What to do about a sociopath "mentor"

Jan 02 2015 Published by under Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

By Comrade PhysioProf

22 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Crap, the answer is "You can't do anything," I assume from the blank space here.

  • jmz4 says:

    The solution, as always, is dilution. Set up a collaboration with another lab. Preferably one with high standing at the institution, so the sociopath's ego will be sated, and it's not someone he can run roughshod over. Then gradually turn it into co-mentorship, where you meet with both professors together.

    This has several advantages. The first and most basic is that it breaks up the one-way flow of the master-servant style conversations you get in one-on-one meetings. With three people, there is a discussion, and when there is discussion, it becomes easier to steer the conversation by navigating the gravitational swells in their respective egos.

    Secondly, I've found it's like how parents won't fight in front of their kids' friends. So even if they are both sociopaths, they tend to balance each other out, because, while being unreasonable and cruel in private is one thing, doing it where someone important (i.e not you or your fellow serfs) might see is gauche. That said, they will still back each other up 90% of the time, but at least they'll be relatively nice about it, and it's less likely for experiments to be requested out of spite or sadism (unless you have an unique talent for making enemies of mentors)

    Finally, if the PI does become just way too miserable, you might have a shot at transferring to the other lab, and as long as they both still like the project, it should have minimal disruption to your research.

    That's my suggestion as the someone who did his grad school and postdoc with two uniquely flawed PIs (only one was really a sociopath).
    But I look forward to hearing from the other side of the equation via comments by the gen Xers around here to learn how various clever students have escaped their depredations (joking!).

  • Anonymous says:

    I can only say that I am truly baffled by why this person has remained with the "sociopath" as a postdoc for 5 yrs(!). How can being a postdoc somewhere else possibly be worse?

    There's no good way to deal with a sociopath. We lock these people up precisely because all they do is hurt the innocent, no matter what the innocents do (or don't do).

    People in bad mentoring situations need to accept the harsh truth that nothing that you do as a mentee can make your mentor behave as they should. It's just sadly completely beyond your control. So focus on what you do have control over -- your own actions, doing everything you can to move your career forward -- and stop worry or trying to predict how they'll react or what they'll say about you. Because, again ... totally beyond your control.

    But in this case, if push comes to shove, yeah, I would threaten him with going to the SRO about the proposal reviews. A veiled threat, o.c. Perhaps, if nothing else, his own self-preservation instinct will kick in and make him act a little more reasonably. But this will only buy the letter-writer a bit of breathing space, nothing more.

  • jmz4 says:

    Oh, DJMH there's an actual letter on his blog. This is meant as a link to that, just click his name under the title (I didn't see that the first time either).

  • K99er says:

    These promotions in name only happen all the time, and it doesn't really sound to me like the mentor is expecting anything out of the ordinary. It's a significant favor for a professor to get one of their postdocs promoted to faculty in their department. It's usually understood that since this non-recruited new faculty member has no funding, was not given startup, and is still being paid by the mentor, that they are basically still a senior postdoc with the added advantage of now being allowed to write and submit grants so that they have the possibility of one day ACTUALLY being independent.

    PS - my university doesn't even ALLOW couches in professor offices!

  • Juan Lopez says:

    K99er, we don't know what the funding situation is, or who is paying.

    Is it not extraordinary to get someone else to review grants for the PI? It is against the contract signed with NIH, and it is dishonest.

    I would laugh if someone complained that they can't fit a second postdoc in their private office because they would have to remove the couch!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Just to weigh in, to my understanding it is really, really wrong to show grants you are assigned to review to anyone else. Bad, bad, bad. Bad. And there is no conceivable way you can miss the instructions on this after a single round of study section.

  • qaz says:

    1. I agree with DM on the sharing-grant-review-responsibility situation. That this is NOT-OK is very clear and (from my understanding) has always been so. With paper reviews, you can get permission from the editor to co-write a review with a student. But you have to ask the editor first. I would love to see the response from an SRO if Professor GreyBeard asked permission to have his junior faculty/senior postdoc review the grants for him. !

