How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Welcome to the newly redesigned Science Careers Forum. Please bookmark this site now for future reference. If you've previously posted to the forum, your current username and password will remain the same in the new system. If you've never posted or are new to the forum, you will need to create a new account.

The new forum is designed with some features to improve the user experience. Upgrades include:
- easy-to-read, threaded discussions
- ability to follow discussions and receive notifications of updates
- private messaging to other SC Forum members
- fully searchable database of posts
- ability to quote in your response
- basic HTML formatting available

Moderator: Dave Jensen
Advisors:   Ana, PG, Rich Lemert, Dick Woodward, Dave Walker
Meet the Moderator/Advisors

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby Samuel S. » Wed Jun 16, 2010 8:13 pm

I feel that my postdoc mentor walks over me and tries to "justify" her own statements to make me do things. She told me once that she can justify anything if given enough time, and it seems that oftentimes her goal is just to oppose me so that she has the last word. She says she is open to being swayed the other way and that I just need to convince her. I know that probably sounds reasonable when typed, but in person her way of speaking and interacting feels very intimidating. And now I have become sort of conditioned so that my nerves are on edge when speaking with her and it makes it hard for me to focus and be assertive. Only the other day she told me to do these very tedious expts because the alternative method costs a lot. I have already done plenty of these tedious expts in the past and it makes my back/arm sore from all the pipeting. She said it is part of being a postdoc and there is a payoff at the end. But she had a smirk of her face and was pretty much rubbing it in because she knows I am not too thrilled about this. There wasn't much understanding from her part. A big part of what makes me feel so horrible about myself is the WAY she speaks with me rather than WHAT she says. I know I can get the work done if I put my mind to it (and I have in the past - which by the way was glossed over), but I find it really hard to motivate myself when I am treated like she owns me. I am by nature not the most aggressive person and I try to contain my emotions so as not to lash out and it seems that my boss knows this and is preying on me based on my personality and demeanor. Any thoughts would be much appreciated. Thanks.
Samuel S.
Posts: 12
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:42 pm

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby Ben Smith » Thu Jun 17, 2010 12:23 am

You are being bullied and subdued. You are worth more than this, and I would do my level best to get out of this situation. There are a lot of exploitative PIs out there, as they have no accountability. I wish you the strength to deal with this.

Ben Smith
Posts: 287
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:30 pm

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby Noel M. » Thu Jun 17, 2010 1:12 am


Ben is absolutely right. This is exactly my situation too. I am a grad student though, in 7th year of PhD. This is extra ordinarily long time for a PhD, right? I understand that my research career is dead but the point is, this is exactly the way my PI treats/treated me and I was always scared to stand up for myself. BIG MISTAKE. As a result, he made me work on very risky projects that I didn't want to work on. I was very suspicious of the outcomes of those projects. Yet he forced me (the same way as your boss). I worked on those projects for almost 3 years and those projects didn't fly. I got the blame (of course). The yelling I got all these years is not yet counted. My articles are collecting dust on his desk for years and the comments I get are rather useless, more to prove the point that I even don't have writing skills. I am yet to get any comment on the material itself. There is no mentorship whatsoever but I am sure that the scenes in your PI's office and my PI's office are same. Over the period of time, I have lost my confidence to an extent that I am scared to give a talk.

My suggestion would be, get out of that lab or stand up for yourself. If things don't fly, you can always leave and you have little to lose. One of the things that I was/am scared of is, the kind of reference that he will give to my next employer but now I don't care. If you have good references, you should also not worry and things best for you.
Noel M.
Posts: 10
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:33 pm

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby Dave Jensen » Thu Jun 17, 2010 3:37 am


There is no training required of PI's in order to take on the responsibility of becoming a mentor or advisor to Postdocs. Personally, I don't think there is anything to be gained by dealing with this person any longer. It is obvious that she has zero concern for your professional growth and that she is simply in the game to "win" and to "dominate." I would get out of there ASAP -- find another postdoc if you have to, but do not remain in a place where you will be made to feel as if you aren't worthy of science. You ARE worthy and your luck may be much better elsewhere. good luck!

