How to Tackle the Problem of Toxic Labs and Abusive PIs?

Joanna Komorowska-Müller

Over the course of my studies, I came across a significant amount of people that were working in unhealthy environments or/and under the tyranny of an abusive PI (Principal Investigator). Academia is supposed to about a pursuit of knowledge and creativity, but how can one do their best when they are chronically stressed and can barely breathe? I was lucky to always work under amazing, supporting PIs, but the recurring situations that my friends were facing made me wonder if there is anything we can do to help? I think that we can approach this problem on many different levels. While I was writing this blog post, a short article was published by Akiko Iwasaki in nature medicine entitled, “Antidote to Toxic Principal Investigators”. In this discussion starting piece, Prof. Iwasaki not only highlights the global problem of abusive PI’s but proposes ready-to-implement solutions that promise to improve the situation instantly. She also mentions that the issue may be tackled at different stages:

1) Before the student joins the abusive lab

2) Help students that are already in such labs

3) Tackle abusive PIs and their status.

Here, I would like to show you my perspective, as a PhD student, on the problem and propose some solutions as well as to highlight Prof. Iwasaki’s most striking ideas.

How to prevent students from joining toxic labs?

Most PhD students joining a lab have little idea what they are in for, especially when it comes to supervision. We need to get better at sharing information. Sounds good, but where to start? Probably the most knowledgeable regarding lab cultures are PhD students (and Postdocs – PD), but they have also the most to lose sharing the information. Even if they are just bystanders, as I am, and not in the toxic labs themselves, it might still impact their career – those PIs might be chairmen of founding committees, journal editors, conference organizers, heads of big institutes with extensive social networks etc. Moreover, not being able to give information first-hand may make it less believable. Students that are in abusive situations are even more reluctant to share any details being afraid of receiving retaliation, especially if they are approaching the finish line. Sometimes the survivors, probably due to cognitive dissonance, develop kind of a Stockholm syndrome: ”In the end, I guess he was not that bad, just shouted at me every other Tuesday and did not really make me work every weekend and holiday, he was just curious to see the results”. The alternative would be to report toxic supervisors anonymously. Unfortunately, such reports are not taken as seriously as they should be. I think we are not at the point, where we can create a website or a platform on which we will score the supervisors and share opinions (a PubPeer for supervision). What can we do right away then? Solution: We can encourage more student-student communication, so enhance the word of mouth during the interview process!

a) It is common that the student meets with one, two PhD students/postdoc during the interviews. Let’s increase those numbers and even more importantly make the setting more private. True 1:1! No more interviews while other lab members are eavesdropping.

b) Let’s not assume that the PhD candidates will ask the right questions during an interview. Let’s just give the right answers! Talk about lab culture, atmosphere, traditions. Talk about the PI/supervisor: her/his good sides and challenging ones. Be honest and open. Emphasize the importance of this aspect of PhD life and how it may affect their lives in years to come.

c) Let’s give PhD candidates contacts to 1-2 recent alumni up front and encourage them to contact them. Ask alumni to keep in mind b). Graduate Schools would be ideally placed to encourage this.

How to help students that are already in toxic labs?

Solution: Utilize already existing structures like TAC committees and graduate schools (also mentioned by Prof. Iwasaki)

a) Checking if students’ TAC committee is formed properly: it should include experts from slightly different fields, but relevant to the students topic; include PIs that are NOT close friends/collaborators of the supervisor; also include at least one PI that is the same or higher in the hierarchy as the supervisor; last, but not least do not include any toxic/abusive PIs.

b) Take care that the committee is chosen by the student and not the PI. Advise the student to consult other PhD students in that matter as well as graduate school.

c) Choosing the mentor PIs for the graduate schools should be a well-thought-through decision based on their status in the university (they should have enough strength to fight back when necessary) as well as their mentoring abilities. Making sure that the students know who are the current mentor PIs.

d) During TAC meeting including a short talk with the student in the absence of PI about his/her supervision methods as well as including an evaluation of the supervision in the TAC documentation (Prof. Iwasaki’s idea). Also, making sure that the TAC meeting takes place at least once per year.

e) Lab retreats (at least once per year) and lab outings should be greatly encouraged. Team-building exercises may help! Also, Prof. Iwasaki in her article mentioned that the custom of students supplying food and drinks for the committee meeting should be changed. Interestingly, this is something that is not happening in Germany, where I study. The only time when a student should supply food for all the participants is for the party after the thesis defense. My lab already modified this habit and decreased the burden on the student by organizing the party itself. Everyone participates and brings something to eat and drink (we just create a list, so we do not have many doubles). This is another nice way to show solidarity and support to the student

How to assess the mentoring skills of a PI? How to reform the abusive PIs?

