Mentors behaving badly

Two senior scientists, married,  were recently recruited away from here to even bigger deal leadership positions elsewhere.  Their move was a surprise to some because this power couple had recently negotiated quite the retention package from our dean– huge new lab space,, independent institute and money to populate it with additional faculty.  I don’t fault them for finding a bigger better deal.  But what they did to the people left in their labs left many here shaking their heads.


The downtime that comes with such a transition is unsettling to over-achieving scientists, and these two came up with a creative solution to the down-time problem.  They decided to keep their lab here going and to make their exact departure date somewhat vague as they set up their new labs.  They invited many members of their lab to move to a new time zone, but not surprisingly many chose to stay here.

Well, funny story, it turns out that HR here cannot help find a new position without an end-date given to you by your current boss.  So despite knowing their positions were going away, they were prevented from looking for new jobs within the university.  Their long-time administrative assistant retired earlier than she had wanted, and thesis defense dates were dragged out.

Instead of helping their students get their thesis defenses scheduled for before their departure, these PI’s told their students that they needed to keep working.  Without one more “big paper,” they would not get a good recommendation or a plumb post-doc position. Many of those on their thesis committees felt this tactic was harmful, not helpful to the careers of these students.

I’m sure the departing scientists thought they were doing right by their people.  In their, “go big or stay home” glamour psychology, respectable productivity is not really worth much.  These folks would have a lot of sympathy for Scott Kern’s “Where’s the Passion?” piece from a few years back… (Recently discovered and refuted via my friend Dr. Isis and partner in crime, Drugmonkey:

I realize writing this that it’s easy for me to throw stones at the behavior of these more senior scientists.  But it got me thinking about my own mentorship, and I’m thinking I need to up my own game.  I spend a lot of time these days writing grants, running from meeting to meeting, and driving my kids to different activities.  Often times the people in my lab get the short end of the stick.  Maybe I’m not behaving “badly,” but I could definitely be a more engaged mentor myself.  It seems like deadlines, big papers and prestige demand time and attention…but in the end, it’s who remembers us, our mentees, that define our legacy.

10 thoughts on “Mentors behaving badly

  1. Dude….you make minions sit in chairs outside your office while you Google Hang chat #Respect.
    In serious, where’s the mentoring PLAN? The one where there is communication about expectations….goals….deadlines. There are many templates online for this…see Natl PostDoc Association. Having a mutually agreed upon plan is just as much the job of the students and post docs as it is the PI. IME, trainees are are so ducking ( h/t @gertyz) busy wondering if their PI ‘likes’ them they are distracted from the data and pubs. #Sigh. This is the kind of short sightedness that gets you hanging in limbo jobless and without pubs.

    • These are great points. In academia, I think we like ambiguity because we feel it gives more flexibility to deal with varied circumstances. But the cost of this is uncertainty and inefficiency. Thanks, I’m going to look up the Natl PostDoc Assn templates.

  2. The way this is written it sounds more like the senior scientists have bought into the glam game fully, are happy to be conflicted up to their ears and to max out on the forms of personal return they rate highest, whilst exploiting everyone around them, from grad student to institution. That ‘paper’ is for the PI or the postdoc / grad student? For the PI.
    I wouldn’t even use the word mentoring here, except in the context that this is exactly the opposite.

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  6. Unfortunately, all I have learned in the first 10 years of my career is to look after oneself first, then help the lab peeps if possible. All too often trainees and techs behave badly when given too much information despite the PI’s best intention.

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