Academic Bullying Graduate Student Abuse

Academic Bullying and Graduate Student Abuse: Graduate Schools’ Big Dirty Secret

Abusive academic advisor bullies graduate student

This is Part 1 of a two part series about graduate school abuse.

Part 2: Bullied Academics: Help for Graduate Students Experiencing Abuse

Academic Bullying and Abusive Academic Advisors

As a graduate student success coach, I’m familiar with students experiencing academic bullying and abuse1 at the hands of their academic advisors. Still, I was stunned when my client showed me the emails from their advisor. She accused my client of lying and, when evidence was provided to the contrary, she doubled down and accused my client of self-deception. The email dripped with contempt, bullying, manipulation, and a clumsy attempt at gaslighting.2 The email was wholly inappropriate, doubly so for an advisor-advisee relationship.

This was not my first client to struggle with an abusive advisor and it’s unlikely to be the last. Abusers need to have power over others and few places are as conducive to that as graduate school.

Think about it. This bully felt so comfortable conducting herself this way that she brazenly put it in writing. And why did she feel that way? Because she’s learned that as long as she brings in money, the university will look the other way. My client reported her and provided the emails as evidence. This wasn’t the first complaint against her. Still, nothing happened.

Almost universally, the student alone bears the consequences of the abusive advisor’s bad behavior. I’ve coached several graduate students being mistreated by their advisors and each one had to change advisors and suffer the academic, financial, and professional consequences. This is on top of the psychological consequences of abuse. None of the abusive advisors have faced even minor consequences and all still supervise students.

Searches for bullying in academia turn up story after story3 of graduate students being abused by their academic advisors. Over and over again the story is the same. The students come to learn it’s an open secret at their universities that their advisor is a bully and abuser but that despite numerous complaints, nothing changes. This is unconscionable.

Academic bullying is “repeated, unwelcome, severe and pervasive behavior that intentionally threatens, intimidates, humiliates or isolates the targeted individual or undermines their reputation or job performance.”

dr. Susan bon, via Katie langon, reporter

Graduate School is Ripe for Abuse

Graduate school is competitive, students commit time and resources to gain entry to a program. Once accepted, students have few options that don’t come with significant consequences. There are many sunk costs (time, lost earnings, delayed savings, opportunities for career advancement, etc.) that would be forfeited if they were to abandon the program. Transferring to another advisor can be thorny politically, result in a loss of academic funding, and result in research progress being lost. Transferring programs within a school or to a different school will almost certainly involve significant delays in a student’s degree progress as they may need to complete additional coursework and (re)complete program-specific exams and milestones.

Once established, the relationship between advisors and advisees becomes a nearly captive one, complete with a huge power disparity where the success of the student is dependent on the whims of their advisor.

Making matters worse, there are rarely consequences for the abusive advisor. The university might scold an abusive advisor or give them a slap on the wrist, but save extreme circumstances, they are usually excused as long as they bring money into the university. This emboldens the abuser and encourages academic bullying.

This dynamic is nothing new and is sometimes perpetuated through each new generation. Among some veterans of graduate school, bullying and exploitation of graduate students have been normalized. One of my clients asked a mentor about the abusive treatment they were experiencing and was told that was “just how things are.” They were told that the (bullying) behavior was typical, that graduate students inevitably come to hate their advisor, and that they needed to accept that and find a way to get through.

In addition to being factually incorrect (many graduate students earn their degrees and excel in their careers without being bullied), this apologist behavior is abhorrent. Historic abuse is an unacceptable excuse for current behavior. Abuse and exploitation don’t make students better scholars or stronger people. It causes damage that may never fully heal. If an abusive advisor ends up with a good protégé it is in spite of, not because of, their bullying. I can’t help but imagine how much higher these researchers, scientists, and academics could soar if they didn’t also have to battle the mental scars of their time in graduate school.

How Abuse Arises

It’s important for graduate students and university staff/faculty to understand how abusive situations develop and what they can look like in the real world. Recognizing what is going on is the first step in stopping the progression. There is a lot of variation in how bullying and abuse manifest in graduate school. Not only do many students not recognize that they are in an abusive situation until things get really bad, but outside faculty and staff may not recognize the red flags, thereby overlooking abusive behavior.

Abuse typically starts slowly and becomes worse as the student becomes more entrenched in the research group and dependent on the advisor for academic advancement. Because of this, many students don’t recognize that they are in an abusive situation until conditions become dire. Plus, graduate school is an unusual environment. Graduate students may not have a good sense of what is acceptable behavior for an advisor and think all but the most egregious behaviors are normal.

