Serial bullies: an academic failing and the need for crowd-sourced truthtelling

I define a serial bully as somebody who repeatedly bullies new victims and never gets caught or stopped*. I don’t have exact statistics at my fingertips, but it is a definite 90/10 scenario (90% of the bullying is done by 10% of the people) – and it is that small fraction that are the serial bullies. Every campus has a PhD adviser (or three) who repeatedly abuses and victimizes his/her students. And you might have a senior colleague in your department who bullies everybody junior to her/him just because they can. Or you may have met a researcher who will do anything, ethical or not, to “win” at research, leaving behind a trail of people feeling used or abused. And although there are many unique aspects to sexual harassment, it most certainly involves bullying-like abuse of power against someone and it most certainly shares the trait that most offenders repeat over and over without getting called on it (as recent shameful cases to make the news show – just e.g. the Marcy case).You may or may not apply the word bully to all of these cases. But what all these have in common is somebody who is harming other people over and over again with little regard for the consequences, because, well, there usually are no consequences. And that is what I want to talk about.

I suggest academia is unfortunately but incredibly well-designed to allow serial bullies to thrive. These conditions have to be understood to design an effective response strategy. Why is academia friendly two serial bullies? Two main ingredients:

  • Severe power imbalances. Although serial bullying (and sexual harassment) can and does occur among peers, it is much more common when somebody has the ability to substantially negatively impact somebody’s life if they are “uncooperative” or threaten to report. The ability to flunk somebody out of their PhD program or write a negative review for a tenure dossier clearly qualify. Although less powerful, the ability to write a negative review on a paper, a grant, or an application for sabbatical or even a small travel grant give enough license of power for some to feel safe abusing.
  • Peer governance at the top. Academia is a weird place. It is extremely hierarchical up to a point, and then bang it goes completely flat. By the very nature of self-governance, all the full professors in a department (or across a campus) sit on each others peer assessment committees (even after tenure is granted raises still have to be given). And they sit on each others graduate student committees etc. And across institutions, we evaluate each others papers and grants, write tenure letters, hire each others graduate students etc. All of this makes us afraid to speak up against each other. Bullies by definition are likely to retaliate. And peer governance makes it likely they will have the capacity to do so.

I suggest it is this weird combination that makes academia so friendly to serial bullies and harassers. The power imbalance opens up the potential, and then the flat governance removes the likelihood of accountability. Thus in a weird way, places like business, while certainly having many cases due to the power imbalances (witness the recent Gretchen Carlson – Roger Aisles disgrace), also have more hope of fixing these because everybody has a boss who is not afraid of them (again witness the Roger Aisles case). The problem with serial bullies in academia is they don’t have anybody “who is not afraid of them”. Their peers are all afraid of them. In principle the higher ups like deans have no cause to be afraid, but in the modern university with tenure, etc it is very hard to create consequences for somebody with tenure and it seems the main concern as one gets more removed from the people involved is avoiding a lawsuit which is often antithetical to stopping the bully. So it is this weird combination of strong dominance hierarchies but with equality at the top that creates this potential. It is probably not a coincidence that the medical profession is another field with real problems with serial bullies.

So what to do about it? How to change it? I’m hardly the first person to write about this, nor even to make this specific suggestion. But the answer is we have to take the risk of naming and calling out serial bullies (or serial harassers). Sunlight and information are the antidote to serial bullying. This is pretty obvious, even cliched as advice. But it is advice that is rarely followed – clearly it is not happening often enough.

As somebody with whom I discussed the issue of serial bullies said, “it’s scary” to speak up. And there can be real consequences. If it ever gets back to the bully that you spoke up about them, they’re likely to turn their attention on you for years. Its really a tragedy of the commons problem – the cost to me of calling out somebody publicly is potentially quite high, while the benefit to me (who is already alerted to the dangerous person) is quite low, even if the communal benefit is substantial.

So what I want to do is to spend some time on the “it’s scary” or the its risky to me concerns which are 100% real and valid and think through how to get past this. I think the key point is its not a black-or-white act.  Speaking up does not have to mean sending out an email to every colleague you know! In fact that is almost always a bad idea. Moreover, often there is no decisive moment, and no decisive institution or power who can put an end to a serial bully. Its lots of individual acts of risky speaking up. What can speaking up look like (in increasing order of scariness)?:

  1. Mentioning something to one or two colleagues over coffee or a meal. Enough of these conversations can spread the word quite widely quite quickly.
  2. Mentioning something every time somebody brings up the bully’s name in the context of a student going to work for them.
  3. Mentioning something indirectly – “I’ve heard stories about so and so – ask me in private if you want more details”.
  4. Report something anonymously to somebody who is senior and knows you well.
  5. Take advantage of your seniority when you have it and say something more publicly (at a lab reunion dinner at a conference with 20 people present, or at a working group of 20 people).**
  6. Filing a formal written complaint.

Or to summarize how speaking up is really a spectrum of scariness:

  • Obviously the more people you tell at once, the more scary
  • The less well you know the people you are telling, the more scary
  • The more formal (written complaint vs over dinner), the more scary
  • The more junior you are when telling or the more senior the bully is (i.e. the greater the power imbalance), the more scary

So if you finding yourself wanting to do something but it feels too scary, think consciously about how you can slide down one or more of these scales to make it less scary. But do take the risk and speak up somewhere, somehow. Don’t just say nothing.

Note that anonymity is not really a choice – reputation of person reporting the bully matters a lot – this is why if you absolutely have to remain anonymous it is important that you tell it to somebody who trusts you highly and also has the seniority to be able to act on it – but this is no guarantee of a positive outcome either. It is often hard for even a senior person to do something while keeping you anonymous. More than once, I have been in a position of power, received a complaint of bullying which I believed from somebody who insisted on staying anonymous and I cared about taking action, but none of them turned out well. Some of them turned out badly. Anonymity isn’t really possible. So it is better to focus on sliding down the scale on some other axes and forgoing anonymity. And of course, this job of telling the truth falls much more heavily on senior people, but it doesn’t release junior people of any responsibility. It just means junior people are more entitled to move further down the scale in what they are obligated to do.

It is probably also important to note that it can be a fine line between calling out a serial bully and being a bully yourself. Humility and motives matter a lot. It is possible to be too public and too negative about somebody – even a serial bully. That is why, for example, I would never name the serial bullies I know in this blog post. And it is definitely possible to err when sharing information that you are not certain about.  I feel pretty strongly that if you’re not willing to be in the room with the person you’re telling about the serial bully, you’re probably not going to be incented to be careful enough for people to trust you about damaging somebody else’s reputation. How much faith would you put in a random claim on the internet?  It is also very incumbent to be sure we really are calling out a serial bully and not just somebody who screwed up. That is why starting with those small 2-3 people whose opinion I really trust conversations is important. Then if I get the same feedback, I might expand the circle of who I talk to about it and then if I hear the same feedback, I might expand again. Shouting something to the world, and then saying oops is not really acceptable. This is why even though this journal article on Gossip as Social Control by Vaidyanathan et al doesn’t really cut it for me even though it is talking about exactly the same solution as I am. Even though they’re careful to qualify the term “gossip”, gossip is just the wrong framing for what I’m talking about. Truth is an absolute necessity. And I should reflect a lot about how what I say will reflect on me as well and I should have a whopping dose of humility. What I am talking about  is a humble, carefully calculated transmission of facts which I am certain are true in a way that is very unfun to do. Not exactly gossip in my book.

