Here’s a post-doc who suffered one of those nasty creatures that academic institutions seem to tolerate:
In the course of my weekly meetings with Darth, which often included his research coordinator, I was “diagnosed” as defensive, paranoid, negative, pompous, arrogant, secretive, scheming, learning disordered, and finally, virtually unemployable. He often threatened to fire me, despite the fact that he did not pay my salary and I technically did not work for him. He never once offered me constructive criticism, advice, or encouragement. I could see straight through his tyrannical, narcissistic diatribes. He knew that and it made it worse for me.
The verbal abuse was one thing, but a more destructive trend had started to emerge. He was sitting on my manuscripts. He would tell me I could not attend meetings in my own institution, or give invited talks about my research. He frustrated nearly every attempt I made at original science and wasted my time on side projects for people he wanted to impress. Instead of encouraging collaboration with other scientists, he stated that my duty was to troll his “database” for potential projects, at the rate of one project a week.
It goes on and on, but fortunately, the post-doc saw the lunacy of sticking with Dr. Darth, and took corrective action. And lived to tell the tale.
What did I learn that may be of use to others?
Lesson No. 1: No news is not good news. Investigate your prospective supervisor and if you hear nothing of substance, suspect that perhaps people are clamming up about his lack of people skills. Look elsewhere for a mentor.
Lesson No. 2: Don’t think that being flexible and agreeable will help you deal with bullies. That just stokes them. Working harder does not make things better. Make preparations to leave.
Lesson No. 3: Know that bullies fear exposure. Their entire self-image is based on how their chosen mirrors treat them. That also means that they have deeply ingratiated themselves with anyone with power.
Lesson No. 4: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Don’t let them convince you, either explicitly or implicitly to keep silent. Make sure that you tell as many people as possible what is going on. Seek out the people who don’t like or respect your supervisor, and see if they can help.
Finally, realize that you may not win, no matter how just your cause. Fight the good fight as long as possible, in order to rebuild your social capital, then move on.
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Do read the advice (which I summarized here) given by Sean Carroll and Chad Orzel: choosing an advisor is the most important thing for a graduate student. I would go on to add that it is the most important thing for post-docs too. If you are going to be working closely with someone –, in a subordinate position — for the next year or two (or, five!) you better make sure that he/she is someone you can get along with. Such ‘social’ research is just as important as the research on that person’s expertise, funding, publications, etc.