My experience with abuse in grad school started subtle and I’m not entirely convinced it was conscious malice at first. My advisor started by slowly creating a feeling of insecurity by ending emails with “but remember, our relationship is tentative, and we should decide if we’ll continue at the end of the summer.” This sort of thing followed many emails.

He constantly failed to recognize me for my strengths. Instead, he focused on my weaknesses, such as the occasional time-management mishap or my average class grades. Eventually, his ugly side came out when we had a miscommunication and he accused me of sugarcoating and deliberately hiding information from him. After a rebuttal, he refused to accept my honest explanation.

Luckily, with some help, I was able to recognize this as a turning point and promptly removed myself from the partnership. Shortly after, I matched with an advisor who was a much healthier fit and whose students all praised as being excellent. I also came to find out that my previous advisor is known for having students run from him. In retrospect, this may have been the source of his reluctance to simply accept me in his group, unlike my new advisor who let me right in and made me feel at home.

If I were to give any advice to incoming PhD students, it would be to be brave and trust your gut. It’s truly easier said than done, but it’s true. Other students won’t tell you outright that someone is toxic because of politics, so read between the lines, prioritize a personality match, and make the decision which feels right. If you’re uneasy, there’s probably a reason. Trust yourself.

-Physics Ph.D. Student, 2022

What does Bullying and Abuse of Graduate Students Look Like?

Just as there is variation among people, there will be variation in abusive behavior. There isn’t a checklist that you can use to sum up the score and say “yes, this is an abusive advisor.” The type and severity of abuse and bullying can vary by the advisor, student, and across time. Abusive advisors may not abuse all of their students, instead bullying students that are “different” in some way (more confident, less confident, neurodivergent, a particular sex/gender, etc.). One cannot assume that because an advisor isn’t abusing one student that they cannot be abusing another.

In general, there are two ways that the abuse of graduate students manifests: exploitative behaviors and psychological abuse.

Exploitative Behavior

  • Theft of work/denying earned publication credit
  • Taking credit for the student’s work or minimizing their contribution
  • Overloading students with work so that they cannot make progress on their degree
  • Sabotaging a student’s degree progress so that they must continue to work on the advisor’s research (e.g., intentionally delaying providing feedback; delaying approval for required milestones like exams and proposal defenses; setting unrealistic goals for major milestones, and then telling the student they aren’t ready)
  • Quid-pro-quo behavior, where the advisor refuses to provide required support without an inappropriate favor being provided by the student (e.g., sexual favors in exchange for advancement, academic progress conditional upon completing personal errands/tasks for the advisor, etc.)

  Psychological Abuse and Bullying

  • Name-calling, personal insults
  • Swearing/yelling
  • Disparaging the student to other faculty, staff, or students
  • Unreasonable and unrealistic expectations
  • Non-constructive or pointless criticism
  • Isolating students
  • Mercurial behavior
  • Gaslighting (causing the student to doubt their experience of reality)
  • Playing favorites
  • Blocking access to support
  • Harassment

Some Examples

These behaviors individually can be subtle but they form a pattern that leaves students feeling exhausted, insecure, and discouraged. Here are some examples of how these abusive behaviors can look.

  • A student’s advisor constantly assigns 40+ hours of work a week even though her GRA is supposed to be 20 hours. At first, she thought she was just inefficient but is starting to realize the expectations are unreasonable.
  • A student’s advisor isolates them by making snide comments and questioning their dedication anytime they mention outside activities. The student begins to feel guilty for having a work/life balance.
  • A student’s advisor says he doesn’t think they are ready to progress. When the student asks what they need to do to be ready, he gives them a list of skills/activities. When the student masters these, another list appears. They feel like they are stuck on a hamster wheel.
  • A student’s professor pits research group members against each other through toxic comparisons, like “why can’t you be more like my other grad. student?” The students no longer feel like they can approach each other for advice or support.
  • An advisor takes out their bad days on their students and constantly has the students wondering how they are going to be treated at any given moment.
  • An advisor plays favorites, giving tedious assignments to his least favorite students, more frequently challenging them in front of their peers, and being disproportionately harsh in his evaluation of them. Everyone knows who the favorites are.
  • A student’s advisor accuses her of lying. When she tries to explain, the advisor insists she is still being deceptive and that he knows her motivation better than she does. The student no longer feels safe talking to her advisor and begins to doubt whether she can trust her own perceptions.
  • A student’s advisor tells them to do something, then scolds and insults them for doing it, then insists that he never told them to do it in the first place. This happens multiple times and the student is starting to feel like they are going crazy.
  • A student’s advisor acts as a gatekeeper and denies access to the student’s committee members, including the statistical expert that is supposed to be providing statistical advice. The student realizes that their advisor is sabotaging their academic progress.
  • A student’s advisor expects them to be in the lab 12 hours a day, 6 days a week even when there is no need for them to be physically in the lab to do work. The advisor berates the student’s commitment to their degree when they take time to rest. The student is exhausted, overwhelmed, and depressed and starts to wonder if they belong in graduate school.
  • A student’s advisor gives disparaging comments on her work, comments like “this is stupid,” “poorly done,” “this needs a total rewrite,” but never explains why or provides guidance on how to improve their work. When she approaches her advisor, they act exasperated and say that the student should already know this. The student feels stupid, confused, and overwhelmed.