One might question if something short of the full blown expose can work, but in the cases I know of, this is exactly how it has gone. People chat with their close colleagues about a serial bully over lunch. And get strong reinforcement that their impressions are right. Then they might mention it in slightly larger groups and in settings less close to home. And gradually momentum builds. And then everybody does know. I’ve seen it work multiple times. It is essentially like crowd-sourcing truth telling – lots of people telling the truth in small contexts instead of one person telling the truth in a mega-public context. The only difference is I have to do it in person with my reputation on the line too, not as an anonymous comment or personally distant tweet. But fortunately we don’t need the amplification of social media – we’re not trying to reach an entire nation – academic communities are very small and tight knit. It does work.  Indeed all of the very small handful of people I think of as serial bullies have a very widespread reputation at this point, always built in this many small steps fashion.

The biggest challenge with this reputational-based approach is it doesn’t help newbies or outsiders to the system. If we mostly only tell people we know and trust, how is somebody new to the field (e.g. recently graduated) or considering somebody as an adviser going to find out? Obviously the newbie should tread carefully and do research. But if people won’t tell them the truth this is of limited value. I would appreciate any thoughts on this.

What do you think? Is academia a fertile ground for serial bullies? Is telling others the right response? How do you go about doing this and staying safe yourself (and not turning into a reputation damaging bullying yourself)? Can you rely on reputational information growing and spreading if you do your part? How do we protect newbies?


UPDATE November 1 – I just wanted to clarify two points since judging by the comments I wasn’t clear about them.

  1. I am definitely NOT talking about the victim of the bullying being the one to talk. As far as I’m concerned that is a very personal decision. Its the bystanders/observers that I am talking about.
  2. I am NOT talking about formal reporting up the hierarchy/filing a complaint. That is exclusively the choice of the one being bullied. And to be candid there are a lot of cons in addition to the pros. I would not lightly advise somebody to do that. I am talking in this post exclusively about the informal network.

*This is slightly different than the definition in the bullying literature (which focuses on somebody bullying the same person over and over).

** in the vein of my comments about humility and caution, I don’t think I would ever make a general announcement to a group much larger than 20 or 30 people – certainly not at, say, a conference talk with 50-100 people present.


63 thoughts on “Serial bullies: an academic failing and the need for crowd-sourced truthtelling

  1. I wish more people expressed the situation so well.

    A few years ago, I stood up and described the bullying by the laboratory director in front of more than 50 people at a review meeting. Despite the mountains of documentation, careful letter writing (and the ten other persons under the same person who had been the object of his “special attentions”, including two others that filed complaints) the laboratory director was able to get away with saying it was a “personal dispute” among his peers. And since he was given final say on the review report, he took out all mention of the management problems that were in an earlier version. After that it was gloves off. Ultimately, the University President (who wanted the several hundred thousand a year this bully was bringing in on private contracts with a pharmaceutical company) organized with this man a ruse to trick me into participating in a farcical “negotiation” with the HR that turned out to be a way to make my job ‘disappear’. The details of what they did to me and others are still shocking to me.

    Last year, the same University President (Jean Chambaz) was condemned in another bullying case where the employee committed suicide. I fortunately or unfortunately am still alive so my case never went to court. Everyone around me told me repeatedly that the University would never be so deceitful. That I was a valued employee who made important contributions. That all I had to do was inform the proper persons and the problem would never get that far. etc. etc. I discovered too late that the University had no real policy about harassment or bullying in place, except a couple of web pages.

    Even today, several years later, on my ResearchGate page, which I need to regain some semblance of a career, I still see his minions checking up on my articles. A couple of months ago I learned an article I co-wrote early this year will serve as the central chapter for a dissertation of a student from the same laboratory who did not participate in the study. The advisor of this woman is claiming it is not fraud because they translated the article into another language, so she did “some work”. The head of the doctoral school from the same University (another so-called noble “nobel prize winner”, but who was involved in the ruse they organized earlier) refuses to transmit the forms for an official complaint. So I contacted the students committee members instead. Still, the student is likely to pass, just to “save the statistics”.

    So, yes I used to tell people to speak up, but I would never tell anyone to speak up again. The reality is that there will never be any repercussions for the men we are talking about. Ever. All they have to do is wink and say oh you know she is so “bossy” or she is “difficult” or not a “good team player” or “not like us” (always an easy insult to throw out for a non-native employee) and everyone nods and moves on. Either the University demonstrates they have a policy and take care of the harasser right away, or you have to leave as quickly as possible. Harassment and bullying can drag on for years. In the end, everyone just gets tired – so if your HR department doesn’t act to change the situation and protect the victim, then get out. You will never win, because you have zero power. It’s not a TV series with a lawyer on white horse that will come in and save the day. The University holds all the cards.

    • I’m very sorry to hear your story and the outcome. I have to confess, that my own experiences with formal university complaints are on balance unsatisfying as well. The big denouements one expects (your TV series with a lawyer on a white horse) rarely materialize, for many of the reasons you enumerated.

      I guess that is why I am advocating more of a peer-to-peer informal approach. Although you are absolutely right that if some senior people don’t start participating in this peer-to-peer approach it will ultimately not work either. In my experience this peer-to-peer route can feel like nothing is happening, and then you wake up one day and everybody knows. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this happens in your case.

      • Everybody knows, but nothing happens!
        Serial bullies are often in positions of power at Universities, even at the highest level, because their track record (citations, publications, funding etc) is too valuable for the University to lose – no matter what. A junior colleague or student will never be prioritized over them for (horrendously misplaced) pragmatic reasons.

      • You could be right. I personally agree that the track record of universities formally dealing with things is bad. I don’t actually believe it is because of a cold calculus of who is worth more to the university. I think it is much more complicated. But you could be right.

    • I am in a very similar situation, everyone knows the almighty bullie and nobody has done anything for ages. But I really appreciate your post, talk about it is also helpful and the real truth that there is nothing to do too.

  2. Serial bullies are protected by universities. My experience in two different institutions has been that the “bullies” are often those people who are getting large external funds and thus heads of school/academic administrators are in some way unwilling to take action against bullies. When I was a PhD student I would not have felt that I had the support of the staff to report a bully. Now I have support from senior staff members and feel that I would be willing to report or confront bullying behaviour. I don’t think waiting until one is in a more superior position is the ideal solution though. Highlighting this issue and ensuring that students have a range of supervisors or “panel” members who are sympathetic to the issue and who are in a position to report bullies (or protect students from bullying) is vital.

    • I’m not going to disagree with you about the role of universities in their formal capacity.

      I agree with your point about career stage. Junior people are not off the hook but their jobs are smaller than the ones of senior people who are obligated to be more brave.

    • Oh – and yes your point that having multiple trusted contacts, not just the adviser, is a very good one. This is something both the student but also the department can do something to ensure.

  3. I love a lot about this post. So much of academia runs on social capital, and I agree completely that that’s where consequences for bullying need to be. But what makes me nervous is the unspoken idea of who gets believed, whose truth is deemed true, and how these intersect with age or seniority, gender, race, class, and other aspects of identity. If this is going to be our primary method of dealing with bullies in academia, it needs to go hand in hand with very careful consideration from *all of us* on who we implicitly trust.

    I also want to add that this reputational-based approach not only doesn’t help newbies or outsiders, it also doesn’t really help insiders on the lower rungs of academia’s dominance hierarchy. We spend a long time on these lower rungs, during which we feel the full effects of bullying or harassment but have no reputation to cash in on. If senior members in academia are going to take on bullying, they’ll need to believe their juniors *more than* they believe their peers, and signal this attitude to their juniors, which I imagine is where a large part of the challenge lies.

    • All important points. I guess it has been my experience that there are senior people inclined to believe charges from junior people about their colleagues (usually the senior people are getting more minor versions from the bully themsevles). And I for one consider it my first duty to warn junior people about people of concern. But you are right – this is not a waters you can navigate naively and brashly – one needs to be very careful about who one trusts and tells. But it is my belief and hope that in most departments there are senior people who are safe and trustyworthy. And no, they may not be able to do something on the first anonymous complaint they receive (and they may even have a wait-and-see attitude if its the first time they’ve heard something). But over time, things build, and things happen.

