Postdoc adviser editing while hammered: NOT. OK.
April 9, 2020 9:01 AM   Subscribe

My postdoctoral adviser edited part of an important grant application while totally hammered, and it shows. This isn't OK at all, I cannot work with her until this is addressed, and I have no idea how to address it. What do I do to try to salvage this working relationship?

I am a postdoctoral fellow in the midst of trying to send off a major career development award grant application in the midst of COVID19... it's rough as you might imagine, but I have to keep pressing on.

I'm about to send off part of the application for an important supporter of the grant to read and either accept or reject. A secondary mentor had recommended some restructuring of the grant that made sense to me, and so before passing it on to this important gatekeeper, I had asked my primary postdoctoral mentor if she would be willing to take a look. She had indicated she couldn't this week because of Passover—I indicated I completely understood, apologized for forgetting this cultural context, and figured I would have a colleague take a smell check of it the next day.

As I'm going to bed last night, I notice I have another email from my adviser. She indicates in the email that she's extremely drunk from Passover festivities and that she hated the revision. The email was structured all over the place and riddled with typographical errors. I open the file and it is littered with stream-of-consciousness comments, mean remarks, comments wildly backpedaling from previous thoughts, writing "WTF is this?", long strings of question marks with no explanation, interjections about things outside of this context, insults toward the secondary mentor who had made given recommendations, et cetera. Basically, it was a big drunk mess.

I do not even know how to begin addressing this. I'm shocked and really mad. Maybe her reviewing it came from a good place of wanting to help, but I think it's terribly unprofessional and I have no idea how to take her remarks as she was plastered when writing them. It also puts me in an unfair position vis-a-vis our relationship.

This came to me late last night, and I have not responded as I have no idea how to respond. I haven't heard anything from her this morning. I feel caught in the power asymmetry, wherein I do not want to risk our mentoring relationship, but also I feel I cannot effectively work with her unless this was handled. We've had a generally very positive relationship and she thinks highly of me, but she also has crossed boundaries before in ways that I've had to manage in the past, though this takes the cake.

I think I need to indicate to her that this is not acceptable behavior, as this is going to be an albatross. Is this impulse reasonable? I think my goals are to get a recognition that this was absolutely not OK, and that she will never do so again. If so, any reactions or pointers as to how I might do so?

Thanks, Metafilter. :(
posted by The Sock Puppet Sentience Movement to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Id approach it gently - for full cultural relevance the official religious observation of passover "requires" the consumption of 4 glasses of wine. . . and she got kinda wasted. It was clearly a bad judgement call on her part to edit/send comments in that state but its not like you have evidence shes a day-drinking drunk whos sinking your prospects, right? can you respond to her and say you found some of her commentary/edits hard to follow (she acknowledged her inebriated state when sending, right?) and ask to talk it over with her now that shes in a more clear state of mind?

you sort of dont have any options here otherwise, right? either she'll be apologetic and recognize she did something bad, or shes a jerk?
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 9:07 AM on April 9, 2020 [14 favorites]

I might recommend saying something like "After taking a preliminary look at your comments from last night, I've concluded that sending them without further review must have been an error on your part - understandable, given the stress of the current situation and the libations of the holiday. If you'd like to review your comments and send me your edited feedback, I would be very glad to receive it by [DEADLINE]."

Just be direct, and return the awkwardness to sender, if you can. I do understand this advice may not be practicable, given the power imbalance inherent in your relationship.
posted by amelioration at 9:07 AM on April 9, 2020 [38 favorites]

"Hello. I got your review, but I'm having some trouble following it and I'm wondering if this was the final draft you meant to send? Thanks."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:13 AM on April 9, 2020 [122 favorites]

The stress and anxiety of the covid-19 situation has led me to behave in ways that I wouldn't normally, and that, once I'm more in my right mind, I regret. The most useful thing about these experiences is recognizing that if it's happening to me, it's probably happening for other people as well. If this is out of character for her, I like the notion of giving her a chance to hit "undo" and try again.
posted by spindrifter at 9:17 AM on April 9, 2020 [23 favorites]

"I'm having trouble opening the file you sent, could you resend?"
posted by sacrifix at 9:22 AM on April 9, 2020 [65 favorites]

I think my goals are to get a recognition that this was absolutely not OK, and that she will never do so again.

I think that unless your relationship with her is strong enough for you to say more or less that to her, you'll do better to let go of that goal. She might volunteer that recognition, but she also might not, and I think you want to be prepared emotionally for the second possibility. If you insist on an apology she might employ a variety of defense mechanisms, including going on the offense, to avoid painfully confronting her own behavior.

