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I m in the fourth year of my PhD in veterinary sciences in North America. My Research project involves a lot of farm/team work. I have to work with technicians, farm staff, research associates and other students in the team as well as my advisory committee. I attended in many leadership workshops but still find it hard to deal with negativity, anger and control issues from one of my superiors. She in managing students as a research associate and has quite an influence on my advisor. She told me herself that she has chosen to be mean to people and has been humiliating others and me in various occasions. What should I do? How can I keep myself safe from anger, control issues and related stress?

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    I am unclear about your situation. Is she just your team mate? Is she also a graduate student? Does she have supervisory power over you? Have you talked to your advisor about it? You said she has quite an influence on your advisor. To what extent is this influence? Is she really indispensible? Can you continue your research without her? – scaaahu May 14 '14 at 12:05
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    I would suggest to get to know some previous cases of reporting a harassment at your university. Sometimes reporting is worse than solving the problem by yourself. – bordart May 14 '14 at 14:54
  • She is a research associate. Managing all the projects and lab works and teaching students new techniques. so in the beginning my supervisor asked me to check each experimental design specially if it involves farmwork with her. She has influence because she is scientifically good and knows what she is doing but unfortunately not in the case of professional behaviour. – Monique May 16 '14 at 19:36
  • In terms of reporting her I have talked and witnessed few other cases of harassment. University might help you to come out of the harassment circle but won't do anything to solve the problem. That person will stay in the university specially if she/he brings a lot of funding. so money talks at the end! – Monique May 16 '14 at 19:41
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Being mean and humiliating anyone, let alone subordinates, in the workplace (academia or otherwise) is inappropriate and should not be tolerated. I would suggest you informally talk to whomever is in charge of harassment claims at your university to let them know what is up. Depending on how bad the situation is, you could either file a formal complaint or go talk to the person directly. By having the informal talk with HR you will be protected if your one-on-one discussion blows up.

She told me herself that she has chosen to be mean to people and has been humiliating others and me in various occasions.

It seems you have talked to her, but did you tell her that her attitude and behavior is making it difficult to do your job? Maybe you can work something out where she is less abusive to you or that your work environment is more structured to prevent the harassment. Hopefully that will resolve the issues, if not, file the complaint.

University's do not kid around with complaints about harassment. These types of formal complaints make promotion much more difficult and will often be reported in any reference written by the department head. They often will require the individual to receive training and monitoring. Once the possibility of a formal complain is on the table it is in the best interested for the colleague to do everything possible to prevent the complaint. Once a formal complaint is raised any escalation by the colleague will likely be dealt with swiftly and harshly by the University.

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    'University's do not kid around with complaints about harassment' Sadly, they often do. Many academic institutions work as self-defending groups and there is always the risk of a backfire. I fully agree that abusive behavior should be systematically reported but OP should be aware of the associated risks. In this case, as it seems that OP is not a lone victim she should seek support from others and maybe take a common action. – Cape Code May 14 '14 at 13:59
  • Unfortunately @Jigg is right. I studied few other cases in our department and other faculties. It SEEMS that university cares but the actions are opposite and when things get serious they retreat and put their priorities first. – Monique May 16 '14 at 19:53
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You seem to be close to completing your PhD so the usual answer here of "Run don't walk" don't seem to be the way out. Instead you need to find a way to go through the final time. I would strongly suggest seeking professional help. Hopefully your school has access to psychologists or the equivalent who can not only help out with personal problems but in your case, more importantly, how to manage difficult personalities. I have no doubts that it is and will be a burden at times but for you the question is finishing or not, what the effects on yourself will be and in the short of it, is it worth it if you add all factors together. Only you can answer that question. It does not seem as if you have come far down that path so trying to find the support and guidance from professionals on how to deal with difficult personalities is the best way forward. You will bump into these later in life as well so gaining understanding and acquiring strategies is never a waste of time.

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  • Thanks @peter! I have been in few counselling sessions in university. Also read few books to manage last 4 years dealing with her. Takes lots of energy and time some times more than PHD workload itself. It's a life time process. Any book or website recommendation? – Monique May 16 '14 at 20:16
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I’m sorry to hear this; such situations can be unbelievably stressful and upsetting. As you’re in your fourth year, you’re nearly there and have your own network, which are very helpful.

Such situations are tricky because they can degenerate suddenly and unexpectedly. The ideal (not always possible) is to avoid conflict at almost all costs. Conflictual people tend to be better at managing disputes that break out...they often have had a lot of experience of this and you might discover that they are uncomfortably well acquainted with university harassment procedures etc.

I would hesitate to make a formal complaint unless if the situation becomes unbearable, as things may escalate and affect your relationships with others in your department, which might cause delays to your PhD. Hopefully, you are known in your department and group as a positive team member who isn’t associated with conflict. Maintain that reputation as long as you can.

I would also hesitate about approaching this supervisor one-on-one in order to directly address the behaviour. Any such discussion would need to be handled with extreme care so that your supervisor doesn't feel threatened. I would venture to suggest that avoiding any suggestion of threat could easily be impossible to achieve during such a discussion. It may be better to remain in the background as much as possible and minimize unnecessary interaction with your supervisor instead. Try to keep things very cool and professional.

Have you somebody more senior in the department you can confide in? A mentor would be perfect for this role, as long as they are discreet. Now would be a good time to request a mentor if you don’t have one.

Although it’s not nice to do, keep a diary of every incident, even if reasonably minor. Any unpleasant emails etc, keep them safe. This is because if things become more difficult, you might need every scrap of evidence.

I’d recommend pre-emptively reading the book by Bill Eddy “It’s all your fault: 12 tips for managing people who blame others for everything” as he gives a lot of good advice for avoiding being dragged into disputes and minimizing their fallout when they do occur.

If things become absolutely impossible (hopefully not), it may be possible to remove this supervisor from your committee. This is where having an impeccable interpersonal record, the diary and an established relationship with a senior member of your department comes in.

To end on a positive note, I think a lot of academics at all levels have had experience of these sorts of situations and we’ve all survived! But I wish you and others who come to this page good luck.

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  • Thanks @L Platts. I will take a look at the book. Remaining in the background and minimizing my interactions is what I have done so far in last 4 years. I survived but witnessed her behaviour and hurt for me and others. I also tried to talk to her but she gets even more angry and mean. Now that I have more power over my project and have my main supervisors's support I started to question my self? Is that it? Just stay quiet? As @peter Jansson said: I gonna bump to this later in life. How I gonna deal with it then? She seem to enjoy humiliating others, not the first case and not the last. – Monique May 16 '14 at 20:11
  • The book really helped me. It provided tools for life. I would have just written read the book in my answer, because its philosophy is difficult to summarize, but Stack Exchange suggests writing a fuller answer so that's where all the rest came in! I hope the book helps you too. – L Platts May 16 '14 at 23:40
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topic is never outdated. I was dealing with bullying supervisor as well. fortunately I have managed to change my supervisor in the middle of second year. As 'my therapy' I wrote couple of blog posts about 'dealing with difficult supervisor'. Part one is about 'easy cases', part two is about more difficult and part 3 is about bullying monsters!!

enter link description here

Hope everyone who is dealing with a supervisor like mine is able to get out of this situation ASAP!

Thanks, Monika

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  • Can you put some excerpt from your blog into the answer? SE frowns upon link-only answers – Ric Dec 10 '15 at 1:04

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