37

I've been bullied by my supervisor and other members of my research group for the past couple of years.

Some of the things which have indicated bullying include snide remarks being made during group meetings, exclusion from the group inside and outside of the research environment, not being kept in the loop for group projects and even my own project, having key work on my project assigned to someone else, being given unreasonable loads of work to complete in an unrealistic time frame, being called upon and humiliated during meetings in front of colleagues, being immediately blamed for any issues in the group without allowing for an explanation, having rules change on me last minute and not being informed of these, and being subjected to massive double standards overall.

There are also a few more serious issues, involving threats to remove me from the program, use of my content without referencing me, removing me from projects I had planned on publishing from and giving them to others without informing me until they have conducted 'my' work and published it, and having them ignore university policies in favor of their own rules.

I have spoken to PhD advisers, advocacy reps, and other staff members about this, but have not wished to pursue any formal complaints procedures out of fear my supervisor will compromise my PhD (by reassigning all the novel aspects of my project to someone else, or not providing feedback on my thesis), and ruin my ability to work in research (by preventing me from publishing during my PhD, providing negative references, ruining my reputation in the field).

Long story short, does anyone have any advice on how to approach this situation without compromising my PhD or future career in the field, something my well-respected and rather manipulative supervisor could easily do without getting caught?

  • 4
    Is what you describe due to sexism, racism or other -ism? It seems to have the earmarks. – Buffy Jul 17 '18 at 20:50
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    And is the in the US or elsewhere? There may be different options available in different places. – Buffy Jul 17 '18 at 21:04
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    RUN, RUN and RUN it doesnt worth it. This only apply if you dont want to fight. – user94263 Jul 18 '18 at 2:07
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    Worrying about negative references? If I had to guess, I would guess that you'd get negative references anyway from that advisor. – Ink blot Jul 18 '18 at 12:28
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    Don't walk. Run! (Then, if you still care, fight from a distance.) – JeffE Jul 18 '18 at 17:20

12 Answers 12

48

I have spoken to … but have not wished to pursue any formal complaints procedures out of fear my supervisor will compromise my PhD … and ruin my ability to work in research …

Okay, so I am going to be the bad-guy here. What you say you fear will happen here has already happened. What you describe ---if accurate--- is already massively compromising your PhD and your ability to research. The university has formal mechanisms in place to deal with this kind of issue. If you are not willing to avail yourself of the mechanisms in place to deal with these problems then there is nothing that anyone can do. (And frankly, it is quite difficult to muster sympathy for complainants who refuse to make a proper complaint when avenues are available for this.) You should have complained formally or got out years ago, but since you are still there you have a choice: use the mechanisms available to you for complaints of this kind, or not. Do not become a victim of the sunk cost fallacy.

If you decide to avail yourself of the complaint mechanisms at your university, the main thing you should do is this: document, document, document. Document everything well, and collect and keep all relevant evidence of treatment that is unfair to you. Make a chronological list of incidents, since the start of your candidature, detailing dates (or rough dates if you can't remember exact dates), what happened in each incident, and any documentation (emails, etc.) that constitutes evidence of the incident. Write this in a neutral factual way, but make sure you briefly explain how each incident negatively affected your candidature. Seek written statements from other sympathetic students that can back up your assertions. You have said that the university has breached its policies when dealing with you. Make sure you document instances of this as well. If that is correct, then the university will be in a weak position in respect to the conflict, and you have a greater prospect of extracting some reasonable concessions in a complaint process.

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    Main points are 100% correct but I don't think it is relevant what OP should have done, or who can muster sympathy for who. What is relevant is what OP should do now. – Designerpot Jul 18 '18 at 8:26
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    @Designerpot I am curious, why people often resist an idea of reflecting a little bit on the past and trying to identify what could've been done to avoid issues in present. Surely, it won't help to solve the current problem, but it can help to avoid/prevent similar problems in future? – Dmitry Savostyanov Jul 18 '18 at 15:54
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    it is quite difficult to muster sympathy for complainants who refuse to make a proper complaintSpeak for yourself. Abuse is remarkably effective at disempowering its victims. – JeffE Jul 18 '18 at 17:22
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    What you say you fear will happen here has already happened. This says it all. – John Feltz Jul 18 '18 at 19:25
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    I don't like this answer at all. Sentences like "The university has formal mechanisms in place to deal with this kind of issue" and "it is quite difficult to muster sympathy for complainants who refuse to make a proper complain" will give readers the wrong impression that everything will turn well as long as you stick to the rules and that the whole situation is somehow OP's fault. In fact, I find it very careless of Ben to give this sort of answer without knowing more about OP's status, the country, the supervisor, and the research field. I have full sympathy for OP. – trunklop Jul 19 '18 at 9:06
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My advice is very simple: get out of this place, away from these people.

