I am just starting out my PhD which will take 5 years to complete and I am dealing with a person in my own research group who cannot stop putting me down every chance she gets.

In our research department in neuroscience engineering I guess she would be considered a very ambitious person. She has good grades and has some papers published despite only being in the university for about three years. But she has a very bad personality and constantly attempts to put me down by comparing me to some of the other researchers in the department.

  • For example, she will come up and say I know so and so who is in the same year as you are and he already has papers published, you don't.

  • Or I know this other person who did really well in a class and even got the professors recommendation while you are only an average student.

  • She will non-stop ask me for my GPA as an undergrad, and how I am doing in my courses. I thought she cared about me at the beginning but I am realizing that she is only exploiting my weaknesses.

  • She will also ask me about my research focus and tell me whatever I am trying to do has no value or too small scale. She will openly laugh about my research plans in front of other people and say that it has no value.

  • Even when we first met she asked me about my background which I said was in industrial engineering and she just kind of laughed because she was in some sort of advanced research program which is in her opinion more prestigious

  • Finally, she has no moral qualms doing all the above in front of other people. In fact she only does this to me when other people are around.

Worst of all is that she is making an assumption in almost everything. I have a few research papers published, just not at the current university so it is not listed. My GPA was dragged down during first years of undergrad but it picked up and at the end I had a 4.0. Plus she is not doing too well either, only with a few minor publications on very specific applications, and she is only known for certain speciaties and not much of a generalist and knows very little about the fields immediately outside of her research. But do you think I ever tell her this? Call her out about her lack of creativity? Or ask her about her GPA and the courses that she does bad in just so I can tell her that "Mr X is doing much better than you in that course"? Of course not because I am a decent person.

We are in the same research team. We should be working together and learning from each other, yet she behaves this way to me. I was so relieved during first few months when I started out my research because I have heard so much about these kind of people you encounter during graduate school yet I have not even encountered one and everyone is so helpful, but there she is. Since we cannot move forward in an amicable relationship, what is the best alternative for me? Am I being too sensitive?

  • 8
    I would say just bite your tongue and remind yourself that after she graduates, wherever she ends up, interdepartmental politics will make a person like her unhappy. If you aren't satisfied with this answer, it probably wouldn't hurt to bring up your issues with her to your advisor. If it affecting. The performance of your research group, it is an issue they should be aware of. Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 23:52
  • 17
    @BenVoigt The OP should not appear to try to gain the other person's (let's call her Alice) respect. She does not owe her anything, and does not need to prove herself in front of Alice. She needs to convince her advisers in the regular way, by good work. But it would be counterproductive for her to appear to have to prove herself to Alice. She needs to signal by attitude and behaviour (even more than by words) that she isn't going to join the game table, not now, not later. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 0:29
  • 5
    @BenVoigt I understand your idea and I would agree if the criticism were factual. However, clearly here criticism is a political tool of "Alice" and in this case, any self-justification sounds apologetic. There is a reason why politicians do not like to self-justify and pretend they were right even if they know very well they weren't. In a politically hostile constellation, radiating confidence and an element of "I know what I want, and your opinion doesn't matter" is more effective than the attempt to give a rational response. Unfortunately and quite diametral to a scientist's instinct. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 0:41
  • 4
    Weak people need to put others down to feel strong, just as small dogs bark towards big ones to get them scared, because they know they stand no chance. Keep this in mind and everything is ok. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 17:31
  • 4
    Always keep in mind that the person's whole behaviour is just a sign of deep insecurities. A person who feels secure in themselves and happy with her own achievements has no need to behave like that. If you try to defend yourself, remember that there is nothing wrong with you, what's wrong is her behaviour.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:01

20 Answers 20


I favor the Confusingly Positive/Neutral Response in these situations.

  • "So-and-so did Awesome Thing and you --" "Wow, that's great! When will it be published? I'd like to read it."
  • "What was your undergrad GPA?" "Uh, I don't even remember. It got me in here, though, and I love it here!"
  • "Bah, what you're doing is garbage." "I'm finding it a lot of fun, and learning a lot!"

When she pulls these stunts in front of others, you will look infinitely classier than she for refusing to play the game.

  • 47
    "What's your GPA?" - "Quite nice, and of my studies I particularly enjoyed the hypertensorial Labradov elliptic metahomolgy calculus - I really recommend to learn about it if you haven't done it" (of course, you should know what the hypertensorial Labradov elliptic metahomolgy calculus is ;-) Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 0:11
  • 9
    Let me add one that I've always had to use when a relative of mine asks me about my grades, in order to tell others how much better or worse I am than them. Relative: "What grades did you get?" Me: "My grades were okay, but I don't consider them important." And I really don't, because I consider life >> grades.
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 6:09
  • 9
    That has to be the best answer. Taking the high road and not letting yourself get dragged into a discussion where you can't win is almost always the way to go for such issues.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 7:47
  • 3
    Honestly the best way to "get to" and stop people who do this sort of thing is to just 100% ignore it. The lack of validation of the "oooh, gotcha!! haha I'm awesome" statements they make as jabs quickly makes them feel stupid, and they can't even do anything to avoid that other than stopping.
    – enderland
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 20:10
  • 10
    To be a real bastard follow up by publicly offering her a muffin. It completely throws horrible people off balance.
    – Murphy
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 17:14

The previous answers are quite good, and I'd like to add another possible line of defence.

If possible, minimise interaction with her. You will not learn anything from her (except how not to behave), and she is very unlikely to improve (miracles happen, but very rarely).

