Bullied Academics Help for Graduate Students

Bullied Academics: Help for Abused Graduate Students

Bullied academic about to be grabbed by their abusive advisor

This is Part 2 of a two part series about graduate school abuse. To learn more about what academic abuse looks like and strategies to avoid it, check out Part 1 first.

Part 1: Academic Bullying and Graduate Student Abuse

Help, My Academic Advisor Is Abusive!

Not all graduate students find good academic mentors. Many grad. students end up with absentee or mediocre academic advisors. As unfortunate as that is, there is another scenario that is far worse, that of bullied academics. Graduate school is an environment ripe for abuse by bullying academic advisors.

If you’re being abused or exploited by your academic advisor, my heart goes out to you.

First, I want you to know that you are not alone and this is not your fault. Your advisor is an adult and should know how to behave appropriately by now. There is absolutely nothing that you could have done to deserve to be bullied or abused.

Second, I’m sorry to say that you have some difficult decisions to make.

Bullied Academics Early in the Program

If you are being bullied early in your program, start looking for a new advisor right away. Abuse gets worse over time and the longer you are under this advisor the harder it is to extricate yourself. Don’t rationalize the behavior or convince yourself you can handle it. Maybe you can, but it’s easy to underestimate how bad, bad can be once you have become fully entrenched. A graduate degree is hard enough without an abusive advisor on top of it. Surreptitiously seek out a new advisor and once you’ve found one, provide a professionally written resignation that gives an appropriate amount of notice and cites a non-accusatory reason for leaving (e.g., incompatible styles or shifting research interests). The more professionally and neutrally you can extricate yourself from this situation the smoother the transition will go and the less likely you are to encounter retaliation.

Bullied Academics Later in the Program

If you are a bullied academic further into your program and more entrenched, my advice is still largely the same. If you are almost finished with your degree then it might be worth finishing it as quickly as possible. However, it is not worth your health and sanity it to stick it out if you aren’t almost done. You may choose to lodge a complaint, but understand that this will likely not fix the situation in a reasonable time frame. We aren’t talking about getting mediation for a miscommunication here, we’re talking about abuse and that kind of behavior doesn’t stop overnight. Best case scenario if you lodge a complaint and stay? Likely being ignored and getting the bare minimum of support to complete your degree. The worse case scenario is the abuse gets worse as the abuser retaliates.

Steps to Transition Away from an Abusive Advisor

If you’re in the unenviable position of being a bullied academic having to escape their advisor, then there are some steps you can take to make the process easier and reduce the chance of retaliation.

  1. Document the abusive behavior. Note the date/time/and circumstances. Try to write down exact quotes if possible. Save your emails and send a copy to your personal (non-university) email address. If you are in a one-party consent state (or are in a country that allows you to record conversations without the other person’s knowledge), start recording meetings/conversations if you feel safe doing so. If you are worried about getting caught recording then do a test run first to make sure whatever program/app you are using doesn’t announce the recording to all participants. Document the abuse regardless of whether you plan on reporting your advisor, you are covering your ass and collecting ammunition to defend yourself in case of gossip, accusations, or retaliation.
  2. Explore alternative advisors. Speak with trusted peers about who might be a good mentor to switch to. Let them know that you are just exploring your options and you would appreciate their discretion. If they ask why you are thinking of leaving, keep it vague, like “incompatible styles.” Avoid talking badly about your advisor (even though they deserve it). Save complaints against your advisor for the university reporting system. Remember that your prospective advisor doesn’t have to match with your research interests 100%, they need to provide advice and support, technical expertise can be provided by subject matter experts internal and external to the university.
  3. Investigate your graduate student handbook and the university webpage and inform yourself about complaint and reporting procedures. You do not need to register an official complaint but you should be aware of your options. While in the minority, some universities do take bullied academics seriously.
  4. Talk to your prospective advisor and work out the best timing for the transition. Minimize the amount of time between notifying the abusive advisor and departing but keep the notice period professional. It’s more than they deserve, but this is about protecting you and minimizing the possibility of retaliation.
  5. If you are concerned about retaliation, consider talking to the university’s Ombudsman (or your university’s equivalent). They can advise you on the best way to handle the transition.
  6. During the transition, do your best to remain neutral and not give your advisor anything to use against you. Ignore personal insults or attempts to provoke you into an argument or debate. Start grey-rocking (providing vague, avoidant answers). If your advisor’s behavior becomes egregious or threatening then it’s time to report your grievance to the university. There are several considerations when deciding to report an abusive advisor but if the advisor is handling your transition this poorly, those concerns have already been realized and you have little to lose by reporting.
  7. After the transition, if you feel safe, try to warn prospective graduate students away from working with that faculty member. Decide if and when you want to lodge an official complaint against the faculty member.
  8. Live the best life you can and become the best scientist/researcher/academic/professional you can, just to spite them.

