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I am a Ph.D. student on a student residence permit in Germany, currently in the middle of my second year (out of three, but the project may be extended).

There's a woman in the laboratory who gradually became more and more aggressive towards me, screaming at me and banging things against the table when I made mistakes. ETA: I have not observed her attacking anyone else, so either she is good at being alone with her victims, or I somehow present a special interest for her.

Around a year ago I tried to have a talk with her; since she doesn't speak English well and my German was only A1 at the moment, I asked my effective supervisor (the laboratory head) to translate, which he did. This seemed to help for a while: we were able to interact in a solidly professional manner for some months. Interaction with her is unavoidable, by the way, since she's responsible for ordering all the chemicals and she knows where everything is stored.

A few days ago the problem returned: she started by making nasty remarks about my underperformance and underattendance and described my experiment as "hopelessly contaminated" (despite my supervisor later agreeing that the levels of contamination were well within acceptable limits). Yesterday she screamed at me for using the wrong kind of qPCR plate, took it from under my hands and threw it in the trash bin despite most of the plate having been taped off (as customarily done in the lab) and available for reuse. When asked why and to stop screaming, she cited lack of time.

My supervisor, when contacted about the incident, told me that he "understands her", since the plates are expensive. I am not handling this well. What should I do?

ETA:

Should I start walking around with dictaphone running? Last time I tried it, we've already had the talk and she stopped attacking me, so I didn't get any useful evidence. My supervisor "knows" that she attacks me, but there is no paper trail. (yet?) And even if I get any evidence, who should I submit it to? My supervisor, again, hoping that he'd understand me this time? Someone higher up the chain? Even then, what should I be hoping for, with that evidence? Getting her fired (which I don't find desirable or expect to be possible in the first place) would certainly be a pyrrhic victory, making my supervisor want to dispose of me -- and he'd find a way.

Should I try to leave the place (as recommended by Sutton, 2017)? As an international student on a residence permit, I can always go home, but that would wreck me psychologically. Is it even possible to change labs for an international student on a government stipend in Germany?

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    It sounds like you are being mistreated. I suspect this person's behavior is not specific to you. Managing aggressive behavior is the responsibility of the aggressive person's supervisor. Dec 5, 2020 at 11:46
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    The best advice is probably to find a way to escape this situation.
    – Buffy
    Dec 5, 2020 at 20:02
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    It seems that your supervisor does not want to be involved in this matter. How much longer do you have? Do you make progress despite her interference? If so, duck down and finish as soon as you can. German universities do not like to make trouble to their higher-level academics. Are you allowed to use the dictaphone? Then use it. Maybe a subtle way to make her choose her language more carefully. Antibullying mechanisms are not as well established in Germany as in other countries. Is there something you do systematically wrong and can improve? Try to stay out of her limelight if so. Dec 6, 2020 at 15:36
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    Depending on where this is in Germany, secret recording would be a very bad idea. Half of Germany had this for about 60 years running. And I don’t think it would go down better in the other half. I’m not sure if a comment suggested this, but just: don’t. Dec 6, 2020 at 22:29
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    @user132436 yes, all recording requires consent. And I agree with gnometorule: some people are not only likely to say no, they are also likely to get angry at the mere request...
    – wimi
    Dec 7, 2020 at 14:23

2 Answers 2

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I understand that British universities have a duty of care towards all their students and that it is the responsibility of the university to investigate and deal with such issues. Is Germany so different?

Does the university have a postgraduate student support system? You seem to describe a problem that involves staff, supervisor, and you as student. If the issues are not solvable within that departmental group, you are reasonably entitled to ask the the general support system for help. It is not reasonable to expect a PhD student to deal with issues of staff behaviour. You are there to pursue research and it is the duty of the university to support you.

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It happens in all kinds of work environments, the only way to conduct yourself is to consider this:

  1. you owe her/him no obligations but to be professional;

  2. he/she is a human being just like you, so he/she has plenty of vulnerabilities;

  3. try to watch for the weaknesses in its compartment, then to leverage with your professionalism and your acknowledgements of his/her weaknesses.

This takes time.

If you will be a good person and not trying to be revengeful this will pay-out in future's work environment's equilibrium.

  1. Endure and forgive; all the bad things you are thinking or doing in payback will return to ruin your peace.

  2. If anything else doesn't work, man up and confront that dude!

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