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Academic bullying is too often ignored. Here are some targets’ stories

“I frequently vomit before going to the lab.”

“I wanted to become a professor, but after the treatment and behavior of my PI [principal investigator] and department, I do not want to ever be involved with academia again.”

“It was ~ 1 year before I realized that being told by my PI that I had 45 seconds to go to the toilet was inappropriate and an invasion of my privacy.”

These are just a few of the 1904 anonymous responses that poured in when Sherry Moss and Morteza Mahmoudi invited scientists to describe their experiences with academic bullying. The vast majority—71%—of respondents who experienced bullying did not report the behavior to their institution, mostly for fear of retaliation. Of those who did report, only 8% found the process to be fair and unbiased, according to a preprint posted online this week.

The findings lay bare the inadequacy of the reporting process at many institutions, says Mahmoudi, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who experienced bullying earlier in his career and co-founded an antibullying nonprofit called the Academic Parity Movement. “All of the investigations happen inside the institutions—there’s no accountability.” He notes that institutions may want to protect top-performing academics, especially those who bring in a lot of money, and have a vested interest in preventing complaints from becoming public. One possible solution, he adds, would be to establish a national or global committee on academic behavior ethics, which could investigate allegations of abuse more impartially. 

Many of the survey responses were hard to read, say Mahmoudi and Moss, a professor at Wake Forest University—especially those that described serious mental health challenges. But sharing them is an important step toward changing culture. To that end, Science Careers compiled a sample of responses from the survey, with a focus on those who reported or confronted bullying behavior—sometimes resulting in positive outcomes, but more frequently not.

The responses have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

I complained to our department chair. An investigation committee was created. Through their investigation they found most of my allegations valid, but they gave me two options: 1) continue working under my supervisor and report if additional bad behavior happened, or 2) leave the institution.

I first spoke up, but this made the situation worse. Then, I reported to higher level people in my department and then to the dean’s office. They destroyed my life and my scientific identity as well as my dignity. They crushed my entire career.

I complained to the university. They did not follow their own prescribed guidelines for resolving complaints and allowed my PI to remove me from the lab and take away funding.

I spoke to the dean of the graduate school and she helped me get out of the situation. But she made it really clear that if I formally reported nothing good would happen to me or my co-workers.

I complained after graduation, which was a very painful process, since this PI required 15 (!) papers in order to graduate. The university seemed to take it seriously, but 6 months later nothing has changed.

I went to HR [human resources] of the department and of the institution; I discussed it with [a] disability adviser; I discussed it with the international office adviser; I filed a formal complaint with the dean; I consulted with the ombudsperson. The outcome of all of this was zero.

It took me a long time before I reported; I had to be seriously into depression. The outcome felt that it was seen as a problem in communication between us and a cultural difference—not a genuine issue.

I talked to the ombudsman and the dean who both supported me and [took steps to ensure] my appointment wasn’t canceled. It was cut short but not as much as initially threatened. I got therapy hours from the institute to help cope (10 hours) and meetings with the ombudsman to keep contact and let me know they hadn’t forgotten about me.

I complained to the HR representative, who raised the issue to the head of the department, who then spoke to the bully without giving my identity. The bully then emailed the entire group about it, asking the person who had complained to come forward. Nothing changed, and I resigned a few months later.

I complained to the head of the department, the head of faculty, and the university legal department. All were only concerned with protecting the university. I told them research is suffering and somebody is going to commit suicide if they don’t fix the problem. It was terrible. Nobody cared.

I reported the incidents of mobbing to the wellbeing department at my university. They campaigned on my behalf, but the bullying became more subtle and took the form of gaslighting. I wasn’t the only target; another student recently committed suicide due to the bullying.

I complained to the department administration. They basically told me there was nothing that could be done. The behavior is so common amongst PIs in my department that I decided not to switch labs and to just deal with it.

I spoke to the department chair and was told I am the problem. I then spoke with the ombudsperson and was told I am NOT the problem, but because it was not gender-based bullying, there was nothing that could be done.

