Toxic Mentor

Story by Kellie Vinal

...if something feels really, really wrong — then it probably is.

The main reason I left my lab is that I was essentially forced to. Instead of recognizing the warning signs and realizing that it wasn't the right fit, I thought that there was just something wrong with me -- that I was stupid. My mental health was incredibly off kilter, and I was not doing well. (I wasn't eating much, wasn't sleeping much, and l was staying up far too late, drinking upsetting amounts of caffeine at odd hours to keep studying.) I didn't even think to bring it up with my advisor. I just kept pushing harder. There were several instances where my advisor berated me in a pretty harsh way, and each time I got back up and tried to prove myself to her. In the end, it took me showing up for my qualifying exam and failing it to be forced out of the lab.

Later, I found out that my advisor had been saying some unkind things about me to other people -- despite always reassuring me in our meetings. After I failed my exam, several faculty members stood up for me and encouraged me to find another lab, to start over. So I did. I spent the summer studying, met with tons of prospective professors, and found a mentor who was a much better fit, and was willing to take me on as a student. Finding a supportive, compatible mentor changed everything for me, and I thrived. It was only when my mental health improved that I realized how poorly I had been doing previously. I learned a lot about myself throughout the process. I also learned that if something feels really, really wrong -- then it probably is. You should never have to feel that way. There's always help for you.

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Kellie Vinal, Ph.D.

Kellie Vinal is a PhD biochemist, producer, science writer, educator, collaborator, and adventure enthusiast based in Atlanta, GA. She's wildly interested in the intersection of science, art, and humanity and generally can't sit still. Her passion for science communication and interdisciplinary conversation has led her to get involved with the Story Collider, Atlanta Science Festival, Ladyfest Atlanta, STE(A)M Truck, Dragon Con Science Track, BioIgnite, Solve for X Variety Show, Blue Streak Science Podcast, and Inman Park Squirrel Census.