      I wish I had a better system, but I don’t.

      • Yup, agreed. I guess I’d only add that figuring out who can or cannot be trusted is also not consequence-free for anybody, but especially for junior colleagues. What might seem like a reasoned, considered move for us to make may seem from the perspective of someone more senior to be naive or brash.

    • Yes, this. I know other juniors, both junior PhD students and now-senior ones, who have dealt with harassment and bullying from both other students and from faculty. I have watched them test the waters on pushing back against this and watched them get increasingly strong signals that the person they’re trying to complain to doesn’t want to handle the complaint and really just wants them to go away and not make the person feel uncomfortable. After all, if you’re not talking about it, it didn’t really happen, right? So they eventually stop trying.

      I have known faculty who claimed not to know about incidents that I later found out they were directly informed about, because dealing with it was hard. Not defending the abusive person, exactly, but just aggressively forgetting that anything might have been alleged against them. How many times do you expect someone who has been harassed to speak up in public channels when their points of access to those channels don’t want to put the skin in the game of backing them up?

      • I don’t expect the people who have been harassed to speak up. I expect the people who know the people who have been harassed to speak up. And I expect senior people to speak up more than junior people. And I’m not opposed to speaking up to official channels, but I haven’t seen them be that helpful.

      • For senior folks to speak up, they first need to listen to and believe what junior folks say about harassment/bullying in order to have something to say. If junior people are primarily at the receiving end of bullying, they will need to do a disproportionate amount of speaking up under this model. For this to work, I think the onus is then on senior folks to guarantee that the junior people who do speak up will get to see some action taken on their behalf, otherwise the psychological and emotional toll of speaking up against someone powerful will rapidly become not worth it. The easiest way for senior folks to guarantee this is by demonstrating it, by actually sticking up for people who are harassed or bullied. I think what Erin might be referring to below (re: perspective and consequences), is just how much harassment and bullying never gets talked about with senior academics because of this psychological and emotional toll.

        I wonder if maybe that climbing up the ladder of academia, or other aspects of one’s identity, influence whether you take the long view or the short view on this issue. For me, the approach proposed here takes the long view, with many people necessarily facing deep damage from bullies–damage sufficient that it is witnessed and spoken up about in incredibly risky ways by many people–before anyone even begins to take action. Though I know there aren’t easy answers, I find it difficult to see a solution with this much collateral damage as progress.

      • I spoke up and I encouraged other students to do the same, but a bully also uses fear and threat when no one see or hear. Living in fear to lose your job or fellowship is not a good feeling. They use tactics and they know what they are doing.
        The scariest thing was not him, it was realizing that other students are learning from him, they learn how to suck your energy and sure they will never stand with you when you need them. I start reading books about these people: narcissists and emotional vampire.
        I am also aware that organizations suffer from them, bullying becomes a part of organization’s culture. In other words, they are afraid of him too, and they become slowly like him. It becomes a deadly infectious disease (like the plague)
        I am happy that I left, I may not achieved what I aimed to do at that time, but I am a better person… I am grateful.
        I am not sure if academia is different from corporates, but this what I experienced. Hope the link helps ……

  4. Extremely well said! I have myself been stuck with this situation. I have done what I thought was my duty and been honest with prospective students that approached me – diplomatic, but honest. As a young graduate student I’d actually been warned several times about getting involved with certain people, but given the mountain of variables that went into my decisions about graduate school, I overlooked the warnings. All prospective students that were subsequently warned also overlooked the warnings and the bullying behaviour appears to be continuing undeterred. So this kind of goes to the last question – given that many young students may overlook warnings, is there something that can be done more formally on an institutional level to protect them? I am so grateful for your analysis of this.

    • Thanks for your comments. Your experience rings true with me as well. Although I ended up with somebody I wasn’t warned about and was great, I came pretty close to going with somebody I had been warned about but thought I knew better, and later realized the warnings were for a reason. I don’t know how you make somebody entering graduate school realize that their relationship with their adviser is going to be deep and longstanding and had better be a good one.

      It is a major problem. Several cases I know of advisers who have a very strong reputation for taking advantage of their graduate students continue to get graduate students because the students take scientific reputation over warnings. Thinking out loud, I think this may be a place where institutional action may be needed – taking on graduate students is a privilege not a right, and almost always requires departmental support (admissions and funding). Maybe departments need to be a bit bolder about putting people on probation taking graduate students (although I can see little appetite for doing this, I think departments that care probably should be doing this).

      • Or maybe we should start a website called in keeping with your crowd sourcing thing. Though of course that, too, is almost absurdly problematic.

      • I’ve occasionally seen that suggested. As you say, it’s a *really* problematic idea, for various reasons. As illustrated for instance by the “quality” of the ratings and commentary on Or the cesspool that is good-sized chunks of Econ Job Market Rumors (a popular anonymous forum in economics, covering a wide range of topics).

      • Informally, I know of at least two cases where graduate students made organized (although informal and quiet) efforts to prevent abusive faculty from recruiting students. In one case, an entire program’s graduate students apparently organized around a specific adviser’s poor treatment of one of their own and made it a personal mission to directly and specifically warn prospective students about them. In another case, an affected student lost their temper and apparently threatened to make their knowledge about the abusive adviser’s treatment public on social media–thereby effectively promising to tank their career if necessary–if the adviser was not prevented informally from taking on new students. In both cases, this was fairly risky to the affected junior students’ careers, and in both the ability to successfully prevent the faculty member taking on new students is very vulnerable to departmental changes in leadership and transitions of explicit power.

        But sometimes, when you don’t have any direct power or authority yourself without embarking on a career suicide mission to raise the stakes…. well, incremental progress is better than none. I hope so, anyway.

  5. I usually agree with you, Brian, but I really don’t find your “solution” to bullies/harassers to be particularly potent. First, I do agree with you about the structural situation in academia and how it is particularly prone to abuses of power. But everyone just talking about it, in my experience, doesn’t actually solve much. The abusers I know of are known to be abusive within their departments, and yet they continue to abuse. So how does widespread knowledge of the abuse help? I don’t see it. I also feel your (indirect) statement that victims of abuse (bullying/harassment) have the obligation to *do something* to be plain wrong. They may have quite enough on their plate trying to keep themselves safe. I’m actually in the midst of writing a related post on sexual harassment and assault (hopefully up next week or the week following), and am thinking about what can actually be done to improve the situation within academia. I believe that there have to be formal structures and procedures in place — that is, the only way to hold tenured people accountable is to un-flatten the top level a bit. We’ve had the current system for decades, and despite mostly good people in the flat top layer, we know peer accountability just doesn’t work. Encouraging people to take the risk to say something isn’t going to overcome most people’s sense of self-preservation. It just isn’t.

    • HI Margaret – I would be the first to agree that this is not a perfect solution. Indeed stronger than that it is a fairly unsatisfying solution. That said I haven’t seen anything better. The system I proposed does not stop anybody cold and does not get anybody fired, which might be justice. But it does have real effects. And I have come to believe there is no such thing as a system that would stop people cold.

      I don’t know what to say about formal structures and processes, except its pretty obvious they’re not working today. Whether they are fixable or not (in which case we should be advocating for change there) is a good question. But it is not obvious to me. It would require changing so much all the way back to the rewards systems of universities and the contractual terms of professors. Plus institutions have to guarantee due process, individual actors just have to trust their judgement and listen to their conscience.