If you do not feel in the mood to give cheery/positive answers, another strategy is to respond blandly, such as with a politely interested "Really?"/"That sounds interesting"/"how lovely" or the like. Blandness and being boring (to her, not to others) takes the fun out of trying to upset you.

Most importantly, make clear to yourself that she has no role in your scientific life. She is not your boss or your adviser. You decide what you need. Don't watch how others in your department are doing. The only people you may need to watch are competitors in your research field at other institutions. The progress of some random colleague at your institution doesn't tell you anything about how well you are doing or should be doing. They may rush ahead, and fall back again with respect to you, you never know; fields are not comparable.

Your colleague clearly does not have the ability to judge with confidence where she is placed herself, and she is so worried about others that she tries to transfer this worry to you. Don't let that happen, you are not her emotional recycling bin. At this stage, however, which you describe I do not see a necessity yet to involve any third person.


To add a legal perspective (as a department chair, I received training regarding such matters), some of the behaviors you described will in my opinion very probably qualify as a form of workplace harassment in the United States, assuming that you can be considered an employee (which is not certain and would depend on the particulars of your status in the graduate program). The occurrence of such harassment could be argued to constitute a hostile work environment. If you complain to your advisor/PI/department chair, it will be their legal responsibility to take action to prevent the harassment. As the Wikipedia article I linked to above explains:

An employer can be held liable for failing to prevent these workplace conditions, unless it can prove that it attempted to prevent the harassment and that the employee failed to take advantage of existing harassment counter-measures or tools provided by the employer.

Even if you are not considered an employee, there may be other laws that apply to the situation, and regardless, common sense would dictate that your advisor and department are in a good position, and have good incentives, to address the problem should you choose to complain to them.

To conclude, I'm not saying that you necessarily should complain, but this is one option you should be aware of. Disclaimer: as I said I received some training on workplace harassment, but I am not a lawyer and would recommend that you seek more authoritative information on any legal-related issues before making any sensitive decisions.

  • 8
    I personally have the impression that the bully in this case is merely an insecure person. A lightweight, simpler strategy could well work in the present case. Unfortunately, today even comparatively minor incidents are quickly escalated to heavy-duty semi-legal handling due to increased readiness to "semi-litigate". This is harmful for the trust in the department and should be considered only after all other actions have failed and with thorough collection of evidence. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 11:50
  • 3
    This is a good example what I refer to as "dropping the hammer" in my answer; triggering legal ramifications would certainly be a last resort (but one should be aware of it for the worst cases). Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 17:41
  • 6
    @Captain a "merely" insecure person could still cause much harm. And yes, a lightweight strategy could work and may be worth trying, not least since dealing with this on her own would provide OP with useful experience in human problem-solving. As for "simpler", actually I'd argue you won't find a simpler approach than complaining to the people whose job it is to deal with precisely such problems, freeing OP to do her work and not have to agonize about what to do. I'm not suggesting suing the university, just getting help from the system in dealing with what is clearly a difficult situation.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 19:15
  • Also if you do go this route, you sure better have tried to diffuse the situation yourself and then document violations in enough detail to actually be useable.
    – enderland
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 20:07
  • 2
    @enderland you are correct that documentation would be extremely helpful, but from a legal (or ethical, IMO) perspective, OP has no responsibility to try to defuse the situation herself before complaining. It's fine if she wants to try, but strictly not required.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 20:10

Work on not letting it bother you. It's extremely clear that she's putting you down in order to feel better about herself. If you internalize the fact that she's not the hot shot she's pretending to be, and that if she were, she wouldn't be talking to you this way, it's easier to brush off her comments. For example, when she says "so-and-so scored much higher than you did" say "Good for her!" in as genuine a tone of voice as you can muster. If she says that your research project has no value, cheerfully say "Thanks for the advice!" and go back to what you were doing. And so on. When she puts you down, show her that you don't care what she thinks enough to get upset. This approach has two bonuses: 1. It will be absolute torture for her to not get the satisfaction of seeing you bothered, and 2. The people who witness these exchanges will be impressed that you don't let her get to you. They see now that she's bullying you, and likely feel sorry for you. If you take the "zen" approach I'm describing, they'll be laughing at the bully with you.

The above advice doesn't fit all bullying situations, but your case is probably not severe enough to make it worth complaining to your PI, unless things escalate further. At this stage, someone is simply being mean to you, and the best approach is to develop a thicker skin. This is easier for some people to do than others, but it's the first thing to try.

  • 6
    Thanks and I have already noticed this. For example, when she told me the grade thing again today someone else next to me said to her that the course was particularly difficult for my year because a change of prof and the maximum grade of the entire course is a full 20% lower than her year without adjustments and she just sort of shut up, maybe because it was a PhD more senior than her Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 0:00
  • 3
    @FemaleTank: Good to hear that some people are supportive of you. Just do your best in your work, and if she ever asks for help, you should consider trying to help; she might very well change her attitude when she realizes it is much nicer to be nice to others.
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 6:13
  • 6
    @user21820 I should put a big caveat here. FemaleTank should not be mean, but quite careful, if she decides to help. I am afraid that the person quite realises that FemaleTank is a nice person and she would like to have control over her. That person may just be afraid, or immature, but it may also be a fundamental character trait, we cannot judge that remotely. In the latter case, keeping away is the only right course of action. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 11:32
  • @CaptainEmacs: Yes I fully agree with you. When I say "help" I of course mean a completely genuine intention, and at the same time your advice to still be very careful is definitely right on the mark, since such people are of two types; one will respond well to kindness but the other will become even more ugly. I was just saying it in case a future opportunity arises.
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:29

A woman in my entering class of grad school sounds just like what you're describing -- callous put-downs, insensitive and uber-competitive remarks about grades and research status, etc. Several of us started off trying really hard to make her a happier human being (she also constantly complained about how lonely she was -- go figure), but it pretty quickly became clear that she was an emotional black hole, sucking in positive energy and emitting none back.

