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New year, new ideas on how to deal with PI and lab competition


Gradish31
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I'm a PhD student in a bad environment. To be frank I'm not sure where to start but I need some ideas on how to make progress or influence some change.

I'm at a middle-tier institution. My PI is new and has funding, and that's how I'm funded. I think because of that he's liked by the university. While he makes a good impression with faculty, behind the curtain its a whole different story. He plays mind games with people, tries to pit people against one another, its awful. None of us know what to do because we're invested so heavily already. At one point or another he's threatened to fire everybody (individually). Some people actually have left, and one person's salary was permanently cut, even when other personnel were subsequently hired. I guess the point is that you know that he's willing to make threats and carry them out.

So for this reason its really difficult to tell him that you're unable to do something, even as you're doing one task he has you stop in the middle and start something completely different. Then you'll hear complaints about why the first item isn't complete, and how that's your fault. Vacations, no matter how short, are always met with some type of punishment. Usually something passive-aggressive. For example you'll come back and find that new work on your project had been carried out by somebody else, or that your funding for a conference has been cut.

Of course I'm highlighting the bad, and there are stretches where things feel a little more even. But the mood/atmosphere changes so quickly and inexplicably, we're all always on edge. I have learned a great deal in the time that I've been working under this PI, and I'm not in a position in my program where I can jump ship and start under somebody else. Things are ok as long as I always say "yes" to whatever he wants. However, that often means huge sacrifices and unrealistic goals even when the data isn't critical. In some respects you get treated poorly for taking a few days off over a holiday, but in another respect you're exploited for staying and he takes your life over.

So I'm looking for advice. I'm really not sure what my options are, I think I could be successful here but I have to seek a little bit more control over my education and even my life, and threats have got to end.

Any thoughts are appreciated...

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Why not take it up with the dean? I don't really know what you could do actually because it's a very delicate situation, almost every and any step you take could be bad for your stay at the university or it may lead to a better life. Sorry about the ambiguity but that's how your situation is. An option is for all of you to as a group impress upon him that you all feel threatened and that he needs to allow you some freedom? Not sure what the outcome will be though.

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Sometimes, people don't know how they come across to others. Before I'd go to a higher school official, I'd try meeting with the PI to discuss some of the issues you're having. Make sure you don't frame it as a personal issue - just explain that you'd be more effective in the lab if he treated you with more respect. Gently set up some boundaries. In the end, I think it would reflect poorly on you (and you may even see a blacklash from others on campus) if you didn't try some sort of face-to-face conflict resolution before you discussed the situation with others outside the lab. This is often seen as "tattling" or "airing dirty laundry", and it will result in people not trusting you.

If you do set up some boundaries, and things don't change or if they get worse, then you should involve others.

The thing about bullies is that many either don't realize they're being too aggressive, or back down when someone asserts themselves. Your PI may be under a lot of strain, as a new hire (esp if s/he isn't certain of tenure), and may just be under an enormous amount of pressure to produce, which is being (unfairly) taken out on you. If so, it's nothing personal.

Disclaimer: My $0.02/YMMV.

Edited by isobel_a
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I'm a PhD student in a bad environment. To be frank I'm not sure where to start but I need some ideas on how to make progress or influence some change.

[...]

Usually something passive-aggressive.

[...]

So I'm looking for advice.

[...]

Any thoughts are appreciated...

In addition to the guidance you've received from other members of this BB, I recommend that you avoid forays into psychology. First, the behavior you describe is not "passive aggressive" according to the criteria set forth in DSM-IV-TR. Second, you are not in a clinician. Consequently, you are not in a position to define why your PoI is behaving in the manner you describe and your efforts to do so in psychological terms undermines the legitimacy of your argument. (If you think this point is trivial, consider the way men have used issues of mental health to dominate and to control women. Now ask yourself: Do you want to play a part in this dynamic in any way?)

Additionally, I strongly recommend that in your subsequent discussions of this person, you only allege publicly what you can prove. (And by prove, I mean with documents and first hand accounts of conversations you witnessed.) Keep what you know (or think you know) in your back pocket. Those events are for other people to tell/document. You do not want to hinge your credibility upon others. Strive to build an argument that can stand on its own. Leave it to others to determine that the PoI's behavior towards you falls into a broader pattern.

Penultimately, consider the utility of rereading isobel_a's contribution. To the extent possible, take a "step back" from your situation and evaluate it from a disinterested viewpoint. IME, it is not uncommon for a group of graduate students to compare notes and conclude that a PoI is a this or a that and not go to the person and try to talk it out in private.

And finally, it bears repeating: document, document, document. This guidance includes documenting your state of mind.

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In addition to the guidance you've received from other members of this BB, I recommend that you avoid forays into psychology. First, the behavior you describe is not "passive aggressive" according to the criteria set forth in DSM-IV-TR. Second, you are not in a clinician. Consequently, you are not in a position to define why your PoI is behaving in the manner you describe and your efforts to do so in psychological terms undermines the legitimacy of your argument.

"Passive-aggressive" is not simply a clinical term, Sigaba; it's also a colloquial term that's used to describe patterns of behavior. I don't think the OP was trying to diagnose his or her PI with a personality disorder. In this case I have to disagree with you; the behavior that the OP is describing IS passive aggressive: The PI is doling out sanctions but isn't doing them up front; he's doing them behind the scenes, while people are away (like cutting funding or taking away projects in retaliation for vacation time instead of just discussing vacation with the person and setting out expectations up front).

