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I have found myself in a quite ugly situation: Since around 1,5 years, I am in a situation here during my PhD studies where I cannot set boundaries to damaging/ silent bullying behaviour of some PhD colleagues.

I started around 2 years ago, with 2 fellow colleagues. We spent quite some time together in the beginning, but soon I realized that there was something fishy: one of them was very manipulative- Once they wanted to abuse me financially, and put even pressure on me to pay for their stuff, I refused to and set boundaries. They blamed me for everything and stopped every collaboration, despite me trying to solve this issue with a mature conversation.
Since then, one is passive-aggressive towards me, the other one still tries to make me "help" her with her fieldwork (which means, I had to do almost everything, because she cannot do anything by herself).
Under the bottom-line, they show abusive behaviour. The other colleagues of our lab don't care, I even had to compromise my own PhD because I did not receive sufficient support and was used for my toxic colleague's work (which she never reciprocated).

I told this to my PI and my supervisors, but none of them took this issue seriously - they expected me to deal with this by myself, and did not allow me to set proper boundaries (as I was still forced to work for them). Recently, my toxic colleague's supervisor screamed and yelled at me, because I refused to leave her our shared working space (because I needed it as well). A similar issue happened to another colleague as well, she reported this behavior but our PI did not do anything.

I have the impression that my toxic colleague uses her "power", I saw her several times already making other people do the work for her, and if someone refuses to do so, she makes someone yell at this person, or talks really bad behind this persons back that the whole group dynamic is disturbed.

I don't think the situation becomes better, and I honestly feel quite depressed since a few months, so I wondered if there is a possibility of working remotely, without losing my scholarship (which is a regional one)? Any better suggestion?

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    I feel sorry for your situation. Concerning your actual question if you can work remotely without losing your scholarship, I do not think we can give an answer without knowing more details that you probably do not want to disclose. May 12 at 14:27
  • yes, its a scholarship for a specific autonomous region in Europe, nevertheless I don't know if this means I have to stay here (not specified in the contract). But my PI could interfere and not accept my move (as he is one signatee of the contract). Was curious if anyone ever did this.
    – AnnaBanana
    May 12 at 15:04
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    1) See a mental health professional. If you have a broken leg, you see a doctor. If you're feeling broken mentally, it's important to do the same. 2) The possibility of remote work seems even more complicated if you are in a field where you need to do field work and need access to shared bench space. What would your plan be for replacing those resources in another location?
    – Bryan Krause
    May 12 at 15:26
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    I see. It seems to me like this requires a specialized answer that is probably only something you can work out between you and your supervisor.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 12 at 16:33
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    "They blamed me for everything and stopped every collaboration..." what did they blame you for exactly? What were they trying to make you pay for? May 12 at 17:26

3 Answers 3

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At the very least I think you should

  1. Before doing anything for this person, send and email cc'ing your advisor and the PI saying what is being done and who owns the output. Always make sure it's clear who is doing what.

  2. Who "owns" the shared workspace. If another yelling match erupts talk to/email them. Frame it as "I cannot finish X on time due to being unable to use the lab." Don't be afraid to get your advisor to go to bat for you here.

  3. If someone screams, calmly ask them what the issue is. If they continue to scream, you can set a boundary you will only have a conversation if they can do so without screaming.

  4. See if your advisor has any advice to deal with interpersonal issues like this. They may be able to help you.

Finally, look at mental health services provided by your university. They will provide a safe place to vent if nothing else.

This is not a complete answer, but probably as much as can be said without specifics.

EDIT - going over their heads/to HR. You aren't ready - yet.

You have a few other options. Go over their heads to the Dean of the department or HR. Going to the Dean will likely involve HR. Ombuds are usually paid by the Dean or HR.

The reason I didn't mention this is in most cases HR will side with whoever the most senior person is, or who has a more senior person on their side. From the post, it sounds like that could be the bully.

There is also a decent chance HR will share any grievances with your bully. The bully makes up performance issues on the spot, and HR will tell her what she isn't allowed to say and do - essentially telling her how to legally bully you.

You aren't ready to go to an ombud/HR yet (in many cases this is the same department).

Bullies are manipulative. Administrators may side with the bully. After the first few times in the principals office (in the U.S.), the smart ones learn where the lines are and how to manipulate higher-ups. If you're in the PhD program you are dealing with a smart bully.

Start playing smart yourself. Document everything. Use email to show who did what. If it comes down to it, the person with more documentation usually wins. If you do go to an ombud or HR, this'll put you in the best position possible.