Research requires collaboration, and NO ONE wants to collaborate with someone like that. While still in grad school, she started a promising summer fellowship that she'd been bragging to everyone about having obtained and they fired her shortly after she began because she was so difficult to work with. Now, several years after both of us earned our Ph.D.s and moved on, almost no one currently or previously affiliated with our department even knows what she's doing. She clearly failed to make the mark on the field she seemed to think she was destined to, and I suspect the person you're describing will either change her act or wind up the same way.

My advice: Do everything you can to avoid and ignore her, and when that's not possible, call her on her bad behavior.

  • 6
    Good advice, although black holes emits energy !!!
    – SSimon
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 9:44
  • Dark Energy? :-) Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 8:02

I am a bit dismayed that the majority of answers here seem to take as a given that the OP is in some contest of wills with her fellow grad student and give advice for "winning the battle," "putting the other student in her place," "effecting her demise" and so forth. (Not all: there are some excellent answers and indeed some which are very close to what I am about to say: just too few of them in the total chorus.) This is fundamentally wrong-headed: graduate school is not a battle of wills with other graduate students. It does (unfortunately) have a competitive aspect, but the competition is not for top spots in the social/professional hierarchy of graduate students: it is for academic excellence and the opportunity to continue one's academic career.

How are these true goals of graduate school furthered by this verbal jousting with a fellow grad student? The answer is clear: they're not. Being the victor in a verbal joust feels better than being the loser, but the victory is completely pyrrhic. The only real victory is to stop playing this game.

The OP can do that as follows: she should think carefully about the range of interactions she has with her fellow student and make a clear, mental divide between activities which are necessary (they may have to work together, after all) and potentially productive and activities which are part of the no-winners game described above. Then, in all future interactions with this other student, she should simply refuse to engage with all overtures that she knows or strongly suspects will be unproductive. She should respond positively to interactions that are clearly productive/professional, and she should firmly move borderline interactions towards the productive/professional direction. All these things she should do completely openly and unsubtly. That there are other people around is a good thing for this strategy: the OP is saying "come to me with professional things and professional things only." To refuse to do that when other people are around makes the other person clearly in the wrong.

Sample response:

"I'm sorry, I've answered questions like that from you before, so I know it won't lead anywhere productive. Do you have anything constructive / relevant / about project X to ask me?"

The lack of subtlety of this strategy should make it straightforward to implement as long as the OP is committed to it. The worst possible outcome I see is that the OP is already so bent out of shape / her fellow student is evil enough that interactions that look innocent to other observers will be handled coldly and professionally by the OP. But that is an acceptable outcome. Professionals are allowed to be cold as long as they make it clear that this coldness is in the service of doing their job. Moreover after a few awkward exchanges like this, all but the most evil/deranged people will learn to stop pushing the button that is not getting the desired response.

  • 2
    Pete, I know this answer is well-intentioned, but I wonder if you would be making the same suggestions if the OP were complaining of harassment of a sexual nature (but still only in verbal form) from a male coworker. This kind of "just refuse to engage, stick to work-related issues and you'll be fine" type of advice assumes the premise that the OP is capable of "just" refusing to engage. I think you are seriously underestimating the perniciousness of this type of bullying (especially by saying your strategy is "virtually foolproof", which I find a bit patronizing), ...
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 1:11
  • 3
    @Dan: I deleted "virtually foolproof." However I am a bit puzzled by your comparison of one student saying mean professionally-related things to another with sexual harassment. In fact I wonder how you see these situations as being similar...but that seems beyond the scope of this comment. I am not trying to underplay the unpleasantness of the situation, but I also do not find it an uncommon one -- peers and/or coworkers can behave very obnoxiously, and I would rather give the OP a strategy to try for handling it on her own. If it doesn't work, she can try something else. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 3:37
  • 3
    Let me also say that I do not feel like I am anywhere near "blaming the victim." If someone in your workplace puts you down...don't you first try to deal with it in some way? What's the difference? Is there something wrong with the idea that an adult professional can seek to work out their workplace troubles on their own? Finally, note that I did not at all say that the OP is reinforcing her coworker's behavior. What I said is that some of the other answers suggest adopting similar behavior, and that this behavior is bad no matter who does it. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 3:42
  • 3
    I do not see why sexual harassment is brought into the game here. The latter has another, additional, quality, and there is good reason why special procedures are in place there. For non-sexual harassment, however, escalating immediately to the boss will harm the OP's standing no less than the harasser. The OP will be - implicitly - be regarded as immature, unable to stand up for their own, no matter that it's formally the boss' and admin's job to sort that out. I agree completely with @PeteL.Clark's strategy. It will not work well, though, if the OP ends up on a joint project with the bully. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 8:31
  • 1
    @Daniel: Remember that these conversations take place when others are around. By saying this, the OP is explaining to the others why she is acting in a way which may seem to be gratuitously curt. After having said that, the OP can certainly refuse to "meta-explain herself": debating whether a conversation will be directly academically on-topic is pretty clearly not directly academically on-topic. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 7:35

Maybe just block her and cut all communications possible

  • 4
    Welcome to Academia.SE: this answer, as is, is of low quality and it is at risk of being highly downvoted and deleted: I suggest you to expand it, by clarifying better your ideas. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 21:31
  • 8
    I actually think this one line answer is better than many of the answers given here. It could indeed be expanded upon / clarified, but: the correct basic idea, for sure. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 22:26

'Workplace Bullying In Academia' probably best fits your situation.


