Dear Mentor: How do I deal with a difficult advisor?

Dear Mentor,

I am in my mid-40s and a postdoc in a small college town. I am married with two children, and my husband and I both work to support our family. Now, after one year of a three-year position, the more I do it, the more I hate this job. I am torn between quitting now or keeping the job until something better comes along. But can I expect a better job to come along when the job outlook — particularly for academic positions — is not getting better?


I enjoy the laboratory work and writing manuscripts. I have great co-workers and student assistants. I like mentoring grad students. What is terribly difficult about the position is my supervisor. He has not given me the freedom that he promised, for example, freedom to hire my choice of assistants. He threatened me with a bad recommendation for an informal evening meeting that I missed, with permission, because of an important event with my daughter. Just this week, he made me agree to try to hire his daughter as one of my assistants, which makes me very uncomfortable. Although university policy does not allow hiring of family members, he approached one of the dignitaries saying she would not be under his direct supervision but would be under mine; the outcome is yet to be decided.

There are so many other examples beyond these. I am not alone in this. Of his many grad students, half have quit in the middle of their programs and for those who quit, I have heard he does not give a good letter of recommendation.

From a worldly perspective, I feel that I am trapped. I have no way out. Only God has comforted me in this issue. I hold onto the words, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

I know God often does place us in uncomfortable places for his Glory. However, this situation has become so painful, I don’t know if I can continue. Do you have any insight for me?

From Leslie Walker

What a tough situation. It makes me think of Daniel or Esther trying to do the right thing in a difficult secular context. It sounds like you may have an opportunity to be a whistleblower. If multiple grad students have left, I wonder if anyone in your supervisor’s department is already aware of his behavior and wonders or knows why people leave. There should be policies in place in your institution where you could disclose unethical behavior and harassment, not just fraudulent research, and where you would have protection from retribution. Most universities are trying to prevent situations that could get them into trouble later, and if nothing else, the nepotism of hiring his daughter seems risky if other assistants complain that she gets special treatment later. There should be a human resources or employee assistance program that can educate you in terms of your rights and options. Some institutions also have mediation programs for conflicts between supervisors and workers. I would find out what your options are before you confronting your supervisor.

A lot of supervisors rule with fear, like bullies, and hold over your head the threat of a bad recommendation. Unfortunately, going along with him now is no guarantee that he’ll give you a good recommendation later; what if there are even more unreasonable demands or expectations over the next two years? It might be worth being willing to call his bluff and explain that even if he gives you a bad recommendation, you are unwilling to collude with what is, from your perspective, a violation of university policy in hiring his daughter, and that he needs to find someone else who is willing to officially supervise her. You might say, “Unfortunately, my own ethical standards require me to say no to this arrangement. I hope you can find another solution.” If he continues to threaten you with a bad recommendation, that’s when you can explain that you have met with HR or EAP staff and are prepared to file a complaint about what improprieties you’ve observed in the lab and why you are considering leaving.

Whether you follow this course or not, I think it is imperative that you have a supportive faith community around you to attack the situation with prayer and actively support you and your family. Do you have a circle of friends, a small group, or a prayer partner who could stand with you in this? I also recommend that you include your family in the process. Imagine what your children will learn about the real world, about faith, about ethics, about standing up to bullies, as they watch you in action.

I recall my mom in a high position in state government when I was in college. Her male boss was very intimidated by her as she was successful and gaining recognition on the national stage. He made things increasingly difficult for her, and ultimately fired her. I sat with her as she sought counsel about whether to sue. Ultimately she decided not to, and found another job working for the federal government which required relocation, which meant my dad had to give up his job. After the dust settled, it was clearly the right move for both of them, and they saw God’s powerful hand in the process. But in the middle of the crisis, it was agonizing. I don’t know if my mom knows how closely I watched her, or how I saw the pain and the determination to do what was right even through uncertainty while her boss was so nasty and threatening.

I can’t promise that your situation will go well if you stand up to this bully, but I can promise that your children will learn from the integrity and faith you demonstrate. And I would hope that ultimately, his sins will find him out, and whether through you or others, that the truth will emerge. I hope that as you pray for wisdom and discernment, you will also remember that you are loved, and you are not alone.


From Dorothy Boorse

I think there is no clear obvious answer to your situation. I do, however, think that Leslie’s answer is very sound. Her answer touches on a few things I would also say:

1.  Determine your own boundaries: there is no upper limit to what your career can ask of you. You have to set those limits. I agree that caving in to a boss because he threatens a poor recommendation will not solve the problem. You have no idea that he will ever give you a good recommendation. So my best advice is that you plan how to move ahead in your career without a recommendation from him. Cultivate professional relationships with other people who can write you a recommendation and do not count on one from him.

2.  Find out who can help you. If he is as difficult as you describe, other people will be aware of it. There is usually some type of advocate — a grievance office or some other group — who you could meet with for advice. I would meet with them first. Who might you talk to about keeping a record of your interactions, or protecting yourself from retaliation? What policies are in place to protect you? If your supervisor is clearly more domineering and unreasonable to women than to men, you have special protection under sexual harassment laws.

3.  Consider a move within the institution. Even without going through an official complaint process, there sometimes are ways to quietly move to another lab. There are personality issues in academia all the time. If you have a sympathetic PI on a related project in another lab, it might be possible to get out of your lab and into another quietly. In any case, you need legal or other advice as to what your options are. It is likely there is a resolution that does not leave you jobless.

4.  Finding peace: I thought Leslie dealt with the faith aspects of your response very well. She is right that you need a community of faith around you, and you need peace about whatever you do. As painful as this period is, God can work through it to produce good. Being a person of faith can give you a stronger sense of purpose and peace about the possible outcomes. Having a whole community supporting you will help you when you feel shaky and troubled.


