It 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.)