It's a more specific form of:

'Workplace bullying', here's an excellent website for strategies to stop it.


'Psychological Abuse' describes the phenomena you describe as well though it's not focused just on the workplace.

'Gaslighting' is yet another term used to describe the phenomena of sabotaging someone's confidence in themselves.

I would have posted more links but wasn't allowed to because I'm new, a form of 'website bullying in academia' I suppose.

There's always one jerk in every workplace, classroom, or other venue where people congregate and they always attack the nicest people in an effort to salve their own insecurities. They attack the nicest people because they're cowardly and know that the meanest people will stomp their butt. It's not your fault and can be neutralized with appropriate strategies. You should try and address it before it blows up though because once it does, superiors, like parents, sometimes punish both 'kids', regardless of which one started it and the innocent kid usually gets punished the worst.

  • 4
    Nitpick: this isn't what "gaslighting" usually refers to; typically it refers to shattering someone's confidence in their knowledge of objective facts, so as to cause self-doubt about one's own sanity/memory/cognitive abilities. It comes from the name of a play.
    – fluffy
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 5:27

This person is, roughly speaking, a sociopath. The first step is to identify such a person. Realize that about 1% of the overall population fits that diagnosis, but there is a larger proportion, like 3-4%, for higher-powered positions such as business and government (Wikipedia). So you will tend to run into these people from time to time; possibly expect 1 per class of 30 students in higher education.

And unfortunately, there's also a trend for high-powered women in particular to bully lower-powered women in the workplace; this has been called "queen bee syndrome" among psychologists (Wall Street Journal). So while stressful, be aware that you're certainly not alone in going through this situation.

In 2010, the Workplace Bullying Institute, a national education and advocacy group, reported that female bullies directed their hostilities toward other women 80% of the time—up 9% since 2007. Male bullies, by contrast, were generally equal-opportunity tormentors.

A 2011 survey of 1,000 working women by the American Management Association found that 95% of them believed they were undermined by another woman at some point in their careers. According to a 2008 University of Toronto study of nearly 1,800 U.S. employees, women working under female supervisors reported more symptoms of physical and psychological stress than did those working under male supervisors.

In my experience, the most important thing once a sociopath is identified is to cut off the flow of information as much as possible. Don't engage or give out any more data than needed; every tidbit of personal information is just more ammunition or another attack-vector for the sociopath. (For example, I totally disagree with other respondents who suggest getting to know the person better, or responding to particular jabs with sarcasm or like responses; the sociopath does not respond like a normal person in this regard.) "Don't feed the troll" is a more concise way of saying this.

(The only other thing that's worked for me, a little bit, is to possibly use the strategy of "dropping the hammer" as it's called in poker (Urban Dictionary). That is to say, let the little needly putdowns generally go without response, but at a later date when you have some justification for real heavy-duty consequences/punishment, apply it swiftly, completely, and mercilessly. For example: A sociopathic student might have rules on absences enforced with complete strictness; an abusive committee member might be called out on behavior against the rules of the organization to the chair; or saboteur employees may simply need to be fired [see Wall Street Journal link above for the latter]. This is certainly a bridge-burning move, and would of course be undesirable in all but the most extreme circumstances; the one or two times in my life that I've applied this the person became uncontrollably irate, but they didn't bother me after that.)

In your case it's likely best to just avoid and wait out the bully's tenure at your institution, which should be two years or less, and know that "it does get better".

  • 6
    I'm not a psychologist, but I don't think the bully meets the definition of a psychopath. She is a bully, and almost certainly would be characterized as having a personality disorder of some sort, not sure which, but not psychopathy (in my humble and mostly wikipedia-informed opinion).
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 8:08
  • 4
    Advising academics to "expect 1 student in a class of 30 to be a sociopath" seems to be a pretty glib, tending towards irresponsible, statement for someone to make without specific evidence to back it up. I feel similarly about calling someone you have never met "roughly speaking, a sociopath": you are using technical language as though you have technical expertise, but someone with that expertise would almost certainly be more careful. I suggest that you remove this from your answer, which would remain useful (indeed, be more so) without it. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 19:30
  • 1
    Dear @PeteL.Clark he is right, although his post is highly politically incorrect it is brutally honest. I am sure Daniel have experience with students more than we do. I would like to see research on this topic
    – SSimon
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 9:52
  • 1
    There is no political incorrectness or brutal honesty here; it's an issue of drawing conclusions from an academic study, which seems to me to be done rather rashly. I don't see what is gained by the bold assertion that there is (on average) a sociopath in every classroom. The rest of the answer -- which is very good -- proceeds independently of this. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 14:56
  • 1
    Whether the real number is 1 in 30 or 1 in 90, it's true that running into these people in a professional setting is an unfortunate fact of life. I think this answer gives some good advice on how to handle it.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 16:06

I will first start off by a quote by Mark Twain: "Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great." - Mark Twain

Hence, the first step I would say is to "keep away" from her. Also, keep in mind that she is definitely considered a "small person". She may have some knowledge, but certainly no wisdom.

Given the extent of her bad behavior as described, you may be dealing with a sociopath here, which can be hard to deal with. No point trying to reason or negotiate with her as sociopaths do not have empathy. One approach you might take is to stick with a few close friends, to have strength in numbers. It is harder for her to criticize you openly when you have friends defending you.