There are many ways that we are able to evaluate, more or less objectively, one’s impact in science by looking at their publications, awards, or grants. On the other hand, up to my knowledge, there is no reliable information source about one’s pedagogical or supervision skills regarding PhD mentorship. Many universities do evaluate professors based on feedback from students taking their classes, but the results of those surveys are rarely made public. Solution:

a) Educating all PIs on leadership and mentoring skills. Recurring obligatory short courses might seem like a waste of time, but it might prove valuable against toxicity in the labs. Some of the PIs despite their hesitance might start thinking about their behaviour and implement at least small changes.

b) Finding a good measure to assess if a PI is abusive or not. There is one thing in common to all the abusive labs I know – high dropout of the PhD students. This relatively simple information says a lot about one’s mentoring skills. Of course, it might happen from time to time that one student is just not a good fit, but if a PI employed 10 students in the last 5 years and 6 of them dropped out it is hard to blame it just on a mismatch… We could also rephrase that information and say that for PI (for the last 5 years) what is the number of students that were employed/graduated/still working (Example: Prof. X 12/6/5, so in this case drop out was 1/12). I think that this information should be public and can be a game-changer not only for prospective candidates but also for universities.

c) It would be good if funding agencies (e.g. DFG) would follow up if the funding that was allocated for a student really ended up with one and if this student graduated. Depraving abusive PIs of grants could prove to be an effective method to change their behaviour. In her article, Prof. Iwasaki proposed that the mentorship evaluation should be considered internally – with tenure, salary decisions etc., but I think this information should also be provided to the funding agencies. We should not only punish the abusive PIs, but equally importantly support and reward great mentors. I completely agree with Prof. Iwasaki’s point that such rewards could include raise or promotion. This brings me to my next and final point…

How to prevent toxic labs/PIs from being created?

It is very difficult to change abusive PIs as they are now, but we can eliminate them before they join the dark side – at the level of PhD students and PDs. Solutions:

a) Early-onset social education. During our education, we are taught how-to-do good science. We are educated, challenged, and tested every step of the way, but when it comes to the mentoring skills most of the graduate programs offer a few-days long courses as optional. Some programs don’t offer them at all. This has to change! Graduate schools should focus more on people skills (including courses like conflict management, leadership, teaching etc.). In the end, we are all just humans, even if we sometimes work like robots. Moreover, some courses should be made mandatory.

b) We should be judged on how good or how poor we perform as supervisors already early on! Obviously, supervision is also something that we have to learn, but in order to learn correctly, we need to receive feedback. Especially from an expert – our PI or a senior PD. Here, importantly PI should take time to note the trend in the student’s behaviour and reinforce good supervision. When alarmed that the student may be performing poorly, PI should correct such behaviour and show alternatives or strongly suggest expanding the knowledge via courses.

c) It is common that the bullied becomes the bully. I have heard a few times “That is how she/he was supervised, so that is the way she/he is supervising now…”. We have to stop this circle. If you see that some of your colleagues misbehave calmly talk to them in private. If you were mistreated don’t keep quiet about it but do everything you can to change the situation. Your life and health are important! Finally, after such an experience try to turn it around to “how NOT to supervise”.

These are just some of my thoughts and ideas, but one thing is for sure: we still have much to improve on and many options to try. As you can see, there are many solutions that can be implemented almost instantly that could make a difference. I am happy that the discussion is starting and hopeful that the vicious circle of abuse is going to end soon. And who knows, maybe when our generation will start their own labs, this problem might not exist anymore.

Written by Joanna Komorowska-Müller