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I am a Bulgarian PhD student in Germany. I am Muslim, but not religious. Our group is international and most of the other students are from developed countries.

Since the day I started my PhD, there is one student (she is not German) in our group who has always made me feel bad. My country, my religion, the material I investigated was constantly being made fun of. Every time I felt inadequate and bad. I informed our advisor of her behaviour.

Our advisor told me that she would not talk to her, then said that she was very surprised, then wanted time to think. I should point out that this student behaves very well to profs in our group. If I were a prof, I might had been surprised as well.

Afterwards, our advisor may have talked to her, because she told me 'sorry', but she did it for herself. I did not know the terms mobbing, racism, discrimination, etc. before. I learned that these are referred to as microaggression.

Despite all this, I don't feel well at all, because I was hurt, humiliated, but she was just warned.

I didn't behave bad to anyone, but it was me who was injured. I even think that I am seen as a sensitive person who causes problems by my advisor. I don't want to be seen as problem child or cry baby. This is also bad for my career.

Should I mention this at the group meeting? Or should I talk about this with my advisor?

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8 Answers 8

34

Do not bring it up in the group meeting. This will only reflect negatively on you, and puts the other people involved in a position where an open discourse about the issues is not possible.

You have taken a few steps towards mitigating the issue, and talking to your PI is certainly an option. Your PI seems to have had a chat with the person in question, and a warning is all that is possible without a diary of what happened and when.

There is one more person in your institution that I would strongly encourage you to talk to. The confidential adviser. Every university in Europe will most certainly have one. It is their job to be there for you if you encounter any type of harassment, be it from a superior, fellow PhD student, whoever else. They can provide counsel, but also advise you on how to take further steps without burning bridges.

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  • To add to this, you should probably also have a personal/non-academic supervisor who sits outside of the research group and is there precisely to help with this sort of pastoral issue Mar 17 at 16:25
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    What's the official position title for a "confidential adviser", in German universities?
    – einpoklum
    Mar 18 at 11:36
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    @einpoklum: naming may differ a bit, and there are potentially different types of confidential advisors: Vertrauens(hochschul)lehrer, Vertrauensprofessor would be one possibility. I'd also expect that several people may know whom OP could contact and how exactly that position is named in OP's university: Ombudspersons (typically specialized on scientific misbehaviour), Personalrat, Prüfungsamt. Mar 18 at 16:41
33

I recommend keeping a diary or list of every "micro-aggression." Include dates, times, and witnesses, and keep a copy of any abusive comments that are in written form. If you remember the details of any specific incidents after the apology, you can include those as well. Write down the quotes verbatim (as best as you can remember them); no need to add any comments.

Depending on what this list looks like, you can decide what to do. If there are only a few borderline comments after a few months, maybe the issue is resolved. If there are many egregious comments within a short time period, then it's worth sharing the list with your advisor.

If you do end up discussing this further with your advisor, you can simply present this list. Do not attempt to summarize or comment on the list; there is no need to use words like "micro-aggression," "mobbing," or "racism". Instead, focus on the concrete details of each specific incident. For example: "The list shows that in the past month, she has used the N-word four times, and on nine different occasions, she commented on my religion, using the words: 'A', 'B', or 'C'."

American universities are obsessed with inclusiveness. It's usually pretty hard to fire someone from a university due to interpersonal issues, but an infraction of this sort could absolutely lead to getting fired. I do not know if this aspect of academic culture is the same in Germany, but I suspect that this sort of thing would be taken quite seriously there as well. Good luck.

