20 Warning Signs Your PI Is A Piece Of Shit

Jordan Anaya
Jul 10, 2016 · 9 min read

I decided to write this post after reading “20 Warning Signs Your Professor’s Abusing You”. During my decade in academia I’ve come across some truly horrible people in positions of power. And yes, it is true these people may be abusive, but maybe they are just pieces of shit. I’ve tried to list things I’ve seen that weren’t already mentioned in the above post, and use the NBA Starters “How Worried Are You?” scale to determine how concerned you should be if you observe any of the behaviors below.

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1. Your PI refers to undergraduates in the lab as “slaves”, even though they are African American and are working under white researchers.

I’m giving this a Level 1, “milk one day past expiration worried.” Level 1?!? Well, things get far worse from here so I had to start low. I also get tired of having to be politically correct all the time and it is extremely common to refer to undergraduates as slaves, but you would think someone in a position of power would be more careful with what they say…

2. Your PI pats females in the lab on the head as if they were pets.

Have to go with Level 3, “gonna miss your flight worried” on this one. This is just fucking weird, I don’t even know what to think, so I’m just going to choose the most neutral concern level.

3. Your PI tells females in the lab that they are not allowed to get pregnant.

I’m going all the way up to Level 4, “left a candle burning at home worried.” If your PI is putting the work in his lab above your life then he clearly doesn’t have your best interests in mind. It’s clear he will only be interested in helping you as long as you are useful to him. Haven’t published a paper recently? You will be in his doghouse and constantly be chastised in group meetings.

4. Related to above: Your PI tells you a female postdoc won’t be joining the lab because she got pregnant.

There are a lot of questions to ask with this one. Did the female postdoc decide she wouldn’t be joining the lab, or did the PI decide he no longer wanted the postdoc because she got pregnant? Either way, should he be talking about her pregnancy during group meeting? Level 2, “tummy trouble in traffic worried.”

5. Your PI makes a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, hosts a lab party at his place, but provides the cheapest, lowest quality food possible and forces the first people to arrive to prepare the food.

Level 5, “daughter dating a biker worried”, no question. Your PI makes a killing off basically slave labor, the least he could do is treat the lab once in a while. Also, if you were hosting dozens of people wouldn’t you think you would prepare for their arrival? This whole thing screams of “I’m only doing this because we are supposed to have lab parties, but I really don’t give a fuck about any of you.” If your PI won’t go the extra mile to ensure you have a good time at his place how do you know if he’ll put any effort into advancing your scientific career?

6. Your PI doesn’t provide you with any resources and you have to buy everything yourself. Need a computer to perform bioinformatics analyses? You’ll be buying that yourself. Need a monitor? Yep, you’re buying that yourself as well. And while we’re at it, if you really cared about science you’d be donating money to the lab.

Another Level 5, “daughter dating a biker worried.” The lab has several R01s, you are self funded through an independent grant, is it too much to ask to be provided with all the resources you need to do your job?

7. Your PI constantly demands that you design a website for him so that he can attract white postdocs, but when you finally take the time to make it he decides not to use it when he realizes it will cost money.

We’re on a roll, a turkey of Level 5 warnings. Hosting a website really isn’t that expensive, for Heroku it can be 7 dollars a month, or it can even be free at PythonAnywhere if you don’t need a custom domain. I don’t know how much sites made with WordPress, Weebly, Wix, Squarespace, etc. cost, but it can’t be much for a basic site. If your PI can demand that you do something and then change his mind because of a price tag of a couple dollars a month, that’s a problem. You should probably start running.

8. Your PI tells a postdoc he can fire them whenever he wants. That postdoc then tries to find a new job, but your PI sabotages the job search.

Hot damn, yet another Level 5 warning! This seems like it should be illegal (I’m not a lawyer). I don’t think I need to discuss this one.

9. Your PI pays foreign postdocs salaries which may be below the NIH recommended salaries for postdocs, and may have people work for him whom he doesn’t even pay.

Obviously it’s hard to know if this is taking place unless someone shows you their paycheck, but if someone has a reputation for underpaying their employees while also demanding they work long hours, weekends, holidays, etc., that’s concerning. Level 4.

10. This is a long one. Your PI does a sweep of the lab every day before he leaves just to see who is still around. Your PI stops by the lab briefly on the weekend solely to see who is there. Your PI asks you what you do once you’re at home. He goes to the white board to map out your daily schedule and tries to figure out how he can make more room for work in the lab. He asks you how much TV you watch, games you play, dates you go on, etc. If you aren’t at your desk he emails you asking you where you are. He randomly shows up at your apartment.

