Escaping Bad Academic Advisors – 7 Things You Can Do As A PhD
Contributing Author: Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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