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Career blocker mentors

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Career blocker mentors

Postby John B. N. » Thu Aug 06, 2015 3:28 am

Hi

I have been a postdoc at a top tier institute in the USA for 4 years. I published several papers including a grand breaking one which should normally open many doors to a regular scientist. However, I stuck in my current lab with a very complicated situation.

I brought a lot of money to the lab as the major contributor of grants. I became not only the technical key person but I also direct many projects intellectually. The majority of my efforts are distributed to several projects owned by others. I spend huge effort but I get minimal credit from each. I can not use my time on my primary research interests so no hope for a second paper soon. Talking this situation over with him did not help, because I became a requirement for the lab and my time was very valuable for him!!!

As every other scientist, I would like to be able to start my own team and realize my own projects. However, my current mentor insist on me to extend my post-doc or to promote me as a research assistant professor in his lab.

I can clearly see that he will not give me a good reference. He may even interfere with my applications as a powerful person as he did before. I repeatedly hear that, he would not allow me to go to anywhere else, my only place is his lab, I "belong to his lab." He basically wants to own me.

I am not a U.S. citizen and unfortunately my reputation is limited to the walls of the institution. I do not have a chance to make networking outside of this person's own network. I know a couple of other post-docs with a similar situation. They ended up with returning their home countries. Should I do so?

I feel hopeless about applying anywhere and asking a reference from him. I know the psychological pressure that he will push on me if I try to leave.

I am seeking advice for an escape plan.

How does a negative reference effect my applications? Are there anyone else who succeed in a similar situation? Does it effect negatively if I ask for an appointment from the director of my favorite institute to discuss my situation before I apply to them? Otherwise I know if his reference will not be good, I will not be invited for an interview.


I will be glad to hear your advice. Thanks a lot.
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby Dave Walker » Thu Aug 06, 2015 12:02 pm

Hi John,

If you have searched this forum, you will find that "career-blocking" mentors have been discussed several times. Unfortunately good advice is hard to give because every situation is different. Bear this in mind.

If I could tell you one thing, it would be to take control of your career and start thinking of yourself as an independent researcher and not a slave to a higher authority. If you do not take control of your career you will always be pushed around. Stories of postdocs and non-tenure-track faculty floating through academia are common.

If you want to start your own research team, what is keeping you back? If you have groundbreaking papers, grants and a good institute, your resume probably looks great. I can think of one thing outside of this: a network.

You simply cannot count on your mentor to guide your career. They do not control your networking habits; you do.

Are you friendly with all the major players in your field at various institutions? Do you talk to them at conferences, sit down with them for meals? Many of them are probably peer reviewers of your work. Most are probably older than you. If you have such great research, they would certainly love to talk to you. Using this network, you can see where openings are for tenure-track professorships.

I don't know why you think your mentor would give you a negative reference if you have brought money into the lab and published high-impact papers. If you have a bad relationship with them, you can either try to fix it, or leave. I often hear postdocs talking about "getting a bad reference" as punishment but I have only seen it happen when the postdoc was incompetent. Otherwise, it was naivete to think that a professor would harm his student's career out of anger: usually the professor has other problems. You cannot let this stop your career; I would bet most of it is in your head.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby Dave Jensen » Thu Aug 06, 2015 1:16 pm

The most telling issue in the original poster's comment is this one: "I am not a U.S. citizen and unfortunately my reputation is limited to the walls of the institution. I do not have a chance to make networking outside of this person's own network."

What stops you from being a networker? What is there that prevents you from reaching out to others, and gathering friends and acquaintances from outside this tiny prison that you appear to have made for yourself?

My guess is that you're from a country where there are plenty of immigrants here, who are either now permanent residents or citizens. Find them. Talk to them about how their science career developed, and what they did to build their network.

You may find that you've painted those walls around you, yourself, and that it's just an illusion.