      I didn’t mean to imply that the actual recipient of bullying is obligated to do things. If I did, I was wrong and I’m sorry. I’m pretty sure all I said was that junior people in general are not off the hook for doing anything – by which I guess I was mostly assuming junior people that observe things not people on the receiving end, but certainly senior people are more on the hook.

      • I’m really curious now: what are the real effects? In the cases you’ve seen or experienced? What exactly changes once someone is known by their peers to be a bully? Does the bully’s behavior change? Or the way they’re treated by peers? Or what?

      • The real consequences I’ve seen are admittedly shades of gray, not absolute. But drastic reduction in collaborators, drastic reduction in graduate student streams and zero chance of being considered for awards and recognition. I’m less sure, but I think a long term reduction in grants is likely as well (if only because in this day and age they require collaborators and are evaluated on believability of management and collaboration plans.

        I would love to come up with a plan where the consequences are more absolute. But I don’t have one.

        It’s interesting to me. A lot of people seem to find my proposal as “settling” but in my perspective it is actually exciting to have something possible to do – the history I’ve seen of more traditional modes is pretty dismal (as some of the comments on this post attest).

    • I’m really glad you said this, because I agree with it completely based on my observations of harassment in academia and my willingness to tap into (and feed forward) whisper networks. I often find that men in academia have this really warped perspective of harassment and bullying both, because they are typically excluded from the conversations that women have about who is trustworthy and who is not unless they have a specific woman who trusts them enough to “vouch” for them. So they don’t see people trying to speak up and they don’t see the consequences of doing so, and the costs are artificially deflated in their mental model of victims.

      • Thanks Erin. I’m not understanding what you are getting at. What is the warped perspective? And what are the consequences that aren’t being seen?

      • So when I say warped perspective, what I mean is that by and large, men in general and senior men in particular do not have access to the breadth of knowledge that junior women do. This is because when women talk to each other and network, a significant part of that networking and communication is often about identifying potential bad actors and threats. In part this is because women are more likely to be targeted for specific kinds of harassment*, and in part it is because women are more likely to identify abusive faculty members as abusive, conceptualize this as a problem of bad actors, and tell each other about it. Men minimize the issue.

        Let me explain what I mean. I know almost as many male graduate students and postdocs who have been part of what I would call abusive supervisory situations as I do female students. When my male colleagues come to me and complain about poor treatment by a supervisor, they usually resist hard when I say that this sounds abusive to me and that they should act accordingly: cutting ties if they can do so without harm to themselves, warning other people, and minimizing the potential damage to themselves. I think this is because men don’t want to think of themselves as victims; I think that this is a thing which hits masculinity in a scary way and intimidates men, who don’t have as much practice with it. So they cope with the situation by minimizing it, both the effects on themselves and the potential for bad intent on the part of the abusive supervisor. Even if my theory about why men don’t speak up is incorrect, the point still stands that men tend to be quiet and shut down instead of warning other people when they experience victimization as graduate students. This makes male targets unhelpful to women who are trying to evaluate potential bad actors when they try to decide who to make professional contacts with.

        Furthermore, men who have not been targeted by abusive supervisors are likely to also minimize the abusive behavior. Either this is because they also don’t want to think of themselves as potential victims and automatically identify themselves with the position of the accused abuser or they don’t want to admit that there is a problem they would then have to confront. The emotional reaction that men have to acknowledging the fact of abuse in their own professional networks, by their colleagues and friends, at home in a place where they might have to do something specific about it…. frankly, it is strong enough and common enough that it can shut down the entire discussion, and it makes women wary of sharing their negative experiences in specific places where men are around, especially unknown men. This is particularly true when women try to share small incidents that serve as red flags and warnings, but which are very easily dismissed because they are by definition minor.

        So men are deliberately excluded from most of the discussions that women have about bad actors and often don’t hear about the many small warning incidents that women use to warn each other about people who might become abusive, if you tether your career to theirs. They don’t hear about the major incidents, either, because unless you trust a given person to do something about it, why open yourself up to the damaging emotional response of a person trying to minimize an upsetting experience that happened to you because they are upset to hear about it and engage with it? (And god forbid that the colleague you try to tell then decides you aren’t trustworthy, because you made such a mountain out of such a molehill and that experience was really nothing big. If their opinion of you is hurt, and you have to rely on that colleague for a letter of recommendation or a chance to collaborate on a grant, that can directly hurt your career down the line.)

        That’s what I mean by consequences, by the way. Women face so much minimization and dismissal that abusers rightly realize that they can do more and more extreme things and face no community wide censure, particularly if there are not many highly-placed women–which is, hey! exactly the case in academic communities.

        Here’s an example of what I mean by minimizing. I’m comfortable labeling supervisors who behave in the way you describe as abusive, full stop, instead of the “bullying” term you’re using in the original post. That term carries less weight, which is why I don’t like it as much, and is much easier to dismiss or minimize when people complain about it than a stronger term like “abuser” or “harasser.” I notice that people clearly identified as women in the commenting threads here (Jennifer, Margaret Kosmala, Jacquelyn Gill, myself) speak about these people as ‘harassers’ or ‘abusers’ without qualifying. People clearly identified as men (Aaron, Terry, Matt, yourself, Ken) seem more comfortable using the word ‘bullies’ and either use no different terms or use ‘harasser’ only when next to the more easily dismissed and minimized ‘bullies.’ Women who are not as aggressively disagreeing with you use your language, but I notice that men never go as far as to call these bad actors abusers or harassers without putting it next to the plausibly minimizing “bullying”. These are subtle differences, but they are very salient ones that I know for a fact that I and many junior women pay close attention to when the topic of abusive senior faculty members comes up. That’s because they are micro-cues that indicate how likely that it will be that a given person will take complaints seriously if a junior person tests the waters.)

        My experience, as someone who has watched many junior people bring complaints about abusive faculty both informally to colleagues and formally, is that publicly proclaiming that you don’t tolerate harassment in general means nothing. I have watched a senior faculty member proclaim confidently that his department is a zero-tolerance harassment zone when multiple people who brought former complaints about an abusive supervisor had been dismissed without serious investigation–because no one told him, including the people that the victims of bad behavior approached as “mandated reporters,” and once burned, twice shy. I have watched a progressive faculty member who cares deeply about diversity immediately minimize and blow off a woman telling him about a long record of warning signs about a colleague he liked and was friends with, because he didn’t want to think about the possibility that he had mentored and supported and liked had gone on to hurt multiple junior people. (And I have noted that person go on to do worse things, but have not bothered to inform the faculty member who didn’t want to hear it the first time. Why risk my career and my relationship with that person a second time?)

        I’m making this long comment because I feel very strongly about this, based on both the things I have directly observed and the stories that other women have told me about their own experiences. The only thing that I trust now is faculty with power, especially men, doing something about abusive faculty. Actions speak much louder than words, and honestly, I am very tired of male faculty talking a great black-and-white game until they’re presented with an actual, direct case they have to deal with, and suddenly there are many shades of grey that prevent them from actually taking some action to investigate the situation. I know some great male allies who have put their own careers at stake to back up harassed students, too. But by and large, they are hard to identify unless you know a woman who knows that they will do something when asked, because there are so many men who speak well about whatever the “unacceptable” behavior is…. while defining “unacceptable” with surprisingly mobile goal posts when they feel socially threatened or embarrassed.

        I think that men speaking openly about these behaviors, and in particular men taking the emotional bravery to label this bad behavior as abuse or harassment and unacceptable, is absolutely critical. And I think it’s absolutely critical for men to pay attention to the subtle things that junior people say when they encounter bad behavior and ask for details. Upon rereading your original post, I think this is in part what you’re advocating for–I think I may have gotten a little knee-jerk frustrated by some of the subtleties I see you as having missed, but there are a lot of good points about encouraging people to speak up there. But I think that just as it’s important to encourage smaller, more doable-feeling ways to speak up, it’s also as important or more important to encourage men in particular to listen and focus on processing their responses to hearing about incidents around them. That lack of willingness to listen is arguably a much bigger problem than people not being willing to speak, and modeling listening to people talking about potential abusive supervisors is also very important to the development of undergraduates who might later have to evaluate similar information.