    2. As I noted over at CPP's place, we don't have the whole story here. It is possible that the kid thought ze was getting a real faculty job and the mentor thought he was getting a small award for his protege. [Does the kid teach? Does the kid have independent funding? Does the kid vote at faculty meetings? What are the tenure opportunities?] (There are lots of other possibilities here as well.)

    3. @JuanLopez - The key is that it is a very reasonable assumption that a faculty member (no matter how junior) gets their own office (whether they have a couch or not), but it is also a very reasonable assumption that a postdoc has to share. (To me this is yet one more sign that the faculty job is not a real one.)

    What I noticed in the letter was that we don't have any information about whether this kid has a network outside of Professor GreyBeard's domain. It's that network that the kid needs to tap into.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Some journals have a space in the online review form for the reviewer to indicate whether a trainee assisted. I tend to assume this means a priori permission is not required on an individual basis for those journals.

  • qaz says:

    I always check with the editor anyway. I've never had one say no.

    Still not OK to do with NIH or NSF grant proposals.

  • The Other Dave says:

    Yea, I'm with qaz (and everyone else). It always amazes me how people complain about inappropriate behavior, but then it turns out that the complainer is also a huge enabler. The 'superdoc' in this situation is as guilty as the PI.

    I am also amazed how people will stay in situations they hate. Sunk-cost fallacy.

  • jmz4 says:

    Off topic, but since we're talking about who should and shouldn't see pending grants: does anyone else think *funded* grants and grant reviews should be made public anyway? Like the whole actual grant, not just the abstract.
    Especially these days, when so much preliminary work goes into them and might not ever see the light of day once the grant is awarded.
    I guess the reason not to is that it would make scooping easier for the unscrupulous? But aren't the people most likely to scoop you probably reviewing your grants anyway?

  • qaz says:

    @jmz4 - the data in grants is not peer reviewed. What is being reviewed in a grant is the *future potential*, which means its all about whether the data is intriguing, not whether it is a "real effect". (Obviously, one mustn't lie or falsify statements in a grant proposal, but it is common for the data to be a small n that doesn't pan out once the full controls are in.) It would not be appropriate to cite data from a grant proposal even if the proposal was publicly available.

  • jmz4 says:

    "the data in grants is not peer reviewed"
    -Well, it kind of is, isn't it? That's what the study section does when they decide to fund the grant. The caveat, as you said, is that it needn't fit the more rigorous standards of a paper in terms of statistics, and I guess the reviewers may not be the most expert.
    Actually, though, you raise another, more interesting point. The lack of transparency in funded proposals creates a huge incentive to distort the data that goes into the grant (like, say, drop a replicate and only report duplicates, or take a not-really-representative image). This would be especially true if you're the uncredited grad student or postdoc supplying the preliminary data. Post-award review could provide a means of evaluating this.
    We talk all the time about fraud in journals, but what about in the grants submitted to the NIH?

    Are study sections memories long enough to catch labs that repeatedly submit grants with data that never shows up in publications?

    DM, what's the policy on tangents? If they're not approved of, I can stop rambling anytime.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    i have no policy whatever on "tangents". Chat away.

  • Anonymous says:

    "These promotions in name only happen all the time, and it doesn't really sound to me like the mentor is expecting anything out of the ordinary."

    See, this is what I find truly sad. That abusive behavior is so common that people don't even recognize it as such anymore. Can you imagine the letter-writer having K99er as his dept. chair? Is it any wonder that people caught in these situations are afraid to talk to others -- especially other higher-ups -- about it?

