Just started a postdoc, but it went REALLY bad, REALLY fast. Stay or go?

RH88 10/12/2018. 11 answers, 12.317 views
postdocs quitting

I just started my 2-yr postdoc, but things have gone sour really fast. So, I really need some career advice as to what to do. Over several months, I did the interviews with the supervisor and the lab and things seems to be really great (although I got a strange feeling that the lab members were trying to deter me from joining, see below).

I joined the lab last week, and the condition of the lab and the equipment was really poor (but the supervisor said it was great...), but I got along with the supervisor and the lab great. However, this week took a turn for the worse. My supervisor has been vicious with me and we have had some intense fights almost everyday this week. The other members of the lab said that the supervisor is normally abusive and they are not on great terms with her either. As I said, I met with these postdocs via Skype over the summer and I felt that there were trying to warn me not to join the lab, and today they confessed that this was true. I heard several horror stories about the supervisor after telling them about my fights with the boss.

I am concerned about the supervisor and more concerned that this is not going to help my career at all since the mentoring by this supervisor is of quite poor quality (this is how the other postdocs feel after being there for almost 2 years. They are leaving immediately after that). She has promised a good work environment, additional pay to the NIH base pay, flexible time off and great equipment, but all of this is not true. The other postdocs confirmed that this happened to them too. Basically, this supervisor promises a lot of things and does not deliver.

So with all of that being said, is it wise for me to leave ASAP and look for a better opportunity OR is it best to stay put and complete the 2-year postdoc (or most of it). I don't favor leaving a job this soon and would rather give things a chance, but this place has been extremely BAD. Furthermore, the lab members feel that this is not a good workplace and confirm that the behavior of the supervisor will continue (they have their reasons for staying, but really regret joining). For these reasons, I don't feel staying is beneficial to be perfectly honest.

I would rather not have to ask for advice about this, but I am in an uncomfortable situation and any advice is extremely appreciated. Hopefully I expressed this clearly... I'm kind of a mess right now.

11 Answers

Jeffrey J Weimer 10/12/2018.

With all else the same, given an choice between staying in a bad situation that cannot be resolved or leaving it, the decision is easy.

Of course, all is never exactly the same. When the balance is uneven, I hold at the point where you are that following your passions and desire for healthy growth is the most important factor. You can and will end up in situations where leaving has worse consequences than staying and you must therefore resolve the issues at hand or let go (and stay where you are). Is this case really to that point for you? I sense not.

As you weigh the various concerns, realize that you owe the lab only the respect that you will never be dishonest. The promptly, professionally delivered statement that "I am leaving because this is not the fit that I really wanted" is all that is required at the end of the day.

Allure 10/12/2018.

You, and only you, are responsible for your own happiness.

If you don't leave, you'll be miserable for 2 years. A poor postdoc now might also damage your future career, although probably not fatally. Are you OK with that? If so, by all means stay; otherwise, nobody is going to intervene to improve the equipment in the lab, make your supervisor less abusive, make you happy, etc.

In the end it's your decision to make, but I would strongly incline towards leaving.

Tommi Brander 10/12/2018.
  1. Start looking for new positions immediately and make this your primary occupation.

  2. If you can cope with the working conditions, consider staying until you find a new position. Set a high bar for this. Your mental health matters more than having the job, presumably. Workplace bullying might very well be illegal where you are; consider gathering evidence and submitting it to the local police or relevant university services, if those are reasonable options.

  3. If you can not cope with the position, leave.

In any case, tell your former advisors and other senior people whom you know that the person is abusive. You should have been explicitly warned before going there. Spread the word among all the people you know well, and who trust your judgment.

Scientist 10/12/2018.

The quicker you leave the easier it will be for everyone. A postdoc position is usually a transitional stage which isn’t good, overall. Thus, don’t waste your time on one which is already gone bad.

There are professors looking for postdocs by the dozens. Spend all resources and time you can muster in networking , and try to avoid your predatory supervisor. You don’t owe this person anything.

When you got all contacts you need for the best, take your time at home packing, and then let them know you’re leaving. Probably your supervisor will be taken aback (usually postdocs are desperate and will just accept any abuse) and show nicer faces. Don’t fall for apologetic rhetoric, and just move on. Make sure you make good friends with your labmates, ad they’re probably good fellas.

Good luck!

Graham 10/12/2018.

Your supervisor has a department manager. Escalate this. There is no reason that this should be treated any differently to abuse from a manager in any other place of work.

Before you do though, make sure you have evidence to show. If you were promised a top notch lab, make sure you have evidence of how the current state of the lab and equipment is not up to standard. If you were promised extra money, get your pay slip out. If you were promised flexible time off, make sure you have all the emails from when you have requested time off and been refused. And most of all, make sure your meetings with her are never just one-to-one, so that there are always witnesses to her behaviour.

