Cheeky Logo
Ready To Get Hired?
Apply To Book A Free Call With Our Transition Specialist Team

Escaping Bad Academic Advisors – 7 Things You Can Do As A PhD

I shoved my way into the single-person bathroom.

Then I locked the door and shed a solitary tear.

It was the first time my graduate advisor had yelled at me – in front of the entire lab, no less!

I only cried a little, but for a scientist like me, it felt like a pretty big deal.

I looked in the mirror and laughed at myself, feeling like some kind of adult baby.

A few minutes later, I brushed it off and returned to the lab.

Then I worked harder.

In grad school, working harder always seemed like the answer.

Getting yelled at in public by your superior?

I figured that this was just an early lesson in “real life.”

I thought that I had to put up with harsh treatment – after all, my PhD depended on it, right?

Besides, my advisor (let’s call him Stanley) was probably going to apologize to me.

I figured Stanley was going to pull me aside and explain what a bad day he’d been having – that he would promise to do better from now on.

In reality, he started treating me worse.

It was like he owned me now – Stanley would yell at me, call me names, and play weird games.

His favorite tactic was refusing to give me any guidance on my project – then telling my committee that I never listened to him.

But here’s the worst part: Through some kind of loophole in my department, Stanley was also the chair of my thesis committee!

During committee meetings, I would present my work, answer questions, and then ask Stanley how close I was to graduating.

He would just stare at me blankly.

To my despair, none of the other committee members were able to help – Stanley was the chair.

Everyone seemed either too afraid or too busy to help.

Is this normal?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Now, obviously, I escaped with my degree in hand.

But over the years, I’ve discovered that many other graduate students have had similar experiences.

I’ve spoken personally with incredible numbers of industry PhDs, graduate students, and postdocs – they’ve either been through this or they’re currently going through it.

Why Academic Bullying is a Big Deal

Abusive, bullying academic advisors will ruin your chance at a satisfying career

Academic abuse is no joke.

The University of California’s Mental Health Committee reviewed a variety of examined trends in mental health, and some of what it uncovered is disturbing.

For example, a UC Berkeley study of 3,100 graduate students indicated that nearly half of respondents had suffered an “emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affected their well-being and/or academic performance.”

Worse yet, almost 10% reported that they had considered suicide sometime within the last year.

Are these reports deeply saddening?

Of course.

But they are not surprising.

Too many graduate and professional students are at risk of isolation from campus support, and there are too few systems in place to protect them.

At a minimum, you’ve probably seen this in action – or worse, you’ve been targeted by it.

The Workplace Bullying Institute documents a series of common abuse tactics that will likely sound familiar:

  • False accusations of errors
  • Disregarding satisfactory or even exemplary work
  • Stealing credit for someone else’s work
  • Abusing the evaluation process by lying about someone’s performance
  • Ensuring the failure of someone’s project by deliberately avoiding collaboration – not signing off on work, not taking calls, etc.

PhDs have heard this story before.

Due to their commonplace nature, terms like “gaslighting,” “systemic abuse,” and “PTSD” have become dark, well-trodden lanes along the highway of academic parlance.

7 Ways To Manage An Academic Bully and Come Out With Your PhD In Hand

Is an academic superior treating you like something they need to scrape off the bottom of their shoe?

Academic abuse may be appallingly normal, but you deserve better.

Getting your PhD should be a rigorous and trying process – it should demand your best.

But it should NOT be akin to suffering the cruelty of a schoolyard bully.

If your academic experience has been drained of joy by a sadistic advisor, professor, or PI, there is still hope.

PhDs are smart, inventive, and committed.

Start protecting yourself from abuse.

There are 7 things you can do to improve your situation, and it’s time you put forth the effort to stand up and make your own future.

1. Keep your goals a secret.

In my own case, I made the mistake of revealing too much.

As soon as I told my advisor that I wanted to move into industry, he was done with me.

He withdrew his support and did everything he could to block me from graduating.