"Pride comes before a fall." I believe this saying has some truth. If you have a religion, you can take comfort in that God does not like such prideful people, though they may be outwardly successful. If you and your friends detect any criminal behavior in her, e.g. faking research results, report her immediately as necessary.

All the best!


I'm a fan of answering people who are obviously trying to deliver a putdown with a backhanded compliment that borders on offensive but is worded in a nice way. This is done a LOT in the South, where I grew up. Southern women can cut each other dead with verbiage that to an outsider sounds quite nice.

Delivered in a "I'm not really interested but I'm being polite" tone, as though talking to a child:

"Well, aren't you precious?"

"Oh sweetie, I bet you feel better for telling me that."

"That's adorable, you're trying to 'neg' me aren't you? It won't work, I'm not going to date you."

"Is that right, dear? Fancy you knowing something like that."

Nothing stings a bully more than being dismissed as a non-entity. That's why they bully in the first place.

Oh, and if a woman from the South says that someone is "perfectly nice", it means she thinks that person is anything but. As in "Well, I don't have much to do with her, but she's perfectly nice." When someone is well liked she is described as "lovely".

  • 3
    This is brilliant, however, very few people can do that convincingly over a long period if it's not in their blood (unless they are Southern-trained). For brilliant put-downs, see also Winston Churchill, or Oscar Wilde. Unfortunately, it's difficult to imitate in real life, plus it requires some refinement on the end of the receiver and bystanders. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:20
  • 7
    Trotting out these obnoxious, patronizing lines is terrible advice and I can't think of any circumstances in which it's reasonbale to address a colleague as "dear" or "sweetie". Don't be surprised if you end up on the wrong end of the harassment accusation if you use these. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 23:19
  • @DavidRicherby It's true, some bullying actually works exactly this way, by masterfully using patronising language with an element of plausible deniability. Unfortunately, dealing with bullies is obnoxious business, and the right route to choose is unlikely to leave you clean. I have seen every outcome, from the bully successfully displacing a well-liked person, to proposing a job extension to its victim (possibly to retain control), or to successfully being put in place by an "nuclear-level" reaction of the victim after long-term low-level patronisation. There is no single right response. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 13:16

I generally try to be honest and upfront with this kind of person initially to see how they respond. For example, I would say something like: "What you just said hurt my feelings and is untrue, I would appreciate it if you would stop doing that."

If that does not work, I move on to confronting them with more drastic measures: "I'm sorry that your lack of self-esteem causes you to put down other people to make you feel better about yourself. Unfortunately all it does is make you look bad to everyone around you when you do it."

After that I would take it up with whomever it would be appropriate to do so, outline their actions and what you have done to attempt to mitigate it. This shows that you have made an effort and stood up for yourself in a respectful and calm manner.

Either way, good luck with this situation, I know they're difficult, I worked with someone I absolutely couldn't stand for two years so I totally understand.

  • 1
    Would you mind sharing whether the two statements you use actually worked, and under which circumstances? Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 18:46

I second the answers who recommend "downgrading" the questions' importance and not letting yourself be goaded in this manner.

I do want to add one kind of reply that is not, I admit, quite in that line:

For example, she will come up and say I know so and so who is in the same year as you are and he already has papers published, you don't.

The response that came to mind immediately was "I have a cousin who is your age. She's really nice."

Now that's probably a bit subtle. Whether or not you want to actually play that card, the point is that your colleague apparently cannot help applying some metric that she built her self-esteem with obsessive-compulsively to you. It's a metric she clings to and advertises since she does not trust other metrics to make her look favorable, and apparently she does not trust this particular metric all that much either or she would not need to boost it that much. Don't play her game. Unfortunately, I don't see that you have much chance to make her stop hers since she does not seem to think she has a lot to fall back on otherwise.


She does it for one of three reasons:

1) She feels bad about herself. By assuming certain facts and commenting on her assumptions in a place where others can hear, she tries to assert a form of dominance over other people to make herself feel superior - thereby stopping from feeling inferior for a brief moment.

2) She wants to make you an enemy. She may feel most driven and perform her very best work when she feels like she is competing with someone. Though this is clearly not the healthiest way to go about it. In a way, this possibly seems like "working together" to her - trying to outdo one another or, maybe even hoping to get together to outdo that other person she is talking about.

3) She may worry about your progress and actually be attempting to help. Like #2, she probably would come off as a very competitive person - and if someone told her the things she didn't do as well as that other person, well, she'd try harder and catch up! Too bad she doesn't have much experience with other personalities and is wrongly assuming a lot of things about your accomplishments.

So, how should you handle her? Well, the response is going to depend on how you prefer to handle these situations, but this is what I would do:

  • Ask her why this information is important. Why you should care. Why she bothers to tell you this. This will provide more insight into why she does it, while possibly allowing for opportunities to correct assumptions (even if you don't tell her the correct information, you can state which assumptions are false and tell her the concern isn't necessary).

  • Relay the appropriate message of how you expect to be treated. Points correspond to the numbered reasons above - but regardless of your suspected reason, express your desire that you wish you could work together since you are on the same research team, but that the way she is acting is unacceptable to you.

    1. or
    2. You don't put up with bullying. Either she needs to stay away, or she needs to stop bringing up these (untrue, btw) points, you don't really care how she or someone else is doing - because you are doing fine.
    3. Thanks for the concern, but you are doing fine - possibly now you two can go on to have a decent working relationship.

