The Usual Suspects, the usual hazards


Artwork by Mark Palfreyman.

We have hazard signs for harmful chemicals, so why not have hazard signs for harmful mentors?

It is more than a little terrifying how much of a leap of faith it is to entrust your career, your future, and sometimes your mind to somebody you barely know – and yet that’s essentially what very many PhD students and postdocs and technicians do on day 1. And unfortunately, there are group leaders out there who – sometimes for understandable reasons, sometimes for less justifiable ones – are simply not a good match for that person, and occasionally not a good match for any person at all.

Walk into the chemical room in any science department and you’ll be greeted by an equally unfamiliar gallery of compounds, with one important difference: the hazardous ones are labelled.

With that in mind, here are TIR’s suggestions for some warning labels that could (should?) be attached to mentors…


Bad for the environment
A nice person, but the atmosphere in the team makes the Stanford prison experiment look like a tea party. The reason? A lack of leadership at the top. As a result, the environment within the group gets poisonous, group members fight amongst themselves, and strong personalities start vying for dominance. This kind of group leader never resolves disputes between lab members, preferring to let people fight it out, or pretend it’s not happening. They often have very positive one-on-one relationships with their group members, but the jungle of warring personalities within the group makes it a place to avoid for all but the most self-assured.



Compressed gas
Highly pressurised, and not able to focus on mentoring because they’re too busy stressing about their own life and career. They’re perpetually pressed for time and consequently unable to devote as many hours as they should to the people they’re supervising. Can be open and apologetic about their shortcomings, but it doesn’t change the fact that their group members are getting a slightly raw deal. Common in junior group leaders who are overwhelmed with new responsibilities.



Avoid contact with skin/Corrosive
This type comes in two varieties. There’s the touchy-feely one, who tends to be invasive of personal space, has wandering eyes and sometimes hands, and takes an unnecessary and uncomfortable interest in people’s lives outside the lab. Or there’s the scientific jock who wants the group to be one big locker room, loves giving group members slightly demeaning nicknames, and is prone to tasteless jokes and relentless microaggressions. Both types result in an uneasy and uncomfortable group atmosphere, which is often especially difficult for women and minorities and basically anyone who isn’t a (heterosexual) white man. Getting called out more and more in the #MeToo era.



An emotional baby, prone to outbursts, tantrums, or expressions of extreme displeasure. Congenitally temperamental, and the worst types end up continually gaslighting the people in their group. They’re secretly insecure, but subsume their feelings of inadequacy by dominating their subordinates. A bully.



Always away for seminars, conferences, or travelling somewhere but the punchline is this: they’re never in the lab, especially when you need them to be. Prone to cancelling things at the last minute, or delivering long irrelevant monologues in meetings that are supposed to be about your progress. Tend to give the impression that your project isn’t terribly important to them, and that they’re more interested in something else that’s caught their wandering attention (for now).



Indecisive. Prone to changing people’s project without warning, reallocating work within the group without consultation, or suddenly insisting on people doing random experiments that have questionable value. Forgets things that they said they’d do, forgets what they’ve asked others to do, and repeatedly fails to keep promises. Group members end up being happiest when they’re left to their own devices, because interactions with the group leader inevitably result in frustration and disbelief at the way they’re being treated.



Health hazard
Withering criticism and never any praise. Group meetings bring students to tears, and repeatedly undermine self-esteem. This type exacts a heavy psychological toll on group members. They can be brilliant scientists but lack empathy, and have a tendency to keep pushing people beyond the limits of their endurance (e-mail barrages in the middle of the night are commonplace). Have absolutely no conception of how much of a burden their intensity brings.



Oxidising substances are ones that can cause or contribute to the combustion of other material, and oxidising mentors are very dangerous individuals. They’re bad mentors, exhibiting one or more of the other hazard signs here, but charismatic enough to make their subordinates think that this kind of behaviour is a template to follow for future success. Oxidising mentors leave a dangerous legacy of burned-out also-rans and psychotic proteges.



Mentors with the other hazard signs are bad, but generally survivable. The toxic mentor is marked out by one quality: bodycount. Students leave before finishing their PhDs, postdocs and technicians quit. There’s a perpetual high turnover in the group, and a horrendous toll in terms of mental health, crushed expectations, and disillusionment. Toxic mentors are often obsessed with publishing in prestige journals, and are perfectly happy to sacrifice young scientists’ careers in pursuit of this aim. It’s not uncommon to find this trait in labs which are outwardly successful but actually unproductive in terms of per capita and per dollar output. All too often protected from on high.


This posting suggested by and co-authored with Tim Skern.

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