I first spoke with the Ph.D. student adviser of my department who insisted that I needed to report my situation. … Despite not being the first or only person to have formally reported her, and despite this PI’s departmental reputation for being a challenging personality, the investigation did not seek out witnesses/references they had asked me to provide. In the end, the investigation concluded with no evidence supporting my claim. I was told I could return to my lab to finish my degree, but I was the one that would have to be monitored and given progress checks.

I spoke up to the program director. He explained if he opened a procedure for this, the outcome would be that all the damage would most likely fall upon me and not the bully.

I raised the issue with the person concerned in quite a subtle way, which was effective. I said, “I’m sure this is not intentional, but your treatment of me when doing X seemed to me to be like harassment.” She then apologized and denied it. We have quite strict harassment policies, and she’s been reported before. (She’s a well-known bully.) So, the thought of being reported was obviously a red flag for her. When she denied it, I said, “Well, I thought it must be unintentional, but nevertheless it did seem to me like harassment so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do X again.” She said sorry and since then has backed off from that particular kind of nastiness. However, the peace only lasted for a while and only for that kind of direct harassment, so it was only partially successful, as she’s since gone on many times to do other things that are awful.

First, I remained silent out of fear. Later my colleagues and I reported the behavior to the university board and to the dean. Despite many attempts to do something about this undertaken over the course of 10 years by various groups and individuals, the university took no action. The perpetrator retired last year in peace, without any conversation about his behavior.

I was afraid to report at first but when it got worse, I spoke to the graduate ombudsman. His office handled the matter professionally and I did not experience retaliation.

I set up a confidential meeting with a representative for the dean of the grad school, presenting seven pages of grievances. The dean later told me through the representative that my adviser was protected by academic freedom and no steps would be taken to discipline or follow up with him. The matter was completely dropped by the grad school and never went any further.

I tried to report the incident, but my department said they had no power to do anything about the bullying and harassment. I went to the dean’s and the ombuds office, but they told me the same thing. Finally, I contacted the Title IX department who was willing to show me how to file a formal report. The formal complaint process has been going on for over a year and the investigators seem like they are trying very hard to bury my complaint.

I reported it to HR and their only suggestion was to have mediation with the perpetrator, when the last thing I wanted at the time was to be further confronted by the person.

A senior manager acknowledged that multiple other complaints had been received about the same individual but did not seem to take bullying seriously. They did say they would talk to the bully and the bullying subsequently escalated severely—so I suspect senior manager used my name when they spoke to the bully and so he retaliated against me.

In my first couple of years in the lab, I just took it. Once my mental health really started suffering, which affected my focus and motivation at work, I started mentioning my issues with my family and some colleagues. I eventually told another PI that I trust, and the dean of the graduate school, about my experiences with my PI, and they have been almost entirely supportive of me. … [The trusted PI has] primarily been mentoring me, and I work/do my experiments in her lab, with the support and understanding of the administration. He hasn’t seemed to retaliate yet, and I doubt he will because I have the support of the dean. I’m graduating this spring.

Kept silent for 18 months. Followed university procedure to report bullying. Experienced retaliation: Employment was terminated immediately after reporting and visa canceled.

I spoke to the dean and was told my only options were to leave the lab and hope I find a different lab to finish in—or, I could tough it out and hope I could finish in the same lab. I tried for a while, then left after 3 years.

I defended myself directly to the bully. The outcome was them realizing I was not going to take their treatment and they began to refrain from bullying me.

I complained to the department chair and administration. They were sympathetic and acknowledged the problem but encouraged me to protect the professor’s position and reputation and to keep the bullying quiet.

I let it go on for too long. After a few years, I finally reported it to the department chair and the chair helped me find a new adviser. Other students had similar issues, but there was never any consequence for my old adviser.

I went to my committee chair on a regular basis about many of the behaviors [my mentor] was exhibiting and to keep him updated on the situation in real time. I explained how my mentor threatened to take my thesis project away, routinely questioned my competence but didn’t provide specific feedback on the subject when asked, ridiculing me in group lab meetings, and not taking my word or ideas into consideration until someone else in the lab mentions them. While my chair was extremely supportive and tried to logically reason through what may be the issue at hand, ultimately nothing was done. … The daily degradation eroded away my confidence and motivation, leaving me feeling like it did not matter what I did—he would never be happy. All of this has resulted in my feeling miserable every day at work.