        *sexual harassment as well as other, more subtle forms of sexism; women need to know whether potential supervisors will, for example, expose them to benevolent sexism; make them do a significantly higher level of scut work or emotional labor within the working group compared to male peers; preferentially give high-value projects to male students; etc. There are a lot of forms of sexism, and women often talk about which male faculty members engage in which ones–whether or not those men are actually AWARE they are doing so, they tend to get extremely defensive if you point it out, so it’s easier just to negotiate your career around them especially if you are junior and rely on their support.

      • Thanks for the detailed response. I recognize there are some generic-level truths in what you say. But on some other levels we may need to agree to disagree. As a male, I have been in a lot of conversations with other males (and of course also with females) where there was a lot of talk “about identifying potential bad actors and threats”. In fact these are the conversations I was describing in my post. I wasn’t able to make them too personal because I don’t think this is the right place to out people. I have no problem using the word abusive. In fact in a side correspondence a senior male colleague sent me via email on this topic, I used the word repeatedly. I did steer away from using the word harassment too frequently because that word normally implies sexual harassment and as a male, although males can be sexually harassed, I am much less likely to be on the receiving end so I don’t feel like it is my place to conflate that idea with other related experiences (I pretty much implied that in my opening post). I am less sure what to say about your point about not hearing complaints. I personally think that goes more with seniority than gender (and the two are of course unfortunately confounded in academia), but I don’t have data proving that seniority is the causal mechanism rather than gender, and I could give anecdotes but they’re only anecdotes. You certainly could be right.

        That said I definitely agree that half of the solution I proposed is listening and believing as well as speaking and I only emphasized the speaking part. So thanks for bringing that up.

        My bottom line is I don’t know why you would want to cut off your social network that can help you identify bad actors by devaluing the ability of half the world to help?

      • Erin,

        While I hear and appreciate the sentiment of your experiences, I would advise caution with making sweeping generalizations, especially with statements like “all men…” or the weasel words “most men…”, and “some men…”

        Without hard quantitative sociological and psychological evidence those generalizations are hard to support.

        A possible alternative hypothesis to your generalizations is that (*warning weasel words*) on average men and women speak about the same abuse, harassment, and difficult relationships using different language (i.e full spectrum). Not that men in general minimize its impact or experience.

        Taking an example from my own experience, among my peers a conversation about abuse would usually start with:

        “Dude, that prof is such a dick. The other day he…”

        (although my peers may be exceptional in our rather grim sense of trench warfare humor, our willingness to laugh at the absurdity of life, and our slipping from time to time into the “game of vile”, a form of scatological linguistic one-up manship to see who can say the most disgusting horrible thing)

        I also challenge the assertion that “bullying” is a minimizing term. Having experienced the extremes of bullying as a youth and young adult, including social isolation, verbal abuse, and physical violence, the term bullying is very potent and carries a great deal of negative connotation. In particular, my perception and experience of bullying has been that it is, at least classically, a form of socially condoned harassment and abuse meant to maintain rigid social control and hierarchy by those in authority. As such it has been my experience that persons in authority like teachers, supervisors etc… will minimize bullying; often with phrases like “boys will be boys”, or “they just need to sort themselves out”.

  6. Thanks for this Brian. Another issue in the US is that the study visas (F and J) and work visas (TN and H1B) are under the direct control of supervisors. If a supervisor isn’t happy with a student, they can cancel the visa and you have 2 weeks to leave the country. I know of several examples where supervisors have held this fact over their students/employees in bullying situations. And I know several situations where students/employees have been fired because of not doing what the bully wanted. Not helped by language barriers. As a foreign student at my PhD institution who saw how other foreign students were treated, I wish I could have done more to counteract the bullying. Currently this is such an invisible issue and I hope that changes and the situation improves.

    • Thanks for raising this point. I have a number of international students in my lab so I guess I was aware of the importance of visas, but it never crossed my mind this could be used as a weapon. Sigh!

      I do think international students can be especially vulnerable not only because of the visa issue you raise but because it can be much harder for them to get honest assessments of a prospective adviser up front.

  7. There are a few serial bullies that I know (or know of) very well. In all of these cases, steps 1-6 are things that happen as a regular occurrence. That’s how I’ve known about them. And they’re still in position bullying people around, though they might have fewer people to bully because the community has encapsulated them (just like the immune system of insects does to nasty things that make it inside). These bullies, particularly when they mistreat their grad students in egregious manners, are reported to their institutions and complaints go up the power chain.

    As you point out, new people in the community are at risk because they don’t have the community knowledge to avoid interactions with this person. When potential grad students visit departments, this is when the community often takes this person aside to give them a very clear warning. I can think of one recent case — which ended badly for the student of course — in which not enough people stepped up and the student didn’t find the claims credible until they experienced it for themselves. So, this needs to be a community effort. What is the difference between policing for serial bullies and faculty mobbing? I guess it’s whether or not the person is an actual bully, which is, as you also point out, subjective.

  8. I know of a case where the serial bully’s lab was burnt to the ground. Most people speculated it was one of the disgruntled students/research staff who did it.

    This Prof. was well known to be a bully and most people left their PhDs/Jobs midway and in severely depressed state.

  9. While I sympathize with your sentiments, the tactics you expressed come across as using gossip to handle bullies. I have never found word of mouth to work. Here is what has worked for me.

    Bullies, like most low grade sociopaths have a keen sense for weakness, and in particular social isolation and lack of support. Bullies will preferentially find and target individuals who are at greater risk of being susceptible to the bullies’ aggression. Like all humans, bullies naturally seek success and fulfillment, unfortunately they derive a great deal of it from acts of aggressive social domination.

    So what to do:

    This is most important, I cannot emphasize this enough, take stock of yourself. You need to check in with your own state of being and state of mind. You must answer these questions for yourself:

    – How extensive is your real (not online) social network of people you can trust to emotionally and physically support you, especially if you lose your job/grant/scholarship or are removed from your program? Do you have family in town you could live with? Do you have a spouse to support you? Understanding roommates who can see you through a rough patch?

    You cannot do this alone. That is what the bully wants, for you to be hewed from the herd so that you can be brought down more easily. If you have limited or no ties you need to make some fast. You need a network of friends and family you absolutely trust to have your back. That is the only way this works. Any other way and the bully has the upper hand. You must always have an undisclosed alternative to bullies terms.

    – What other activities, sources of fulfillment, or sources of identity do you have in your life? Are you physically active? Involved in an arts scene? Volunteer? I realize having anything else is difficulty with an intensive academic schedule but it is absolutely critical for your mental health.

    If you only get fulfillment or identity from your academic accomplishments then you are stuck operating on the bullies term. You need an internal reserve of identity and resolve that the bully does not know about and cannot touch. You actually need layers of identity and resolve; mental layers you can sacrifice in any confrontation with the bully (this is how soldiers are trained to resist interrogation). Somehow you need to find a wellspring of who you know you are, so that in every confrontation you can say to yourself as a little joke on the bully “well you got that little layer, but you still don’t have such and such about me”

    – What are the potential consequences to your own security and the security of those who depend on you if you confront the bully? Do you have children, a dependent spouse? Is this your only source of income for your family? Take stalk of what is really at play here.


