions with lab members as well. I’ve seen many occasions where students are warned off of toxic PIs in these circumstances. I think it’s good to have a chance to hang out with students from other labs in the institution. If people in the lab are unhappy or feel that they’re not on a positive trajectory, then would you have a specific reason to think that your fate would be any different? You can also contact former students too.

I think gaining solid intelligence about a department when you’re interviewing for a faculty position can be really difficult. If you are visiting a toxic department, then everybody there is one of the horrible people, or they have some form of Stockholm Syndrome, or they feel trapped.

It’s very difficult for someone in a toxic department to warn job candidates. Running a search is no small amount of work, and a failed search can be hugely problematic for a department. If there’s a person who could be accused of being responsible for a failed search, by scaring off interviewees, then this could result in huge social costs. However, non-toxic people in a toxic place might also be in a bit of denial about how bad their situation is, and might want to play a strong role in recruiting new people, to dilute the toxicity. A person in a toxic place who is looking to leave for a new job might feel the need to stay mum so that they don’t spoil their own chances on the market. Speaking ill of one’s current or former employer, even when those tales are true, is usually seen as a poor reflection on the person telling those tales.

So, when you visit a toxic place, nobody’s going to be standing on the rooftops to proclaim the problems you would face if you take the job, and there’s a lot of reasons that people have to hide these problems from you. This puts you in the position of reading between the lines during your visit. It’s not what people say, it’s what they don’t say. 

If people don’t volunteer how much they like and respect their colleagues, they probably don’t.

If people don’t volunteer that the dean has good judgment and respects the faculty, then they dean probably don’t.

If people don’t volunteer how much they enjoy working with all of the students, then they probably don’t.

Of course, if you directly ask people these questions, they’ll give you a politic answer that hides any conflict. Perhaps you can learn about a place by not asking certain questions and see what people voluntarily say. For example, when someone interviews in my department, I’m going to involuntarily gush about how wonderful and effective the faculty and staff in my department are, how I trust the administrators I report to (with my current crop of admins), how working with this student population is a source of joy, and that we all have a shared sense of mission and we have one another’s backs. I’ll say that if nobody asks me, and I’ll mean it. If you have to drag the appropriate answer out of someone, how will you know if it is true?

On the other hand, you can listen carefully to the questions that are asked of you when you’re visiting. During interviews, people will dial back the negative big time, so if there’s anything that registers as a clear negative, watch out. For example, I remember when I interviewed for one job, I had a sit-down interview with every faculty member in the department. They had all kinds of questions for me, but nearly every one of them asked me some version of: “Do you think a department like ours should have a Masters program?” Which clearly struck me as odd at the time. I readily sussed out that some people wanted a M.S. program, and that others thought that a M.S. program would detract from the focus on undergrads. It turns out this was a very contentious issue, that was eventually closed without consensus. If a department typically resolves disagreements by vote or by fiat, this is a warning sign, especially in small departments. This is a no-win situation for junior scholars and those who prioritize a collegial environment over always winning. The choice is to walk the middle ground and win no advocates, or choose one side and win some enemies.

Other potential warning sign during interviews is when you notice a serious problem is being swept under the rug. For example, I was once in sit-down with one senior professor, and was subjected to a record-setting string of sexist and racist remarks, and an insult for every member of the department. It was stunning. To date, he might be the most arrogant and delusional academic I’ve ever met. Anyhow, I didn’t think this guy’s existence was necessarily a red flag, but the way they handled him was. They never talked to students about him to avoid lawsuits, and “protected the majors” by assigning him to several large sections of non-majors courses. This was an indicator of institutional malfunction, and tried to minimize its significance rather than acknowledge the severity of the problem. (Only recently, I learned an emeritus professor in that department was a child sex felon, though this was also swept under the rug.)

What are some other warning signs of a toxic environment? I’m not sure. Do others have experiences or opinions they can share?

(This image in this post is in the public domain.)

5 thoughts on “How can we avoid toxic environments?

  1. I’m posting anonymously because this is currently a sensitive issue, but I’ll e-mail separately to confirm my identity. As you note, there are powerful disincentives to calling out a toxic environment, not least that the consequences of doing so are often worst for those who least deserve them. Over my career I’ve watched a number of departments ‘go bad’. It’s hard to recognise any single factor they have in common. As Tolstoy said of families, unhappy departments are all unhappy in their own way. I was lucky enough to leave one only a few years before it turned nasty. The one I’m now in was wonderful for 8 years then steadily degenerated to the point at which I’m leaving. One factor which seems to be influential is the degree of agency given to the department as a unit. When the department is being buffeted by forces beyond its control, and leadership passes the responsibility for dealing with the problems on to individual staff, it triggers a lack of collective will and individuals begin to behave selfishly or spitefully. The end result is seldom that the malign elements leave. More often it’s the ones who can, either through career stage or personal status. To conclude on a positive note, however, it’s usually only a few bad apples that make the difference. Even in a ‘toxic’ department, the majority of people remain decent, although sometimes forced to act in their own interests. A change of leadership can be enough to completely alter the working culture, often surprisingly quickly.

