#Dispatches From the Front–Help, I Have a Toxic Advisor! Part II: Therapy and Quitting, Both Excellent Options

In our new Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

This week, the question is: “Help, I have a toxic advisor/PI? What can I do? What have other people done in this situation?”

I’m sorry to say this question garnered 33 responses and the stories are very detailed indeed about the kinds of abuse suffered by vulnerable grad students and postdocs. For more information on this topic, please also look at this post by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: 20 Warning Signs Your Professor’s Abusing You

Today I present to you Part II of II: Therapy and Quitting, Both Excellent Options. Don’t forget to look at Part I: Firing Your Advisor, Building Your Team. A couple pieces of advice are replicated from last week because they cover so much territory!

In the meantime, we continue weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

And one explanatory note: we ask respondents to provide any personal identifying information in their own words that THEY consider pertinent to contextualize their responses. We don’t edit these except to guarantee anonymity. Some of the identifying language has struck us as odd, but as long as it is not offensive to anyone, we don’t censor it.

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If you have a toxic advisor, first off, get the emotional support you need, and in particular, please consider therapy. So many respondents mentioned how valuable their therapy was in surviving the trauma.

Find a good therapist and others that have experience navigating your advisor/PI. They can give you advice on how to get by or, if it comes to it, out. I was lucky in that my therapist knew exactly who my advisor was as soon as I mentioned their name (thanks to prior patients) but regardless, I guarantee you aren’t the only one on the receiving end of this toxic behavior. Also, document everything. Keep the emails, comments, a record of what happened when. Administrations appreciate paper trails more than anything else. (Postdoc, humanities; Single, white, 30-something humanities person)

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You can work with the therapist on the option of “firing” your advisor, either by finding a new one in the same program or changing programs entirely.

I was in your very shoes. 1. Know that toxic and abusive people tend to make you feel isolated…but you are not at all alone!. So many of us have been in the midst of that pain. I felt shame in response to my advisor and didn’t speak out to other trusted faculty until the end of my graduate career. But there are trustworthy people in your field (look to your disciplines resources if they’re not in your department) and they want to help you. Please invite them to help! 2. There are many forms of severe abuse, including sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological. Your university should endeavor to protect you from every kind. If you’re unsure which resources to turn to, university counseling is a great start! 3. Therapy is an amazing first step and it’s often available to you for free as a university affiliate. Please go! Your therapist can be a great aid to your healing as well as a great advocate for you in terms of calling out the toxicity you’ve been going through. 4. Consider transferring grad programs if it would significantly assist your wellbeing and is financially feasible. It’s becoming quite common now to do so and most programs you’d enter won’t need you to provide a detailed rationale for your transfer beyond growth in your research. I wish I had done that! (Asst prof, Humanities; White, female, humanities TT)

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More importantly, a therapist can help you identify patterns of abuse and develop coping strategies, which will serve you will no matter where you go in the academic career (and life). Because toxic people are everywhere, and good boundaries and self-care are essential. As the two responses below show, you can also find support beyond therapy, in the form of family, friends, exercise, and other outlets.

This is a very difficult situation and it is unfortunately far more common in academia than widely known. I have dealt with it myself and for me, the only option was to go to therapy (which I know not everybody can afford). Together with my therapist, I developed strategies to offset the stress that my narcissistic advisor caused me in addition to strategies on how to deal with him during work. Luckily, the circumstances in my case were so that the person was my advisor everyday but not on paper – I therefore always kept a good relationship with my advisor on paper which helped me in getting good reference letters. I then dealt strategically with my abusing advisor without burning too many bridges. Things that helped me: 

-finding time for family and friends

 -make time for sport and yoga 

-venting to said friends, they made up fun names about him 

– something which I wasnt able to do. That helped me to find some distance emotionally 

– exchanging with co-workers who also suffered from him and put his behavior into perspective -planning my days off when he wasn’t off 

– maximizing the time without him in the office -directly communicating with everybody and not believing anything he “handled” for me -publishing my way out of the PhD 

– once everything was published, they had to let me go 

– find another position, once that was set, it was easier for me to stay on focus 

– therapy (without that, I wouldn’t have made it)

– go to conferences where I knew he wouldn’t be able to join, so I could network without him 

– being overly nice to him (that’s part of some strategies on how to deal with narcissists, might be different in everyones case)

keep a folder of accomplishments (emails, awards, acceptance letters, job offers), if I feel down, I look into it.

I still get stressed when I see him at a conference or get an email, so it was never resolved but unfortunately, in my opinion, we cant change other people and I luckily escaped that situation with my PhD and my mental health recovered from it. Now I have a very good sensor for that kind of personality and I hope that I will be able to avoid in the future to ever have to work with a person like this again. (Staff scientist, STEM; 32, white, cis, with partner, family history of depression)

