Will I be Haunted by Nightmare Experience with one of my Research Supervisors By EyelandPychePhD, 4 minutes ago in Psychology

Aug 23, 2020
Hi All,

I am thinking that if programs are accepting only 10 or so students for PhD programs, it makes sense that they would check references for every research experience/employment/internship each of the top picks has before offering them a spot.... I am applying to 10 Clinical Psychology and/or Counseling Psychology PhD/PsdD programs this cycle......

I have 2.5 years of research experience. In the first lab I was working part time as a research assistant. Unfortunately, the PI running this study turned out to be a nightmare. To be very clear- this was a mutual opinion of everyone who worked for this PI. She would frequently scream at us over the phone when things went wrong (which is ridiculous because problem solving is an inherent part of the process of research on human subjects- problems are inevitable)-- This PI would text me in ALL CAPS at 6am, freaking out about the goings on in the lab. I was an excellent employee- and the RA's I worked with all considered me to be the unofficial research coordinator because I was the most on-the-ball and took point on organizing all of the moving parts and delegating tasks. This PI has a horrible reputation at the school she works at, and has lost her temper in public numerous times. This PI was paying us for part time hours per week but I would consistently put in 30-40 and she still was verbally abusive and had expectations that were just absolutely unfeasible and unrealistic. Also, prior to starting at the school which she was currently at and running the study we were conducting, this PI had recently left her previous institution due to being pushed out after numerous interpersonal conflicts with other faculty members. Not surprising at all. Toward the end of the intervention we were running, the president of the student government school (one of the best in the country) we all attended jumped on board as an RA. This new RA/Pres of student Government verified that this PI was the most abrasive, inappropriate, and downright manipulative people she has ever worked with. The RA/Pres of the student govt. ended up quitting after a few months, and told all of us that if we ever needed a letter to verify that this PI was for lack of a better term HORRIBLE, that she would be happy to write a letter to any of our future employers/schools we're applying to, and recommend all of the RA's who worked this PI, stating in this hypothetical letter that any negative comments from this PI should not be taken as truth. This RA then asked me to be run for secretary of the student Govt stating that after seeing me work alongside her as an RA, I had exceptional organizational skills and should be on the student council. I turned this offer down because I needed to focus on gaining research experience. I include this just to show that A.) I was VERY good at my job B.) I was not the only one who had a terrible experience with this PI and C.) Other, credible sources could corroborate my side of the story if needed.

Anyway, long story short, toward the end of this intervention things started to slow down and the PI couldn't pay us anymore. I started looking for other jobs and found one that was much more in alignment with my research interests. After 2 months of no pay and no work needed on the intervention, I let this awful PI know that I had found another job and would be terminating my employment. She went on a rant over text stating how unprofessional this was to leave her high and dry blah blah blah.

I have a full 1.5 years of research experience at one other lab, the lab I currently work at. I have PHENOMENAL letters from the members of this lab, absolutely top notch letters and references. But I am afraid that I will be haunted by this PI, which was my first research experience.

Does anyone have advice on how I can handle this situation? Is it highly likely that admissions officers will give this ex-PI a call or e-mail? I have absolutely no idea what she would or could say about me. But I fear that it would not be good. There was never any "blow up" on my part when I told her I got a new job and would be moving on. But she certainly did not take it well and I believe she may even have other negative things to say just based on how she treated me and everyone else. I thought about just taking this off my CV altogether but the problem is, I got valuable research experience there that I don't want to leave out... and I feel that 2.5 years of research experience is better than 1.5

If anyone has comments I would really appreciate it! I am pretty anxious. It's so unfair because I was such a good employee and did so much to help the intervention succeed.

P.S.- The schools I am applying to are across the country from this Lab, and there is a very low likelihood that any of the schools I am applying to will have heard of of this PI or her work, since she is a researcher on certain diseases and how they affect well-being (wont mention the specific disease because I don't want to identify her) and my research interests have nothing to do with that.


5+ Year Member
Dec 8, 2014
Just don't ask for a letter from this person or put them on any reference list/provide an email or phone #. They won't reach out to investigate. If they do - that would be weird and not a place you would want to be anyways.

I feel for you and we may have shared working for this person (in different research roles/capacities), or, there are many others like this individual out there (more likely). It killed my soul and almost drove me away from the field. Truth be told, it got me to re-evaluate what I want in a job and colleagues/supervisors and back into another position I enjoy much more. You will be able to move on. It sucks that there are people in mentorship, supervisory, and gatekeeping roles who should not be.


10+ Year Member
Sep 5, 2009
Unfortunately your experience is not uncommon. Don't list her as a reference (but do include the experience in your CV). It's unlikely potential mentors will contact her - only if they know her. If asked why you didn't continue in that lab during interviews, I'd recommend saying you were interested in some aspect of the newer lab rather than ranting about Bad PI. Similarly, if you're asked a question about mentoring styles, try to talk about what you think works well for you, rather than badmouthing.
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