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  • 17
    The last paragraph quite clearly describes a witch-hunt: on the one hand, it is hard to fire someone, and on the other, it is easy for an "infraction of this sort". All of this concerns American academia. Then a hope is expressed that a similar strategy could work in Germany. Mar 17 at 7:02
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    I fail to see how I "promote a witch hunt" -- what a thing to say! On the contrary, I suggested collecting evidence before making a complaint. The third paragraph states that being a jerk is generally not enough to get you fired from a university, whereas creating a hostile work environment might be. I did not offer an opinion on this, nor any "hopes" about other countries being similar. On the contrary, I was being very transparent about any potential cultural bias (though, in fact, I am very familiar with several European languages and cultures generally, including Germany's).
    – cag51
    Mar 17 at 7:51
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    @YuvalFilmus Oh come on. On one hand, a completely valid statement for most European Universities is "It is hard to fire any person in a permanent academic role", and on the other, it is easy "for an infraction including sexual misconduct, drug or alcohol use at the workplace". So, (leaving the charged topic of sexual misconduct out of it), according to your explanation, would you say that firing a professor e.g. who drunkenly staggered into the classroom spurring nonsense is "a witch-hunt" as well? Or would this be a sort of infraction that justifies easy firing of such a person?
    – penelope
    Mar 17 at 12:54
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    This would not be a useful thing to do unless OP wanted to expend a lot of effort in a prolonged confrontation with that colleague. And it would have the detrimental effect of keeping OP preoccupied with this matter.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 18 at 11:40
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    OP describes "constantly" being made fun of, and being made to feel "hurt and humiliated." If the aggression is truly this severe, then it seems that being preoccupied with this matter is unavoidable. But if these are just occasional snide comments, then I might better understand the answers suggesting that OP should brush this off. Writing down the quotes verbatim in a diary is a good way for OP to judge (and let others judge) how severe this truly is.
    – cag51
    Mar 18 at 16:04
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Evidently, your advisor has talked to her and she has apologised to you. It is not clear to me why you characterise her apology as inadequate, but if you think it's inadequate or insincere, you are certainly free to view it that way. There are two issues in tension in this kind of situation. On the one hand we want people to interact nicely with each other, particularly when working in small groups, and to that end we often want people to avoid upsetting each other in relation to sensitive topics. On the other hand, we also want people to have the freedom to voice their opinions on practices pertaining to countries, religions, etc., and to have the general academic freedom to criticise (or even mock) ideas and practices they don't agree with. University is a good place to expose students to the fact that others may be critical of their religion, their country, their research work, etc., and they should consider that criticism analytically and use it to build up a better knowledge of their own beliefs and ideas.

It is a natural reaction to feel bad when you hear criticism of something personal to you, so I don't think anyone is going to consider you a "cry-baby" for bringing it up. It's also not clear from your question how far things went, and maybe she crossed the line. Nevertheless, rather than seeing these events as an injury, I would recommend that you take the route of the open-minded-scholar and look at this criticism as a thing that you can analyse, and that can help you to understand the world better. Either you will conclude that her criticisms (e.g., of Islam) have no valid basis and reject them, or you will conclude that there is some validity in those criticisms and incorporate that knowledge into your ideas and beliefs. This is one of the benefits of a university education and the academic environment more generally --- you are exposed to ideas/arguments that run counter to your own beliefs (often on very personal subjects) and if you receive these criticisms analytically, this strengthens your understanding of your own beliefs and the world.

I have noticed that in the younger generation of students there is a tendancy to retreat from criticism of personal things and treat this as a form of abuse, rather than treating it as an opportunity to learn and strengthen your own character. When I was a student it was more common for us to have late-night "bull sessions" where students would argue passionately over all sorts of sensitive issues --- theism-vs-atheism, Christianity-versus-Buddhism, communism-vs-capitalism, criticisms and defences of this country, that country, our own country, this religion, that religion, this group, that group, etc. Sometimes you'd even play Devil's Advocate for a view you didn't agree with just to keep the conversation interesting and tease out the argument. This was usually quite interesting and it tended to hone your ability to understand and defend your own views on a topic, while also exposing you to some critiques that you could use as food-for-thought in developing your own ideals later. If we'd been beholden to the idea of "microaggressions" back then, I think a lot of that learning would have been lost.

If you decide you'd like to talk more about this, I'd encourage you to consider talking directly to this other student rather than to your group, advisor, etc. I'd also recommend that you approach it from the perspective of learning and strengthening your own knowledge. See if you can understand why this student finds your country/religion/work worthy of mockery, and subject her reasoning for this to your own logical scrutiny. You might then find that you can come up with a reasonable counter-argument (and maybe even some zingers to return fire) that gives you a strengthened knowledge of your own religion, work, etc. University years are a great time in life to do this.

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You are right to be offended by this behavior. You seem to have done the right thing so far. This is a problem for your advisor/PI to fix and they may have taken the first steps.