From our Guest Mentor (Anonymous):

From the editor — To give balance to this month’s Dear Mentor question, I looked for someone who had actually left a program and found life afterwards. I had heard of a woman who had done this and when I contacted her, she responded, “In my situation, I really went against the advice of almost everyone I knew to leave my residency program. It did involve a difficult leader, and that was one of the reasons I left. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I would be happy to share my story.” Her story follows:

I have always loved science and the field of medicine, and in many ways it was a natural choice for me to pursue becoming a doctor. However, throughout medical school, I struggled with how I was going to balance a demanding career in medicine with having a family. This caused me significant anxiety, and I even thought about dropping out of school. However, when it came time to interview for residency, the most demanding part of medical training, I found a progressive program that advertised itself as family-friendly. It also happened to be located in the same city where my parents lived. I thought that this would be the perfect solution to my dilemma, and rejoiced at how God had worked everything out.

As residency started, I quickly realized that the “family-friendly” talk was a myth. I missed my daughter desperately, and I often cried as I would leave for work before she woke up, and get home after she went to sleep. My strategy was to become very efficient, coming in early and working straight through lunch, etc., so that I could leave at a decent hour. I became a master of multitasking. To further complicate my situation, I became unexpectedly pregnant during that first year.

I was completely shocked when, at the end of the year, my program director called me into his office, and said that I would not be promoted to the second year (typically an automatic thing). Instead, due to concerns raised about my professionalism, I would be required to repeat additional months of the most demanding intern year. It turned out the concerns were related to the perception that I was conflicted between my roles as mother and physician, and that this was interfering with my work. Again, since I had not received any negative feedback up until this point, I questioned where this had come from.

As best as I can piece things together, it sounds like I had offended another resident that I worked with (who was the new chief resident), who did not appreciate my efficiency and felt I was leaving too early in the evenings. Additionally, there was one negative evaluation that I had not seen yet. At the very end of the year I worked with one attending for a week. This was an older female attending who was known for being very hard on other residents, particularly women residents. She came from an era where to be a woman physician meant you had to give up everything, including the possibility of having a family, and she resented the efforts of younger women physicians to try to balance work and family. One day while we were working together, a patient of mine died suddenly, literally as I was talking to him, of a massive heart attack. I was already emotional that day because my husband and daughter were leaving for a trip. The tragic patient death, plus not getting out in time to take them to the airport, plus ample pregnancy hormones on board, caused me to cry in front this attending, the only time I have ever cried publicly at work. This event, plus other issues that had occurred during the week, including my taking a few hours off to have an ultrasound done, made a negative impression on her, and she blasted me in her evaluation.

When I had recovered from my shock about my program director’s decision not to promote me, I tried to reason with him. Hadn’t I received all other positive evaluations this year? I explained that although I was efficient, I did not feel that I had compromised patient care in any way. He wouldn’t budge on the decision, despite my advisor and others supporting me. I decided to appeal the decision, which was my right to do. Ultimately, through the messy and contentious appeals process, the decision was reversed, and I was promoted after all, with a few stipulations.

Yet the damage was done. My program director had verbally threatened me during this process (apparently he was not used to being challenged), and I was terrified of him and how difficult he might make the next few years. Gossip had also spread about me throughout the residency program, and I felt humiliated in front of my peers. And of course the primary problem remained, that I was a mother and my efforts to balance work and family had not been appreciated. How would I make it work now, with increased scrutiny on me at work, and a second baby due any day?

During my maternity leave I reflected on my options. To leave the program in the midst of such a situation would make it extremely difficult to return to residency training. If I left, what new program would accept me? My husband also had an excellent job that he loved, and was not excited about moving to a new city and starting over.

I sought counsel, and every single person I spoke with encouraged me to stay on in this situation, no matter how difficult. Without finishing residency I would not be able to practice medicine at all. I girded myself up to try to return to residency. Yet I could not. As I would drive by the hospital, I would begin to feel physically ill. I realized that because I was not listening to what my heart was saying—do not return to residency—my body was now trying to convince me.

After months of agonizing and praying, I finally accepted that even if it was a bad decision with lifelong negative career implications, I simply could not return to that work environment. As soon as the decision was made, I felt a flood of peace enveloping me. Even though I had no work options ahead of me, somehow the horizon looked bright and appealing. I felt like I could breathe for the first time in months.

As it turns out, things worked out better than I could have imagined. I loved staying home with my two young daughters. I found an amazing part-time medical writing gig which I did from home, and loved. A community of moms at my church surrounded me and helped me heal. Initially I had to do major grieving and forgiving of those who I felt had wronged me, and this was a long and difficult process. But today I feel no animosity at all to those involved, and am so grateful for how God brought me out of that situation to something much better.

Two years later, through an unexpected turn of events, I found myself drawn to a different medical specialty that I had never considered before. I reentered residency in emergency medicine, a field which is a much better fit for my personality, and has the added plus of much better hours family-wise. I feel blessed to be in this new field and truly enjoy my work. I had a third baby during the residency, and through the flexibility of the program, was able to breast-feed him for 11 months, something that is unheard of in residency.

This experience has taught me that there is not a right path to be taken in any field. In medicine, the traditional path is college, medical school, and residency, without any detours along the way. But I have learned that you have to find YOUR path, and it might look different from the traditional ones, and this is okay and good. Even today, things come up where I realize I am not doing exactly the expected trajectory, and this sometimes troubles me for a moment. But as a result of this experience, it has become easier to accept my path, even if it goes against the expectations of others.

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