(I'd also keep in mind that right now she might not even remember she sent the email, or have any notion of how bad it is.)
posted by trig at 9:33 AM on April 9, 2020 [22 favorites]

Breaking down the problem, there are at least four points that stand out to me, as addressed below. I am writing assuming that taking care of work and your goals, which includes submitting the grant in a timely manner, is top priority right now (#2), above everything else (#3 and 4)

1. It isn't clear to me whether the PI is on the grant as a PI/co-PI? This is important because it makes a difference on how to address it. I am assuming she isn't since you mentioned you asked if she were willing to look at it vs she needs to look at it. The next two points are assuming she isn't on the grant, which actually makes this a lot easier for you.

2. Sending out the grant itself, so you can submit YOUR grant for FUNDING. I would wait two days (or 1 day depending on grant deadline) and then send a second email. Along the lines as amelioration suggestions except I would completely take out the part about her behaviour and everything else related to it. Basically uncouple the grant revisions with her behaviour (it may feel like its not separate, I would make it separate to get my grant out). Something like, "Dr.X or X, Thank you for sending your edits on day Y. The edits/revisions/comments are somewhat unclear. Can you take a second look and confirm or send another draft?" (I love what sacrifix just sent, uncouple the two things entirely. The problem is you could get the same draft resent...they need to open and confirm or send a second draft).

3. Her behaviour- why that happened or how to fix is really not important. As a postdoc you gain nothing out of this. This also does not make your relationship worse if you can overlook this one incident (forgive but may not forget entirely for your own sake...) for now. Maybe its covid or passover or both- whatever works for you to move on is what it is.

4. Your emotions around this. If you aren't already, start exercising (I mean like cardio, squash, running, something that wears you out fast at the end of the day). If you already do, I would ramp up a bit till you could not care less about PI's behaviour and more about submitting the grant.

Feel free to send me a message if it helps.
Also, seconding trig. Drop this goal completely!
posted by xm at 9:36 AM on April 9, 2020 [10 favorites]

She's providing you with comments. If you find them unhelpful, you're free to ignore them. Once you decide to do so, consider whether any of the ancillary details are really worth worrying about.
posted by deadweightloss at 9:39 AM on April 9, 2020 [9 favorites]

Given the power imbalance here, I'd also recommend pretending that you weren't able to open the attachment and asking her to resend. Give her a chance to save face, and if she sends you a reasonable response, then chalk it up to a one-time pandemic/holiday mishap and do your best to move on.

It's unlikely that you'll be able to achieve the kind of reckoning you want -- unfortunately, the power relationship is stacked against you here. If the issue continues/escalates, then you will likely need to look for a new advisor. I'm sorry. It sucks. You may want to find a therapist/close friend with no relationship to the program to talk it out with without risk to yourself. This is a fundamentally unfair situation -- again, I'm sorry.
posted by ourobouros at 9:44 AM on April 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think I need to indicate to her that this is not acceptable goals are to get a recognition that this was absolutely not OK, and that she will never do so again

This sounds like (the rather common) Millennial confusion of therapy goals with loved ones and success goals in professional relationships. Your goal here should be to extricate the both of you from this little mess with minimum offense to her and thus damage to your career. The scripts above (I like Tell Me No Lies's best) are designed to do this. Conveniently, if this is something she did do on purpose, the "sorry, I think there was some mistake here" approach will also demonstrate that you are aware of professional boundaries, that she crossed them, and that you know the professional way to indicate that. If it was, as I very strongly suspect, some sort of accident under the high pressure of this time period and/or the four glasses, she is likely to appreciate your giving her the easy out. But there is zero value, zero, to extracting from someone who has a position of professional power over you a humiliating statement like "I got hammered and sent you something I shouldn't, it was awful, I swear I'll never do it again." That's something you might do with a friendship you wanted to salvage because you need to draw and enforce the boundaries. But if she did it on purpose, such a statement is useless, as you aren't going to be able to enforce that boundary (you'll need institutional assistance), and if she didn't, you're embarrassing her for no reason.

This experience was weird and unsettling for you, but it didn't harm you. Don't turn it into something that will.
posted by praemunire at 10:31 AM on April 9, 2020 [141 favorites]

Yikes, this is a tough situation. I agree with the people who are recommending you let go of the goal of trying to get her to acknowledge that what she did isn’t okay. That seems both unnecessary (because the circumstances —pandemic + four glasses of wine— suggest this may never happen again) and unwise (because of the power imbalance). It also honestly feels a little mean: we are all going through a lot of stuff right now, so why not be generous?