  2. I interviewed for a postdoctoral position in a prestigious lab in my field. I during my interview day, I had lunch with the grad students and postdocs from the lab. None of them would tell me what they were working on beyond some vague generalities. I quickly realized it was because they didn’t want to talk about the details of their work in front of each other. Sure sign of a PI who pits the people in his lab against each other.

  3. Toxic (academic) environments seem to reach out and grab me whilst still donning a facade of health and happiness. I won’t name names or go into gory detail, but this first began with my masters degree. As a first-time graduate student, I didn’t know what was normal, so when I was told “you’re on your own” I thought that was a normal advisor response to questions about methods, study site, analyses, etc. I was wrong.

    My MS advisor experience was at times amusing – she often didn’t know what country I was in while doing research over the summer and certainly didn’t understand the analyses I performed on my (admittedly weird) data. More realistically, it was less humorous and more abusive. But I persisted, nevertheless. After three years and four field seasons, I produced two papers from my MS. As retribution for not giving my advisor authorship, she decided to submit adenda to letters of recommendation for all jobs and PhD positions I had applied for. I got none of those offers, but ultimately received a very fun and productive job thanks to the support of my committee members and other mentors at that institution.

    Those same mentors encouraged me to continue on and get a PhD despite my hesitation and worry that lightning might strike me twice. What are the odds, they asked, research is clearly something I was good at and enjoyed, so I decided to stay the track and go on for a PhD. Ultimately I had few choices of lab and opted to change up my research quite a bit – change of coast to live on, change of study location, and change of study taxa. I was excited to break out of the region and study system I had been in for years and become a more well-rounded ecologist.

    Unfortunately that was not met with much support from my PhD advisor #1. There are plenty of details and examples to support what I did, but ultimately I decided to leave that lab. That meant moving across the country (again), ending a relationship with a really wonderful and loving partner (hey, at least we’re still friends?), and putting my faith in the fact that this advisor #3 would be a good one. Leaving was an incredibly hard decision, but I made it with the knowledge of what it’s like to have an emotionally abusive advisor. I was congratulated by lab-mates (former and current students, post-docs) for getting out of that lab — it seemed everyone was aware that this guy was no good but had decided to stay the course in that lab themselves.

    Advisor #3 – this has got to be a good one! Really what are the odds that I get hit for a third time with someone who doesn’t want to support my ideas or foster my development as a scientist? Year one went ok – he was rarely around and I floundered a bit, but it’s year one, that’s to be expected. As time went on, however, I started feeling more and more lost as my research questions, system, and region kept changing. Year one might be exploratory, but at some point you’ve got to get your boots on the ground and start moving forward.

    In a recent conversation, I articulated my concerns. I felt as though I was not being adequately listened to and that my concerns were regularly being dismissed. I talked about how changing questions was frustrating for me and I felt like I couldn’t get a good enough grasp on one thing to move ahead with it before it changed to a slightly different beast. I mentioned this in the context of wanting to do a good job and collect the appropriate data and that with a constantly changing question, that’s hard to do. I also mentioned issues that I had had in the field, as the only woman, made to feel uncomfortable and dismissed. Sure, that might have nothing to do with me being a woman, but it sure felt like it did. That issue was met with a vehement defense of the PI I had been referring to, stating that he most certainly is not a chauvinist. Nothing about what I said had claimed that he was – I was merely articulating my discomfort at the situation, not accusing anyone of sexism.

    Those are some small examples of the new environment in which I find myself. I attempted to have an adult conversation about my concerns, feelings, and sensation that I was not being fully heard. Interestingly, those concerns weren’t listened to; instead my experiences were editorialized by my superior.

    How does one move on from this? I had hoped that a conversation in which I put everything on the table would help. I had hoped that I would be listened to and respected and that in articulating my experience would be met with understanding and a productive conversation on how to move forward together. It was instead met with a defensive attitude and resulted in increased concern on my part.

    I won’t quit again. I won’t let another advisor get me down on myself and my science. I can only hope that ultimately all of these characters can reflect on their advising style and on the needs of their individual students and collaborators and do a better job. I can also only hope that I end up in a happy, collaborative, and understanding lab for a post-doc. Or, maybe lightning will find me a fourth time. I’d really prefer not though, my hair is curly enough.

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