  • qaz says:

    @Anonymous - The fact that these pseudo-promotions happen all the time does not mean that they are always sociopathic. Sometimes, it allows a senior postdoc to apply for independent funding, which can be the ticket to a real faculty job, or a way to provide independence within an empire. Sometimes, it is a way of recognizing a super-lab-manager/senior-postdoc/XO (executive officer) in a well-run empire lab. The problem in the case of CPP's letter writer is that the kid thought ze was getting a real faculty job. Whether that's a miscommunication on the part of Doc Greybeard or a misunderstanding on the part of the kid or something more nefarious, we don't know.

    PS. The term empire is used to mean an organization in which a senior PI has supervisory power over multiple semi-independent junior people. Generally, the senior PI is responsible for the funding for the junior people, who might have their own junior people as well. Many European systems work this way. Not all scientific empires are evil. There are good ones in which semi-independent people can thrive and bad ones which hold them down.

  • qaz says:

    @qaz: "the data in grants is not peer reviewed"
    @jmz4 "Well, it kind of is, isn't it? That's what the study section does when they decide to fund the grant. "

    This is a major misunderstanding of grant review. Grant review is not about whether the data is valid or not. Grant review is about whether the project has potential or not.

    For example, a grant review in which the reviewer thinks the data is 95 percent likely to be a fluke (or even a mistake due to lack of control of some specific issue) and 5 percent likely to be ground breaking might be fundable under one of the "high-risk/high-reward" mechanisms. A key to such a proposal would be that the investigators would need to propose doing the controls that would prove if the data was a fluke or ground breaking, not that the controls be done. A paper would require that the controls be done already and we be 95 percent certain that the result was real (by the "P lessthan 0.5" convention).

    @jmz4: "Are study sections memories long enough to catch labs that repeatedly submit grants with data that never shows up in publications? "

    No one actually cares about this. Remember grants are not contracts. If an investigator uses the money to do other work, that's OK as long as it's "in the ballpark" [determining this is one role of the program officer at the funding institute]. If an investigator is not doing sufficient work, they won't be publishing well, and they won't get funded because of "lack of productivity" [this reflects on "ability to do the work", which is part of the role of study section]. Finally, it is the role of program to make sure that people aren't getting multiple grants for the same project. (Note - The same preliminary data can be used to go in many directions, so multiple projects from the same preliminary data are OK; grants are for the future project.)

  • Any senior investigator who is repeatedly giving NIH grants to someone else in their lab to review is a sociopath.

  • chall says:

    My experience with "working with sociopaths" (or other coworkers' experience) would be that it is really hard to understand that the best option is to leave. as soon as possible. Why? Because there really is nothing that you can do about it, no trust that they will hepl but really only that they will break down your self confidence and - in this case - science.

    My suggestion would to get an additional mentor & collaborator asap. As previously suggestions, parallell to the current one. Possibly talk to the Chair of Department* and work on an exit strategy, since it doesn't sound like the post doc will get really all that much out of this relationship.

    As for future/other situations (and I'm saying this as someone who is fairly slow and thinks good about peiople and that "the situation will surely improve") it's important to remember that if you see these tendencies first year in a new job (lying/emailing demaninding things where no credit etc) - don't wait too long but leave the lab. Almost everyone I've talked to about post docs leaving within first year to change labs or fields understand the "fit" concept. I could be a great lab, you can be a great post doc, but if you and your mentor don't fit then it's best for everyone to break that up.

    Obvs in this situation it sounds a little more complicated due to the history but it's also important not to get stuck in a toxic environment where every day makes it harder to get out and move along.

    *if you feel that you trust the CoD and that you have data to back up the allegations (emails/voicemails) since this will most likely go to HR and they need written trails.

  • mytchondria says:

    I'm not a fuckken sociopath. Asshole.

  • rxnm says:

    Unless anything the person wrote to CPP is actually fasle or made up, the person is a fuckhead of epic proportions. K99er's comment that "the mentor is[nt] expecting anything out of the ordinary" is diagnostic for ILAF/BSD lab refugee Stockholm Syndrome.

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