You already have compromised your PhD by joining the wrong group. As soon as the issues surfaced you should have moved on. I do not know whether there was anything in particular which triggered their treatment, and whether this is "special treatment" for you, but maybe this is the first valuable lesson you can try to learn from this mess.

But I do not think you should continue doing this to yourself, and I do not think you can succeed in anything substantial while you're surrounded by such low class of parasitic individuals. You will not finish this PhD, accept this as a fact. Even if you did, what would you take from it?

Look in other directions, reconsider whether you really want a PhD, think about the acquired skills and experience transferrable to business, industry. Whatever. But first step: walk out and never come back again.

From a distance you will be able to see things clearer. Start now.

Good luck.

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    While I might want to look at that option, it seems extreme - a last resort. I would hope something less disruptive could be found. You are correct that no-one should have to live with such abuse, of course. – Buffy Jul 17 '18 at 20:52
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    People nowadays overestimate the value of titles, and academics are typically locked in the illusion that the ivory tower is all there is for them. Quitting a PhD is not the end of the world, in fact for so many students it can be a career-saver. I do not think OP will be even allowed to graduate here. Outside such a place on a sane mind there might be more professional opportunities, towards higher salaries. First step in this case is surely the great outdoors, in my view. – Scientist Jul 17 '18 at 20:57
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    Dear @Buffy I dont understand why u disagree with this answer, it is clear and honest, you are enabling abuser, OP dont want to engage in fight, there is no other way, if you dont want to fight get out of that group – user94263 Jul 18 '18 at 2:04
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    @Stefan I do not think Buffy fully disagrees; I believe Buffy works in a region/place where such a situation could be mended internally... (=a place where it isn't likely to happen as such, anyway). – Scientist Jul 18 '18 at 12:35
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    @Scientist yes, there was one indian also post question about one of hardvard lab, he used his name for profil, I agree, – user94263 Jul 18 '18 at 16:25
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Bullying in academia is currently getting higher exposure as a problem. See the recent cases of Nazeen Rahman at ICR in the UK, or Guinevere Kauffmann at the Max Planck. In this climate it is less likely that complaints will be ignored. If faculties don't want the bad press that dealing with an abuser brings, they want the bad press of being found not to have done so even less.

As far as I see it, you have three choices (depending on the time constraints of the system you are working with, they may be more or less tenable):

1) You could walk away. Maybe start again somewhere else. Maybe don't.

2) You could start an official complaint against your supervisor. As others have already pointed out, you are now in a place where all of backlash you fear from this course of action may happen even if you don't start a complaint. Do you really believe this person will spend time on your thesis, or treat you fairly when it comes to authorship? Only you can answer that question.

3) You can try to change supervisors without a formal complaint: it might be that the supervisor would be willing to not stand in the way of you finding a new supervisor either within the department or, probably better, in a different, but related department if this meant that they could avoid a formal complaint. I've seen several people do this, and it has worked out well for them, even though some might see it as an affront to justice. If you decide to take this route, it should be someone from the department's hierarchy that approaches your supervisor, and not you.

What I would say is doing nothing is not an option, don't allow your self to believe that it is.

In the ideal world the perpetrator would be made to change their ways, or leave. But only you know if you have the emotional energy for that fight.

One thing you should note is that this will probably result is you not finishing your PhD with the same project you have now. While it might seem soul destroying to loose 2 years worth of work that you've already done, you will have picked up many skills which will make any new project easier and quicker to get off the ground.

  • 1
    "soul destroying to loose 2 years worth of work" -- two years of actual PhD training are nothing sort of a loss, considering the student was really investing in himself, learning methods, producing data and written material, and getting paid for it. For most reality outside of the academia, the degree itself is but a wall decoration. – Scientist Jul 19 '18 at 15:43
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    I said "might seem" soul destroying, but then went on to make exactly the same point as you. – Ian Sudbery Jul 19 '18 at 16:14
  • Sure, point taken. I used to think in terms of degrees that as a PhD student and nowadays I see so many people who could benefit enormously from just quitting!.. If at least they'd listen. – Scientist Jul 19 '18 at 16:23
10

Not knowing the real situation here but I hope the following can be helpful. The other two answers here currently have a downside as well as any upside.

