April 25, 2010

PhD students suffer from bullying supervisors

Midway though her PhD, the anxious research student found herself on the receiving end of an unexpected - and unwelcome - level of interest from her supervisor, a departmental professor.

"I'll help you all I can but you have to play ball," he said before inviting her for a meal on Valentine's Day at a very expensive restaurant, "as a treat for all your good work".

"I need a way out," she cries on her anonymous blog.

The exchange, recounted in a conference paper this week, is one of eight de-identified cases that University of Queensland researcher Suzanne Morris labelled "supervisory bullying".

Dr Morris unearthed the examples by trawling the net using the key words "doctoral bullying supervisor". She cut identifiers such as country, discipline and net address as she put together what she believes is the first report on how doctoral students experience bullying at the hands of their supervisors.

The power relationship with a supervisor was a big critical determinant of success for a graduate student, she said.

Postgraduates, estimated to perform 70 per cent of university research, say supervisors have the power to make or break them.

But Monash University's deputy vice-chancellor Max King defended supervisors, saying his surveys showed 90 per cent of postgraduates to be satisfied, 5 per cent neutral and 5 per cent not satisfied.

"Being a supervisor is a bit like being a parent and parents aren't always the best parents," Professor King said.

He said some students could misread as bullying what was intended as constructive criticism or "a rev up" for a poorly performing student.

Meanwhile, the federal innovation department is studying a worrying decline in higher degree starts as part of its emerging research workforce strategy.

That paper was prepared for the department by the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations after a research students' workshop exposed bullying and other issues.

"Student comments suggest that supervisors were directly responsible for both the very best and the very worst of what the research training experience has to offer," it says.

CAPA president Tammi Jonas told the HES bullying could often stem from the misguided efforts of some academics to earn publication points from their students' research, especially in the sciences.

"It's not rife, but we have clear examples that it's a regular occurrence on campus, if not a common one; but [it's] devastating for the student involved," she said.

Bond University anti-bullying campaigner Amy Kenworthy said there was a belief the doctoral process had to be exceptionally difficult to produce high-quality academics. "That, coupled with the power-dependency issue, is like putting gasoline and fire together," Professor Kenworthy said.

Whistleblowers Australia vice-president Brian Martin estimated "a significant proportion of students [would be] experiencing bullying at any one time and a larger proportion at some time during their studies".

"Even if the figure is 5 per cent, it's a lot of people and a lot of damage done," he said.

From: http://www.theaustralian.com.au


Anonymous said...

Yup, that was my experience with said academics re Homberger case. They seemed to think that a student needs to learn to take the nasty tutors with the good and that having high expectations isn't a bad thing. Do these people actually understand what bullying is and what it does? I think that most Phd students are able to differentiate between constructive criticism and extreme bullying.
Makes me mad and extremely reluctant to pursue an academic career now....

Anonymous said...

Yes, phd bullying like this is very real. I am currently dealing with similar behaviour with my supervisor. It is really difficult because he holds the power with approving ordering and I cant publish my research without him. He often exhibts bully behaviour and will sometimes only help me if I help him first. This is not what i would expect from a supervisor.

Also in our situation he does not have a direct boss monitoring this behaviour so he thinks he can get away with anything because i need him.

The bullying I have experienced makes me want to quit. I am seriously considering this, im not sure if a phd is really worth of the worry and heartache.

Anonymous said...

PhD bullying is definitely an unfortunate reality and is happening much too often.

I too was dealing with a very terrible supervisor who was a bully and tried discrediting my work among other things.

My solution was speaking to the department administrators who have since removed my supervisor from my committee and are now taking steps to ensure that my supervisor never supervises students again.

Best of luck to everyone in this situation. There is hope.

Adapa Srinivas Rao said...

PhD supervisors specially in cases where students are given scholarships are the WORST. In my mind, the 'profs' always get a lift from the female crowd and have a better time than the males, who pay a bloody price. I am not using hyperbolic language here. I have seen this happen in so many campuses. It drives me sick.

Anonymous said...

I am also in this situation. I have a supervisor planning most of my experiments and is cutting me out of my own research. I am on the verge of quitting but not before discussing this matter with my committee.
My supervisor will not even allow me the time to read papers, yet expects me to know them all :/

How does one deal with a 'bullying' supervisor?

Anonymous said...

I am in the UK, same thing,so the article resonates. The big joke and emancipation for me, the bully moved to Deakin U.

a slice:
= regularily called stupid, ideas stupid etc.
= my study is an international issue, Chinese were referred to on a regular basis as 'yellow slanty eyed bastards'.
= my sample of expats in PRC would be my brother's beer drinking buddies. I would just sit in the pub and interview them
= he read my writing once in 2.5 years.
= He told a fellow student at student presentation day, 'shut up and sit down'.
= I filed a formal complaint. My other supervisor told me, I should just 'take it'.
= two post-docs quit on him
= I could continue but there is no point except the guy is a joke. How does a person with 5 publications get awarded a full professorship?

Doesn't say much about AUS.