I would avoid bringing it up in a group for the present to see how it develops. If it continues you may need to. But you can also develop friendships with others in the group (and generally) so that if the behavior continues you will have allies who can vouch for your concerns.

But making it a public issue will most likely harden those improper views, not lead to a correction. Keep your advisor informed. The attitudes may not change, but the behavior might. Some people will actually get satisfaction from pushback.

As you move from one culture to another you will find people who are extremely xenophobic and feel that they are "obviously" superior. It is best to ignore them if you can do so without it resulting in actual harm to yourself or others. You would probably find the same thing in other countries as well (the US, for example). But universities are a bit better at this than other environments.


And, for the record, it would also be offensive behavior if you were religious.

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    Maybe other step is to document in some time-stamped format when things happen. Basically a note to self that could be verified for date/time by someone external if needed
    – Dawn
    Mar 16 at 20:15
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    In some places it is legal to record conversations without the permission of both parties. Other places it is illegal.
    – Buffy
    Mar 16 at 20:30
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    Document is written not audio
    – Dawn
    Mar 16 at 22:14
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The answers here are good especially as regards American academia where terms like micro aggression have taken root and are very much in. I'm not exactly sure about Germany, but Europe in general is much less understanding regarding these (real or perceived) slights. What you describe is certainly not mobbing (which would be bullying of an individual by a group) but might be racism (assuming you're a different race from the other student) or just general discrimination/xenophobia. It might also just be personal antipathy or misunderstanding of some kind.

Based on your description this is one student of a group who is being verbally insensitive to you. In Europe professors are usually not particularly used to dealing with interpersonal problems between students especially ones at the PHD level. They treat them as adults and expect them to be able to handle their interpersonal problems on their own unless the conduct very clearly violates social norms or threatens to be legally problematic. You don't actually specifically say what happened and so it's hard to judge, but given the way you describe your interaction with the professor so far, it is quite possible you have already been labeled a crybaby and/or problem student. I'm basing that more on how the professor reacted than what you did.

Now what to do about it. This depends a lot on the exact details. I strongly second the advice to find peers in the group and become friends with them. This allows you to have someone that can support you in any further confrontations and also to possibly get an opinion of someone else on what is going on and be able to shape that opinion to exert peer pressure on the student you are having problems with. Unless the violations are quite egregious I would strongly advise against bringing them up in the group or going over your advisors head. While this might work in the US I think in Europe it's still more likely to make problems for you than the other student especially since she's female and seems to be in good standing with the establishment.

As a side note I wrote this assuming you are yourself female, if you are actually male it's much more complex and much more likely to be problematic for you. In Europe males are still mostly expected to be able to deal with their own problems and shut up about it.

I realize this answer is probably not going to be very popular, but I think it's a much realistic take on the European situation.

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It's very hard for an adviser to deal with these things. Where I work there are people who simply don't get along. One of my group members, for example, shares an office with someone who hates him. I have no idea why, because they hated him from the first day he walked into the office. In any case, I have tried to find a solution to the conflict, I talked to both people and to my superiors and I couldn't do anything. And these aren't graduate students, they are senior researchers.

The one doing the microaggressions (or full scale aggressions whenever they are in a bad mood) is the first colleague. When I talked to them, they told me my group member was opening the office window when they wanted it shut, that they speak too loud, or they close the door too fast. I have witnessed and stopped some screaming matches and I personally believe my first colleague is at fault here. I have not gotten to the bottom of why is everything happening, though I have a few suspicions.

It's been two years since this whole thing started and both of them have reached some kind of truce. That's the best we could do within the boundaries of our workplace. The truce happened because my group member started to push back on the bullying. I have the feeling that my influence and attempts at making peace between them had very little effect on the evolution of their relationship.

I have witnessed even worse situations. One of my colleagues got bullied until she quit and sued my institute. She won. The bully was a former boss of hers. It started with microaggressions and it went on over many years, until she got fed up and reported him. The bosses did nothing because they were friends with that guy.

The microaggressions either come from insensitive people, or from people who just want to hurt you. The latter know that it's hard to prove them, and they can always say you're making stuff up. In families, in my country, this is the preferred form of war between mother in law and daughter in law. Whoever starts, eventually they both hurt each other in this way.