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I am a woman of colour who felt trapped by visa requirements and finances but also the culture I come from which is quite hierarchical. All of this made me feel that the fault was mine and that I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I was constantly being compared and treated with disdain at times when I did not agree on certain things. I also received unkind feedback on my writing at times. But over the course of the final year where I was working more on myself through professional help, I came to understand that it was not about me at all. I understood that we always project our insecurities on to others and when we are not aware of that, we hurt others. The need to control others stem from our own insecurities. I eventually stopped giving much value to both the excessive praise and excessive criticism from my supervisor because they were simply products of their mood at that moment. It is still very difficult to remain unaffected because we all want to be seen and approved by someone who oversees our work. But it also helps to remember that they see only some aspects of our life and make judgements based on that, which is then inflected with their own vulnerabilities. Finding things to do outside work helped me find a way to connect to the parts of myself that I also liked, which meant my entire identity was not tied to that one chapter or thesis I was writing. Having said this, I also wish I had known early on that the supervisor had gone too far and that there were official channels through which to address that. But given my conflict fearing nature and the bad experiences of other students who broke away, I do not know if knowing this would have helped very much. It was not always bad and I did receive helpful feedback and passed my Viva with minor corrections. But my confidence also took a hit and I would have been worse off if I had not started working on myself. If one had the choice of taking departmental action, that is what many others have done. But how many international students, especially women, have actually done this or think this is a viable option? (Postdoc, SS; Woman of colour)

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Remember that you can sometimes turn to friends in the program for support as well. Abusers love to isolate, and one of the best antidotes to that is human connection, even if it’s over a beer at happy hour once a week (just make sure those you vent to are trustworthy).

I had a toxic MSc advisor, but just grinned and bore it and finished early to get out of there as soon as I could. The advisor made it very difficult at times, and I found myself saying and writing whatever it was I thought they wanted to hear. In the end, I graduated and moved on to greener pastures. A MSc takes a lot less time than a PhD, so if the person asking is a PhD student, my advice may be different. Just started your PhD? Leave altogether or stay and find a different advisor. This may be the easiest time to switch, before you have a proposal fully worked out. Middle of PhD? Talk to department head or department graduate studies coordinator and have them help you identify a different advisor (maybe a committee member will step up to the plate?). Your project may change a bit with the switch of an advisor, unless you have several faculty within a particular field that you can fall back on. Alternatively, if you are a middle of the road PhD student and don’t already have a Master’s, some programs have a “leave with a Master’s” policy that burnt out PhD students can take around the time of candidacy exams. Finally, if ABD and nearing completion, I would suggest just digging in and finishing. It’s not ideal, but I have known many senior graduate students who have taken this route. In the process, find time to go to counseling and surround yourself with trustworthy friends and peers. Going out to “happy hour (may or may not include an adult beverage)” once or twice a week to vent and unwind really helps. Many graduate students have conflicts with their advisor at some point. Your conflicts may be more significant than most, but others can still listen and help you take some of that weight off your shoulders. This all being said, if you feel that your life is in danger or you have been physically, verbally, sexually, etc. abused by your advisor, report it to the authorities at your university, and get out ASAP. (Grad student, STEM; White female in 20s)

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One thing that many respondents this week and last week emphasize is that the advisory relationship is inherently temporary and sometimes if you just put your head down and WORK, you can get out relatively unscathed and move on to more autonomous stages in your career.

Seek out a senior, internal mentor who can help you separate petty feedback from substantive feedback. Develop writing teams outside your university and write like crazy. If the university climate supports it, work from places other than campus, and make sure you have non-work related activities that bring you joy and help balance out the stress of Academia. (Asst prof, SS; 30s, female, heterosexual, single, and Asian)

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One crucial coping strategy is to maintain excellent boundaries, and to control the amount and type of personal information you share with a toxic advisor.

Do not isolate yourself from others – which can often happen in these situations, potentially as a result of the behavior of your advisor. Seek out collaborations, additional mentorship, a strong peer network — all of these will help give you additional perspective and support. You can and should be working with other people. Ultimately, when you are able to graduate/separate from your toxic advisor, these relationships will be the ones you will continue to cultivate and can rely on. Do not share information about your personal life with your toxic advisor. If they have been asking/expecting this information as part of your relationship and you have been sharing it is not too late to stop. You can respond with “Everything is great!” and that is all that needs to be shared. (Asst prof SS White cis-gendered married female)

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And last of all, remember: you can cut ties with the abuser. Nobody, ever, is obliged to stay in a relationship with a toxic person. This may lead to you leaving academia, and that might turn out to be wonderful. It certainly was for me (Karen)!

I stood up to my toxic PI who just wasn’t a nice person and told her she wasn’t being nice. It wasn’t received well and for my mental health I ended up leaving, once I’d handed in my notice she didn’t speak to me again or acknowledge me. Luckily I made other allies who I have positive relationships with but it’s put me right off academia! (Postdoc, SS; White, married late 40s woman)

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I finished my PhD and started my own business. I no longer speak to my advisor, and do not have to, since I do not even need to ask her for a reference. She is a toxic narcissist and I know that just brushing her off without any fanfare just eats her alive!  Even though my advisor is also a woman, she is from a different generation and all of her advisees noticed that she strongly favored her male students over females. She even made a statement once that I did not have a need to earn much money since I have no family to support….. (Non-ac PhD, Humanities; 43 year old Caucasian woman, who at the time of graduation was single and childless.)

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Thanks to all our respondents! We have a new Dispatches Question for next week:

Journal Editors: What do academics do wrong in the journal publication process What do you wish academics understood about how to get published in scholarly journals?

Go here to share YOUR advice. We can’t wait to hear from you!



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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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