Now, tip #1 doesn’t apply to nice advisors or other superiors with whom you have good rapport…

But generally, one of the worst things you can do is to tell them about your career aspirations.

Especially if those aspirations involve anything other than being just like your advisor after you graduate.

That advisor probably doesn’t make much money, and your plans might trigger their insecurities.

As you work toward your degree or as a postdoc (the latter endeavor is a bad idea even if your advisor is a nice person), keep your dreams to yourself.

Share them only with supportive peers and loved ones – not with an academic bully who will take out their insecurities on you.

2. Get started on a project you can fully own.

Academic bullies can make you feel powerless

Find a side project of some kind.

It doesn’t have to be an amazing or lucrative pursuit. For example, you can:

  • Freelance as a science/literature-informed writer
  • Tutor other students
  • Start up a personal blog

Working under an academic bully can make you feel completely powerless – it seems like they hold the keys to your future.

You may feel like you can’t move forward without them.

But you can.

Take back control – don’t ask permission, just do it.

Even a small pursuit–so long as it’s totally unrelated to your bully–can help provide a sense of independence and autonomy.

A part of your life they can’t touch – sometimes, that’s all you need to stay sane.

Students often fear getting in trouble for doing anything outside of the classroom or lab.

No one is going to arrest you or kick you out of school for having a hobby or a small project on the side.

You’re allowed to live, and your advisor doesn’t run your life.

3. Utilize strengths to your advantage.

I wasn’t one of those intellectual savants in graduate school.

When I began my graduate studies, I didn’t have an extensive knowledge base in my field, nor a long line of publications.

I actually felt a bit felt guilty because of this.

I underestimated myself.

Of course, my advisor would use these “weaknesses” against me whenever possible.

My mistake was to waste a good deal of my own time trying to fix these perceived deficits.

Fortunately for me, I eventually decided I’d had enough.

I decided to forget about any shortcomings and instead focused on my strengths.

I was a good writer and public speaker, and I liked running experiments.

So I just did those things as prolifically as I could – I pumped out a bunch of data, and I volunteered to speak at as many seminars and conferences as possible.

Eventually, my strengths started overshadowing my weaknesses instead of the other way around.

I noticed, my advisor noticed, and so did a lot of other people.

Play to your strengths and build up your confidence – this probably won’t stop all the abuses you suffer, but it’s a lot easier for an academic bully to harass an insecure student.

4. Record your experiences however you can.

Be sure to document academic bullying for possible legal action

In difficult situations like suffering under a bully, record-keeping is key.

If the time ever comes for you to prove to a higher authority that you’ve been mistreated, you’ll need hard evidence.

Every email between you and your advisor is kept on a server at your University.

Your advisor is likely saving all the emails that you send them – especially if they don’t like you.

My own advisor did this.

When things started going sour, he would print out or reference these emails during mediation meetings with my department.

If a higher-up is bullying you, the very first thing you should do is document it.

Back up your emails on an external drive that you own, or forward them to a personal email address.

Keep a daily journal of what happens, take notes on your phone – whatever you need to do to keep a hard record of how you’ve been treated.

You never know when it may come in handy.

5. Work within the academic system.

Most academic institutions have been around for a very long time.

They’ve developed a dense and complicated system to keep things running smoothly, and to keep the institution from getting sued.

But the system is too bureaucratic – it’s become so dense that students and postdocs often feel very alone once things take a turn for the worse.

When you’re being bullied in academia, the key to improving your situation is to use the system that’s in place.

Those people above you who are trying to hold you back?

They’re secretly hoping you’re too brainwashed to go above them.

Don’t be afraid to go right to the head of your Department and/or a variety of deans until your problem is solved.

Additionally, you can read through your department’s Graduate Student Handbook as well as the overall Graduate School Manual.

Back when I was a grad student, buried somewhere in the middle of my own department handbook was a line that read,

“All students are to graduate in 5 years or less.”

That was exactly what I needed to see.

And in the grad school manual, I found an entire list of requirements that every advisor had to follow.