I personally deal with microaggressions by simply sucking it up or ignoring them. "Yeah, whatever" is my preferred answer to those. In my case, it works always. Some of my friends simply call the microaggressor out. If it really gets to us, we complain to our friends. A good venting session always helps.

In conclusion, my recommendation is to find an outlet for all that stress you accumulate when dealing with this person. Friends are the best at taking your side. Then, when your head is clear, you should think seriously about escalating the issue further.

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    Just a small comment, there is a huge difference between a boss being the person who is being problematic vs. a colleague. Neither is great but a power differential very much changes the situation.
    – DRF
    Mar 18 at 9:26
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    Your honesty about your own experiences is welcome. But your sense of powerlessness is not understandable as you know full well that this behaviour is no longer acceptable, its psycho-emotional roots are well-known and its coverage under workplace bullying now formalized.
    – Trunk
    Mar 18 at 12:06
  • @Trunk As people age and keep failing at things that should work, they start feeling powerless. Mar 18 at 16:34
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Not detracting from any other answer, it seems to me that you should try to find additional sources of emotional support/affirmation outside your research group. That is, suppose you were back in your country, surrounded by friends and perhaps family, and some person would make derogatory comments about you. It's likely you would tell your friends this, or your spouse, or your family, and they would reply "Who does that woman think she is? Where does she get off making these comments? You know, something similar happened to me, blah blah blah" and you would have a conversation about it. But as a foreign PhD candidate, you might be mostly alone out of the workplace, or perhaps mostly interact with people with whom you're not close enough to share these things with. That increases the severity of being offended, because your research group are almost all of your "emotional surroundings".

I would also recommend some physical activity for general emotional welfare, but that's regardless of your specific circumstances.

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  • I suppose you are worried about the supervisor's possible "regression" if complained about and how he/she may make things unpleasant for OP thereafter. That is quite a real possibility. But keeping schtum on it all may reinforce the behaviour and make similar actions on others in the group harder to object to: "Oh you should be like X - he/she just accepted the apology, got on with the work and forgot about it." I don't think this is the best course for the research group, the Department and certainly not the university. Though I see how OP would worry about fallout after a complaint.
    – Trunk
    Mar 18 at 15:43
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    @Trunk: No, I'm not worried about that. As far as we can tell, the supervisor acted and the harassing colleague has stopped and apologized.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 18 at 16:17
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    @Trunk: Based on the first sentence of the answer, I think it is also fair to say that this answer is of the form "Here are some things you can do, possibly in addition to other things..." rather than "Here are some things you can do to the exclusion of all other things...".
    – Ben
    Apr 18 at 23:35
  • @Ben Yes, that much is clear. I mean it is clear that no commitment against/for other options is made in einpoklum's post.
    – Trunk
    Apr 19 at 0:50
1

You were offended several times by a person within your group (ironically also a foreign student, just like you) and all you got from your supervisor was doubt and delay - and eventual extraction of a pro forma apology to you by the offender.

You feel that more should have been done, though you don't say what your preferred action would be. If I was in your position, I would also see the supervisor's action as inadequate: a sort of supervisor-sanctioned hypocrisy designed to save his/her own face so they may carry on without loss of confidence while silently suggesting that you were simply being overly sensitive.

Effective work groups (and this does include research groups, whatever some vain academics may otherwise think) have to communicate easily. They must also work to serve the group's objects rather than individuals' goals - and those group objects should be clearly written down and adhered to. Person to person trust is vital in this process. And this is especially so between supervisor and student.

I feel that your supervisor needs to internalize this.

It may be time that you went to your Head of Department and discussed this matter and the unconvincing behaviour of your supervisor in this.

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    So now the witch-hunt extends to the supervisor. You are implicitly asking to get the supervisor in trouble by involving higher-ups: "It may be time that you went to your Head of Department and discussed this matter and the unconvincing behaviour of your supervisor in this." Mar 18 at 14:16
  • It is hardly a "witch-hunt" if a supervisor has personal biases that impede his/her acting properly in relation to ethnic/racial/cultural comment in the research group. It is simply a research student defending their dignity. No dignity, no real education.
    – Trunk
    Mar 18 at 14:22

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