But unlike other commenters here, I would not explicitly or implicitly invite her to resend her comments. You don’t like them or find them valuable, so why request a repeat?

I would write her back thanking her for her input, and telling her you’ll take her comments under advisement. I’d maybe do a little expectations management along with that — like, saying something like ‘the time constraint plus the difficulties of doing all this remotely mean I may just need to incorporate what I can, and keep things moving.’ And then I *would* incorporate her input where in your view doing that wouldn’t harm your grant application, for the sake of keeping the peace. (That’s assuming she will or may see the final application. Note that I’m also assuming here you don’t need her sign-off. If you do need her sign-off I would send the lightly-revised version back to her before sending it in.)

FWIW as a stranger with no post-grad experience, to me what she did doesn’t sound that bad. It sounds like she was trying to do you a favour by squeezing a review in despite not really having time to do it. And yes, her input was tactless and unhelpful. But I don’t know: there’s a pandemic going on, everyone is stressed and not at their best, and none of us has any idea what’s going on in other people’s personal lives right now. You say you have a very positive relationship and she thinks highly of you. So I would keep that front-of-mind, and cut her as much slack as you can.
posted by Susan PG at 10:43 AM on April 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

This totally sucks.

I'm not SURE If this is the right approach, but there may be no great approach here, so what if you just pretend this never happened? Maybe incorporate any valid ideas that can be salvaged from her 'feedback', never talk to her about this, and then just move on?

Again, this really sucks.
posted by latkes at 10:49 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

No no no no no no no. Do not address this.

Have you listened to the marvelous podcast "Dolly Parton's America"? People acted all kinds of awful toward Dolly Parton in her early career in the 50's and 60's and she just kept smiling, cranking out songs, making boob jokes, having a killer work ethic, and wearing rhinestones. And now she is a gazillionaire. I implore you to take that approach.

Either the mentor does have an alcohol problem - which she will not thank you for pointing out - or she doesn't and this is a one-off. Either way, talking about it doesn't change or improve the outcome. Remember what they say to families of alcoholics: "you didn't cause it, you can't control it, you can't cure it." If she does have an alcohol problem, that is just a fact of your mentoring relationship that you now know. Or maybe it's a one-off. You have no way of knowing right now.

I have this phrase I've been saying to myself since this all began: "pandemic rules." Under pandemic rules, nothing is a precedent for anything. So the urgency to correct something just goes away. My teenage boys are fully nocturnal? Fine. My boss flipped out about something? Fine. Nothing counts during the pandemic.

In the immortal words of Ingrid Bergman, happiness is a long life and a bad memory. Put on your best southern lady voice, say "Bless her heart," and move on.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:08 AM on April 9, 2020 [29 favorites]

It's been mentioned a few times above, but I think the best way to handle this is to send her a fresh email and say,

a) OMG. I accidentally deleted your message from last night when I opened it and now can't find it again! Would you mind re-sending? Thanks so much.

b) I can't get the attachment to open. Do you mind re-sending it?

She will know you know, but it gives everyone the plausible deniability needed to get on with life.
posted by whitewall at 11:17 AM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Everyone screws up,since it's a one off you are best to just follow the advice above to pretend you never saw it. That's the smart professional thing to do and this is a professional situation, despite your emotional investment in your work it is just work. She's not family. And there are LOTS of people putting grants together under less than ideal conditions now, it's a thing. Hijinks have ensued and will continue to do so.

I think I need to indicate to her that this is not acceptable behavior, as this is going to be an albatross. Is this impulse reasonable? I think my goals are to get a recognition that this was absolutely not OK, and that she will never do so again. If so, any reactions or pointers as to how I might do so?

I think you should examine your desire to punish and chastise your advisor. It won't advance your interests, why so you feel so compelled to do this? It's a work relationship, she's not your girlfriend.
posted by fshgrl at 11:21 AM on April 9, 2020 [22 favorites]

Looking at this from the outside, I would say that she thinks her relationship with you is a hell of a lot closer than you think it is.

Because she has made herself extremely vulnerable to you by sending this email, and that's the sort of thing an intelligent and obviously very competent adult would only do with a close friend or family member even when they were pretty deep in their cups, and she is clearly counting on loyalty and an extra big helping of goodwill from you.

In fact, I'd say this is a bid for greater closeness, and coming on Passover after dinner, it's practically an invitation to join the family!

And that's exactly how I'd treat it until I was sure that isn't what she meant to do, because if it is, and you reject it out of hand, she will be really hurt and may strike back at you.