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”- Alain de Botton
User avatar
Dave Jensen
Site Moderator
Posts: 7959
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby Heidi » Thu Jun 17, 2010 8:45 am

Samuel, I hope you will get yourself out of this situation soon. I am lucky enough to have only one short experience in the type of the lab that you describe. It was one of the rotations during my Ph.D., and those two months were long - I had a desire to walk into the PIs office and tell him I was leaving about 20 times a day. And I wasn't lonely in my feelings - technicians, students, postdocs - everyone who got into that lab got out pretty quickly (staying for a year there was an absolute record - Dave, what I don't understand is how department heads don't send these PIs for some training or penalize them in some way when it becomes obvious that a problem of this sort exists).
I also try to aviod direct confrontation as much as I can, and it really doesn't do any good when you are dealing with a bully. As Noel says, you have to stand up for yourself or leave, or both. A very close colleague of mine is one person I know who successfully dealt with two bully PIs during grad school and postdoc. But she is an outspoken person, and she just doesn't let anyone bring her down. She will speak her mind and feel good about it. She will stubbornly do what she thinks is right and prove her point of view to the boss. At one point, when she was forced to do an experiment that was senseless and doomed from the start, the garbage bag containing experiment "results" ended up on the boss's office desk. The most interesting thing: years after, these bullies still have respect for her, they gave her great recommendations?!
One good thing about postdoc is that there is no graduation lined up, you can plan your exit more easily. And bad references... Well, you just need to cross the bridge to your next position, and you will never have to worry about this experience again. The most important thing is to get yourself out of the toxic situation and not let it damage your self-esteem and make you bitter.
Posts: 83
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:40 pm

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby KMC » Thu Jun 17, 2010 11:24 am

Sorry to say that all of the above is correct. You work for a classic bullying PI, and you should look to leave asap. Staying with a boss like this will simply continue to erode your self-confidence and your enthusiasm, both of which are absolutely required for a successful job search. Don't bother standing up to her, because she will never change; just get out.
Posts: 28
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:30 pm

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby P.C. » Thu Jun 17, 2010 12:32 pm

Resign in protest and complain to the dept head, and all the deans upsteam. Dig in your heels and blow the whistle. Stop this abuse.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
Posts: 2439
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby Nathan » Thu Jun 17, 2010 5:40 pm


From what you described, your PI is a classic bully who doesn't care about you but rather about the power of being in control and being "right." Tragically, many of these narcissistic bullies think they are increasing productivity by spurring competition or by instilling guilt or fear into their employees. Instead, they are doing exactly the opposite because narcissists lack empathy for others and this constant struggle for control plus no understanding about working with others tends to be counterproductive by destroying morale.

Like in the school yard, there is only two ways to deal with a bully: leave and/or beat the living snot out of him. Since we are grownups, assault is not the answer but leaving ASAP is the civilized way of handling this. In the meantime until you find a new job, you need to stand up to this PI by taking control of your project letting him know that all experimental decisions will be made by me. Yes, I will listen to your ideas, even you don't listen to mine, but I will decide whether I incorporate those ideas. Let your knowledge of the literature and training guide your decisions.....not his input. Develop your own ideas and experimental strategies to address your hypothesis then set your goals. Then his only jobs are to get grant money, pay for the reagents, and edit your papers......otherwise be quiet unless you have something cogent to say, I'll do the rest. What I am telling you is to take control over your project way and show him you know perhaps better than him what to do......this way you taking the power struggle away from him. This is the same as knocking him out....most bullies in the workplace prey on the weak and cowers to those who stand up to them in an intellectual and professional manner.

I know that this sounds contrary to the thought that you are suppose to show the boss deference but this doesn't apply when you are dealing with a narcissitic bully. Why- because his behaviour doesn't earned respect by his employees.
Posts: 946
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:30 pm

How do I know if my boss is a bully?

Postby Kelly » Fri Jun 18, 2010 6:54 am

-" letting him know that all experimental decisions will be made by me. Yes, I will listen to your ideas, even you don't listen to mine, but I will decide whether I incorporate those ideas."

This is a sure way to get fired/thrown out of graduate school. Then the PI can paint the entire problem as the trainee and people will believe it based on the above.

Leave, quickly, you can't change this person. Go sit down with the graduate studies Dean and explain so they can maybe keep an eye out.
Posts: 3840
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

How to become assertive?

Postby Samuel S. » Fri Jun 18, 2010 8:29 pm

To all that responded - thanks for your understanding. All of you so far pretty much agreed that I should try to get out of the situation. I do think about this option, but at the same time feel that I would have wasted this time and will have to start over a new project. The upside is that I could be working for a much nicer PI (which is another problem - I need to make sure I pick a nicer boss). My other concern is about my visa (H1B) and I want a PI to help me transition to a permanent residency. My current harassing PI has said to me she will help me once I have one first-author paper. Now this is reasonable, and she has done this for one other postdoc also. But it is hard to be calm and composed because I never know whether she will be in a harassing mode or not. The other thing is that I just need to learn being more assertive and brush off her remarks but I have a hard time doing this. I have my own personality and I don't see why I must change who I am to make her happy. I don't believe there is any part of me that screams to her to harass me. Any advice on how to become more assertive will be appreciated. Are there any classes where they teach how to interact with different people?
Samuel S.
Posts: 12
Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:42 pm


Return to Science Careers Forum

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: David Lathbury, Michael and 12 guests