18 months into my PhD (after I had passed my quals), my advisor became so emotionally abusive and bullying that I had to take a semester off (I was already dealing with diagnosed depression). While I returned for six months, ultimately I was not able to make it work with my advisor (who went from bullying me to ignoring me) and have left the PhD program for industry.

I've kept in infrequent contact with my former undergraduate advisor, with whom I conducted about a year of research. She recently ran into a close friend at a conference and asked about me and how my PhD was going. While the friend did not disclose the specifics, he disclosed how my advisor was holding me back by requiring experimental work after withdrawing support/funds, at which point she said that based on my current work, it would be sufficient enough for a PhD with her (and that I should finish my PhD remotely with her).

Once I formally resigned my position (I have not officially "withdrawn" from the program till October), I emailed my former advisor to let her know of my decision. She has seemed eager to reconnect now that we are in the same geographic area (2 hr). I'm planning on meeting with her to catch up, but struggling with how much I should disclose about my departure from my program. She is not a frequent collaborator with my advisor (they wrote a book together some years ago), but they very much travel in the same circles, are on the same committees, etc. Should I tell her what happened? Or will this just lead to gossip that won't help me personally or professionally? Both advisors are still closely tied to industry, fwiw.

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    You might adjust the title to clarify that 'former advisor' refers to someone else. – Max Barraclough Jun 12 at 9:42
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    Never underestimate the smallness of academic circles. An adviser who is abusive towards their students usually tips their hand in other regards with their colleagues. Unless its an anomaly with your situation, dont think colleagues are not aware. – JWH2006 Jun 12 at 12:13
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    I would ask your former advisor if other students had difficulties with your PhD advisor and gauge her response. She will probably read between the lines. – user334732 Jun 12 at 14:39
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    He only has 3 completed PhDs at this point (not surprising since they all took 6+ years). I found out after I quit that I'm the 7th person (4th scientific staff) to quit on him in the 8 years he's been a professor. He's also had a meteoric rise in the field. – stagermane Jun 12 at 14:47
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    @JWH2006 It is exactly this assumption that "these things are known, so I don't report them" which makes them unknown for too long a while. It depends on colleagues that are personally close (and hence mutually trustful) to discuss in private, to spread this knowledge. Which they will a propos of a practical item (recommendations, suggested placements/sollicitations, cooperations) which are infrequent (single digit per year, per colleague). In general a reasonable person thinks "I have a suspicion, but no facts; so I will not mention it" unless really close (and/or drunk). – user3445853 Jun 13 at 9:36
up vote 64 down vote accepted

I'm sorry to hear about your experience, that sounds very distressing.

From what you've posted, it looks as if your undergrad advisor is sympathetic and thinks well of you. That being the case, you probably don't have much to lose by discussing it with her, especially if she asks about it.

It's also unlikely that you'll get much personal benefit from discussing it, other than a sympathetic ear (which is sometimes well worth having!) But it's quite possible that you'll be helping other students. If she is aware of this behaviour, then she's in a much better position to look out for other students who might run into the same problems with this guy.

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    AND Many abusers are two-faced: Much will not be shown in front of colleagues, only their nice side. And when (male) colleagues hear 2nd/3rd-hand experiences, they often minimize, b/c they "wouldn't let it affect me, don't be thin-skinned, chin up!", thus don't pass on that rumour/knowledge on the grapevine. You almost need female-to-female talks, until a threshold is reached (in cases, or gravity). [We have a practically unfireable manipulator, wrecked 2 accusers' careers; we caught rumors only after hiring. Fast spreading was prof at a conf with wife and student/lover, keeping us awake.] – user3445853 Jun 13 at 10:13

Yes. Abusive persons in positions of authority are a huge problem in academia. A major reason for the continued existence of this problem is the fact that it’s often swept under the carpet and hushed up.

Ask yourself: would you have liked to know before starting your PhD that your future adviser was known to be abusive? The answer, I hope, is self-evident.

Disclosing the abusiveness of your advisor might not help you personally but it would be a huge service to the academic community, and in particular to future students. Put in a different, more negative way, by not letting people know you’d be contributing to the problem. Unfortunately there are often good reasons for keeping such things to oneself (fear of reprisal probably being the main factor) but since you’ve moved on to industry, you’re in a unique position where disclosure is unlikely to cause you any harm.

One of the big revelations of the #MeToo movement is the fact that many people honestly don’t know that a colleague of theirs is a harasser, and thus are unable to help victims, or prevent abuse. The same is true for all forms of abuse, not just sexual harassment.

  • I'm an editor who works with graduate students and faculty. The majority of my faculty clients report abusive treatment by their colleagues. Abuse accounts for much of my work---writing tenure appeals, editing dissertations and theses for people who have been so traumatized by their supervisors that they can barely function, editing a "punishment paper" for a professor who was wrongly accused of plagiarism, etc. So I believe that in fact this abuse is known, but the power hierarchy is such that anyone who would try to counter it would suffer pretty significant consequences. – Eggy Jun 14 at 1:03
  • One of the big revelations of the MeToo movement is that "everyone knew about the abuse for years" but people in positions of power did nothing to stop it due to the prestige of the perpetrator. I'm in favor of unmasking abusers whoever they may be. Academia is ripe for its own MeToo revolution. – Eggy Jun 14 at 1:03

I agree that you should disclose this information. I know of a colleague who has a reputation for being hard on students, but I don't know whether it crosses the line. I know another who is a raging jerk, but again I don't know whether his annoying personality crosses into abusing students. In both cases it would be tremendously helpful to have a student tell me "Look, don't let anybody else get into the situation I wound up in."

Don't let them take advantage of fear. That's how the powerful get away with it.

  • This is definitely the situation I'm in; I initially thought it was "tough love"/clashing of personalities/goals. Once I decided to leave for good, stories started coming in from other students that had also been abused (even those that I had perceived as being favored by the boss). – stagermane Jun 14 at 14:06

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