Dave
"Failure is a bruise -- not a tattoo." -- Jon Sinclair
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby Nate W. » Thu Aug 06, 2015 3:09 pm

Hi John,

I understand your frustration because I have been there. Since you have published several solid publications and seem to be a reasonable person, I will assume the problem exists for two reasons:

1) Your PI is a jerk with narcissistic and controlling behaviors; a real control freak.
2) Your PI is overly concerned about money issues and is trying to sabotage any future career plans of productive lab members.

This forum is replete with examples of dysfunctional PIs. In most cases, the shortage of grant money and/or a behaviorally dysfunctional PI are the root causes. If a student or post-doc publishes papers, contributes to the lab intellectually, and helps with the grants, the PI is obligated and expected to write a positive reference regardless what that PI might feel about that individual.

First, try to repair the relationship if you might have upset him. Next ask him: "would you give me a positive reference?" Then I would hire a reference checking company to find out what he is saying. While you are doing this, start networking and making plans to leave ASAP. Academia, oddly, places considerable weight on what a PI says in a reference. However, industry doesn't care as much as academia.

Both Daves are absolutely correct in that networking will be key for making a transition out of this situation. If the PI has considerable influence locally, going above his head or to HR will NOT help. So, you might have to find another university to work at.

Personally, I believe money is at the heart of this problem. That's his problem and you shouldn't be made to feel guilty about your performance. Psychologically, he is deflecting the real issue by tearing down your self-confidence.

The guy is a bully; so don't take <fertilizer> off this guy. The best revenge is to move on and prosper. He'll regret his behavior when he is trying to find your replacement. If he is really nasty, leave right before his grants are up for renewal.

PS: Money makes people do things they wish they have never done before; treat people badly.

In academia, mentorship has become an euphemism for dysfunctional behavior and thoughtlessness. Pick your pick PI carefully!


Reference checking company:

http://www.allisontaylor.com/

Talk with Jeff.
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby P.C. » Thu Aug 06, 2015 4:42 pm

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/ca ... t.a1500196

Remedy mentioned in other sci career magazine articles about reform:
Move to funding post-docs as fellowships, not on big bosses grants.

I can see where the big boss enlists drone hands, not prospective PIs in training. Been there.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby John D. D, » Thu Aug 06, 2015 7:40 pm

I'm going to reply first to Nate. I generally like his ability to think outside the mainstream, and the fact that he tells it straight up. This is obviously a topic that generates a lot of distress for many people.

The way I see it, one should be able to go with more independent validators. Publishing papers stands by itself. Contributing at meetings would likewise be a positive - interact, speak (even if it is to offer comments after someone else's talks, offer contributions to virtual forums in the area of technical expertise).

In the end, it is hard not to aspire to great accomplishments that others have made because they have had the help when others don't, but I think it is ok to be more modest in ambition, and just have the environment to work independently. So, my advice would be to not be confrontational, just silent (with respect to the adviser), professional in every other aspect, and positively interested and detached from the adviser, outside of the immediate environment.
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby Craig B. » Fri Aug 07, 2015 9:22 am

John-

I have a lot of sympathy for your situation--it's a real challenge to work for someone who has little or no interest in your career advancement. That said, I feel that your supervisor may have already provided you a way forward.

Assuming that your job isn't completely soul crushing, you don't feel the need to immediately get a new position, and want to continue on the academic path, take the research assistant professor (RAP) promotion.

Make sure that your institution will provide you the necessary support to apply for funding as a PI AND that your current supervisor will also let you be a sole PI on whatever applications you submit. Try and secure funding for a project that is related to your groundbreaking work. When you have funding in hand, go on the job market for a tenure track position if that's what you want.

Not having the support of your postdoc supervisor is going to be a challenge, but having your own funding opens a lot of doors. I know several people who went the postdoc to RAP route only to have their relationship with their supervisor turn tepid and subsequently leverage funding into a position elsewhere.