From here, your working relationship may get better, even if slightly, and become more tolerable, or it may not. Possible follow-ups which other answers go into more detail (in no particular order) may include:


Note: I'm not proposing this as the surefire 100% guaranteed to work solution, but if you think this might work with her then it's definitely worth a try.

Invite her out for a bite to eat (or find some situation in which you two can talk alone and it does not seem awkward), and discuss the matter with her in private. In talking to her be careful not to upset her as you are dealing with a graduate student with the emotional intelligence of a high school student. In order to prevent this from happening, I would talk to her keeping the following 2 things in mind:

(1) Make sure to give her all the validation she appears to be attempting to give herself by disparaging you. Give her credit where it is due, and do it in the most genuine way possible.

(2) Talk in terms of her interests when asking her to stop. DO NOT make the conversation about you and your needs, only about her. For example, I'm not entirely sure how much you contribute, but if you are viewed as an indispensable member of the team make sure to say something along the lines of how it effects her paper having someone not able to work at full capacity since you are doing group work (or if this is not completely relevant find some other way to relate it to her).

Now if she remains unreasonable even after an attempt to work things out with her one on one, talk to your advisor as mentioned previously in the comments.

  • 11
    Feeding the troll only makes it grow bigger. I would really disadvise doing point 1 at all.
    – gaborous
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 5:34
  • 4
    ElChapo, while I agree with your comment, I disagree with feeding the ego of an egotistical person. Give such people whatever due respect and credit, but never more than that, otherwise they will usually think that they are right to behave the way they do.
    – user21820
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 6:17
  • 6
    This is a nice answer. I was thinking of suggesting a friendly approach like that myself. I know this won't be the most popular idea, but I think it's worth at least a try. I'd give it +1 if you didn't annoy me rather a lot by using the image and name of a notorious criminal as your SE user handle. I understand it's meant to be humorous but I think it's in very poor taste and suggest that you change it if you want to help your reputation here and for your answers (which seem to be of good quality) to be taken more seriously.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 8:02
  • 2
    Feeding the troll works quite well as she is not in a position of power. You can control the troll with her favorite food, just like some animal. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:51
  • 1
    I think people are assuming a certain type of person by referring to her as a "troll". This solution is not targeted at a "troll", but rather at a little girl who feels like no matter what she does, she does not measure up to those around her. I personally see where this answer could be handy, though I think a change of wording could help others - "feed her ego" is basically "giving her credit where credit is due" - not "worshiping her" as others seem to think. (which is why "in the most genuine way possible") Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 16:29

As far as I have understood, your main problem is that she is someone who you must work with. I have been in similar situations, and I feel you very well.

I have developed several defense mechanisms.

1. Talk to her!

In the simplest possible way, tell her that her behaviors cause you to have hard feelings. Maybe she is not bad at all and will sympathize with you. Maybe something that you have done has caused her to behave like this. Maybe she envies your work. Just drink a couple of coffees with her and tell her your feelings. Try to be friends. It is harder to hurt a friend than hurting a colleague.

She understands you

She hears what you say and tries not to put you down. That way, problem is solved.

She acts like she has understood you

She listens to you, acts like she understands you, but continues her behavior. In this case, you should remind her that you two talked, and these behaviors put you down. Ask her not to repeat that again.

If she repeats again, decrease your interaction with her. Show that you dislike her behavior by your mimics and your own behavior. By showing, I don't mean just sour and wait for her to understand. Say a sharp word like "mind your own business" or "I don't care what you think".

She ignores

She listens to you, but does not care. Then, you should talk to your advisor. Tell him/her the situation and ask him/her to find a solution for this problem. Before doing this, you should tell your colleague that you will talk to the boss and explain everything.

Her being ignorant about one of her colleague's feelings means she is indeed a bad person and deserves to be told on.

2. Ignore her; don't feed the troll!

Remember that there are a lot of people out there that feeds from others' sadenesses. She might be one of them. Then you being sad about this situation only makes her happier. There is nothing wrong making a person happy, but that would not cost your own happiness. Whenever she says something bad, just smile and nod. Even though it causes you to have hard feelings, pretend that you don't.

3. Tell the situation to an authority

If you are 100% sure that you can't cope up with her behaving bad, just go and explain the situation to your advisor (or who is responsible from the research team). Try not to be so aggressive while explaining, and try to somehow notice her that you will take precautions about this situation.

4. Show her!

That does not mean "snap at her", but rather, "show her that she is wrong". Concentrate on your part of the research and maybe more. Remember that what she said is imperceptible compared to what you actually have done.

What I think is; both you and her having problems about self-reliance. Looking from your point of view, you think having low GPA or less to none publications are something to be ashamed of. She is aware of that as well. Do not let her understand this fact. Even though you know that you could have done a lot better, remember:

"Anger, resentment and jealousy doesn't change the heart of others-- it only changes yours."

Shannon L. Alder


I've had strikingly good results by calling them out on their game. But that's me, maybe you can't. I'm a nice guy too, but when someone ticks me off, I start thinking hard.

Plus she is not doing too well either, only with a few minor publications...

Her put-downs come from her insecurities. A very typical pattern, as you've already found. She's probably doing a lot worse than you even know. So as to not feel so bad about herself, she puts you down. And probably others? She's probably suffering from depression; this is a very common mental illness and she has it bad. Her thoughts are irrational and you can capitalize on that.

