How to navigate conflict with your research adviser

Written by: Jay J. Van Bavel, Neil A. Lewis, Jr., William A. Cunningham, Leah H. Somerville
Published on: Sep 29, 2021

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Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by eduardrobert/iStock

We all know mentor-mentee relationships can be tricky. This crucial topic was brought into relief for Jay when he served on a panel that discussed mentorship in July. Beforehand, panel organizers sent a survey to student and postdoc participants, asking them to anonymously disclose what frustrates them about their advisers.

Hundreds of complaints poured in, ranging from the mundane to the seriously unethical. Many revealed that mentors were increasing the stress of their trainees, often through micromanagement—for example, requiring lab members to work evenings or weekends on short notice—or neglect, such as going months without making time for a 5-minute meeting.

We all have a responsibility to create and maintain a healthy and supportive scientific ecosystem. Here, we break down advice for trainees based on what type of mentor they're dealing with—a good mentor, a bad mentor, or a toxic one—and encourage faculty to play a role in changing their own mentoring and improving the culture of scientific training.

Good mentors

No mentor is perfect, but most are doing their best to support and train the next generation of scientists. Indeed, for many of us this is the most fulfilling and enjoyable aspect of our jobs. Yet, even the most well-intentioned mentors make mistakes. Inexperience, exhaustion, and communication breakdowns can lead to conflict and stress within mentor-mentee relationships. In other cases, there may simply be a bad fit between you and your mentor in terms of research interests or working style. Mentors may try to provide the type of mentoring they wished they had received in graduate school, failing to realize different students have different needs and require individualized guidance.

We think it's best to assume your mentor has good intentions until proved otherwise. So, as a first step, start a dialogue to try to resolve any issues. Initiating a conversation can be stressful, but you might be surprised by the outcome. Many advisers appreciate learning about issues in the lab, especially if it helps them become a better mentor and scientist. When Jay was a new faculty member, for instance, three of his Ph.D. students came to him with concerns their research projects were too similar; they felt like they were competing with one another for publication. Jay saw the issue differently, but after learning how his students were experiencing the situation, he altered how he ran his lab going forward, encouraging more distinctive projects and a more collaborative atmosphere. This not only made everyone happier, but it also made the lab more supportive and successful.

Similarly, you may be able to resolve whatever issue you're having with your mentor by making a change to how you work with each other. Or you may feel better by simply having a conversation—for instance, if it enables you to see where the other person is coming from. If the issue is intractable, a good mentor will support you to find another lab and help complete any work you started together. Finding a better fit can make life better for everyone.

Bad mentors

Hopefully your conversation with your mentor will go well. But if it does not, you may have a bad mentor—or at least a mentor who is a bad fit for you. You will know you are dealing with a bad mentor when they have no desire to help find a win-win solution, strike a compromise, or even take your perspective seriously. If your mentor is unwilling to work with you to find a reasonable solution, you have to decide whether you can adapt to their style of mentorship or you need to move on from this professional relationship.

Weigh the pros and cons of switching advisers or programs. If you are near the end of your program and can find a way to minimize the main source of conflict, it might be easier to stick it out. We know many students who make this decision. But if you are early in your relationship, then it might be best to start looking for a new mentor. Build relationships outside your lab and ask other trainees about how they work with their mentors. If you find a good fit elsewhere, the sooner you leave the better.

We recommend lining up your new mentor before announcing plans to leave your current lab. Ensure you have a clear plan in place with your new mentor, including a source of funding. Then set up a meeting with your new mentor and your former mentor to work out a detailed plan for the transition. This should include a timeline for finishing all your projects, sharing any data or materials, and winding down the collaboration on the best terms possible. We know several students who switched advisers and flourished in their new environment while successfully finishing up projects with their former mentors.

Toxic mentors

We send our sincere sympathies to anyone dealing with a toxic mentor. In this type of relationship, you may experience bullying, racismsexism, and unethical research practices. The mentor is often self-interested and even willfully malicious, seeming to revel in tormenting their mentees and cultivating a toxic lab atmosphere. To make matters worse, they are often unwilling to let their trainees switch labs and may use manipulation, pressure, and smear tactics to coerce their students and postdocs to stay in their lab.

In many cases, the best way to deal with a toxic mentor is to leave their lab. If you want to stay in your program but switch to a different mentor, you may need to use formal procedures at your university and reach out to those in positions of power, such as your director of graduate studies or your department chair. It may help if you create a paper trail—for instance, by collecting abusive emails or writing notes after observing unethical behavior. Toxic mentors often engage in gaslighting, so keeping a record of their behavior can be very helpful. Alternatively, you may consider leaving your program entirely. This can be painful and frustrating, but sometimes it is the best option.

You may want to file a formal complaint that will be kept on record and can also be used to hold the adviser accountable. Doing so takes enormous courage, but it could prevent future trainees from dealing with similar abuse.

Advice for faculty

Trainees have some power when choosing mentors and navigating their relationship with them. But trainees alone cannot solve the problems of mentorship.

Faculty members, think carefully about what kind of mentor you are and how you can do a better job supporting your mentees, even if that means helping trainees leave your lab and transition to an environment that's better suited to them. To improve the quality of your mentoring, seek out mentor training as well as feedback from trainees.

Provide greater clarity about your expectations before you recruit a trainee to join your lab. Lay out expectations about meetings, time spent in the lab, and work on evenings and weekends. Some faculty even ask trainees to sign a contract when they join a lab, which lists expectations for mentors and mentees. By making expectations concrete and transparent, early-career scientists will have the necessary information to select working relationships that not only match their career goals and research interests, but also working style and work-life balance. After all, one student's micromanaging mentor might provide the hands-on mentorship that another student desires. Finding a way to help mentors and trainees maximize fit can help prevent many daily conflicts and stressors.

It's also important for mentors to work with other faculty and university administrators to encourage change and accountability within their institutions. A few possible steps include inviting trainees to formally evaluate mentors, such as during annual reviews and tenure and promotion decisions, and adopting funding structures that are not tied to specific advisers, as is the case in Neil's department, which makes it easier for graduate students to switch mentors when needed. Jay and Leah worked with faculty and students in their departments to create anonymous climate surveys asking students to identify issues they were facing. At Jay's institution, this led faculty to develop mentoring committees, which serve as a neutral party during meetings with students and their adviser and help resolve disputes.

Bad mentorship is a pervasive problem in science. Until we take the issue seriously, it will likely continue to be one of the most significant—and preventable—sources of stress for early-career scientists. All of us can take small steps to maximize fit and improve the culture of scientific mentoring.

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Leah H. Somerville is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Jay J. Van Bavel is an associate professor of psychology and neural sciences at New York University in New York City. Neil A. Lewis, Jr. is an assistant professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University. William A. Cunningham is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto in Canada.