What if there are no Alternate Advisors?

No degree is worth your health and sanity. If you have no options within your program, you have three alternatives.

  • Explore transferring to a different program at the same university. Depending on your field, there may be adjacent degree programs that will minimize your need to take additional coursework, waive milestones that you’ve already completed, and still support your research interests.
  • Same degree, different school. This is one of the least appealing scenarios because it will likely mean that you will need to complete additional coursework and complete certain milestones again. However, a discussion with the prospective university and potential faculty advisors may lead to a minimization of work that needs to be repeated. It’s not a great option, but it is an option.
  • Take the knowledge and run. Accept the terminal master’s degree or whatever level of training you’ve acquired up to this point and escape before the damage gets worse.

I know that this is a huge disappointment, that you’ve invested your hopes and dreams in this degree but, you might be pleasantly surprised at the career opportunities that your current level of training provides. While it is unfair, your well-being is paramount. No degree is worth your health.

Fears About Changing Research Advisors

Many students worry that finding a new advisor will lead to retaliation by the abusive advisor. They worry that their advisor may badmouth them, spread gossip, or poison others in the field against them. Thankfully, when handled carefully, this fear rarely plays out (I wish I could say never). If you conduct yourself professionally, cite a neutral reason for leaving the research group, and give an appropriate amount of notice then the abusive advisor has little ammo to use against you. Even if they lie or disparage you, so long as you are behaving professionally then it comes across as bitterness and resentment on the part of the advisor. Imagine a scenario where a student’s advisor is publicly or privately critical of a student’s ability or performance, the student leaves the research group and, in a better environment, begins to excel. That’s pretty damning. Add to that, this advisor has difficulty keeping graduate students and it doesn’t take a genius to realize who the problem is. Plus, if you’ve followed my advice and documented the abuse, you can demonstrate exactly how toxic the environment was under that advisor if need be.

Should Bullied Academics Report the Abuse?

I would love to be able to say yes, to say that universities are willing to protect and defend their graduate students, but too often that they utterly fail at this. There are many things universities could do, but don’t. Sadly, this leaves you to decide if the benefits of reporting (both personally and on behalf of other, future victims) are worth the potential personal and professional consequences. On the one hand, reporting might lead to retaliation. On the other, reporting might facilitate your moving to a different advisor or program. It’s also possible nothing will happen, but at least then you’ve started a record of official complaints against the abuser and the university cannot claim ignorance.

Every situation is different and I understand if you do not feel safe reporting the abuse. The sad reality is that abusers victimize the powerless and if you were in a position to report the abuse without fear of reprisal, then you’d be less likely to be abused in the first place. Only universities can break this cycle and until they do, graduate students must fend for themselves.

The Future

I wish I could end this article on a better note. There are some universities that are serious about addressing academic bullying and abuse, but not nearly enough. Until more universities take bullying and abuse of their students seriously, there are precious few options for many graduate students. No amount of coaching, counseling or therapy, or friend and family support can make up for an abusive advisor, the best we can do is support you in getting out of that situation. That being said, I’ve coached several bullied academics at varying stages of their degree. All of them had to transition to a new advisor but they are much better off for it.

“I endured over a year of microaggressive treatment from my previous research advisor. His comments consisted of ableism, sexism, and the especially unhelpful feedback that I was “progressing too slowly”.  With my new advisor, and with Cristie’s guidance throughout the entire process, I have advanced to PhD candidacy in six months of joining my new research team! By switching advisors I proved to myself that graduate school doesn’t have to be a miserable experience, and that I was never “too slow”; I just wasn’t thriving as a scientist under poor leadership!”

Anonymous, Ph.D. Student, 2022

If you are a bullied academic, remember that you have options. It may be difficult but you can leave the situation, there are other advisors and there is life outside of graduate school.

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

All for Free!