NOTE from comments: An ombud is a neutral mediator you can use to resolve issues. Going to one now will probably just alert the bully she's gotten to you, which could make her escalate her actions.

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  • Many American colleges also have an ombud who can help navigate this kind of situation. The advantage of getting help from an ombud is that they are neutral, whereas HR is likely going to seek to protect the institution (not the employee), and department chairs, deans, and other administrators may want to protect the department (not the student). May 13 at 1:46
  • @XanderHenderson be sure you know who the ombud answers to. In many cases it’s the Dean or HR department. An ombud is technically a neutral 3rd party mediator, but the checks are written by the university. May 13 at 2:15
  • Of course, but the ombud is officially neutral, whereas HR is very much intended to serve the institution, and the influences on deans and chairs are going to tend to motivate them to act in service to the department, rather than in service of a student. May 13 at 2:18
  • @XanderHenderson - there is no evidence in the post the bully is not also a student. What happens if the ombus sides with the bully? The OP may be put in an even worst situation. May 13 at 2:32
  • I could ask the same questions to you about a dean or the HR office. What if the dean sides with the "bully"? What if HR sides with the "bully"? My point is that if there is an ombud, it is much more likely that the ombud will be able to mediate the situation from a place of much greater neutrality. I also put forward an ombud as an additional alternative, not an "either/or". It can be both things (i.e. a student can go to the dean and also go to an ombud; I would very much recommend against going to HR, however). May 13 at 2:36
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I think that you need to talk to someone who takes you seriously about this. Normally the first option should be your PhD supervisor, as you did. If you feel comfortable with it, don't hesitate to insist with them, make it clear that this is a serious obstacle to your progress. Depending on your relationship with them, you can also ask them to point you to whom you should talk to about this (btw this might make them realize that there's a real issue to take care of).

If this doesn't work, you need to go to another level. Your institution certainly have some procedures in place: there might be an ombudsman or other person in charge of harassment issues. Another option would be to talk to some student union or student representative, at least they should be able to give you advice.

In parallel, it would certainly be a good idea to seek professional help personally in order to preserve your mental health. Sometimes universities offer some free counseling service, it might be worth checking.

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    This is absolutely the way to go in my opinion. Ombudsperson, confidential advisor or whoever is the contact person for things concerning harrassment, mental health etc. are the right people to go through
    – Andreas
    May 13 at 10:38
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You need to document and record (audio and/or video) these issues because you may need to escalate beyond your PI. You may even need to go to a lawyer if things get worse. Note that depending on where you are making recordings (audio or video) without the consent of other parties may be illegal. But you need to document things - keep a detailed diary of these issues at the minimum.

Once they wanted to abuse me financially, and put even pressure on me to pay for their stuff, I refused to and set boundaries.

Hard to know what this means, but if they are trying to extort money from you that's a whole other problem, quite possibly criminal. If it's something like wanting you to pay for their equipment from your official budget or something then they can ask and you can say no.

There's no way of any of us knowing the details well enough to advise you properly. We have no idea what proceedures are available to you or what the cultural or legal norms are as you did not give a country. As such any advice would be just general, but as a minimum to escalate this beyond your PI (which may or may not be a practical option) you need evidence and evidence means keeping records, keeping a note of witnesses to events.

There is another option to consider - moving on. Either you try switching to a different PI or even a different institute to complete your PhD or you take the "nuclear" option of just giving up on a PhD. While these may sound drastic, especially the last one, if your mental health is being seriously affected by this (and a PhD is already stressful at best) you need to seriously consider if continuing is really worth the damage being done. You shoudl certainly consult a consellor or physcologist or a GP about depression if that's a serious issue for you - it can overwhelm people and should not be ignored. These things can also distort your own viewpoint as well so it's worth considering your own mental health options here.

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  • I know two persons who did all these and the result was talk with director that if he doesn't like something it is time to drop. To make him silent they agreed to pay him for the rest of the contract May 13 at 11:35
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    I don't think it's a good idea to try to record other people: it's likely to make things worse, with a serious risk that it could make OP look like the harasser instead of the victim.
    – Erwan
    May 13 at 13:28
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    @Erwan Recording (without consent) is, as I pointed out, not legal everywhere, so obviously don't do it there. However just recording so you have a record is, in places where it is legal, entirely reasonable as long as you're not doing anything that amounts to evesdropping (e.g. listening to a conversation using equipment which you could not reasonably be said to have heard without equipment). If legal it is, under the circumstances (which we have to take from the OP's side only) not unreasonable for the sole purpose of having proof if needed in a court. May 13 at 21:59

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