    If you are the sole breadwinner for your family confrontation will likely not end well. You need to take the current unpleasant stability of your funding and use it to look for alternatives, and then leave, vote with your feet. Confronting the bully is not your hill to die on. It is not your battle to change the bully, alter the course of their career, or hold them accountable. Your battles are first and foremost to protect your family and your dependents. On the other hand if you are only risking some short term instability in your own life, then confrontation might be warranted, and even appreciated by others. In some circumstances the risk of confrontation can even be rewarded with new opportunities opened up with others who are thankful. Think strategically, will the confrontation earn you “street cred”.

    Now how to confront the bully: Despite the literature detailing the many verbal jousting matches and linguistic judo one could use, confronting a bully is remarkably simple. NO is the most powerful word in the English language. Use it often and strongly. Use it to establish boundaries. Use it to set limits on acceptable behavior. But be prepared for the upset and turmoil it will entail. Saying no will infuriate the bully and they will lash out. However the bully will also run out of steam, provided you stand your ground and do not back down. Stick to your “no” and do not let go. That is basically it. Set boundaries and stick to them no matter how outlandish the behavior is, even if it means walking out of the office of a screaming supervisor. The image of someones back turned is incredibly powerful on an innate subconscious level.

    Defending you boundaries works because like most humans bullies are typically tactical and reactionary, never or rarely strategic. If you decide on a strategy, have a plan, and get started on it you already have an advantage (not only over the bully but also over 99% of the human race). Adapt the plan as needs be to ensure the overall strategy succeeds, but stay focused on the goals. This means you have to put your emotions aside, whatever they are, fear, righteous indignation, sadness, or stress. Do not feed off of the bullies emotions and do not feed into the bullies emotions. You set the tone of the conversation, if the bully wants to violate that tone, then end the conversation, hopefully politely.

    In the end the only way to truly oppose a bully is to be able to walk away from it all with a clear conscious, even if it means starting over from scratch. It is bitter medicine to swallow, the idea of restarting and redoing so much hard work and dedication. But you can do it, you made it this far already and you can do it again better the next time.

    Remember: do not do it alone, and diversify your investments in yourself and others.

  10. Thanks for this post, Brian. As you note, the fact that there are so many parallels between bullying and serial harassment makes this a timely topic. It’s hard enough for harassers — violators of university policies and the law — to be taken to task with any real repercussions. Bullying seems even more tricky. I do think academia is set up to encourage this, not only because of the uneven power dynamics, but also because the gate-keeping and finite resources encourages a culture of competition by attrition.

    I do worry about the grapevine model, though — it requires knowing the right people. I know a lot of people who have ended up with “toxic mentors,” to cite a Tenure, She Wrote post from a couple of years ago. They had no warning, either because people from outside the group didn’t know to warn them, or because of the culture of fear both inside and outside the bully’s lab. That missing stair, so to speak, can stay a missing stair because people don’t realize that not everyone knows someone is abusive.

    At what point is it appropriate for someone to just up and tell the bully they’re, well, a bully? I’m curious if anyone’s ever gone to a chair, or a journal editor, or a society president, and raised an issue about abuse from a colleague or mentor?

    I should also add that this plays out in social media spaces, too. There are a number of people who fit the ” academic bully” bill on Twitter and in the blogosphere. I know a lot of women who choose not to engage in blog comments, or in Twitter conversations about certain topics, because of this. I do think there’s a gender element at play, though not exclusively (I know women bullies).

    • “At what point is it appropriate for someone to just up and tell the bully they’re, well, a bully?”

      Baby steps first. Above and beyond your thoughts, your emotions are always valid. It should always be considered acceptable for you to calmly and fairly express how you feel, particularly in the context of another person’s action. If you are not in an environment in which this is true you need to seriously consider whether that environment is healthy for you. Expressing how you feel in response to another person’s action can be a powerful mechanism for nipping problem behavior in the bud when it is in the early warning signs. But for this to work you need to be tuned into your own mental state.

      “I’m curious if anyone’s ever gone to a chair, or a journal editor, or a society president, and raised an issue about abuse from a colleague or mentor?”

      I have been involved in a few processes that have sought third party remediation of sustained problem behavior like harassment and bullying. It can be a crap shoot, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes its rigged. Always careful assess any remediation process before undertaking it. Look for signs of independence, objectivity, transparency, and consequences, including studying previous rulings (even when heavily redacted). If any of those signs are not there then the process it likely just window dressing, or worse, much worse.

      If you are going to seek third party remediation, then understand it is a serious commitment, intellectually, emotionally, time, and money. Before you even think of playing your hand you need to document, document, document. BCC all communications to a third party email account you have exclusive access to. Keep all records of incidents at home on personal devices in your exclusive possession. Note witnesses and collaborating records. When legally permissible copy collaborating records and evidence to your home devices. You need as thorough and complete a record as possible before you even think of informing any adjudicators.

      Now here is the tricky part. This is a major commitment of your life. You will have to get a temporary leave from your responsibilities, academic, scientific, management, whatever they maybe. Plan for up to an academic year off. You will have to coordinate the temporary leave with the submission of your complaint. In general graduate directors and administrators are more amicable then problem supervisors, so you should be able to get the temporary leave. If the problem is the graduate director or administrator then there is likely a larger institutional problem possibly stemming from the deans office or as high as the presidents or provosts office (I’ve seen it happen).

      After that go with the process. If you are not intimately familiar with the procedures and rules of the process, start studying. Follow the rules precisely, and again document, document, document. These processes are usually more about catching the other side up in a mistake then proving you are correct.

      Finally, in the time you have taken to deal with this, start to source a back-up plan. Make sure you have your contingencies covered.

    • Some anecdata: I tripped over a missing stair that no one had told me about a few years ago. I contacted the editor of a journal who had solicited a piece from me about the fact that my former boss had removed it from my control. Nothing happened. I spoke to the acting department chair after said person when he went postal on me. The chair, who unfortunately had less power than he did (and later left the division), confirmed that he treated everyone like that to varying degrees.

      The health and safety representative effectively started ignoring me after the second incident I relayed. I had already been told that the pattern had been repeating itself for decades, and now I could see why. I later learned that a report should have been triggered, but the policy in question seems not to be enforced. In some places, there is no functional system to hold bullies accountable. There were similar cases of abuse of power in other departments.

      This person probably has fewer ties than he otherwise might, and isn’t attracting the students and postdocs he otherwise could, but it isn’t making too much of a dent. Unfortunately, not everyone seems willing to stop collaborating with missing stairs or leave a toxic environment. Forget about warning others.

  11. Wow. This has really touched a nerve.

    As a grad student, I was aware of several faculty who had negative reputations as bullies and I know that these people had profoundly negative impacts on the morale of the Dept I was in. The bullying, in at least one case I know of, was not limited to their students either, though their students went through various types of hell and will to some extent pay for the experience the rest of their careers as well as in their personal lives. Even as an undergrad, I was aware that there were certain people to avoid working for or even taking classes from.

    Couldn’t bullying be wrapped up/included with anti-discrimination and harassment policies (isn’t it already, from a legal point of view (genuine question)? And enforcement? Harassment/bullying in the workplace is illegal, right?

    I work for a federal agency in the US. A bully/harasser has a much harder time taking out their tendencies on anyone. But this is very much the result of top-down refusal to tolerate this behavior within the agency i work for. Not all agencies have this attitude (the NPS for example).

    I suppose the difference being that there are powerful people (as Brian was getting at) who have the authority, and even the mandate, to investigate any formal complaint. They are to some extent in an independent position. The main (or maybe one main) problem as I see it is one of enforcement. And I really do not think that allowing bullies to destroy other’s careers or even private lives, committing crimes, can be rectified by informal discussions among peers with entrenched interests.

    Really, we could be talking about sexual harassment here and I suppose in many cases we are. A stronger stance is needed. Or maybe a few big lawsuits.

