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Summary: was targetted as a 'troublemaker' for missing time in PhD due to illness, PhD went badly, I dropped out halfway through. Should I seek formal acknowledgement of discrimination, to clear my name and limit damage to my career?

I did 2 years of a 4 year course at a university in the UK. I am disabled and for medical reasons was not always able to attend. I had medical evidence provided by my doctor, and a disability needs assessment written up by the university's disability support service, which (among other things) specifically mentioned that I would not always be able to attend.

The head of my department noticed my absence at some events and asked me about it - I told her I was absent for medical reasons.

From then on I came under repeated close scrutiny from her and she tried to get me out of the department - mostly by discreet means such as telling my supervisor he should refuse to supervise me as I would cause trouble, and claiming that my work showed I lacked the basic skills to be a student in her department (after which a meeting was held between her, my supervisor, and the head of my programme, at which the head of programme decided she was wrong and not to persue it further).

During these processes, numerous emails were sent around (most of which I don't have copies of, but was shown by my supervisor) to various people, some saying I was a problematic student and others disclosing confidential details of my disability without my permission, including to people who definitely didn't need to be told them (such as admins booking meeting rooms). I discussed this with the disability service, who got in touch with the department to remind them of my needs assessment.

Eventually my attendance dwindled more- when I was well enough to attend, I felt very uncomfortable in the department, where anyone I walked past might have been CCd into an email from the department head calling me a troublemaker or with private details. My work, which had started off well, degraded and my supervisor became unhappy.

I decided to suspend for 3 months to focus on health and get some distance from the departmental politics. My supervisor refused to sign my suspension form, as he was unconvinced that my work would improve after returning. I left anyway and effectively acted as if I were suspended for 3 months, after which I decided to withdraw as I had been offered a job which was more appealing than my unhappy PhD life.

I might want to try again at doing a PhD at another uni in a couple of years time. I am worried that dropping out of the last one will reflect poorly on me - but I feel that it was partly as a result of harassment due to my disability. Should I seek any formal recognition - either legally or through some university process - of discrimination, to help clear my name of the slander given against me and to clear an embarrassment from my CV?

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    I don't see how anyone can answer this question without knowing the particulars of the situation. If you were a victim of discrimination, it might be better to talk to a lawyer specializing in disability laws rather than strangers on the internet. – John Coleman Oct 13 '17 at 14:24
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    Further, there is a difference between feeling discriminated against, and having had a legal finding of discrimination. While you feel the first, and appear to have potential grounds for the second, you will need to speak to a lawyer about proceeding further on the second. – Jon Custer Oct 13 '17 at 14:48
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    Hire. A. Lawyer. – JeffE Oct 13 '17 at 15:21
  • @JonCuster There's also a difference between having a legal finding of discrimination and being illegally discriminated against but not being willing or able to pursue it legally. Illegal discrimination goes on all the time but almost always goes unpunished. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 13 '17 at 20:50
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First of all, if you're able to get legal advice, you should do that. Find someone who specializes in higher ed law, which might be a project by itself.

I'm not a lawyer and I'm not well-acquainted with UK disability law, but it does sound to me that what your department did was illegal discrimination and harassment. From the details you've provided, it also sounds like it would be impossible to prove and no lawyer will touch it on a contingency basis because there's no clear financial loss. It's also extremely unlikely that the university itself is likely to find in your favor if you go through a university grievance process. So the bad news is that there's probably nothing you can do to clear this from your record.

It's probably not much consolation, but I've heard dozens of stories about graduate programs engaging in exactly this kind of "soft" discrimination, especially against students with more amorphous disabilities such as chronic illnesses. The mentality seems to be that a student with this kind of disability is unfit and a waste of resources. This reasoning is explicitly illegal, but graduate programs are granted so much latitude in evaluating students that they get away with it.

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Formal recognition that you were discriminated against would certainly strengthen your future applications. However, it would take a large effort (and probably a lot of money) to try and acquire one, and as Elizabeth Henning notes, your chances of success are probably not all that high.

But it is entirely possible to succeed in your future applications even without such a document. People leave PhD programs due to irreconcilable conflict with their advisor/department all the time. While it is a red flag, it just means you need to make a case for why it will not happen again. You mention you are in the UK, where I think professors have a fairly direct influence on admissions - contact profs beforehand, and find one who believes you even without a legal document backing you up. That's probably who you would want to work with anyway.

(Of course, don't go prof shopping with that as an opener, but generally if you get to a phone interview, it'll come up naturally.)

You'll have to weigh the effort and risks involved to decide if legal proceedings are worth it to you.

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