There’s a lot to digest here. First of all, checking who is in lab is fairly stupid. If someone works 6 AM to 5PM they are working more than someone who works 10AM to 7PM. And maybe some people work on weekends solely so they don’t have to interact with other people, especially the PI. Now you’ve created an environment where people don’t want to show up on weekends because they know they’ll run into you and have to listen about how much of a failure they are for at least half an hour, congratulations.

I also don’t think it’s appropriate to ask about an employee’s personal life, or directly intrude into that life. Level 5.

11. Your PI asks a graduate student how old he was when he got married, and then asks if it was because he knocked up his girlfriend.

Hmm, this is a tricky one. While I was shocked when I observed this I was also somewhat entertained since it involved my friend. Depending on the exact context this could be very concerning or not very concerning. Level ?

12. When a male graduate student notifies the PI that he’s having a kid the PI responds by asking if the graduate student is aware of contraception.

This is related to warning sign 3: “Your PI tells females in the lab that they are not allowed to get pregnant.” To be fair to both sexes I have to give it the same concern level, Level 4, although I’m sure most people would find warning sign 3 much worse than this one. The point is essentially the same in both cases. If your PI is not supportive of your life outside of the lab then it is clear they are just using you as slave labor. Once you are no longer of use to them they’ll forget you exist. Need help getting a job once you have your PhD? Why would they help you?

13. A student who rotated in the lab tells you she had a dream that she was giving a group meeting presentation and then the PI shot her in the head and everyone in the lab tried to convince her it wasn’t a big deal.

Yeah…shit’s starting to get weird. Level !?!?

14. Your PI tells you to activate your grant, so you do. The PI then threatens to bring you in front of the Office of Research Integrity because you activated the grant.

I don’t even know what to say at this point. This is turning into “20 Warning Signs Your PI Is Batshit Crazy.”

15. You have a meeting with your PI with fellow coauthors on a publication. You all decide to remove some analyses from a paper and turn it into another publication. When a journal then asks why these two separate papers aren’t one publication your PI throws you under the bus and accuses you of research misconduct/plagiarism/fraud and denies any knowledge of why two papers were submitted instead of one.

Here we have a situation where the PI tried to be greedy and get an extra publication. When it started to look like it might not work he just threw everyone under the bus to save himself. If your PI will happily accuse you of fraud when you did exactly what he asked that’s a problem, Level 5.

16. Your PI constantly rewrites history so that everything is your fault. Maybe he decided against performing an expensive experiment that you wanted to do for a project, and then once that paper is only able to get into PLOS ONE he blames you for refusing to perform the experiment that he himself refused to pay for. And now every time you present in group meeting or your name is brought up he reminds everyone how you sabotaged an excellent project by not performing the experiments needed.

Umm, does anyone know what psychological disorder would cause this behavior? Because I’ve seen multiple people with the ability to time travel and rewrite history.

17. The PI has a female postdoc write a grant, but then puts the name of a male postdoc on the grant. When the male postdoc gets the grant the PI congratulates the male postdoc without any acknowledgement of the female postdoc.

This one sounds really bad, but there could be some mitigating circumstances here. Maybe the female postdoc already has a bunch of grants. Maybe the male postdoc has a better resume and is more likely to get the money for the lab but is horrible at writing. Still, it is pretty messed up, Level 4.

18. Your PI has spies in the lab. He starts each lab meeting discussing things he’s “heard”. If you discussed something with him behind closed doors the previous week he will tell the group what you told him, or exaggerate what you said. For example, maybe he’ll tell the entire lab that you told him you think everyone is stupid and you can’t stand working with them.

Yeah…Level 5.

19. Your PI constantly contradicts himself. For example, one week he’ll give a long speech about how we shouldn’t be wasting our time sending papers to high profile journals, and then the next week yell at the lab for not having any high profile publications recently. He’ll tell you how you’re wasting your time doing bioinformatics analyses, then give you a list of bioinformatics analyses he wants done.

I’m not actually sure this belongs on the list. Maybe the person just has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember what he just said.

20. The PI insults you in front of collaborators that you respect and will be getting letters from. He tells them about how lazy and useless you are. When you confront him about it he says he was just giving you a hard time and that he didn’t realize you had such thin skin and that he guesses he’ll have to be more careful with your fragile psyche.

Just run at this point. Grab your stuff and find the nearest door.

Jordan Anaya

Written by

Creator of PrePubMed and OncoLnc http://www.omnesres.com/

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