Finding a path forward after experiencing academic bullying

How do you handle a toxic work environment in which you are the target of bullying? Pause, step back, breathe and analyze the situation in an organized manner before taking action.

6 min read
Finding a path forward after experiencing academic bullying

Have you or someone close to you experienced an aggressive or abusive behavior in your workplace that made it difficult (if not impossible) to thrive in your job? In academia, bullying can take on other forms, such as preventing you from working on your project, omitting your name from publications, or verbally insulting you in front of others. I survived academic bullying, and if you take the right actions, you can get through it too.

My advice to my younger self, and to anyone who is the target of bullying, is to pause, step back, breathe and analyze the situation in an organized manner before taking action.

I clearly remember the last day of a conference I attended: it was a clear, cold spring day. Everything about the venue was familiar, as I had been there many times in my “past" scientific life, but this time I was presenting a new project as a postdoc, with a new system, new questions, and in a new country. The two-hour poster session was exhausting, but worthwhile as I won the best poster award. Apart from the joy of receiving recognition, I also received a monetary reward. I needed it because my supervisor did not think that postdocs should be reimbursed for attending scientific meetings. I remember this day very clearly, because it opened my eyes to my dismal work environment. My labmates and I were leaving the seminar room, tired but happy about how the meeting had gone so far, when a colleague congratulated me for the award I had just received. It was good publicity for the lab too. Unfortunately, my supervisor did not agree. My lab mates and I were walking towards the street when he suddenly erupted into a heated rampage against me, and told me that I did not deserve the award and had only received it because the judges know him. He continued by exclaiming that someone else was more deserving of the award, and that my project was a big failure. This experience was extremely embarrassing, as my lab mates were present as well. None of my colleagues said a word, and they just stared at the ground. It was not the first time that something like this had happened. But this time, something inside of me broke. My supervisor had been humiliating me for months and going to work every morning had become painful. I needed to find a way out.

Let’s make this clear: if you find yourself in an unsupportive, or even hostile environment, you need to leave. There are no alternatives. If you are worried about not being able to find another job (either in academia or in industry) without a reference letter from your supervisor, I can guarantee you that this is not the case. There is nothing that prevents you from speaking out. I’m not advising you to start a war, or to complain and do nothing about your situation. My advice to my younger self, and to anyone who is the target of bullying, is to pause, step back, breathe and analyze the situation in an organized manner before taking action. Keep a notebook where you document the interactions you experience every day. Don’t be ashamed to share your experience with friends and peers—does the same happen to them? How do their supervisors treat them? Your peers will drop their jaws while listening to your story because in the majority of cases, their supervisors are great to work with and treat their trainees with respect. Talking with colleagues outside your lab will teach you that being bullied isn't normal and you shouldn’t passively accept it.

Break the invisible wall of shame that sees abusive supervisors as normal and accepted in science. This is the most important contribution we can give to academia to make it a fairer place.

When it has become obvious to you that you should quit the toxic environment you are in to maintain your mental health and to continue doing good science, it is time to start looking around for a more supportive environment. Have a conversation with other PIs in your field. For example, ask if you can be a guest speaker at their lab meetings. This way, you can form new professional relationships and identify new mentors. These mentors are incredibly valuable to help you apply to positions in other labs. You will slowly find your balance again, new allies, and set yourself on the path to interviews in better work environments. For example, I found a great PI in my department who welcomed me in her lab meetings, advised me and wrote me reference letters. At a moment when I was doubting the integrity of my academic environment, she  showed me that I had been unlucky and that there are many genuinely dedicated mentors in academia. Of course, you might think that all of this is too stressful, and that it’s easier to bow your head and accept the psychological violence you are experiencing. But let me tell you: carrying the weight of bullying is extremely heavy on your mental health, and in turn, your daily life. In addition, bad culture is propagated when we passively accept bullying instead of reporting it. There are some exceptions here. You may be working with an incredibly renowned PI, and reporting them could make your situation worse rather than resolve it. In this case, or if you think that the department/institution is not supportive, I advise you to wait until you have a new job before speaking up.

Now that your mind is clear and the problem is in focus, you can consider facing your supervisor to ask them “why”. Why do you challenge me in front of my colleagues? Why did you take my project away from me? Why didn’t you want me to accept the prestigious fellowship I won? This might feel like the most difficult and confronting action to take, but your goal is to have a respectful conversation to explain your feelings and your concerns about your future. You might want to prepare a list of things you want to say in advance. You might also want to practice this conversation with someone who's close to you, to help you choose the right words to be professional, rather than aggressive. In my opinion, one should give the other person a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe they didn’t understand how unfair and unjust they were being and how much you were suffering. They may even apologize! Alternatively, they may tell you that their behavior is normal, and that the problem lies with you. In my case, after I talked to the supervisor in an attempt to save our relationship, I realized this person wasn’t going to change and that it was time for me to find a new work environment.

Don’t get angry if your department or university doesn’t do anything to help you after you reported the abusive behavior. Don’t get frustrated if you see that the abusive supervisor keeps harassing trainees even if you reported their behavior. Bullying is deeply rooted in some academic institutions and it will take time for the whole system to change - remember that some institutes may not want to take action against faculty members who bring in a lot of money. Fortunately, there are organizations like Friends of Sarah and the Academic Parity Movement that are working to end academic bullying. Professor Morteza Mahmoudi, one of the Parity Movement founders, was a target of academic bullying himself and made a huge impact by writing several peer-reviewed articles on the need to change academic culture. On March 16th, the Parity Movement will host a conference on workplace bullying among STEM faculty.

At this point you know the difference between a toxic and a healthy work environment. You left the anger and tears behind, found new allies and eventually landed a new job. You emerged victorious in your personal battle and you should feel very proud of yourself. If you want to step up and fight against discrimination and harassment, there is a last step to think about: help others who are being bullied like you were. Create a community, talk about bullying, write about your experience and reach out to people who might need your help. Break the invisible wall of shame that sees abusive supervisors as normal and accepted in science. This is the most important contribution we can give to academia to make it a fairer place.

I hope this short story speaks to you. None of this will be easy, but I promise you that it’s a journey that will transform you into a much better human and scientist. Even if you choose to move away from academia, you should still be proud of yourself because you were able to handle a very challenging experience. If you want to know more about academic bullying, I suggest that you browse several resources that explain the definition of lab bullying and the actions to take to overcome it.

Margherita Perillo is a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University. She investigates mechanisms of tubulogenesis and germ cell migration using the sea star Patiria miniata. Connect with Margherita via email.

Cover image  by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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