PS: He was this way to all guys, but his female student --- no.

It is the only field left where this kind of behaviour is allowed. The other joke, the area of specialty, organisation behavior

Anonymous said...

I was a phd student in the US and went through a similar experience. Its like a hazing process that lasts 4-5 years. Perhaps they were just whipping us into shape, and maybe I learned from it, but at the time it did not feel good, and I'm not sure if its the most effective learning environment. I witnessed heavy handed punishments for the slightest infractions, abusive and insulting emails and phone calls, mutinies against individuals, and a soviet era style code of silence in the face of this abuse. All faculty and administrators would stick together if a student complained, and there was no authority to report them to. Students would not even talk about the bullying because they were too scared. And there was nowhere to go because we were trapped for 4-5 years, dropping out would have meant wasting all that work it took to get this far, and you need them to graduate and sponsor your thesis, and transferring is not an option. They really do have the upper hand. And the males do seem to get it worse.

Anonymous said...

You should definitely do a post about the Plant Science Laboratory (Cranfield Health) of the Cranfield University...
You will be surprised with what kind of bullying phd students have to deal with...

Anonymous said...

Different situation for me but still bullying, female style bullying by older female academics - slanderous gossip, manipulation, put downs about my ability, intelligence and general whisper campaigns. Male phd supervisor apparently oblivious and now sees me as a troublemaker who lacks respect, commitment and ability who will likely threaten his reputation. Department where I have spent the last 8 years and had been one of the highest ranked graduates now closing ranks against me and at best telling me to apologize profusely for unknown behavioral breaches. I am just the latest casualty in my Uni in Canberra, which seems to be particularly hard on females.
So angry and depressed I just want to pack it in and find a job in an unrelated area.

Anonymous said...

It is not only the female academics who do the gossip/put downs/manipulation style bullying... Here there is an arrogant male professor who has a history of doing this to members of his lab - spreading malicious rumours, asking for advice then putting down anything you say, playing off lab members against one another. Noone knows where they stand with him, or what to expect from him if they ask for help. Suspect some of it is due to his lack of current practical knowledge in his research area, and insecurity when his students become perhaps more knowledgeable than he is in their specific area of research...he tries to assert himself by putting them down. If a student complains about the bullying, they are threatened that he will make sure they never work in this field again. People leave with their self confidence in tatters. Some have packed in science altogether because of his bullying....

Anonymous said...

I am so happy and sad to have found this blog. I have experienced bullying throughout my candidature. And I know many others that have experienced bullying, above and beyond criticism. At one stage I was told 'You should feel thankful, it is worse elsewhere' and 'You are too sensitive because you are a woman' and my favourite 'They are a genius, and that is what they do'. There are no excuses for bullying. And covering it with 'misinterpreted criticism' is an excuse, but it is also difficult to prove that there is more than just criticism. Sure, there is a place for criticism, it is part of research. But there is also polite and respectful communication, mutual respect of peer-to-peer relationships and understanding. What is worse having to be silent whilst watching others go through the same thing, knowing if you speak out it could affect your entire career and life, is wrong and very difficult to deal with.

Anonymous said...

Hi everybody,
I am in korea and have the same kind of supervoiser. No matter how much work you do, he will naver satisfied. Also he threat us for cutting scholarship. Its not happen once,it his routine, almost all of our lab member have the same opinion about him..i dont know what to do..

Anonymous said...

I am a PHD candidate and I am a female and I am going through this as well!! It's the only phase in my life when I wanted to be a male! My PHD thesis advisor, after knowing him for 1.5 years as a supportive and caring academic mentor started gradually showing signs of personal interest in me. Since we are both married with 18 years age difference, I interpreted his interest as a sign to "fatherly protectiveness" or something. But a year more into this and I starting to get very stressed and depressed. He has a tremendous power over me, especially that I am on scholarship.

Anonymous said...

I am experiencing similar behaviour, maybe worst because I have actually filed a complaint against my advisor and now he thinks that through retribution and false allegations he can falsely claim that I have been dishonest in my research and wants all the data ( which was provided throughout the five years of my Phd) and he insists that if I do not provide it (again ) that he would file for Academic misconduct. If this is not brutality that what is?

Anonymous said...

Hi! Sad to hear too many histories about this. I am also a student with problems...my supervisor said explicitly to other researcher " I don't care about students, I only care about their papers", and he has demonstrated this in many different ways. Every email I receive from him is to order things, never to ask or to reason, he prohibits me to back to the field to recover my own devices, andI can't talk to any other person beside him. I have no other supervisor but him and he is not even smart enough to answer all my questions... I am really disappointed and I don't know what to do.

Delicate Peach said...

Yes, exactly! All united! Despite my hard work all my efforts seemed to go down the drain. My ex supervisors suddenly wanted me out of the university and my current supervisors don't reply to my emails! The PG tutors are with them! They exchange emails and then shame me over reporting them. They made me wait months before the viva! Invited unknown examiner. I have major corrections to do. Less than 6 months to go. And just two lazy replies saying we are busy.