This list included things like ensuring a safe and comfortable working environment and always supporting each student’s progress.

This information was nothing short of a game-changer – it gave me massive leverage during the mediation meetings I had to attend.

This kind of system work is not illegal, and you can’t get kicked out for it.

The more attention you bring to what’s going on, the better.

6. Start networking immediately.

Graduate school and PhD studies are not merely good for experimenting and reading papers.

They’re also a great time to learn how to network.

Go to seminars, journal clubs, meetups, or whatever you can find that’s similar to these gatherings.

Reach out to people in industry and people at other universities.

If an academic bully is abusing you, your first instinct might be to isolate yourself and sulk.

But isolating yourself just gives your advisor more power over you.

Think about this: Would you rather be mugged in broad daylight, or in a dark alleyway?

You want people who can help you – you want a strong network with people who recognize your talents.

Don’t cut off lines of communication – open them!

Increase the number of channels you have to work with, get louder, and always move toward your greater goal.

You won’t be stuck under this bully forever, and when the time comes, a great professional connection can be just the thing to let you swoop out of the bully’s academic domain.

7. Work smarter – not harder.

Sometimes, working harder is the worst thing you can do.

A lot of high-level academics are overachievers, and they’ve worked really hard to realize the dream of having an advanced degree – and then using that degree to positively impact the world.

The problem is that when you have a bad advisor, this “overachiever” mindset can work against you.

If an academic bully starts abusing you, don’t work harder under the false impression that they’ll start showing you kindness.

The hard truth is that some advisors will treat you like dirt simply because they think it will make you work harder.

Never chase the approval of an advisor who treats you unfairly.

And stop being afraid of conflict – you’re not going to lose your position.

The only way that you’ll lose it is by doing nothing and letting the system overpower you.

No one is coming to save you. It’s all up to you – and that’s okay! You can handle it. You deserve to be treated with dignity while pursuing your degree. Follow these 7 steps to managing an academic bully, and you can make the best of a bad–and thankfully, temporary– situation. Keep your goals a secret; get started on a project you can fully own; utilize strengths to your advantage; record your experiences however you can; work within the academic system; start networking immediately; and work smarter – not harder.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

Book a Transition Call
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly



Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Similar Articles

5 Miscalculations That Are Holding You Hostage In Academia

5 Miscalculations That Are Holding You Hostage In Academia

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

As a PhD student, I felt more and more lost the closer I came to graduation. That’s because I had started to doubt that I knew what I wanted anymore. You could say I was torn, but that would be an understatement. I was absolutely wracked with indecision. My original plan had been to continue on in academia.  I was going to apply for a postdoc.  Then on to Assistant Professor.  And so on. However, I was starting to see a real pattern emerge among the PhD graduates I knew. I liked to check in periodically with those colleagues and…

Is Cheeky Scientist A Scam? Who Shouldn't Join The Association

Is Cheeky Scientist A Scam? Who Shouldn't Join The Association

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Is Cheeky Scientist a scam?   Has anyone here had any experience with the Cheeky Scientist Association? Is Cheeky Scientist worth it?  What’s the deal with Cheeky Scientist? Is Cheeky Scientist legit? PhDs are trained to be critical.  In academia and in life, every decision they’re faced with is made with extreme prejudice. Examining facts, collecting resources, and determining what is a trustworthy source of information is one of their biggest strengths.  PhDs have superior critical thinking skills, so it makes sense for them to carefully consider any investment – even if it’s an investment in themselves. And in almost every…

Should You Delete Your PhD From Your Resume? The Answer May Surprise You

Should You Delete Your PhD From Your Resume? The Answer May Surprise You

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you have a PhD, you’re overqualified for an industry job. PhDs are lab rats and can’t understand business. You can’t get a job without industry experience. Do any of these sentences sound familiar to you? Have you been looking for an industry job unsuccessfully and have reached a point where you ask yourself if your PhD has any value whatsoever? These sentences are myths, commonly said by either academics who don’t understand anything about industry, or by other job candidates who don’t want to compete with PhDs. Hiring managers for PhD-level industry positions want the best candidates possible. After…