Put another way, if you want an academic job and don't already have one lined up, it's going to take time (a year?) to find one (maybe?). You'll likely be better off in the interim if you take the promotion you've been offered, demonstrate that you're progressing in your career, and enjoy the superior pay and benefits that likely come with the new title. Just be sure to fight for as much independence as possible when you get it.
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby Nate W. » Sat Aug 08, 2015 11:20 am

Craig B. wrote:John-

Make sure that your institution will provide you the necessary support to apply for funding as a PI AND that your current supervisor will also let you be a sole PI on whatever applications you submit. Try and secure funding for a project that is related to your groundbreaking work. When you have funding in hand, go on the job market for a tenure track position if that's what you want.



Craig, do really think that this PI is going to let him to do this. The university, more specifically the PI, has control of the money a post-doc(or RAP) brings into the research institution. When money is tight, a dysfunctional PI will try to control this money even though he wasn't directly awarded the grant or wasn't the primary author.

Look at this recent article about what is happening:

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/ca ... t.a1500194

"However, as Basken notes, “under NIH rules, grants are awarded to institutions, not individuals,” and UCSD balked at letting such a sizable grant leave its campus. UCSD took the relatively rare step of suing USC, along with Aisen and eight researchers who moved with him."

I don't think a gentlemen's agreement would apply in this situation and that the PI would never let the RAP use this money to advance his academic career. The PI is not even helping the post-doc use this money now to gain career independence even when it is under the "mentor's" control.

Who's acting in their best interests here?

Everyone who has had a bad experience with an academic PI or dysfunctional laboratory should watch the movie:

"The Stanford Prison Experiment"

The same situational psychoses exhibited among guards and prisoners probably exists in a dysfunctional academic research lab, given the pressures of funding, gaining prestige (i.e. respect in the field), publishing in high impact journals, and career growth due to the lack of tenure track positions as well as alternative tracks.

A dysfunctional lab can truly be a Darwinian environment; which incentives bad behaviors even among good people.

Dr Zimbardo:

http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segmen ... a49b0003d6
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby Craig B. » Sat Aug 08, 2015 12:28 pm

Nate W. wrote:
Craig, do really think that this PI is going to let him to do this. The university, more specifically the PI, has control of the money a post-doc(or RAP) brings into the research institution. When money is tight, a dysfunctional PI will try to control this money even though he wasn't directly awarded the grant or wasn't the primary author.


I don't know one way or the other. All I know of the situation is what was described by John and was simply proposing one possible way forward. Sure, the university/unsupportive supervisor may try and keep any money John would bring in, but he still would retain a record of successfully competing for grant dollars.

It all comes down to a cost/benefit analysis of either trying to make the most of the situation your in or cutting your losses and moving on as soon as possible.
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Re: Career blocker mentors

Postby Nate W. » Sat Aug 08, 2015 2:41 pm

Craig B. wrote:
Nate W. wrote:
Craig, do really think that this PI is going to let him to do this. The university, more specifically the PI, has control of the money a post-doc(or RAP) brings into the research institution. When money is tight, a dysfunctional PI will try to control this money even though he wasn't directly awarded the grant or wasn't the primary author.


I don't know one way or the other. All I know of the situation is what was described by John and was simply proposing one possible way forward. Sure, the university/unsupportive supervisor may try and keep any money John would bring in, but he still would retain a record of successfully competing for grant dollars.

It all comes down to a cost/benefit analysis of either trying to make the most of the situation your in or cutting your losses and moving on as soon as possible.


A fifty to sixty year old PI is not going to change his bad behavior. This is a guy who wouldn't even write a positive letter of reference for someone who helped his lab, specifically his career. It is no sweat off this PI's back, to help those who have helped him.

PIs who act like this are selfish jerks who should lose their grants for mismanagement. Besides the goal of moving science forward, grants have an important educational mission. When a PI uses students as tools for his career, he is really ignoring the underlying aim of the grant.

If one thinks this guy is going to change, they are delusional. A tract record of competing for grants is not going to hack it in this market. You have to have grant money in hand before being considered for a faculty position, even a post-doctoral position in some labs.
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