A PhD journey is more than just academics; it’s a transformative experience full of challenges and growth. It’s not just about researching; it’s about discovering oneself amidst the highs and lows. This path represents dedication, resilience, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge at its pinnacle. No wonder, many students are facing struggles regarding their PhDs, and this issue sparked a discussion on Reddit.

Woman shrugging
✅ AI Essay Writer ✅ AI Detector ✅ Plagchecker ✅ Paraphraser
✅ Summarizer ✅ Citation Generator

Key takeaways:

  • Importance of the Right PI: The relationship with a Principal Investigator (PI) is pivotal in a PhD journey. Choosing a PI goes beyond just research interests; it involves ensuring a supportive environment for both personal and academic growth.
  • Toxic Environments Impact Well-being and Success: Being in a toxic environment, especially with a controlling or demanding PI, can severely affect a PhD student’s mental health, overall well-being, and academic achievements. 
  • Know When to Move On: Recognizing when you’re in a toxic situation and seeking the strength to leave is essential. Many in the academic community emphasize the importance of prioritizing personal well-being and advocate for leaving such settings to ensure long-term success and mental health.

Built Up Frustration Due to Toxic PI

The Reddit user expressed deep frustration regarding their PhD journey. Now in their 7th year, despite having over 20 publications and winning multiple national awards amounting to around $44K in funding, their advisor still prevents them from graduating. The advisor keeps changing project scopes and insists that the OP produces three more first-author papers based on projects they proposed. Moreover, the advisor wants to retain them as a low-paid post-doc, citing their productivity.

“But I’m sort of exhausted, I don’t think I can do a post-doc with him or anyone else. I have so many ideas, and I really wanted to become a professor at an R1 or even R2. But I feel like that dream is really far away.”

The author mentioned a lucrative post-doc offer they received from an esteemed professional at a top-tier R1 university. Yet, under pressure, they declined the offer upon the advisor’s insistence. The author feels unable to stand up for themselves, fearing the potential consequences of challenging authority or reporting misconduct.

“I feel like maybe I’d rather just quit the phd. My dream was always to start my own lab and mentor/guide new students. I feel a little too broken to do that now, I don’t know if I’d become as toxic as my PI one day. I’d rather not subject anyone to that.”

The advisor’s behavior is controlling, even intruding into personal matters like health appointments. The author is overburdened with tasks, including some that don’t align with their academic goals. They have become heavily reliant on antidepressants and limited therapy sessions, with their social life and mental well-being severely compromised. The OP feels trapped and recognizes the toxic environment but struggles to find the strength to break free.

What You Should Keep in Mind When Choosing a PI 

Close communication and collaboration with an academic advisor is half the battle when it comes to completing your degree and going beyond that. This choice goes beyond matching research interests; it’s about aligning with mentorship styles, understanding mutual expectations, and creating a bond that can benefit both participants. An ideal PI doesn’t just guide your research but nurtures your growth, ensuring you’re not alone. But how exactly do you make that choice?

Reddit Users Share Experiences of Surviving a Toxic PhD Advisor
Source: Freepik.com

Alex Maya-Romero, who works at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, shares her point of view. She stresses that navigating a student’s academic journey requires a guide that aligns not just with your research interests but with your core values and unique challenges. A suitable PI (short for Principal Investigator) can catalyze your ascent, while the wrong one can completely blow it. The alignment between a trainee and their PI should go beyond the number of publications and delve deeper into the mentorship.

“Whether you are an undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, graduate student, or postdoc, the primary goal of that step in your training is to catapult you into the next stage of your career journey”, says Alex Maya-Romero.

