A woman sits on a dark sofa with her face obscured by a laptop

A mentor should be a source of support, but a bad one can make their trainee’s career a nightmare.Credit: Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty

A mentor is the guide by your side who can help to develop your career, and cheer you on as you succeed and encourage you when you fail. But what happens when your mentor becomes uncooperative or resistant, or completely ghosts you by suddenly ending communication? Your mentor has now become a tormentor.

In a laboratory environment, the principal investigator is often a ‘mentor by default’ — which comes with the responsibilities of helping the trainee to develop professionally and paving a pathway for their future endeavours. Other mentors might include faculty members, postdoctoral colleagues and managers.

The repercussions of poor mentorship are far-reaching, from delayed career advancement to a trainee leaving science altogether.

We have both written about scientific careers, researched the world of scientific mentoring and developed mentoring programmes. We’ve also both been lucky enough to be mentors, and have helped others to escape bad mentoring relationships. We have some advice on identifying and recognizing poor mentorship.

The examples below illustrate poor mentorship in the workplace, although there are more-extreme cases, such as verbal or physical abuse. In cases of abuse or exploitation, we recommend seeking help directly from the appropriate institutional authority, such as campus police, your human-resources department or any kind of mediator.

Harmful behaviours can damage a trainee’s career, or even their health. Here’s some advice on how you can identify and address them.

Common tormentor behaviours

The ghost mentor. This mentor has an unreasonably long lag time for offering feedback on time-sensitive issues, such as manuscripts and presentations. They fail to respond to follow-up e-mails, preventing the trainee from pushing forwards in their career. The mentor might stall projects, set unrealistic goals or create unnecessary barriers to progress. This could cause a delay in the trainee’s academic timeline and risks a multitude of setbacks to their professional goals.

The elitist mentor. This mentor chooses to submit papers only to high-impact journals, lowering their trainee’s chances of publication. This could delay or completely prevent a publication — therefore limiting the trainee’s future career opportunities.

The paranoid mentor. This mentor forbids or strongly advocates against public presentations at conferences or other collaboration proposals, out of fear of their own work being scooped. This could cause their trainee to miss out on building valuable science-communication skills or connecting with potential collaborators. As science becomes more team-oriented, this behaviour becomes more and more damaging.

The dementor mentor. This type of mentor, much like the happiness-sapping creatures in the Harry Potter books that they’re named after, withholds support or encouragement when their trainee is facing scientific hardship, such as a rejected paper, failed experiment or poor grant score. Dementor mentors might leave the trainee to navigate projects alone, despite many needing more hands-on guidance. Just when the trainee needs a cheerleader and an alternative, authoritative perspective, dementors lack the emotional intelligence to offer much-needed support.

These behaviours can affect trainees’ psychosocial needs, contributing to feelings of unimportance in the lab environment, a decreased sense of self-efficacy, increased imposter syndrome and burnout. This goes far beyond ghosting, because the mentor fails to provide pivotal emotional support.

How to deal with a tormentor

A tormentor might be a barrier to success, but trainees do not need to continue an unhappy mentoring relationship. There are steps they can take to draw a line under past misunderstandings and move on, or widen their mentoring network to include other perspectives. As a last resort, they could move labs.

Often, the power dynamic favours the mentor, and the trainee feels powerless, especially if the mentor has direct line-management responsibility or runs the lab. If you are a trainee in a bad mentoring relationship, here are five steps you can take to circumvent a tormentor and take back your power.

Interpersonal relationships are complicated, and this advice is not a silver bullet that will solve all mentorship problems, but it will help you to identify toxic behaviours. Only you can decide whether a behaviour is acute or chronic, and just how much you can and should handle. In a bad mentorship relationship, you might feel depleted, overwhelmed or isolated — and knowing that the management style and mentoring you are receiving might fall outside acceptable norms will help to validate your feelings. You can then decide on a course of action.

Name your next goal

Instead of working towards an undefined finishing line, clearly articulate your next professional goal, both to yourself and to your mentor. For example, if you’re a PhD student, then perhaps defending your thesis is your next major milestone. Naming your goal will help you to align your activities, manage your time and know what guidance to seek from your mentor.

Start developing a plan

Setting deadlines brings goals to life. Come to a mentoring meeting with a clear goal and plan. Ask your mentor to help you refine the plan and develop a timeline, and whether there are any challenges you should be aware of. You can also ask them to refer you to others for extra guidance or support. For example, if your goal is to defend your thesis, what are the next logical steps? Perhaps you need to have a first-author manuscript or finish a series of experiments.

Lean on your mentoring team

When you are in the middle of a chaotic situation, you could have blind spots that might cause you to miss areas of potential conflict. It is difficult to see both the big picture and nuances when you’re deeply rooted in these situations. It’s always advisable to have more than one mentor, and surrounding yourself with a diverse team can offer fresh perspectives on challenging situations — and, at times, your mentors might advocate on your behalf.

Examine professional dynamics

Not every setback is caused by a tormentor mentor. Is your mentor being appropriately tough or creating legitimate barriers? Consider whether there are more factors at play than you had initially taken into account, and how to address them. For example, perhaps the project is not as strong as it could be, and needs extra work to support the final product. However, being asked to do what you consider to be unnecessary work could be a sign of the mentor’s insecurities about the project, or about you as their trainee. It might be time to start keeping a paper trail documenting obstructions if you feel that your mentor is holding you back. Consult with other mentors, if you have them, or with your thesis committee.

Re-evaluate options

If you’ve gone through all the other steps and are still experiencing insurmountable roadblocks, it might be a good time to consider alternative options, such as a co-mentor, a new lab or a leave of absence while you re-evaluate your future without daily toxic interference. Feeling frustrated, upset and disappointed is natural as you grieve for the lab experience you had expected. Change is hard under any circumstance; doing it under duress is particularly challenging and overwhelming.

Your newly refined professional goals can inform your path forwards. Use the lessons from your experience with a tormentor as a guide to what to avoid in future mentoring dynamics. When looking for a new mentor, interview both the mentor and their current trainees on how the mentor will support your goals.

Bad mentoring is worse than no mentoring. However, a toxic mentorship does not need to be a life sentence. There are opportunities to take action, meet your goals and shed your tormentor.