Why does there seem to be a lack of oversight when it comes to how professors interact with students?

For example, consider the following questions:

  1. How to deal with an advisor who wants a "friendlier" relationship with me than I do?

  2. My professor is rigging data and plagiarizing. What can I do?

  3. My first authorship is being turned into co-first authorship, what can I do?

I understand that these situations are not typical, but why is this able to exist at all in the academic world? In all three of these situations it seems that there is a complete lack of oversight of professors went it comes to their interactions with student and it seems their students can do very little if they are being treated unfairly.

I ask this because in many ways, it seems that academia is much more objective and fair than the corporate world. For example, one cannot get a faculty position at a top school by interviewing well or because their friend heads the department. College admissions tend to very (perhaps, even brutally) objective. Lastly, outright fraud and theft of one's work tends to be low compared to outside academia. I suppose my point of confusion is why does academia fail to be as strict and fair at the professor/student level.

To give some context to my question, I work in the software industry and I am approaching this question as a total outsider. It seems like the academic world tries to do everything it can to be fair, but I don't (as an outsider) see this with the professor/student dynamic.

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    Stealing patents, industrial espionage, managers leaving to bigger companies taking work conducted there to the bigger company, illegal use of other companies patents without proper attribution (Samsung vs Apple lawsuit and vice versa), sexual harassment and managers stealing the spotlight from their subordinates is all over the corporate world. We are not a society of angels.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 8:42
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    It exists in academia for the same reason it exists in the corporate world. Both are filled with humans, and humans are not always nice or ethical. Processes are in place to stop / prevent this in academia and corporations, but processes can only bring you so far. In practice, students / subordinate employees always have a hard time formally complaining about unethical behavior of senior staff, because the burden of proof is always on their shoulder, and if it goes wrong, it will go really wrong for them. So many times, they choose to just roll with the punches.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 8:57
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    This is just a rant dressed up as a question
    – 410 gone
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 9:17
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    Upvoting this question not because of the possibly unjustified assumptions in the question, but just because this is a question that needs to be properly answered. There may be many opportunities to refer to this question/its best answer in the future.
    – DCTLib
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 9:50
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    Do you follow Workplace.SE? You'll find quite a lot of questions that are very similar to the three ones you cite there. You may not have personally run into such issues at your own workplace - just as most people don't run into this kind of issues in academia. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 10:12

6 Answers 6


Much abuse in the academic world is directed against students. They are in an ambiguous position. They are often not considered working professionals, though in practice they are. I.e. they often teach and/or conduct research. They are usually not rewarded financially in line with their training and skills. They cannot easily move to another place till they have completed their degree. Also, they are more dependent on their mentor/supervisor than a working professional would typically be. And they are not accorded the rights that working persons normally are. Students are also less likely to complain because they need to have good relations with the faculty for their future careers. Often they are working with faculty members on projects. While similar situations/circumstances can arise outside academia, this combination is relatively unusual. The closest analogy I can think of is the institution of interns, who probably also endure abuse, though their stays are usually much shorter. Anyway, this is fertile ground for abuse.

While this is not directly relevant, it's symptomatic that there is often much controversy/difficulty when students try to start Unions to protect their rights. This has been an issue for a good many years, at least in the United States. There was a famous case at Yale some years ago, for example.

Additionally, the institution of tenure is quite rare outside academia, though it exists. For example, judges have tenure. Tenured professors are hard to fire, and therefore are more likely to get away with abuse without consequences.

There is another issue, which is more speculative. But I'll mention it, anyway. This may also be country dependent. Foreigners entering Western countries, at least, are subject to employment restrictions. There is one notable exception to this restriction - namely educational institutions, which means universities in practice. This may not be universally true, but for example in the US, being a student is probably the easiest way to enter the country, and the main exception to the H1B work visa cap, the last I heard, were educational and non-profit institutions.

Anyway, in practice this means there are many foreigners in Western universities, both at a student and post-doc level, and of course at faculty level. Here I am only concerned about junior temporary employees like students and post-docs. In the US, at least, there is much institutional discrimination against such persons. They can't easily move to another job or university because of employment restrictions. Getting a non-university job is often very difficult. Getting employed involves an additional burden of paperwork. So, such people are, again, targets for abuse. This is not theoretical - I've seen and heard much to support this. Of course, foreigners get employment outside academia too, but for the reasons I have discussed, I believe the density of foreigners employed is particularly high in Western universities.

  • These are all good points I had not thought of.
    – Eric
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 9:09
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    The issue of foreigners is not only in western countries. It happens in many places in asia as well. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 11:41
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    Very good summary. From a German perspective, I'd say that for "normal" students, i.e. up to master level this isn't that much of a problem here: we have a nicely balanced system of rules and possibilities in place that keeps the possibilities of power abuse by professors in check. Part of this is that any kind of contract that has the slightest smell of power abuse is a) void and b) constitues acceptance of benefits or corruption as the professor is public official - and thus a criminal offense. BUT PhD "students" are nowadays frequently hired as employees on a research project and there...
    – cbeleites
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 23:30
  • ... we also get the full dose of trouble as they are legally bound to do what their employer (= professor) says but on the other hand are still expected to present a reseach work of their own (old distinction: Diplom/Master thesis = research work under supervision, PhD thesis without supervision). For a Master thesis it is clear that e.g. the student cannot legally sign over IP rights before the exam is finished (i.e. they got their final marks after defense of thesis and all exams). But for the part-time employed PhD student IP rights automatically go to the employer (= university)...
    – cbeleites
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 23:37
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    @cbeleites Interesting comment. You should write your own answer. Even if it is Germany-specific, I think that is ok, since the OP did not specify a country. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 7:00

To supplement a great answer by Faheem Mitha:

I would add that there are professions with very structured career (e.g. in medicine, law and military), and problems there are at least as severe. In general, the thing is a about the guild system, where the only way to become a professional is to get acceptance of a small community of professionals (cf. free jobs, where anyone can start and it is the market who decides).

Such systems have good quality control (i.e. there is no way around internal checks), but also generate huge gap between the already established people and the newcomers (which is an ample room for abuse - conflict with supervisors may not only jeopardize one's position in a particular company or institute, but the whole career).

As a side note, internships in the guild system are not only meant to teach, but also to control supply, so to maintain prices or prestige.

  • "cf. free jobs, where anyone can start and it is the market who decides". In other words, a job in an area without regulation, like dance instructor (in the US)? Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 13:30
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    @FaheemMitha Like most jobs (programming, running a shop, teaching dance...). In particular markets without regulation, but also ones in which formalities take much shorter. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 14:05

The question makes a salient point, namely why it keeps happening (to whichever degree) even though everyone knows that it happens.

I think there are two answers to this question:

  • Professors don't really have any kind of training with regard to human resource management. As a professor, at least at research intensive universities, you are hired and promoted almost exclusively based on your research credentials. You may be managing a group of 20 grad students and postdocs, but almost never will these managers have gone through any kind of training that would teach them how to actually do this -- neither from the operational viewpoint, nor from the point of view of how to manage the humans that make up your group. It is certainly true for me that I have felt unsure how to deal with situations in my own research group many times. There is no formal structure in universities where you have to go through (or could even choose to go through) any kind of training that would prepare you for being in the position of a group leader before you get into it. Consequently, many professors essentially wing it day in day out and "shit happens". (The same happens, by the way, within the professorial ranks -- there is no training you can take before you become a department head.)

  • Among colleagues, it is usually reasonably well known which of the professors treat their students well and which don't. But what are you going to do about it? Once someone has tenure, the only stick you have is to open post-tenure proceedings or to have formal hearings to revoke someone's tenure because of abuse of students. Unless a professor sexually assaults a student, it is almost inconceivable to think of evidence that would stand in the court of law upon which a university could base revoking someone's tenure. So it isn't done. A department head might talk to a professor in a case where students keep complaining, but as there are no formal training programs or requirements for professors (see above), there is in fact very little that can be done in practice. (I'm not trying to make this into an excuse, it's just a cold hard look at the realities of a university, sad as it is in these cases.)

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    "Professors don't really have any kind of training...". I take your point, but you don't need training to treat people decently. Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 4:33
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    On the other side, the amount of abuse and harassment some professors get from students, especially female professors and professors of colour is appalling. It happens on both ends, not just by professors to students. There are no systems or training in place for either end. Both professors and students need support.
    – awsoci
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 4:55
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    Not decently, perhaps, but good people management is a skill that can be taught, just like how to teach a class is a skill. Some folks don't need the advice, others would refuse to benefit from it. But a lot of folks in the middle might learn something useful to help manage their teams.
    – Calchas
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 4:57
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    @Calchas: I agree. It's just not how the system works currently. I think it would be quite useful to have more training. Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 13:35
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    Faculty misbehavior, even if it falls short of justifying revoking tenure, can still be punished to some extent, at least in departments like mine: People can get low (or no) raises. They can get lousy teaching assignments. They can get worse offices. Of course, some people can ignore such penalties and continue misbehaving, but some people will get the message and shape up (or at least try to shape up). Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 3:32

Oversight rules vary tremendously, but at the end of the day, professors have a considerably position of power over students, no matter how many rules the university has to protect them.

In at least two Swedish universities I am aware of, PhD students have the right to change supervisors. This rule is designed to provide the student a way out in case the relationship with the supervisor becomes unworkable. I know at least one case where this happened, but having heard both sides of the story, I think it is rather a case of conflicting personalities than a case of abuse. Of course, it's an undesirable situation in any case, but it does mean there is some form of oversight. If it happens more than once to the same professor that their students switch before finishing, that's going to look quite bad on the professor. Maybe it helps, if only a little.

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    This is the same in the UK and it is not unusual. Personality clashes happen and there is nothing wrong in dealing with them by moving people to different supervisors (with everyone's consent of course).
    – Calchas
    Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 5:01
  • wow. Reading this from Germany I'm kind of shocked how a student possibly could be denied the right to change their supervisor... (I moved with my thesis to a different university) But as many PhD students nowadays are employees hired on a reseach project, we get there rather entangled situations as well.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 21:55

It's a strange thing to ask why do bad things happen.

Bad things happen.

Rules aren't there to prevent bad things happening altogether. That would be an impossible goal. They are there to reduce the occurrences, and their consequences, as far as is practicable.

You have found some cases where bad things happen. You've then tried to extrapolate that to infer something about academia as a whole. And that inference is invalid. You've identified some possible bad things. All their existence shows, is that bad things might happen. Not that oversight is missing; not that there is an absence of accountability; not that there is a failure to redress wrongs. Just that sometimes, bad things happen.


The OP wrote

"...I ask this because in many ways, it seems that academia is much more objective and fair than the corporate world."

So I understand the question as follows: Academia seems, in general, structured to exhibit a lower degree of harassment, unfair practices, etc, compared to the corporate world. But it appears that in one particular "field", the professor/student relationship, Academia does worse than it does in other fields, like

"For example, one cannot get a faculty position at a top school by interviewing well or because their friend heads the department."

This we could call meritocracy (as a guiding principle). And meritocracy is a ruthless regime, where those with lesser merit, are, pardon my political incorrectness, lesser. And however imperfectly measured, and bar exceptional situations that validate the rule, students have lesser merit than professors, in the specific field of activity that they meet and interact.

In theory and in imagination, armed with humanistic principles and the currently prevailing ethical ideals (not practiced ethics), at least in the Western world with which I am familiar, we could perceive of a meritocratic system totally free of (from?) abusive treatment of those with lesser merit.

And as @Energynumbers answer correctly points out, after all, the issue at hand is a matter of degree, and so we will have to measure it in order to conclude on how widespread it is, how frequent, how severe, and whether it has become the rule, or the exception that validates the rule.

My answer just says that the same rules that may make Academia "score better" than the corporate world in the eyes of outsiders, are those that create also the potential for seemingly conflicting attitudes and phenomena.

  • It's not merit, it's position (~ merit x time); so students, even very talented, have lower position than, even not as talented, professors. Compare it with jobs in which merit is important, but positions are not entrenched - like programming. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 22:39
  • @PiotrMigdal Merit is not talent. Talent may be a signal of probable future merit, not more. This is not special to Academia, in business we usually worry about highly talented people because as many times as not they don't deliver up to expectations their own talent creates. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 23:06
  • If you understand merit as "cumulative achievements" I agree, if "ability right now" then I don't. But in that sense, a good meritocracy is the later (as opposed to a system in which someone is still on top, because (s)he was good two decades ago). Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 7:15
  • @PiotrMigdal But how can you tell the "ability right now"? You extrapolate the "cumulative archivements"! Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 14:05
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    @PiotrMigdal I understand "merit" as "production right now" -not "ability" -"ability" is, again, a potentiality, not an actuality. And, statistically speaking, a student cannot produce/offer research, or education, or consulting services as a professional academic can. So, currently, the student has less merit than a professor. In a meritocracy, this tends to be all that matters (and let me clarify that I do not take the position that a meritocratic system is the "ideal solution" -it is just one more approach to deal with the issues that the co-existence of humans creates). Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 14:14

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