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Warning Signs: Identifying a Toxic Mentor

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

Previously in our last post, we introduced our new module Warning Signs. Today, we'll continue this series by talking about one of the things I am sure many of you going through a graduate program ask yourselves on a near-daily basis. "How do I know if my mentor is genuinely being toxic? When do I know that this situation isn't through my lack or effort, or that it is even my fault?" These can be difficult questions to answer, but my advice to you is to go off of instinct on this one.

I am sure we can agree that many people tell us, "it's just a part of the culture." While yes, a graduate program can be intense or even downright difficult at times, it should only be this way because it's necessary. Some of the stress we have to endure is (pardon my language in advance) is honest-to-goodness bullshit. For some reason or other, your mentor has taken it to a whole new level, whether it's because they personally don't like you, they don't like your personality, or maybe they don't like anything about you (such as if you're disabled, a veteran, from a different country, practice a different religion, etc.).

Bullshit, as you can imagine is highly toxic. You don't have to take it!

Generally, these types of scenarios are not cut and dry, and they can be subtle. Or, maybe it isn't such a big deal to you. Some people respond better to stress than others, and that's okay. However, if you feel your morale continuously decreasing for no other reason than simply by the way you're treated, that's a red flag right there. If you find yourself dreading coming into work, because you're afraid of what your principal investigator may do or say to you, that's your mind telling you that you're in a toxic environment.

In the long run, you are not likely to succeed in a rigorous program, if the people you work with are getting to you at a personal level. You begin to alienate yourself from others, you begin to lose interest in your family and personal life at home. You begin to get depressed. However, no matter how bad you feel, to your PI, you've never done enough. Nothing you can say or do will satisfy your PI.

Some of the more obvious signs that you are in a toxic relationship with your "mentor" is if you suddenly find yourself falling far behind schedule, through no fault of your own. No matter how many times you try to assert yourself and accomplish key milestones that are critical to your success in the program, your supervisor seems to waylay or sabotage your efforts. You suddenly find yourself months behind on getting your dissertation project approved. You're given way more "busywork" than the other people in your lab, including menial tasks such as reorganizing the refrigerator, taking inventory of all the reagents, ordering everyone else's supplies, performing colony management work for everyone else, or genotyping their samples. These are all just examples, and are by no means exhaustive.

Your job should never feel like you're serving a prison sentence. Something is probably going wrong here!

The point is, you're getting way more work than anyone else. Your boss tries to explain it to you as, "not everyone's project is the same. Some people are going to have to work harder than others". This is only true to a certain extent. When you find yourself doing things that have nothing to do with your project, and do not benefit you in any way, shape or form, you're being taken advantage of. It's going to burn you out quick, when you're stuck cleaning the glassware for the 50th time in a row, or labeling all the tubes for tomorrow's big experiment. Be cognizant of this! If you're eager to please, take note every time you're being asked to complete this menial task work --- remember the Five W's. Who asked you to do the task? When did they ask you to do it? Where did they ask you to do it? Why did they ask you to do it? What did they ask you to do? Log all of this, just like you would for meeting minutes in your handy, dandy notebook. If your PI continues to play the "everybody's project is different" card, they're clearly not paying attention to what's going on in the lab. Or, it is possible that your PI is picking favorites and allowing this behavior to happen. This is unprofessional and completely unacceptable! Make sure you document every time your PI refuses to acknowledge your hard work, and make you come off as being lazy or unmotivated! After you do this about 3-5 times, and you've established a pattern that they're not listening to you, then you should go to the next person in the chain of command (provided you can trust them). In terms of organization and leadership, the chain of command is as follows:

  1. Provost

  2. HR Director

  3. Program Director

  4. Department Head

  5. PI

Work your way up the chain of command slowly but surely, and if you are convinced that no one in the organization is listening to you, this is when you need to seriously start asking yourself whether you're being discriminated against, or simply being harassed. Certainly, as you go higher up in the chain, your PI is bound to find out about it eventually. It might even "piss them off". However, reporting them to senior leadership is a protected activity and you have a right to do it, even if your PI doesn't like it. In fact, according to federal law, they are not allowed to retaliate against you for calling them out or blowing the whistle on them. If you notice that you're being treated even worse after reporting them, write it down! This is what retaliation is! I'd recommend the moment you are retaliated against, you should report this to either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

Besides that, there is one other key way to know whether you're dealing with a toxic supervisor. That is, they ask or attempt to coerce you into doing unethical things, such as data manipulation, turning a blind eye to anyone else doing this, or asking you to do other illegal things such as free manual labor. Did you know that it's against the law to have your supervisor tell you to do their yardwork for them, fold their laundry, or babysit their children? If you ever see this happening to you or anyone else in the lab, you should ABSOLUTELY report this! Don't let them fool you into thinking that this behavior is acceptable in any way, shape or form. It's completely inappropriate, and in the eyes of the federal law, it can be looked at as either abuse of power or free labor (which is an HR euphemism for "slavery").

I will basically summarize today's post as follows. If your boss is treating you to the point that your life is downright miserable, is asking you to do unlawful things, or is taking advantage of their position at all, these are SUPER TOXIC warning signs. Get out of there! Report them, if you have to! Your mental and physical health isn't worth their satisfaction. Trust me on this one. If they seem impossible to please, it's because they probably are. Nothing you can say or do will make them happy, no matter how hard you work.

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