From your question, the two of you don't sound too compatible and that's a shame, because I think you have the opportunity here for a strong reationship with a person who might become a good friend as well as a valuable colleague.

One final thing. I think you should look carefully at the suggestions she made in this email. I have a feeling she might have made some excellent points, and you could strengthen the application significantly if you are able to see through your distaste for the way she made them.
posted by jamjam at 11:57 AM on April 9, 2020 [10 favorites]

Also, remember boundaries not are something you set on other people, they're something you set on yourself.

"I won't have professional relationships with people who send me drunken rants" is actually a perfectly okay boundary to have! It's totally reasonable.

But you enforce that boundary by gently drifting away and finding another mentor. You can't talk to her and have her become that mentor. If she doesn't have the capacity to be that person, there aren't words that you can say that will give her that capacity. You are not a spellcaster. You can't say exactly the right combination of words and alter reality.

It sucks. And it's really sad. That's the painful part about caring about people with addictions. You have to grieve the relationship that you thought you had. It just sucks.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:18 PM on April 9, 2020 [12 favorites]

I would not ask her to just resend it. If she resends it without looking at it, you're stuck having to write to her again.
posted by FencingGal at 12:25 PM on April 9, 2020 [16 favorites]

I left academia 2y ago and workin high tech now. There's kegerators in the office, conference rooms named after brewers, all that jazz. If someone got absolutely plastered and left an incoherent, drunken, insulting, angry code review comment, that would be something that management has to address, maybe they take away the kegerator, maybe they share the mental health / substance abuse hotline number privately, and it probably shows up on their next perf review. If a manager pulled that stunt, that'd be 90 day personal improvement plan territory.

Why are the standards of professional behavior lower for people society provides tenure track protections to? As best I can tell, it's because grad students & postdocs feel they have no alternatives. OP, if you feel you are owed an apology -- which is semi reasonable to expect if you think this is atypical, one-off behavior from a mentor worth having -- then your best solution is to work on your alternatives. Alternative mentors, editors, maybe even jobs. Because of the presumably private nature of the communication, any effort you take to involve neutral parties or overseers (forwarding to the dept head, deans, HR, whatevs) will be instantly tied back to you by your mentor, and you will need fallback plans as that bridge burns. If you are not prepared to suffer the blowback -- and in the COVID era I assume that is most of us -- I would not advise anything beyond the Tell Me No Lies email and a waiting period, while you continue building your options.

I do not want to risk our mentoring relationship, but also I feel I cannot effectively work with her unless this was handled.

The genie is already out of the bottle; this relationship is already damaged, and at risk. The only thing you can do now is set them up to do the right thing. Hopefully your mentor agrees with what I wrote above, and within a week of receiving your polite reply, repairs the professional relationship. If not, then at that point you've learned something about this person and will have to decide what you do next.
posted by pwnguin at 12:39 PM on April 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

If what she sent you was totally incoherent, it's totally incoherent. but some people lose tact, judgement, and inhibition when drunk without losing mental acuity as such. so if I were you I would take another look at whatever comments shocked you with their meanness and consider whether they might hold any use as unfiltered but real and relevant reactions to the content and to the suggestions of your other advisor. she isn't necessarily wrong as to certain specifics just because she was drunk and it showed.

and likewise I would look to the parts where she wrote ????? and the like. Sure, you aren't trying to write a grant app geared to be transparent and easy to follow to a reader who's sleepy and drunk. but the ability or inability of an intelligent reader to easily follow your writing when she's very distracted or "distracted" can be genuinely useful feedback.

but of course you can also just write back and say, "Could you expand on some of these comments? I know these are your immediate reactions but I could use some more detailed explanations of which parts of this are problematic." or whatever. This will not induce her to humble herself before you (though it might elicit a casual apology) but it might get some more useful comments out of her.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:24 PM on April 9, 2020 [8 favorites]

Sounds like she did you a favor on a holiday during a pandemic. Cut her some slack. For your own sake, do not bring this up. Consider it’s not her responsibility to send you comments in the form or content you prefer. Advisers are often unhelpful and incoherent; at least you got timely feedback. (“???” is perfectly acceptable feedback in my profession.)

I’d go through the comments and take what you can from them.
posted by kapers at 1:54 PM on April 9, 2020 [9 favorites]

I can absolutely see how this would make you uncomfortable and leave you feeling awkward, but I would gently suggest that you reconsider the thoughts "I cannot work with her until this is addressed" and "I need to indicate to her that this is not acceptable behavior" and "my goals are to get a recognition that this was absolutely not OK, and that she will never do so again".