Consequences of Abuse and Academic Bullying

The consequences of having an abusive advisor cannot be understated. A good relationship between a student and their advisor can boost efficiency and lower the risk of burnout. A bad relationship can stymie degree progress, damage morale, and destroy physical and mental health.

Abused students often take responsibility for the bullying by their advisors believing that they must be at fault and that if they perform better the abuse will stop. But, the abuse isn’t about their performance and no improvement can stop an abusive professor from bullying their students. This self-blame, combined with their enmeshment in the program, and the threat to their identity as a talented and dedicated student, leaves students vulnerable to depression, anxiety, chronic stress, PTSD, and tragically, suicide.

No degree is worth that.

How to Avoid Abusive Advisors in Graduate School

It should be the university’s responsibility to prevent abusive professors from serving in supervisory roles but it is the appalling truth that right now students cannot trust universities to protect them. This leaves graduate students to fend for themselves, often without the benefit of knowing they need to protect themselves from academic bullying in the first place.

So, if you’re in the process of choosing a formal advisor, here are some warning signs to be aware of.

Red Flags of Potentially Abusive Advisors

  • Other students warn you away from an advisor (abusive advisors are often an open secret in universities)
  • High turnover among lab staff or students
  • A professor who has no administrative support staff when other comparable faculty do
  • Rumors of a faculty member being difficult or demanding (these are often codewords for academic bullying or exploitative behavior)
  • Current graduate students refuse or avoid speaking about a professor (many research areas are “small ponds” and students may be afraid to speak out due to fear of reprisal)
  • A research group characterized by competition and suspicion rather than collaboration
  • Most or all of an advisor’s graduate students seem more exhausted, depressed, overwhelmed, or withdrawn than their peers

Questions to Ask Potential Advisors

In addition to these red flags, you can improve your chances of finding a good, healthy academic fit by interviewing potential advisors. Some questions to ask include:

  • How would you describe your approach to academic advice?
  • What is your approach to motivating students? Beware of responses that suggest inflexibility, scolding, and setting unreasonable standards.
  • What are your expectations for work hours and location?
  • How would you handle it if a student was struggling with a subject or concept? Listen for answers that suggest the advisor is adaptable and takes the time to understand the student’s challenges.
  • What is your approach to and expectations around publishing and co-authorship? No professor is going to admit to academic theft, but you can listen for vague answers that suggest a lack of opportunity for students to publish. A follow-up question might be (depending on your field): on average, how many publications do students leave your research group with?
  • Have you worked with neurodivergent students before? Can you tell me about your approach to working with them? Use these questions if you are neurodivergent and open about it, or need accommodations because of it.
  • Can I speak to some of your current or former advisees? Beware of a straight-up rejection or avoidance of this question. However, it is reasonable for them to pass along your contact information or get permission to pass along contact information from the students first.
  • Can I sit in on some of your lab/research group meetings? Be highly suspicious if the answer is no. If the answer is yes, pay attention to the dynamic between the advisor and the students. Do the students seem free to ask questions? Does there appear to be rapport between the advisor and students? Do the students appear motivated and engaged? Are the students friendly or do they seem suspicious of you?

Take your time to investigate, interview, and ponder before committing to a research relationship. Try to get to know potential advisors better, and don’t discount any unease you may be feeling. While it shouldn’t be on your shoulders to avoid academic bullying, that’s not the reality of things at this time.

This is Part 1 of a two part series about graduate school abuse. Be sure to check out Part 2. Bullied Academics – Help for Graduate Students Facing Abuse.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!