Often the insults will mirror her own problems. If she's getting a B-, she has to make you get a D+ or worse, and the worse the better, in her mind. This is difficult for her if you're actually getting an A-, so she'll use exaggeration or outright lies, as you've seen. Or, she'll change the venue: talk about undergraduate grades or something. Don't play along and answer matter-of-factly; instead, make similar insults toward her, and call her on what's really going on - her insecurities. For instance:

she: I know George who is in the same year as you are and he already has papers published, you don't.

you think: she's putting down my number-of-papers cuz her number-of-papers is low, or somehow embarrassing to her. It might not seem embarrassing to you; don't be fooled because what matters is her fears and perceptions, not yours.

you say: How many papers have you published? [adjust this to fit what you know about her] I've got more papers published than you have, don't I? In fact, doesn't everybody in this department have more papers published than you? [you can exaggerate a little if she's already exaggerating - especially as a question.]

she: reacts angrily...

you don't answer her questions, just continue on: So did you bring up George's papers because you haven't published any? You have to put me down because you don't have any papers, right?

Again, adjust this to the realities, and what you know about her. Stop trying to be 'accurate'. You want to say, out loud, what her own fears about herself are saying. Maybe everybody else who hears it, thinks her paper count is OK, but that's irrelevant.

Watch how she works, especially as she cuts other people down - you don't have to talk so you can listen more carefully and think of what insecurity she's trying to cover for. You can use the same weapons against her - practice! Try it out on friends - that's what friends are for.

I remember dealing with a woman who would lash out at people with insults, and when the victim would attack back, she would act really hurt and appear to cry. Out loud, I described this game to everybody in the room. It was like the wicked witch of the west: she exploded with insults and crying, it was astounding really. Nobody else talked to her again. She shut up and went away. Problem solved.

she: So what's your GPA this semester?

you think: I don't have to answer that - in fact, if I don't answer her question, that itself is a put-down. She's paranoid about her own GPA. Probably not too good. I'm glad I looked up her GPA already or I talked to my coworkers to get an idea of her GPA. So now I can hit back and exaggerate just like she does to me.

you say: Well, what's your GPA this semester? [whether or not it's true:] It's down, isn't it? What will you do if you flunk out? [You're asking a question that suggests she'll flunk out - you are not lying by saying she'll flunk out. It's a question, but it'll piss her off cuz that's what she's fearing in her head, rationally or not.]

These comebacks will really anger her. That's the idea. She's a bully, and just like a playground bully, you don't have to win the fight, you just have to make sure that she hurts. Currently, you have been receiving her punches like a playground wimp, and not punching back.

Make sure that often, when she talks to you like this, she gets punished by some cutting comeback - it'll take practice, but the skill will serve you well as you run into more creeps like her in your career. The most cutting comebacks are often the ones that are tragically true. So study up on her: google her, look her up in your university or department, check out her Facebook page or wherever. And use her insults to figure out what's scaring her in the moment - whatever she cuts you down about, chances are it's a problem for her, and you can turn the blade around 180 degrees.

Yes she will get angry at you - she was angry at you before, so nothing's lost. Eventually she'll stop bullying you and trash someone else instead. People won't hate you because you're being mean to her - in fact, people will consider you a hero cuz you're finally fighting back. So don't be afraid to be mean.

  • 7
    -1 Terrible advice, in my opinion. Reacting this way raises the stakes, risks a very ugly confrontation, and makes you look petty and mean as well.
    – Corvus
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 6:46
  • 2
    It's not necessarily a bad strategy, very unfortunately; it can work well with nasties. The problem is: it requires massive skill and self-confidence, and one needs to find fun in beating the bully in the same way movie heroes do. Of course, @corvus ' scenario can come true and the thing escalating out of control. But the bigger problem is that most of us academics are here to do our job, not to show off our society saving skills (or we would have done some other thing with our life). So, while we typically want to be left alone, this strategy requires us to be engaged with the process. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 12:36
  • You won't have to do it much. If it hurts every time she punches you (verbally), she'll stop. Just like a schoolyard bully. Make sure that any other people in the room have experience with her, otherwise, yeah, you look as petty as her. Good chance you're not the only one being put down. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 0:09
  • Part of the idea behind pissing her off is to intensify her immature behavior and show everybody what's going on. Try to time it so that when other people are around, you fight back less, and in private, that's when you insult her more. So when she blows up at you, it'll look to everybody else like it just came out of nowhere. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 0:31

Am I being too sensitive?


What should I do?

You listen and answer to your adviser and no one else.

Of course the administration and some relevant others need to be taken care of without the help of your adviser, but when it comes to your academic progress evaluation and the amount of publications during your PhD, IMO its better not to listen to others. Let her do her thing, all you need to care is your work in hand. You are not responsible for what she thinks (problems of the world in a broader sense).

You are the part of an institution and your adviser is the team leader. If you find someone deliberately trying to put you down, which in turn is interfering with your work, go talk with your adviser and let him/her take care of it.

  • 1
    "You listen [...] to your adviser and no one else." That seems rather limiting to one's prospects. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 23:22
  • 8
    You listen and answer to your adviser and no one else. -- This is perhaps the single worst piece of advice I've ever read here. Students are neither slaves nor cogs in a machine. Your advisor doesn't own you. Most students need multiple mentors and are evaluated by multiple faculty (for example, the thesis committee). The entire point of a PhD is becoming an independent researcher. Serious workplace issues should be brought to the attention of the department chair, especially if the advisor doesn't (or can't) act.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:14
  • 1
    "When it comes to evaluation of your work, adviser is the one who you listen to." No. You must not limit yourself to listening to just one person. Ultimately, as @JeffE says, you need to convince people other than your advisor of the value of your work. All sincere and informed opinions about your work are valuable and you cannot afford to live in a little bubble where you listen to nobody but your advisor. Don't listen to the bully -- but because they're not sincere, not because they're not your advisor. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:09
  • 1
    Of course you should pass relevant information to your advisor and, indeed, to everyone you're collaborating with in research. But what does that have to do with your claim that a research student should listen and answer only to their advisor? Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 17:26
  • 1
    @Sathyam I read the entire answer, and I stand by my comment. Students should not discuss workplace issues (or anything else) only with their advisor. Sure, bring it to the advisor's attention first, but suggesting that it's inappropriate to talk with anyone else is simply toxic.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 23:29

The colleague you're talking about is most likely a psychopath.