If you leave you will give up two years of progress toward your degree. That may be a worthwhile sacrifice if it is possible for you to take it. If you go to a different university you will have the experience needed, I hope, to get yourself into a better situation. I agree, that you are working with monsters. I once left one university for another and wound up in a better situation, but mine was very different.

If file formal complaints internally, you may, and only you can judge, face pushback from the administration who may rise up to protect "their own" as has been seen too often. If that happens, you will pay the price as you fear. I hope that you are overly pessimistic here, but not knowing more, I can't say. But the university may itself have an office that can effectively handle such issues, but you will need to vigorously defend yourself from attacks of those cornered by the accusations. If the Ombudsman office is strong enough you may be fine and you may be able to learn of their reputation before complaining.

The third option is to attack the problem with allies from outside the university. This is the reason I asked about sexism and racism, etc. There are organizations and individuals who have pledged to try to work with people being discriminated against and some of them can be quite effective. Universities don't like dirty laundry shown in public and so will sometimes make accommodations for people to avoid both/either of publicity or lawsuits. These organizations may have lawyers that can be brought to bear. They may even have external funding to provide services.

However, one hesitates to recommend such a course of action, since the results can be messy and may result in the individual (you) paying most of the costs (and I'm not speaking of money, here).

Deans don't like to be told that their faculty are unethical. They don't like to respond to groups of complainants especially. They don't want to lose face in public and among their peers.

But going this route calls for a carefully planned program of increasing pressure that requires allies, as I said above. If this is the real situation, search out those allies and discuss their options.

It is even possible that you will find allies among the faculty. Most of us don't like to be associated with abusers and other unethical faculty members.


I recognize that none of this may apply to you, but it is possible that it applies to others who face similar issues.

  • +1 because this is the officially-correct path to seek. But I highly doubt the OP comes from a place & society where moderation and administration work as they should. Otherwise such a mess as described wouldn't have developed. Most departments I have been in contact with in the 3rd world follow a clan culture where staff are bound to support each other, and abusers and their minions thrive. I believe fighting back will cost OP more (returned funds, further abuse, sanity) plus a title which is unlikely to come anyway. – Scientist Jul 18 '18 at 12:46
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    @Scientist, sadly, I have to agree. But such things happen in the US as well. We like to think of ourselves as more "enlightened". Would that it were so. But the OP is in a bad spot wherever it has occurred. – Buffy Jul 18 '18 at 12:55
  • Yes, I am sure such things happen in the US, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, etc. I have heard of many instances. Yet there is the resource of law enforcement if one knows how to manage it. Elsewhere (e.g. China) political anarchy prevails over official procedures. I fear OP is in "the real world". – Scientist Jul 18 '18 at 13:01
4

On the surface the solution looks simple: get out of there. However you need a plan!

One thing is certain, universities do have liberal views, and all the "-isms" can be stopped, and the people responsible for it could be fired, doesn't matter how high rank they maybe. However, here is the catch: you need the right person to talk to.

Start with the head of research group and beyond: start discussing your issue with the head of group. Most of the time, this will stop the issue. If that does not stop the issue, go right to the human resources department.

Meanwhile...: During this stressful time, you should start looking for a new position somewhere else, you might get a position right away, and therefore you can leave. It might be the case that, your issue is resolved by going to another research group at the same university. Take your time and follow these two paths, because you don't want to leave, don't get paid, and then start looking for a position.

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    +1 Actively seeking for a new position from inside is the master move here. However it is quite difficult for the typical individual under psychological distress (e.g. leading to bad exposure to peers via a number of faux-paux and awkward behaviour in networking). Plus surely as soon as the bad colleagues sniff OP's intentions they'll work against it and increase the monkey-business load. – Scientist Jul 18 '18 at 12:50
3

You're obviously in a complicated and emotionally difficult situation. I'm sure there's far more to it than you could cram into even a long StackExchange post. What you'd really benefit from is a conversation with a confidential professional skilled at handling these types of situations. Luckily, such professionals exist and many universities have them. They're called ombuds (or ombudsmen or ombudspeople) and can be brilliant at what they do. They'll listen and help you think through the situation and your options -- everything from what you might say to a problematic person to how to pursue a formal complaint, and much in between. They can also help with mediation if you choose to pursue that route. See if your campus has an ombuds office and if they do, go there.

