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I am a first year PhD student. I have no issues regarding academics and relationships with faculty. Unfortunately, there is a fellow student in the department who is making my life very difficult. The student regularly hounds me and the other students for various forms of help and gets aggressive when such help is not provided. The student also harasses us with constant phone calls and sometimes even stalks us. Despite persistent complaints to the department, they seem to be dragging their feet with the issue. Essentially the department considers this a non-academic issue and therefore expects us to sort it out ourselves. So this student will probably be around in the department for the foreseeable future.

As a result, I am considering transferring to a different PhD program at another university. This is still my first year and I haven't committed to an advisor yet. I am wondering how frank I should be in my transfer applications. After all, if I understand correctly, transferring PhD programs is generally looked down upon right? Would this situation have enough weight in the eyes of the application reviewers to justify a transfer?

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    Whom did you complain to? And in what country are you? Especially if there are additional students with the same complaint, I'm surprised that you got blown off. If you have the stomach, you might consider approaching multiple people -- the department chair, the graduate director, the student ombuds -- and see if you can find someone more sympathetic to your complaint.
    – academic
    May 22, 2023 at 0:44
  • I am in the US. Some of us did in fact complain to the department chair but all we got were vague insinuations that they cannot "act hastily because of legal issues" and links to seek counsel. I am sure if we escalate the situation to the dean something may happen albeit very slowly. And frankly I am tired; the situation is already starting to interfere with my studies.
    – balddraz
    May 22, 2023 at 0:53
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    @BryanKrause I am thinking of transferring to a different university entirely.
    – balddraz
    May 22, 2023 at 1:29
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    @0XLR Escalate asap, to anyone who will listen. It is not acceptable for the department to 'drag their feet' on this. I understand that this is taking its toll on you, but transferring to a different university is most likely going to require a lot of work as well.
    – Chris_abc
    May 22, 2023 at 9:11
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    I suggest both the dean and law enforcement as the next step. If multiple people get a restraining order against the student that would be great as well. As each incident happens, keep informing the department, the dean, and the police.
    – Jon Custer
    May 22, 2023 at 16:50

2 Answers 2

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"Transfers" of PhD students aren't really a thing (at least not in the US), with some rare exceptions like students following an advisor who has taken a job at another institution, where they may negotiate bringing their students along (if those students wish to).

So, that means you're basically applying again from scratch for PhD programs. They're going to evaluate your application along with all the other new applicants. Admissions decisions aren't made to make the world fair or compensate you for troubles you experienced somewhere else. Instead, programs you apply to want to know that you'll be successful in their program and are more worth their efforts at training than any of the other applicants that they'll have to deny.

You'll probably need to explain your move, and probably this story is sufficient, though it doesn't make your application appear better in any way. If nothing else, they might unfairly count it against you because they may be suspicious (consciously or not) that you somehow contributed to the problem or have trouble dealing with others. In any case, focus your application on yourself as a student the same way you would have in your initial applications.

Ultimately, though, if that's what you need to do for your wellbeing and safety, it doesn't matter much: you just have to do it and try to find the best alternative program. In the meantime, I think there are probably escalations still available to you where you are if you feel safe for now. I would look to resources available for student mental health, an ombuds office, or other university resources besides the ones you've tried. I think it's worth making clear that this harassment is sufficient to make you consider leaving the program. Document behavior that occurs as soon as possible after each incident in a way that preserves evidence, like sending yourself an email; try to be specific and factual like dates and times of phone calls, note occasions when you have stated you do not want to be contacted.

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To add to the excellent answer by @Brian Krause, which mostly deals with the issue of transferring. I want to address the issue of the harassment.

"Harassment" is a loaded word that brings strong emotions and reactions. Look up your institution's policy and guidelines on harassment. They will be helpful in figuring out if what you are going through is harassment and not just annoying behavior from the other student. As a professor, I am usually the first person students contact when they feel they have been harassed. The behavior reported ranges from the clearly illegal to a student not knowing how to handle an annoying classmate. Thus, our response has to depend on the specifics. At one extreme, we call the police, help the student file a restraining order and get things in motion to ban the perp from campus. On the other end, some students use loaded keywords such as "harassment", "bullying", etc. to describe what is, by all observers, the normal interactions of people ironing out the kinks of group work.

If you were in my office with the question you posted here, I'd ask:

  1. Have you told them to stop?
  2. Detail the stalking behavior.
  3. Are you afraid for your physical safety, or just annoyed?
  4. Can you block their phone number?
  5. If there are other victims, are you willing to get together and write a statement of facts?
  6. Do you have evidence of the behavior? Examples include multiple phone calls the same day, threatening messages, witnesses of the stalking behavior, etc.

Please note that I'm not asking you to post the answers to these questions here. This is just to explain the facts other people need to hear to make a fair assessment of the situation.

If the chair of the department is not responding, again, check the harassment policy of the university. All of the ones which I have read include the contact information of a person responsible for listening to harassment complaints, and they are almost always a person not in the chain of command from your advisor or department chair, for example, a person at the university president's office, a university lawyer, etc.

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