You may find that her boss doesn't like her either, and they'd like a reason to get rid of her.

Worst case, the department manager does nothing. In that case you're no worse off than you are now. From what your describing, it's already about as bad as it gets.

DonQuiKong 10/12/2018.

Having left early once won't impact your career. Everyone who's worth working with will understand. It can even get you some extra respect in an interview. So if you don't have a record of leaving fast already:

Start job hunting.

Leave when you have something new or it is getting to bad there.

Meanwhile: know you don't be there for long and put on your (professional) whatever face and enjoy the show. Or at least don't let it get to you.

Jarvis 10/12/2018.

I had a similar experience during my PhD, not a postdoc position. I sucked all up and stayed. Had my share of supervisor-bullying and made my days really bad. However, I managed to finish my PhD and got my degree. I can now say to my ex-supervisor: F U without any remorse or mind conscience. I thought of finding another supervisor, but no one can guarantee you a fair supervisor! You might end up with even worse supervisor (that is the truth).

Silt Loam 10/12/2018.

Clearly, you don't want to be there anymore. But I do understand your hesitation to just leave. Inevitably, you'll have to tell the people you're applying to and possibly future employers why you left. Then they'll have the option to trust you, or worry that you're just the kind of person who complains and doesn't play well with others. Unfortunately, due to the power dynamic, and the fact that other post docs choose to stay, you may not be framed in the best light. I have two recommendations to overcome that:

  1. As someone else said, file a complaint, or at least talk to the person above your supervisor. Preferably something in writing, but do whatever you're most comfortable with. That way you can tell any incredulous interviewer that at least attempted to make the situation better - and who knows, you might actually make the situation better, if not for you, maybe for the other postdocs.

  2. The other thing I would recommend is reaching out to your own Ph.D. advisor if you had a good relationship (or any Ph.D. mentor you had along the way). Scientific communities are pretty small overall. So it's possible your advisor could reach out to any potential NEW employers and explain your situation, so when you have to explain why you left after such a short time, they've already heard it from a PEER. That way the power dynamic of that specific conversation is shifted.

elliot svensson 10/12/2018.

Simply submitting to the abusive manager does nothing to break the cycle of abuse. If you are convinced that the manager is wrong, then you must do something.

Escalating the issue in the organization is a good thing, something that has low downside for you and which you can do right now. If the organization defends the supervisor, then you don't just have an abusive boss: you also have an abusive boss's boss.

Submitting to an abusive boss's boss does nothing to break the cycle of abuse. If you are convinced that the boss's boss is wrong, then you must do something.

If you have exhausted your options for escalation, then you have another choice: To get THE LAW involved or to leave quietly. In any case, begin documenting your interactions with your supervisor very carefully right now!

Make a log of what the supervisor says using direct quotes. Explain the context. Write the time and place, and name each person who would serve as a witness.

If the abuse is not by words, then write exactly what it is the supervisor is doing. Again, note context, time, location, and any other persons who may serve as a witness. It is not necessary to get their consent, but it would be helpful if you knew which of them would probably help you.

Document this crap as long as you are willing to. Then, if you are in the US or the UK (or Canada, Western Europe, or another liberal country) get a consultation with a lawyer. This should not cost more than a hundred dollars / hundred pounds / dozen lunches / whatever.

Even if you decide not to speak with a lawyer, retain your paperwork; don't give it away; keep a copy at home. Let somebody you trust at the institution know that you are doing this. The paperwork will help you emotionally later when you begin to doubt your own rationale for leaving, and it may help the lawsuit that another employee does file.

Good luck!

Geoffrey Brent 10/13/2018.

Lots of good advice in the answers already, but one additional factor to consider: the next time you apply for a position, you will almost certainly be asked for a reference from your most recent supervisor.

If you leave this situation ASAP, you will have the option of saying "I was only there for two weeks, I suggest talking to my previous supervisor instead."

OTOH, if you tough it out for two years - or even a few months - this abusive supervisor will almost certainly be writing the reference that you take to your next job application. This might not be a good thing.

peterh 10/14/2018.

I am sorry to say, but I think the "leave now" answers are false.

You don't know enough from this position yet: your description clearly shows that you are under the influence of a bad first impression.

You don't know your other opportunities yet: if you would know, you would know, what to do, and this question wouldn't exist.

The other people saying that the supervisor is... bad, are still here, why?


  1. Don't do anything before you don't learn this place a little bit better.
  2. Don't do anything before your other opportunities aren't enough clear for you.

Learn and watch. And look for the alternatives, silently.

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