2

If you can transfer to another university and start a new Ph.D program, you may "lose two years of progress" -- but you'll be able to make progress more effectively if no one is targeting you.

Life is too short to deal with bullies.

  • Like no one there wont figure out what fell him in the last place – mathreadler Jul 20 '18 at 16:52
  • Maybe his new place will somehow find out what happened at his old place. They might get in touch with his team and find out that way. But if not, he doesn't have to reveal everything. People transfer for all sorts of reasons -- sometimes a combination of multiple reasons. It's often possible to give reasons that are true (for example "I felt this university would be a better fit for my research topic") without going into specifics about other factors. And he doesn't have to answer questions that they don't ask. – jkdev Jul 20 '18 at 18:15
  • Also, which is more likely -- (1) information will travel to another workplace, or (2) information will travel to another team or department within the same workplace? I think (1) is less likely, and therefore safer. – jkdev Jul 20 '18 at 18:18
  • Seriously though, I still think the option of "transferring to another university" is worth a try. And let's say the new place does find out -- they still may accept him, especially if they believe that he is not at fault in the way he was treated. – jkdev Jul 20 '18 at 21:05
  • No, it's not worth a swift. Go or no go. Never expose your weakness like that. It will always be capitalised upon. – mathreadler Jul 20 '18 at 21:07
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If you meet a problematic person in the morning, you ran into an problematic person. If you meet nothing but problematic people for years, you're probably the problematic person. If it's been this sustained for this long from many different people, maybe you need to actually examine your attitude and behavior and spend more time considering your own actions instead of everyone else's. Most people don't wake up thinking "man, how can I screw that person over today", and if they're actually well respected in their field they probably didn't get there by making stuff up and plotting someone's downfall for no reason. Not knowing the situation any better than hearing just your side, those are my thoughts. This isn't the advice anyone wants to hear, but do some honest self-reflection.

  • I thought we were starting to get past this sort of victim blaming culture. – Mark Booth Jul 19 '18 at 16:14
  • Suggesting self-reflection on why numerous people over several years don't like you isn't the same as blaming a rape victim because they wore a short skirt. If someone just wants to be coddled in a hug box and not hear something that might be the real reason because it's uncomfortable then they shouldn't solicit advice on the internet. – Thomas Jul 20 '18 at 0:31
  • "Examine your attitude and behavior" Or ask a close friend or family member -- make sure you get an honest answer and find out what you can improve. But... if you are not the problem, then don't blame yourself, and if the people around you are the problem, then don't let them off the hook. – jkdev Jul 20 '18 at 4:29
  • 'If you only meet [x] people, maybe you're [x]' is an expression that has its place, but in an isolated situation it doesn't really have the same weight. Institutions, and many of the people part of them, can become toxic like this. – Kami Jul 20 '18 at 4:48
  • @Thomas Actually I do think there is no reason to deal with the student in that way even if the student is so bad! The good mentor supposed to deal in good manner and deliver his feedback in respectable way! My mentor lies, he is just jealous pyscho person and he has the power to do every thing, so there isnot any reason that professor deal in that way! In the other side, I have witness very kind and respectable PI. – user39171 Oct 3 '18 at 9:32
0

You need to abort this plan. No one is going to help you. Your supervisor is more valuable than you are to the university. Academics suffer from moral hazard when it comes to altruism and their livelihoods depend on ignoring this issue.

If you continue down this path, your phd will be only a piece of paper.

I spent 6 years in your situation. There is no solution. There is nothing to fight for. You can try again somewhere else, or not.

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    Academics, just as other people, are different. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jul 18 '18 at 15:56
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    Persons are different. Bullys are all the same. – user96140 Jul 18 '18 at 15:58
  • Yes, but so far, only the supervisor has been identified as a bully. Generalizing from that to "No one is going to help you" is a big jump. – JeffE Jul 18 '18 at 17:28
  • its my assessment that dimitry and jeff are suffering from the same issue the asker (and i once) did : we collectively underestimate the risk of pursuing a graduate program. there are no bounds to the downside. a bad experience can literally kill you or worse. escalating this issue to the administration is exactly that: an escalation. there is no upside here. – user96140 Jul 18 '18 at 17:31
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    @user96140 Welcome to SE Academia ! I support you: I have corrected minor typos on your answer and upvoted it. I understand your standpoint -- feel free to visit my profile and read my answers & comments elsewhere. My advice here is that you avoid battling too much on comments towards a better experience with the website. Some will disagree with you, but it doesn't mean anything other than that. Many active users here are biased towards the academic establishment; just watch them. There is, fortunately, diversity of opinions nonetheless. Keep the cool and read on... Good luck! – Scientist Jul 18 '18 at 20:32
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If it's too late to pretend you don't understand what they are trying to do with you then you can't just sit around and keep cashing in any longer.

But that is clearly one thing you could do if you haven't told anyone of how you perceive things yet. Just slow down, stop taking things personally, deliver bare minimum of what you are supposed to, but always keep the best to yourself.

Always remember your boss always has bosses higher up. And (s)he will look bad in front of those bosses if he loses you somehow.

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    "Cashing in"? Really? – JeffE Jul 18 '18 at 17:21
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    That doesn't seem like an effective way to a degree. Nor to mental health. "Go along to get along" leaves the trolls with their power, usually. First, take care of yourself. Second, crush the bugs. – Buffy Jul 18 '18 at 17:23
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    @Buffy Maybe the person already has stopped wanting a degree when they see how this works in practice. – mathreadler Jul 18 '18 at 17:26
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    @mathreadler, perhaps, but we don't know that and I hope he or she finds a better solution. After all we aren't all evil to the core. – Buffy Jul 18 '18 at 17:29
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    @JeffE Having worked in very different places (South America, Asia, Central Europe) I can say that fundamentally this discussion here is culturally-biased. In some cultures (e.g. china) you're supposed to "accept" abuse without affecting your face (literally) while hoping for the right opportunity to get payback. This is because of a strong local pressure against conflict and also because nobody would support a complainer or whistleblower. This is quite different from 1st world "model" democracy standards. – Scientist Jul 19 '18 at 13:58
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providing negative references, ruining my reputation in the field

It seems to me that this will happen anyway.

My advice would be fight back at the right time with sufficient resources. You are a PhD candidate, think about solid ways to document and validate your claims. Chose the right time; for instance get the supervisor to proofread your thesis and have everything ready then start the procedure.

My second advice is either fight back very hard or don't do anything at all.

I don't think using your right of defending yourself would completely ruin your chances to work in research. People have eyes and minds and can read. There will be some recruiters that will probably understand your situation the same way many people did here.

Best of luck.

0

@Thomas made a point about this, but I need to elaborate a bit.

Last year, I have experienced all the things you have written here in my previous laboratory as an M.Sc. candidate.

You can blame the system for not being sufficiently efficient to see your effort and award you, yet it is quite a different topic.

Your critical mistake: Everyone now feels intimidated by you. Sit and think calmly as a 3rd person. You enter the lab, at least start with a smile on your face when greeting others.

Try to see the problems others are facing, in the laboratory or in their extra-curricular life. I don't say investigate but see. Give help or at least say some good words with a sincerity. You might not experience this kind of attitude from others but you, anyway, should be the one to do so right now.

In discussing a topic, clearly show that you care about others ideas, and don't destroy them when they are wrong, use the logic terminology to refute their ideas in a polite way. And be productive, if you don't have something to improve the current flow, don't be a nuisance and just go with it. Otherwise, you will be an annoyance to them, as in their perspective you are just retarding the progress.

Think your research group as a whole, don't focus on the unjustices on you. Nothing is 100% efficient so you will need to embrace any wrongdoing at first. Then find a way to constructively get over it. Example, there is an article writing and you produced most of the data but not taken as an author, it may even be so that you accidentally hear the article writing from a person. In this situation, what you do is going your advisor and saying this kind of thing: "I have worked on this and that and produce these results, I think it refutes this hypothesis and could refute the others, and results can be presented in this way to reach this conclusion, so I guess we can publish this, I will of course add what do you think is lacking, if you agree to make a publish". And of course with this "a and b person also make such contributions to this work so both their ideas and participation in writing will be of much significance, as I think." If an advisor will just ignore this and keep writing without you, well then go and blame her/him.

In short, it is messy around and you have the responsibility to tidy up in order to make a good face and reputation, stop blaming/cursing others, that will not make any more good even if you are completely right. Act more professional and cold-blooded when they are biting you. Don't take these personally, as I explained, you can really correct years of bad reputation with a couple of fixes. In the process, you may even forget an article or so, but for the future publish candidates, I strongly recommend you to proceed as I said.

Everything has its own remedy, don't immediately burn the ships or run away.

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