I only agree that talking to the PI first may be the best course of action IF these things are happening to you. Right now, you seem to have described a lot of things either in general or that have happened to other people. You can't talk to your PI about what he's done to others; then you sound accusatory and perhaps like a gossip, and that's not good. You have to focus on what's affecting you directly AND what you expect your PI to do to fix it. Has your funding for a conference been cut on the basis of a vacation? Then go to him directly and ask why the funding for the conference was cut, and what you can do to avoid such cuts in the future. Pose it as coming to some kind of mutual agreement about taking vacation time or something like that. I also agree that documenting things is a good way to shore this up. If he tells you that he doesn't want you to do a task, send him a follow-up email confirming that he doesn't want you to do X task anymore and that he instead wants you to follow with Y, and requesting a response. That way, three months later when he asks why X isn't done, you have proof that that's how it's gone down.

If these are more generalized things that are contributing to a generally toxic atmosphere but not affecting you directly, there are people at your university you can talk to confidentially for ideas about how to handle that situation. If you just need help coping, try visiting the counseling center and talking to a therapist. If you want to effect some change but don't know how, the ombudsperson may be the best person to visit.

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What date did you start working with him? It would be helpful to know how invested you are.

What kind of environment does he come from? Did he do his PhD at a place where it was likely that he was treated the same way? If so, he probably thinks that he is building the right type of environment.

You can try mediation, but I really think it would be better to get a different advisor. OR - get your own funding. It will earn the respect of others.

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"Passive-aggressive" is not simply a clinical term, Sigaba; it's also a colloquial term that's used to describe patterns of behavior. I don't think the OP was trying to diagnose his or her PI with a personality disorder. In this case I have to disagree with you; the behavior that the OP is describing IS passive aggressive:[. . . .]

JM--

Does the fact that American political right colloquially equates progressivism, socialism, and communism mean that the current president and his supporters are communists because his critics say so?

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^ That's not at all the same thing.

There is a way to distinguish between non-pathological passive-aggressive behavior (what we could call "state behavior") with something pathological like passive-aggressive personality disorder ("trait behavior"). One exists in certain situations, the other exists in a variety of contexts. No one in my field would ever confuse the two, and it is perfectly acceptable for someone within or without the field of psychology to say they perceive a certain behavior as passive-aggressive and not necessarily be implying pathology.

The OP might be incorrect about whether or not her PI displays PA behavior. The fact is, however, that she perceives it as such, which is why it is very important for her to document issues (as you said) and be certain she is not misinterpreting the situation.

I see the point you are trying to make. However, in this context it is not relevant.

The rest of your first comment, however, is excellent advice. +1

Edited by gellert
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^ That's not at all the same thing.

There is a way to distinguish between non-pathological passive-aggressive behavior (what we could call "state behavior") with something pathological like passive-aggressive personality disorder ("trait behavior"). One exists in certain situations, the other exists in a variety of contexts. No one in my field would ever confuse the two, and it is perfectly acceptable for someone within or without the field of psychology to say they perceive a certain behavior as passive-aggressive and not necessarily be implying pathology.

The OP might be incorrect about whether or not her PI displays PA behavior. The fact is, however, that she perceives it as such, which is why it is very important for her to document issues (as you said) and be certain she is not misinterpreting the situation.

I see the point you are trying to make. However, in this context it is not relevant.

The rest of your first comment, however, is excellent advice. +1

Gellert--

FWIW, where I am going with this is a concern over the blurring of lines between the clinical application of psychology and the popular understanding of psychological terms. A mentor of mine, a training psychoanalyst, believed that this blurring contributes to a sensibility in which members of the general public do not professional clinicians take seriously and seek to paint as pathological the behavior of others.

While you, JM, and others may not bat an eye when such colloquialisms are used, I agree with those who argue that intellectuals should re-enforce lines of demarcation between the popular application of a concept and a more precise meaning.

As for my comparison, I respectfully disagree that they are not at all the same thing. MOO, one of the many reasons why American political discourse is so toxic is because too many people--especially those on the right--refuse to familiarize themselves with the work political scientists and historians have done to differentiate left of center political thought. They instead go with colloquialisms and turn to Red baiting.

Just my two cents.

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Gellert--

FWIW, where I am going with this is a concern over the blurring of lines between the clinical application of psychology and the popular understanding of psychological terms. A mentor of mine, a training psychoanalyst, believed that this blurring contributes to a sensibility in which members of the general public do not professional clinicians take seriously and seek to paint as pathological the behavior of others.

While you, JM, and others may not bat an eye when such colloquialisms are used, I agree with those who argue that intellectuals should re-enforce lines of demarcation between the popular application of a concept and a more precise meaning.

As for my comparison, I respectfully disagree that they are not at all the same thing. MOO, one of the many reasons why American political discourse is so toxic is because too many people--especially those on the right--refuse to familiarize themselves with the work political scientists and historians have done to differentiate left of center political thought. They instead go with colloquialisms and turn to Red baiting.

Just my two cents.

Ah, thank you for further elucidating your opinion. Your mentor has an interesting point, and one I'll have to think about further before I make a response (though my initial knee-jerk reaction is to agree). There does seem to be an overabundance of "armchair psychologists" tweeting about being "omg so OCD!" and "thank god you broke up with him, he's such a psychopath" with a clear lack of understanding of what those terms even mean.

History and political science are not my fields, so thank you for explaining your metaphor more as well. That makes more sense now.

Edited by gellert
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