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I have read lots of posts here about abusive advisors, and I have heard about and even experienced some similar experiences in my own academic life.

Is there any data available for how prevalent this problem is? I am interested in quantitative, objective data to the extent that it is possible to quantify these kinds of things.

To clarify slightly, the kinds of things I would consider abusive could be:

  1. Verbal abuse where the advisor puts their students down in unnecessary and unproductive ways, like name-calling.

  2. Not giving the student due credit for their work or somehow preventing them from making progress.

  3. Discrimination based on race or sexuality. Similarly, discussing or trying to get involved in the student's personal life in an unhealthy way.

  4. Any behavior that normally qualifies as abuse in other relationships and generally shows that the advisor is not interested in advising their students and helping them become a successful academic.

I am not really talking about absentee advisors or advisors who are just kind of blunt that don't display these qualities.

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    Reasons: 1. For those considering whether they want to get into academia, this is helpful. 2. For those in academia, who are not students, it is useful to be aware of how likely it might be that this kind of thing is going on in your department so as to better prepare. 3. For me personally, I currently have a very cynical view of academia even though I'm not currently a victim of abuse. I would like to know how justified this cynicism is. I can think of many more reasons but I won't list them here.
    – user128124
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 16:53
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    A few years ago a PhD student of mine attended a class on the organization (student's side) of the PhD work. At a certain point, the instructor asked how many students in the class had issues with their advisors. I was recounted that roughly half of the students raised their hands. Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 16:56
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    An unhappy experience does not necessarily equate to abuse.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 17:32
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    One's person micromanager is another person's mentor with attention to detail. One's person unresponsive/hands-off advisor is another person's ticket to free-range research. One's person overdemanding/seemingly bullying advisor is another person's enthusiastic motivator. One's person aggressive/pushy advisor is another person's advisor who cares about the student getting enough material to get a PhD. Truly abusive and unethical advisors are probably not as common as it appears - SE will naturally attract people in most serious trouble with their advisors and shows a strongly biased sample. Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 21:16
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    @CaptainEmacs by your definition then there is no such thing as an abusive supervisor. You are handwaving the problem away. Personally I believe it is absolutely endemic and one can clearly see a) how academic systems select for abusers and b) how similar academia is to other systems which have been uncovered to foster widespread abuse. Hollywood, Olympic gymnastics, Parliamentary internships in the UK for example. They're all careers starting with close, unsupervised relationships with superiors, where one's subsequent success is wholly dependent on networking. Abusers thrive in such systems.
    – benxyzzy
    Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 5:53

2 Answers 2

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From PhDs: the tortuous truth:

Overall, 21% of respondents said they had personally experienced harassment or discrimination, and the same proportion reported experiencing bullying. One-quarter of respondents who identified as female reported personally experiencing harassment or discrimination compared with 16% of those identifying as men. The highest rates of harassment or discrimination (24%) were reported in North America, and the lowest (18%) came from Australasia.

...

In the survey, 57% of students who said they had experienced bullying reported feeling unable to discuss their situation without fear of personal repercussions.

From A message for mentors from dissatisfied graduate students:

In the survey, 21% of respondents reported experiencing discrimination or harassment. The same percentage also reported bullying. Of those, nearly half said that their supervisor was the perpetrator

It looks like, by the numbers, 1 in 10 PhD students will be harassed or abused in some way by their supervisor. Anecdotally I think that abusive advisors burn through students at a higher rate that normal advisors, so I'd actually guess about 5% of PhD advisors are a serious problem.

I will note that your experience will vary wildly based on gender and race. You are much more likely to find that inappropriate or abusive behavior from faculty as a woman, for example. It's hard to generalize because an advisor who is perfect for male students may be abusive to female or non-binary students.

That said, the abusive part of academia is smaller than the part that isn't abusive, but will apologize for it and gaslight victims into silence. That's the fraction I'd be more interested in quantifying.

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    That article, while interesting, doesn't seem to directly answer the question, at least from a cursory pass. There was a survey about harassment and discrimination, but I believe not specifically about behavior of advisors. At the least, you should say something about how that article helps answer the question.
    – Kimball
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 17:06
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    Yes the article is interesting and relevant but I am actually more interested in the advisor-student relationship because of course people in general experience discrimination and bullying but imo it's a totally different situation if your advisor is the one doing it.
    – user128124
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 18:22
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    The second article says that of the 20% that report harassment and 20% that report bullying, half say that the advisor is responsible. You're unlikely to find any better source on this - the nature survey is as close to a gold standard as there is.
    – user128815
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 18:24
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    @CJRD - although a caveat would be that the respondants were 'self selecting' - again, like questions here on advisors, those with poor experiences may be more likely to answer. I'm not in the social sciences, so I don't know how researchers try to balance out that effect.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 21:52
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    Very nice answer! The error bars on combining those steps are reasonably large, but this is enough to be pretty confident that the answer is say something between 2.5% and 15%. That is common enough that most large departments have such a person, but rare enough that it does not include the vast majority of advisors. Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 14:03
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It's an interesting research question and difficult to answer since many cases are unreported or without details. I agree with the comment by @benxyzzy.

As far as I know, bullying in academia is on the rise. The short answer is: basically there are no specific data records of this kind of abuse and qualitatively speaking this is as prevalent in academia to a level that any PhD student should be self-aware and warned beforehand about the issue. Because this affects human health and academia's reputation. There are prescribed mechanisms in place to avoid this abuse but they are not practical. Most times the practical solution is to split up the supervision, which goes unreported and does not help the institution. The Nature survey gives good insights. Other data sources:

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  • It seems unlikely to me that it’s in the rise. Much more plausible that it used to be even worse but everyone just accepted it. But either way it’s just speculation since as you say you don’t have data. Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 14:01
  • I agree that in the past it was maybe even worse. To be more precise, we should check some references and see whether the supervisor abuse is on the rise or decline in absolute or relative terms, or it is the fact that more/fewer cases are reported. I think the vlog toxic workplaces gives good insights into the evolution of academia in the last 70 years regarding this. There is plenty of research on the effects of the new public management and publication pressure in academia.
    – Francesco
    Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 15:25
  • International mobility and multiculturality may be another factor to take into account. By now, I agree that the data and studies can give us just quantitative estimations of this phenomenon without statistically significant conclusions.
    – Francesco
    Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 15:27
  • Yes, the power imbalance is especially bad for people whose immigration status is basically at the whim of the advisor, which makes abusive behavior easier to get away with. Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 16:25
  • In this interesting book Gendered Academic Citizenship the author identifies "four ideal-types of academic citizenship: full, limited, transitional citizenship and non-citizenship." based on new empirical data. Basically supervisors have full or limited academic citizenship, while students have no citizienship.
    – Francesco
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 14:52

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