No, that doesn't mean "serial killer". But it does mean someone who was born with a genetic and hereditary personality disorder. Her brain's structure is different from ours, and that makes her physically incapable of feeling guilt or remorse.

She's making you feel bad because she enjoys it! That's how different they are from you and me. They actually enjoy hurting people, it's like a sport for them.

This bitch sounds like she's not even stealthy about it. Some of them do it for decades without the victim noticing.

Anyhow. This is one of those cases where the only winning move is not to play. Don't associate with her anymore, and your problem will be solved.

Don't try to reason with her, or get her to see the error of her ways - she doesn't see it that way. She simply doesn't give a rat's ass about anyone except herself, and she sees nothing wrong with the way she is or what she's doing. She simply could not care less.

She may act otherwise, but though they can be extremely convincing - they kind of have to, to pass off as human - you can rest assured that she's just faking it to be able to abuse you some more.

Obviously I'm speaking from personal experience here. Otherwise I wouldn't know so much about these freaks.. Feel free to do some research into "psychopathy", "sociopathy", "narcissism", "borderline personality disorder", "ASPD" etc, they're all essentially the same thing, but with different labels to distract us.

  • 1
    Downvoting me doesn't change reality, you know. Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 5:57
  • I didn't downvote you, because it's an interesting answer, but: you do not know the reality. It may be as you say, it may be insecurity or something entirely else. You present your stance as if it was close to being a fact - which it isn't. BTW, I agree with your action advice, but I am not sure your analysis is correct (which does not really matter for your advice to be followed). Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 16:26
  • @Kikka saying that downvoting you doesn't change reality doesn't change reality, either. Your post contains multiple inaccuracies. This site welcomes interesting answers, and opinion-based content is fine, but posting inaccurate or misleading information is a sure way to get your answer downvoted.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 18:46
  • @DanRomik, > "Your post contains multiple inaccuracies." <-- No it doesn't.. You don't like me making "unsubstantiated claims", but then you go ahead and do the exact same thing, as if it's fine for you, but not me. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 13:00
  • @KikkaKutonen thank you for your opinions. To clarify my position, I would say it's fine for both of us to make any kinds of claims that we want here, as long as they do not violate reasonable norms of civility, and as long as we accept that other people may disagree with us, and possibly downvote what we wrote if it is posted as an answer.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 4:27

You can just let her win the silly game she is playing.

"For example, she will come up and say I know so and so who is in the same year as you are and he already has papers published, you don't."

Your answer: "It's even worse, I had two papers rejected and as a result I need to start over with some core elements of the research that went into it."

"Or I know this other person who did really well in a class and even got the professors recommendation while you are only an average student."

Your answer: "I wish! Unfortunately, I'm doing a lot worse than the average grad student here."

"She will non-stop ask me for my GPA as an undergrad, and how I am doing in my courses. I thought she cared about me at the beginning but I am realizing that she is only exploiting my weaknesses."

You should tell lies about how bad your GPA scores were.

"She will also ask me about my research focus and tell me whatever I am trying to do has no value or too small scale. She will openly laugh about my research plans in front of other people and say that it has no value."

Just tell her with a straight face that her judgment is correct, its quite worthless what you are doing, but due to circumstances you have little choice to pursue what you are doing. You can tell her that given how bad you were as an undergraduate, you are just glad that you have the opportunity to do any research at all, however insignificant.

  • 5
    Terrible advice. Spreading rumours of your own incompetence cannot possibly be a good idea. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:00
  • 1
    @CountIblis Why would that be a good idea? Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:51
  • 3
    "always evaluated in an objective way" - that is more than optimistic to believe . Depends on the talent of the troll for intrigue (in this case, may be limited, but we do not really know), that can backfire badly. A manipulative troll can use this self-deprecation to great effect. Unless the OP is better at manipulation than the troll (the OP seems a nice person and this is probably not the case, as intrigue requires practice), one keep completely away from such a strategy. Strongly discouraged. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 21:32
  • 4
    More directly: lying in any professional context is bad. Lying to make yourself look bad is ridiculously bad. Initiating a purely negative, dishonest interaction with the goal of someone else's "demise" is wholly unprofessional. An acceptable professional response is simply to refuse to engage in negative interactions. The OP can say: "I'm sorry, I've answered questions like that from you before, so I know it won't lead anywhere productive. Do you have anything constructive / relevant / about project X to ask me?" No need to be creative/clever/playful: just don't engage. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 22:24
  • 2
    @CountIblis Lying games are going to bite the OP back. There are some people who get away with it, but these do not need advice from Academia.SE. I follow your sentiment to get back at the bully, but I agree with Pete, this could lead to a disastrous outcome. Have you tried this yourself and has it worked? No, I do not really want to know; if you haven't tried it and know that it works, you shouldn't suggest it (and if you have, you probably shouldn't tell us). You intend it in good faith, but it may end up isolating both the OP together with the bully; i.e. a partial success for the bully. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 0:04

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .