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I was kicked out of my lab late in my graduate school career, which destroyed my confidence and obviously delayed my graduation by 2+ years. What's more, my advisor tried to convince me to drop out of graduate school, saying I was just "embarrassing myself", that I just didn't have any ability.

After me, there were many more awful events-- one person (non-student) was fired and rather slandered in an email to the lab; multiple postdocs had their projects pulled out from under them and were forced to start over in another lab, no papers; I know another graduate student there who has been struggling to decide whether to drop out; in all cases this advisor tries to destroy the person's confidence and convince them they are incapable of success.

I tried to talk to the administration a year or so after I got kicked out... just to suggest that such things should not happen without any scrutiny from the uni. I think it was just viewed as sour grapes, and nothing happened. Recently, my (second) PhD advisor suggested in a veiled way that I should try again, and maybe if I got all the other "survivors" together, we would have credibility. I think it would probably be useless and risky for me. But this person should not be in such a position of power over vulnerable junior scientists. Is it morally wrong for me to do nothing? But what could I do? (I think the best action would be for my advisor to organize something but like all advisors, mine 90% only cares about his/her own career).

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    From your general description, you former advisor sounds pretty awful, but it is not clear to me what behavior was truly unacceptable. – StrongBad Jun 3 '15 at 16:03
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    I'd just suggest this in a totally unveiled way: do not completely trust your current PhD adviser either. He/she could have conflict of interest to work you up to start a big complaint process against your former adviser. When all things go south I am not sure you'll get out unscathed. – Penguin_Knight Jun 3 '15 at 16:05
  • Yes I guess that's the problem: other than the person who was fired/slandered each case seems within the limits of an advisor's discretion (profs get to judge who they work with and what research they do). It's just a general abuse of power, and something that I dont think could happen so easily outside of academia. But does that make it ok to repeatedly harm careers of so many promising young people? Should I just accept that's the way it is? – phdscm Jun 3 '15 at 16:07
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    Did you get your PHD after all? If not, I would advice finishing first before doing anything. – Alexandros Jun 3 '15 at 18:14
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    yes, i got the PhD, and I have my next position, in a different university. – phdscm Jun 3 '15 at 19:12
12

Should I try to warn administration about truly unacceptable professor behavior?

While it's tempting and noble to want to help others who have to deal with your previous advisor, my suggestion would be:

  1. Move on with your life,
  2. Do the best research/teaching you can, and
  3. Try to make a positive impact on those in your relatively local area (students, collaborators, etc.)

I have some familiarity in dealing with unacceptable supervisor behavior. My former PhD advisor threatened me with physical violence and kicked me out of the program. Another senior faculty member and most of the students in our research group witnessed the event, but none of them would admit to my face what happened. I effectively had nobody willing to provide an eyewitness account of the events (I suppose they were too worried about their own fate; one of the students who witnessed the event is now a tenured faculty member at a top 5 school in my field).

From the fallout of this situation, it was hard enough for me to move on with my goal of getting a PhD without having a recommendation letter from my previous advisor. Once I was able to get into another program, I set out to do the best work I could do and this drives what I do to this very day.

Sure, there are times I wished I would've brought this matter to the attention of administrative staff of my previous institution, but then I recall how difficult it was for me to get back to where I wanted to be, and I try to do the best I can in my little corner of the world using my abilities and not worrying about that "other guy." Plus, I'd like to think that if they screw up enough, someone "important enough" will witness it and take the appropriate actions.

I personally see way more downside in lodging an official complaint with the administrative personnel than moving on as I suggest, simply because you have no way of knowing the severity of how painful your former advisor can make your life and the impact this can have on your career.

Good luck.

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    I've had professors berate students in the middle of class, break university policy in rather egregious ways and file false police reports (called people Nazis and terrorists and reported them to the police on false charges) but nothing was done on the part of the department. Unfortunately, I think the paperwork and legal hassle of firing tenured professors is extremely daunting and keeps these kinds of people around. – Cameron Williams Jun 4 '15 at 1:06
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    -1, this is the wrong answer, it promotes systematic failure and entrenches bad behavior. Students need to be encouraged to at least make complaints so that the university can figure out who the bad actors are. – daaxix Jun 5 '15 at 13:40
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    @daaxix To have others do the dirty job for future generations is like recruiting for the army in the middle ages. Yes, it would be nice if they would do this job, but you are really demanding that they put their career on the line? At least, they should be aware that it is their choice whether they will play the hero or not. Because there is a reasonable chance that their career will be destroyed. Perhaps you are pointing down from moral high ground, i.e. you have fought something like that yourself. If so, good on you. But not everybody is cut out for such a fight. – Captain Emacs Jun 5 '16 at 12:51
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Abusive advisors can be found in a lot of universities. That is why most (all?) universities have ombudsman or help group to address harassment and similar issues. I've heard of people in similar situations bringing up the problems they face to the administration of their department. Like you, they got ignored. If they had contacted the ombudsman, the matter would have probably been dealt with differently.

I understand that there is a potential cost to your career if you try to warn the administration. My suggestion would be the following steps:

1-Find out who at your university is in charge of dealing with harassment case. So, not just bringing up the subject to any part of the administration. Usually, student association are well informed about what kind of help you can get. Your university web site could also provide the information.

2-Have a meeting with the person/group in charge of harassment issues. Usually, those meeting are confidential. Describe the issue, ask them if they can do anything. If anything can be done, ask if you can remain anonymous.

3-Having all the information in hand with what can be done, you can now make a decision. The rest is up to you...Are the cost too high ? You might want to say yes and that is ok.

You might think this process is useless. It isn't. If someone else lodge a complaint or if somebody already have, it will help the ombudsman or any relevant authority to create a file against the abuser. Even if you do nothing, they will be aware of problems. As the process can, in most universities I know, protect you, I would encourage you to do it. You will help someone someday by doing it. It takes a lot of courage, good luck !

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    I am not sure students have the same protection as employees. Many universities go through extreme hoops to prevent students from being employees and/or unionizing. – StrongBad Jun 4 '15 at 18:42
  • In my experience, they can still use the services and at least they'll know what can help them. Here's the example for my university www2.ulaval.ca/services-de-a-a-z/harcelement/accueil.html (in French) – Emilie Jun 4 '15 at 18:45
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    "If they had contacted the ombudsman, the matter would have probably be dealt with differently." I once tried contacting an ombudsman. And no, it didn't. I just got a runaround. Though the issue wasn't as grave as the sorts of issues being talked about here. Having said that, sure filing a complaint in such cases is a good idea. – Faheem Mitha Jun 5 '15 at 6:03
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    I should have mentioned that before I went to the administration (I talked to the dean of the grad school, so it was someone pretty high up), I talked to the ombuds person. The ombudsperson made it sound like that was the only thing I could do. From my conversation with the ombudsperson, i got the impression that their only role was to tell people who else to talk to, and compiling a file was definitely not happening – phdscm Jun 5 '15 at 19:39
  • I'm sorry to say that, but your university clearly has a problem with dealing with harassment. This said, I think my answer is still relevant for people who haven't tried as hard as you did. – Emilie Jun 5 '15 at 19:59

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