The Curse of a Bad PI

Scientific research, just like every other career on the planet, has bad bosses. Characteristics of these individuals include poor management skills, inadequate abilities to lead, train or motivate their employees, an inability to fulfill responsibilities, and/or questionable ethics.

Outside of scientific research, employees who want to escape their bad bosses can turn to human resources or upper management in an effort to fix their environment. If that doesn’t work, or if the employee doesn’t want to go through internal processes, they can find a new job elsewhere. The individual will probably have to explain to their potential new employer why they are looking for a new position, but, assuming things improve, subsequent employers shouldn’t need to revisit the subject.

In scientific research, previous bosses, typically Principal Investigators (PIs) who are in charge of laboratories, are regularly needed for reference or support letters when applying for new positions or funding. This is particularly the case for trainees, including research technicians and assistants, undergraduate and graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows. Job and funding applications commonly require descriptions of previous research experience, as well as explanations of how those experiences have informed the applicant’s research interests moving forward. Job offers and funding decisions are predominantly based on these research descriptions, explanations, and accompanying references.

The regular need for reference letters from previous PIs continues until a researcher becomes an independent investigator, running their own laboratory, or leaves scientific research. This requires researchers to continue amicable relationships with previous PIs, even if their PIs were terrible.

Researchers who leave a position because of a bad PI, severing that relationship, but still include their experiences gained from that position in future job/funding applications, are penalized for not including a reference letter from that PI. With the highly competitive nature of available positions and funding, the negative impact of not including this reference letter can be justification for denying or rejecting an application. From the review committee’s point of view, an applicant does not include a reference from a previous PI only if the applicant was troublesome to work with and/or asked to leave.

While a bad PI can create a miserable work environment, they have a paradoxical tendency to facilitate valuable research experience. Their researchers are commonly forced to teach themselves new skills, are exposed to aspects of research normally reserved for more senior personnel, and can develop managerial and leadership skills they use to fill the gap in authority left by the bad PI. These are highly marketable skills in scientific research, and are therefore exactly the kinds of experiences to include in job and funding applications.

As a result, the unfortunate individuals who have worked for a bad PI are presented with limited options. Most commonly, they are dishonest about the true nature of their experiences in an effort to maintain an amicable relationship with the bad PI, securing future reference letters. On the other hand, if the researcher leaves on less than amicable terms, they can choose to not include their experiences in future applications, thus not requiring the bad PI’s reference. Alternatively, they can include their experiences in an application and hope that the negative impact of not including that PI’s reference is not enough to remove them from consideration.

In special circumstances, colleagues from the bad PI’s lab, who can attest to the researcher’s experiences in the lab and justified research for leaving, can be used as a substitute reference. However, this colleague must be in a comparable position of authority at the time of application to be acceptable to the review committee.

The current system of assuming the researcher to be at fault when a reference letter is not included results in bad PIs retaining positions of authority and continuing to foster toxic laboratory and work environments, to the detriment of everyone working for them.

Research institutions should not penalize applicants for not including references from bad PIs, they should encourage applicants to be honest about their experiences. This would contribute significantly to exposing and weeding out individuals who do not have the skills and character necessary to foster a constructive, educational, and healthy laboratory environment. Furthermore, applicants who have worked for bad PIs have the distinct advantage of knowing how not to run a lab or manage employees, making them even more qualified to take on leadership positions.


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