    Thank you Brian for bringing this up: clearly from the response so far it is an issue that needs light (as you said).

    • Hi Brian,

      The (external) processes to address abuse, harassment, and bullying are regionally variable and depend on the specifics of the criminal code in each nation. Depending on where you live there might be binding alternatives to civil or criminal action.

      In Canada, for example there are provincial human rights commissions that will investigate complaints and issue legally binding rulings. Because it is neither a civil nor criminal process it is a little less onerous and the evidentary rules are a bit more generous, especially towards testimony. This mechanism is particularly powerful for addressing abuse that can be classified as discriminatory, or interfering with fundamental rights of movement, speech, and association.

      It is a shame that foreign and exchange graduate students in Canada have not sought leave of the human rights commissions to redress the exploitative labor conditions under which some academic laboratories are run.

      • Thanks for your comment. I had an experience in Europe and I asked law students about their legal system, they told me unless you have empirical evidence, you have no chance.
        After what I went through, I am filled with doubts that human rights commission may had helped me. Students and this bully’s secretariat were so afraid of him, his secretariat was hospitalized for 3 months because of his negative impact on her. Another female student from his nationality, withdrew from the program and she wrote that she was sick, she never said anything about this bullying, they shared the same academic interest/background and he is famous for this specialty. I forgot to add that women in this European country have equal rights with men, they know how to take their rights and many women lead political parties. I was completely confused with what I witnessed and I had to withdrew too.

  12. I have one suggestion. Although academia is a tight-knit community, I don’t think it’s true that a bully has a great deal of power to affect people slightly outside of their zone of influence, and I don’t think it’s true that those of us low on the totem pole are powerless.

    To be more specific, I know a bully in community ecology, but I am in evolutionary ecology. Even though I’m a grad student and he is a tenured professor, I have no fear about letting it be known that he’s a bully whenever the opportunity arises, via options 1-4. I don’t fear repercussions because we have different enough research that it seems very unlikely that he would ever have the unchecked power to really screw with me and get away with it, even in the very unlikely event that someone reported to him that I’ve talked about his bullying ways. For the sake of my friend who cannot speak so freely, I will gladly speak up.

    Also, grad students really do have power to keep a bad apple from getting more students, and I firmly believe that it’s our duty to do so. One year our department offered recruitment fellowships to FOUR incoming students for his lab (which is really frustrating, because they should not be doing that for a bully!!!), and we talked all of them out of coming.

    So I am in essence agreeing with your overall approach, but I suggest that quite powerful allies can be found in people who are in the broad sphere of ecology/biology, so that they have opportunities to speak up and spread the word, but not in the bully’s narrow sphere of influence, so speaking up isn’t risky. Are we going to be able to ruin this guy’s career and drive him out? Not likely. But we can try to prevent future abuse, and I believe that over time he will have fewer collaborators and opportunities as the community realizes he’s a jerk.

    • “I don’t think it’s true that a bully has a great deal of power to affect people slightly outside of their zone of influence”

      Yes. This is an important and often overlooked point. A supervisor has a lot of power over his or her trainees. Someone who writes reference letters for you also has a fair bit of power to affect your career. But a random bigwig–even in your field, honestly–has basically no power to damage your career.

    • The more I reflect on this post, the more important I think it is.

      I recall own experience interviewing for grad schools. The one potential adviser I was contemplating who had a bit of a bully reputation, I was visiting the campus, and all the grad students who didn’t have that adviser said very political cautious things like, “you really should talk to his/her students”. And then I’d talk to his/her students and they would be very cautious and say things like “while there are pros and cons for working with X”. Its pretty clear why X’s students needed to be cautious, but to this day its not clear to me why the other graduate students not under that person couldn’t have been more direct and said “warning – do not work for X unless you’re prepared to be bullied”. I suppose some of them might have had X on their committee, but there had to have been some students who had enough autonomy from X that they could have been direct, but they weren’t.

      Which I think goes full circle back to my post. Those non-students of X were still scared to speak up.

      I’m glad to hear your department is different.

      And I fully agree that at the more senior levels you can find people who are not under the sway of a bully as you move into the research community, not just within your campus. It has been interesting to me that most of the comments on this post have focused on communications within a department or university, when I mostly had in mind communications across campuses which does indeed have the dynamics you mention.

      Thank you for your post.

  13. Wow! I had hoped the problems I see routinely were more a product of my program than the state of academia. I don’t know that I would go as far as to has my program has a bully culture, but it would certainly be a conversation worth having as we have a number of people within the program who meet the criteria.

    That being said, it is recognized by both students and junior faculty and boy are we counting down the days until they each receive tenure and problems can be addressed.

    It got to the point just over a year ago when a professor publicly used their graduate student as a scapegoat. (Not sure if the PI was covering up for their own safety hazard violation or just looking to boost their reputation by stepping forward to nobly assume responsibility.)

    A senior PhD student publicly called out the professor for the behavior which resulted in some very frank conversation between department and students. Ultimately, as students were still concerned that not enough was being done and it would ultimately only be lip service. We continued talking amongst ourselves.

    One senior faculty member once said “We knew it was bad, we just didn’t realize anyone cared.”

    Four of us eventually came together across the two sides of the program and began putting together a student organization designed to support students through these issues. We were told by students who had tried this in the past that it couldn’t be done, but it’s going well so far. What we have accomplished through student advocacy is the following:

    * Created a student organization to represent all graduate students in the program. Positions include offices with direct contacts to student government/office of student life, union, and the faculty. We currently have 14 people elected and actively participating.

    * We negotiated from the right to send representatives to faculty meetings.

    * The department was in the process of adapting a Compact for Graduate Student Success. Two years ago we were “given but not given” a chance to contribute our thoughts to the best practices for smoother advisor-advisee relationships. Last year, we convinced the department to give us greater say in it. As our document had some notable differences from the faculty endorsed version, a selection of students met with an administrator to finalize the wording over the summer. We just received back the final language which will be voted on by the entire graduate body for approval. Then faculty will vote on it. Active review of the document will become a part of the formal process for establishing advisor-advisee relationships when forms are submitted to the department.

    * Our next conversation will likely be around how to prevent retaliations for students speaking out.

    I bring up these points to share some of the strategies and solutions we’ve employed with fair success. We also do the casual meetings with 2 or 3 other people — all the time. What I think is particularly important about how it is done is that we do it across sides of the department and between faculty and students. Junior faculty and students often share the same frustrations and both groups working independently in the past have not had the success we are currently seeing. Safety in numbers is vital for progressive.

    As students, we are often asked to speak to incoming students and faculty. We just ran the table at the recruitment weekend this past Saturday and we are a critical part of the Admissions Day where prospective students interview. (Why they encourage us to speak to incoming students and faculty when things are as dysfunctional as they are, I have no idea… oh, wait, we’re dysfunctional.) We are very candid about the inherent issues in being a PhD student, the quality of the program, and the natures of each PI.

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  15. Hi Brian, great and timely issue, thanks!

    Some hypotheses & ideas:

    – Postdocs are maybe harassed as much as students.

    – A harassed postdoc is more likely than a student to have a family, and by speaking out loud the postdoc risks not only career, but also salary that supports the family. Also, it is more difficult for posdocs to change the career, since they are older than students, overqualified, and likely already in love with their subject.

    – Overseas international students and postdocs are a critical vulnerable group. They are more likely to miss the gossip on bad reputations of prospective advisors, and hence get hired by them. They may also be easier targets since they are not familiar with the culture/language/bureaucracy necessary to speak up and withstand the pressure that will come. Finally, they have often moved homes (and families) to work with the harasser, and the idea of relocating back to their home country is often terrifying, because extremely expensive and tiresome.