The department coordinator tried to convince me that it would be healthier to stay with the bully as my supervisor, that they (the bully) cared about me and were professionally challenging me so I could grow. I told them it felt more like harassment; they told me I was wrong. I reached out to past students who changed tracks their last semester to get away from the bullying. If it wasn’t for talking to them, I would have thought I was the problem.

I talked to the university president about my PI bullying me and another colleague. I was a research associate. My PI installed a webcam in my office to spy on me, encouraged me to manipulate data, mistreated students, and ridiculed my colleague in front of students. The university listened to my complaints and offered that I could finish the rest of my contract working for another PI. I accepted. There were no consequences for the PI.

I didn’t report for almost 2 years, until it broke me down mentally to the point I was just a shell of who I was before. Eventually, I went and sought help from the equality and diversity officer who helped me to put in a complaint through the students’ union to the school. They then investigated for a few months and eventually … removed her as director of master’s degree course, took all Ph.D. students off her, and required her to go through mentoring and retraining.

I directly reported it to the dean of our school, and they provided me one semester more funding to find another Ph.D. program. They did not let me switch labs. … After one semester in my new university, everything worked out.

My institution brushed off his behavior as him “just being a curmudgeon” and wanting to classify it as a “personality difference.” I didn’t realize it was connected to my gender until a few years in, when my department hired another woman. My department eventually, collectively stood up to him. It took an entire semester (when the bully was on sabbatical) of intense conversations about what was going on and helping our male colleagues understand that our experiences were different than theirs. Ultimately, it took all of us collectively to make it clear that his behavior was unacceptable. He folded almost instantly when we stood up to him.

I was in an emotionally abusive lab where my PI used to threaten my visa status and micromanage us to the hour. She ultimately revoked my visa at the last minute and sabotaged interviews. I was postdoc number four to go through this in the lab but there is no record of us on the lab alumni list. I reported it to the … office of prevention of harassment and discrimination and the postdoc office. About 1 year after I left, she got a warning to be nicer to people and if the next postdoc complains she will be sent on a course to manage people better. The incident had severe implications on my career but none on the career of my PI. The university protected her very well during the process.

I first sought a direct conversation with him on several occasions. He seemed aware of his behavior being somewhat unjust, but he regarded it as an inevitable consequence of my actions and his personality (which he doesn’t seem to appreciate as something that one can control or attempt to change). The conversations sometimes helped for a limited amount of time, but I kept being anxious about a “relapse.” I was going to counseling at some point and this helped me see … that his behavior was abusive. I wrote a letter to him which I then read to him. He acknowledged the content as being accurate, but again referred to it all as a “vicious circle”—i.e. an inevitable, if negative, outcome of something beyond his control—at which point I answered, “Some call it vicious circle; others call it abusive behavior.” He seemed genuinely shocked by that. After that conversation we had a few more fall outs soon after and, in the end, I went to HR to “deposit” the information about his behavior but without making a formal complaint. I also spoke to the head of department about it. My main concern was that he would repeat this behavior with other students and I wanted the head of the department to know that there was a precedent, but I didn’t want to escalate it further because things had actually improved for the time being. However, a few more incidents with the perpetrator followed, to which I reacted with direct and immediate confrontation. (Some might call it “making a scene.”) … He acknowledged to me that I was right with calling it abusive behavior and that he has an appointment with a therapist or counselor of some sort. I don’t know if he went in the end and if yes for how long, but his behavior seems to have improved.

Initially, I attempted to peacefully stop the bullying by talking with the abuser. This only led to the bully acting angrily and more abusive. Later, I reported the situation to the institution, but they openly stated that they did not believe me.

It resulted in a lawsuit because the school DID NOTHING but enable the behavior.

I responded to the bullying by ignoring it and hoping it would go away. It didn’t. Eventually, I just quit my position to get away from the bully. When I did so, I complained about my bully, but no one cared. In fact, I was blamed for the discord.

I went to the head of postgraduate studies who was very understanding and helpful. We talked through options, and I decided that the best thing to do was to try and manage the situation—to nod along to what my supervisor said, while getting all other support from other people. I chose to do this because he was making my life very difficult without really trying, and I knew that if he found out that I had spoken to someone, that he would actively make my life hell.