4 Skills PhDs Have That Employers Are Desperately Seeking

4 Skills PhDs Have That Employers Are Desperately Seeking

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

The number of PhDs wanting to transition out of academia increases every year. Initially, most of these PhDs were recent graduates and postdocs.  But as the crisis in academia has gotten worse, we are seeing a lot of adjunct and even tenured professors wanting to leave. They feel professionally unfulfilled in academic positions because they are overworked, work in uninspiring roles, and/or are paid marginal academic stipends, fellowships, and wages.  Far too many PhDs are unable to find any meaning or joy in their academic careers, which negatively impacts both their professional and personal lives. Unfortunately, many of these PhDs end up…

The Exciting (or, Dreadful) First 90 Days Of A New Job. Here's What To Expect

The Exciting (or, Dreadful) First 90 Days Of A New Job. Here's What To Expect

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Like many PhDs, I thought I could jump into my first industry position ready to hit the ground running. Much to my surprise, this was not the case.   During the first few months of my new position, I felt like I was drowning. Everything I thought I knew about my field, how research is conducted, and how companies operate was turned on its head. I was not prepared for this major shift, and it showed. I waivered between trying to impress my managers and sitting mute in meetings, intimidated by everyone in the room. If I had known what…

The Inside Scoop On The Industry Onboarding Process

The Inside Scoop On The Industry Onboarding Process

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Nothing could prepare me for the shock I received walking into my first industry onboarding experience. Literally, everything was different from what I had experienced in academia. The processes, the culture, the pace – absolutely everything. I also had no idea what onboarding meant. I heard the word tossed around but, to me, it was just the process you went through to get all the mandatory paperwork out of the way. That was so far from the truth. My first onboarding experience lasted almost 6 months. Yet, throughout that whole process, I had no idea that I was still being…

The One Productivity Hack Every PhD Needs To Get Hired In Industry

The One Productivity Hack Every PhD Needs To Get Hired In Industry

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If your job search isn’t producing results, perhaps you’re doing too little. Or, just as likely, you’re doing too much… too much of the wrong things. You may think “If I just spent more hours of the day searching and applying for jobs, I’m sure to land a job eventually.” But investing more time into a job search without a strategy is time wasted. An effective job search strategy is one that conserves our most precious resource: our mental energy.   Protecting your mental energy is the one productivity hack that every PhD needs to get hired in industry. As…

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

3 Factors PhDs Must Consider When Deciding Company Fit

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you recently started your job search, you probably feel the pressure of proving that you’re a good fit for the industry roles you’re applying to.  You have to carefully craft your cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile, and prepare for countless interviews just to prove you’re  qualified for a position.  This pressure can make you feel that employers hold all the power, and the only thing that matters is convincing them that you’re the best candidate for the role. Don’t let this pressure make you neglect other key components of a successful career, like company fit.  You’ll likely accept…

8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

8 Work Qualities PhDs Should Assess When Planning A Career Move

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

If you have a PhD, you’re among the 2% of the population who has committed to push a field of knowledge forward.  That makes you one of the most innovative people in the world. This is something special. As such, you deserve to work in a position where your tenacity and ability to solve problems are out of good use. Where you feel satisfied and are rewarded for your job. That’s why I encourage all PhDs to look for an industry position, because academia is a dead end where dreams go to die. However, you have to be strategic when…

Top Industry Career eBooks

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

63 Best Industry Positions For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the best 63 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.

AI & ATS Resume Filters

AI & ATS Resume Filters

Isaiah Hankel

In today's competitive job market, understanding the impact of AI is crucial for career success. This involves ensuring your resume stands out in the digital realm, mastering your online presence, and being aware of how AI assigns reputation scores. Discovering how to leverage AI to your advantage is essential, as it plays a pivotal role in shaping professional opportunities.

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.