Here are some of her recommendations for selecting the right PI:

  1. Self-reflection is Crucial: Before diving into lab choices, reflect on what is essential for your growth and what environment you thrive in. Don’t be swayed solely by the allure of renowned science; the mentorship aspect is just as pivotal.
  2. Understand Unique Challenges: UIS, women, LGBTQ+, and disabled students often encounter specific hurdles in academia. It’s crucial to find a PI that comprehends these unique challenges and offers an empathetic and supportive environment. Remember, true inclusion transcends numbers, aiming for a genuine sense of belonging.
  3. Engage with Past Trainees Strategically: A vague “How is Dr. X?” won’t suffice. Seek out detailed answers by posing precise questions, such as how supportive the PI is of extracurricular activities, their openness to new ideas, or their assistance during personal crises.
  4. Scrutinize the PI’s Online Presence: A lab’s website, the PI’s involvement in campus organizations, their seminars, and their credit allocation to trainees during presentations can offer valuable insights into their mentoring style and the lab environment.
  5. Seminar Observations Matter: Attending a PI’s seminars can give you a glimpse into their teaching style, interaction dynamics, and receptiveness to questions and suggestions, subtly hinting at the lab’s culture.

While these points are guiding lights in your quest, remember that any one of them shouldn’t overshadow the rest. Every lab and PI brings unique strengths to the table. It’s about engaging with those strengths and your aspirations, ensuring a fruitful working environment.

But What If You Already Made Your Choice and It Was Wrong?

The post quickly triggered many users, since they had similar experiences with their PIs. People shared some advice for the original author, strongly suggesting they should try and get out as soon as possible.

One of the commenters stressed that with such credentials, OP should not have any problems with further employment.

“Just graduate at this point. i also graduated after 7 years with 2 co-author papers. i was also hesistant to tell my adviser about this but eventually after 6 and half years, i got courage and was adamant that i will graduate any how. I denied proposal to do post-doc in same lab and moving forward. Just have some courage and tell them. With your record, you will get a position easily.”

However, the original author replied that the situation is not that simple, expressing that they’ve tried to raise this question and failed at it. 

“My PI chose the committee; I tried choosing someone on my own during my first year and was yelled at. I had to remove them and choose the members my PI selected (his friends), who defer to my PI’s opinion about my graduation (even the chair).”

Another user claimed that most people graduate with even fewer publications than the author. The main problem, in their opinion, is that the PI doesn’t want to lose someone so productive and dedicated to their work.

“Considering you have 20+ papers and five of them are your own first authorship, your advisor is full of shit. They don’t want to lose someone so incredibly productive to their lab (and grant effort), and they’re trying to take you for everything you got.” 

According to the number of upvotes, many users agree that OP should be confident in their position to move further with their PhD.

One Redditor left a comment saying that the academic world is quite small and tightly knit, so one way or another people will recognize their achievements and ensure proper treatment in the future. So, the first step for nor is to just push through and graduate in whatever way possible to get out of the toxic environment.

“GET OUT, no matter what. You cannot continue to work with this advisor, nor do you need to! This is abuse.”

Many users also supported the idea of continuing OP’s journey under better circumstances, since it is very easy to burn out far before the person is pleased with their academic pursuits. Balancing personal well-being with academic goals is essential for long-term success and mental health.

“Even if you change your mind about staying in academia, your best bet right now is to finish your PhD before you feel irreparably burnt out.”

As we can see, leaving a toxic working environment during your PhD is crucial for both your mental well-being and academic success. Working closely with a PI who creates a toxic atmosphere can suppress creativity, introduce unnecessary stress, and impair your ability to focus on meaningful research. A negative environment often leads to a lack of motivation, reduced productivity, and even anxiety and depression. Most importantly, a dysfunctional relationship with your PI can also mess with your future career. In a phase of your life that is already challenging and demanding, it’s vital to work in a setting that supports your growth, not one that sabotages it.


Opt out or Contact us anytime. See our Privacy Notice

Follow us on Reddit for more insights and updates.

Comments (0)

Welcome to A*Help comments!

We’re all about debate and discussion at A*Help.

We value the diverse opinions of users, so you may find points of view that you don’t agree with. And that’s cool. However, there are certain things we’re not OK with: attempts to manipulate our data in any way, for example, or the posting of discriminative, offensive, hateful, or disparaging material.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Register | Lost your password?