    – Harassers at top positions haven’t become harassers after tenure, they always were. Hence, they know how to deal with bad reputation, and even thrive with it — they’ve always had it. That’s why they are hard to defeat or punish. That’s why the gossip and speaking up is not there to primarily punish them, as much as to label them and warn the others.

    I’d say that, for some victims, the scary part of speaking up can be scary for a good reason, to a point when not speaking up is justified. Which is sad and scary.

    • All good points. I did not mean to imply that victims should speak up. Rather observers. And I totally agree the goal is warning others. Not punishing. In the end it has to be a very individual calculation.

  16. Just want to open up and speak up.

    I am a scholar who won a super woow prestigious fellowship to study in Europe, I came from a North African country which struggles with many things after the Arab spring at that time. I worked so hard to get this fellowship. I did not know that I compete to be insulted and bullied in this European country. I also did not know that the funding agency allied with my offenders (supervisors). I had one problem, I do not fit. My specialty does not exist in this uni and I wanted to change it. but no hope.

    Let’s play a game, who will be angry first in front of witnesses.
    I will call Allah a bad name and I will say it in Arabic and you are the only one who understand, you are the only one who will be hurt. Did I speak? no, I did not. With this horrible political so and so in my country, I could not do so much.

    Let’s play another card, the racial one, and another one, let’s insult your people, and another one, let’s isolate you from the scientific community and threaten you that you will lose your fellowship if you spoke up… Did I say anything? no, I did not

    I tried to change my supervisor three times, I talked to the fellowship donors, but no hope
    I was professional, polite … but no hope 😦 I need to work with someone who shares the same scientific interest, but no hope.

    At the end I withdrew from the fellowship and traveled back to my country or should I say …. I fled.

    Are they aware how much damage do they do to the world?

    Two days ago, two of my relative started to talk about women’s rights in Islam and how they should had thought for themselves. They thought that I am a super woow person, because I seek the truth and do research, not only for my field of studies but also as a Muslim ….
    My mother told me several times, that I made a positive change in the family, sitting with these two women made me realize what she was saying.

    Imagine if I get a PhD from this European country, how could I changed my society? I am a Muslim woman in STEM, imagine that I get a PhD after the Arab spring and during this horrible time. Imagine, how much positive impact I could had done.

    I will work harder and I will go to another country, I will achieve my dreams and help people through my work. I deeply believe that I am up to the challenge.

    To the owner of this blog, thank you for giving a space to someone you do not know.

    I have a voice and this how it sounds…


    No names

    • Thank you for taking time to share your story on this. I am profoundly sad to hear how bad the system failed you. Yes, your adviser clearly failed you and that is really bad. But even worse is that all the people around your adviser failed you. I guess in a sense that is what I was talking about. You sound like an impressive person, and I am very glad to hear you are not giving up and willing to try again. I very much hope this goes better for you.

      • Do not be sad. It is enough that you gave me a space to talk;
        I hope my story helps someone else. I am aware that academic bullying is a taboo, I did my homework before I leave and I read horrible things.

        If we considered it as a taboo, we may learn from people who break taboos. Any ideas?

        One more thing, I remember when I was in the US (years before that), I used to see papers hanging on many places in the uni, advising students to come and talk about sexual harassment.

        In the Uni, I remember that we watched a movie from a foreign culture; in which, the professor did so and so with a female student. After the movie, a decent man said: “it is like doing so and so to his daughter”. I said: “excuse me, could you please use another expression because this is ugly”. He replied: “it is ugly because he is considered as her father”.
        I was really impressed that he considers his students as his children.

        I think what may help is educating prof and others in the academia to look to students like how they look to their children. I also wonder what will the uni do if such a thing happened between a faculty member and a student. If you have time to invest in this topic, try to learn from that (sexual harassment). This may help to understand how to break the academic bullying circle.

        I was in a small private uni, liberal art or something like that, it was very expensive too. so may be, you want check what they do in these elite schools. (It was a fellowship too)

        It sounds strange to read that this happens in the US too, but English is easier than other European languages, it may be easier to seek help, you also have a culture diversity, and I believe you understand its importance, while in Europe, they do not know what to do with us.
        Culture diversity may play a role in changing the sys, but I do not know how either.

        International office in this American uni was more helpful than the other one in EU. Based on my experience in two countries, I think it is the uni responsibility to educate students about their rights and how to gain it. A prof in US is a prof, a prof in this European country is a GOD.(untouchable)

        I think that what you are trying to do is very impressive, important and helpful too. I wish you and everyone the best of luck.


        No names.

  17. Hello,

    I write again because I seek an advice.

    I withdrew from this super woow fellowship and academic institute more than a year ago (EU). I still struggle with its drawbacks. It just hits me suddenly. How may I help myself?
    Any tips/advice for life after academic bullying?

    As I wrote before, I am not western, what should I do to protect myself from this if it happens again?
    I am concerned because I plan/ work to study abroad again and I need to make sure that I know what to do if I faced bullying or Islamophobia.

    More importatly, I think that Islamophobia is clearer now than before. Did anyone of you read about Islamophobia in the academia? How can we protect ourselves? Any tips?
    How can we make sure that our careeres and lives are safe?

    More importantly, how can we build a trusting relations? Please consider both sides (English and Arabic speakers)

    Please take into consideration that I suffered already, I have no energy for more fight. I just want to learn and make a change, a little change in our lives. I may be lucky to conduct useful researches. Please, this is my dream. Please advise.

    Thank you


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  20. Having been bullied in academia for 8 + years, as a tenured full professor, and now gone from that madness, after filing complaints against the Bully (Chair then Director of School), I can say the university (state) always wins in the end. You might win some battles, but not the ‘war.’ Calling a bully out is dangerous path because they are supreme destructive narcissists and psychopaths who have a highly agreeable public persona face. Also, peer coaching and mentoring is not very effective because once bullied, trusting is difficult. I am afraid I don’t have many solutions, except to hang in as long as you can, as you need to be, and find another work environment that is healthy, and one which you and everyone deserves to be a part of. Peace and healing to all who have been bullied by academic tyrants and their cronies.

    • I’m sorry to hear your story. And while it should be another way and I wish it was another way, it is also my experience that going through formal channels is not all its cracked up to be. In the end every institution gets caught up in minimizing their legal risk. And I agree the person on the receiving end is usually not empowered to do much – whatever else you have to say bullies aren’t stupid. Hence my logic of informal channels by peers of the bully. It has problems too. Hopefully society gets better at this soon.

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  23. Thanks for an interesting read. The one issue I have though is that in regards to the serial bully I have encountered, everyone in the higher positions already know about it and some have been on the end of it, but she still got her promotion. Things like confidentiality clauses just protect the victim and further encourage the bully, whilst exposing unsuspecting potential new victims. Particularly in the academic field where students tend to be the victims.
    Universities need to address the issue in a far more comprehensive way than they do now. Responsibility comes from the top down, and over all, you seem to be shifting the responsibility onto individuals of a lower academic position. Not cool, it’s precisely the peers who need to call it and stamp it out.

    • I hear you. And I think you may have misinterpreted what I said a bit. I have no intention to switch things onto junior people. Rather it is that at the present time formal processes involving senior people don’t work very well (because of the kinds of laws you mention – e.g in the US any employee of a government – most professors in the US – has what has been interpreted as a constitutional right to privacy), so I think we need to switch to informal processes involving senior people. That is the main point. And of course in parallel we need to work to change the formal processes. I can’t go into details but I have done so myself. But ultimately much of the formal processes are based in case law 20+ years old and are going to take massive lobbying efforts to change laws. So I think it is important to have alternatives in place in the meantime. And I fully agree senior peers are the ones responsible for putting that alternative into place.

      In the end I think you and I mostly agree.

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