She is in a position of power over you (in a particularly power-sensitive context: acedemia). It simply is not your place to tell her whether her behavior is "acceptable" or not, or to make demands about how she behaves in the future. You are not her partner or her supervisor or even her peer. You may not like it, it may make you uncomfortable or confused or angry ... but you don't get a say in how she conducts herself.

It sounds like she got in her cups, lost her inhibition, and did something stupid, maybe from a place of trying to be helpful. She didn't commit a crime, she didn't hurt anybody, she just did some dumb, drunk shit that made herself look bad. She probably already realizes that she messed up and is mortified about it.

Your only angle here is to help her save face and move on like nothing ever happened and never. mention. it. again.
posted by mccxxiii at 2:40 PM on April 9, 2020 [9 favorites]

In my time I've worked with some very intelligent, creative, and, uh, eccentric people, so from my perspective I would try to be forgiving, and give her a bit of slack, and politely request a revised follow-up..

(If this really is just a one-time freak-out, then maybe it's a thing that everyone can just deal with and move on. But if this is part of a repeated pattern, then it is a different issue, and should be addressed accordingly).
posted by ovvl at 3:39 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

but of course you can also just write back and say, "Could you expand on some of these comments? I know these are your immediate reactions but I could use some more detailed explanations of which parts of this are problematic." or whatever. This will not induce her to humble herself before you (though it might elicit a casual apology) but it might get some more useful comments out of her.

This is the correct response. Don't take this to a place that makes it difficult for her to save face; at the end of the day, you're the one on the wrong side of the power imbalance here, you're the one with more to lose, and you're the one who'll be socially and professionally sanctioned for messing around with the boundaries of your relationship. You, not her. Don't ever lose sight of that.
posted by blerghamot at 4:23 PM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

For me it makes a difference if this is a STEM field or Humanities/Social Sciences. I'm in Humanities, and here the supervisor/post-doc relationship tends to be much more informal and collegial than the supervisor/phd candidate relationship. I think its very different in STEM, much more formal... like an employer/employee relationship.

In either case, I think keeping a paper trail is the most important thing. I suggest you save the correspondence. I think it's quite reasonable, actually advisable, not to respond. Just let it pass. But save it for your records. If you do chose to respond, keep your response minimal and strictly professional. Do not put in anything that suggests you are assuming anything about your supervisor's state of mind. Save that email in your records as well. And maybe, once the grant app is in and everyone has had a few days to take the heat off, have an off-the-record conversation (on the phone? zoom?skype?) just to touch base, and get a read on how she is doing, and how the relationship stands. And make your own written note of that conversation right afterwards and save it in your correspondence file.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 4:31 PM on April 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

I don't think you should pretend the file doesn't open or something and just ask her to resend it. She will probably not take a second look before resending it, and she probably doesn't realise how incoherent and inappropriate her original feedback was.

I would either let this slide, or ask for elaboration of some of the more confusing comments. The latter will make her go back to the document and she may herself realise how inappropriate it was and apologise. If not, well, you learned something about her.

I do however think what she sent you might be valuable in itself. Not every grant referee will be as sharp as the sober version of your advisor. A reader could be distracted by kids, or by pandemic life generally. They might be multitasking (not ideal, but people do). They will almost definitely be reading quickly under pressure, rather than taking a long slow careful look at your application. Your advisor has signalled to you the parts that are unclear or problematic to the far-from-ideal reader, which is an audience you should probably be writing for. As someone who has read and assessed a number of national and international grants, I can tell you, I once had one that was written so that a child of 10-12 could probably have got the gist of most of it, and it was such a relief to read, and far more convincing than the ones where I'm not 100% sure I really get what they are getting at with their very smart-sounding prose.
posted by lollusc at 5:09 PM on April 9, 2020 [16 favorites]

I would NOT recommend putting it back on her plate until you have made significant revisions. No matter how diplomatically you put it, asking her to redo work she’s already done, before you even attempt to incorporate her comments, is not your place. Make the changes you agree should be made and send her a redraft. She’s not your employee.
posted by kapers at 5:47 PM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Please bear in mind how "Passover festivities" are going this year for many people, and cut your adviser some slack. She was unprofessional, but don't you go being unprofessional by taking it too personally.

I think you received the email, and had trouble with her attachment. Does she have the time to take another look, re-save, and re-send, before your deadline to send to the supporter? You appreciate her attention to your work, especially given the timing, and you understand completely if a re-send is not possible.
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 12:30 PM on April 10, 2020

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