Progress still too slow in dealing with bullying in academia

Posted on: 2018-09-02 17:15:00

Your article on bullying in the academic sector touched on the vulnerable status of PhD students (Report, 30 August). My daughter was forced out of her PhD after months of being belittled and humiliated by her academic supervisor. After seeking help from her university’s support services, she was assessed by a psychologist and found to have an undiagnosed form of dyslexia.

Despite this, she had achieved excellent results at school and a first-class degree in astrophysics from a Russell Group university. She approached her supervisor with suggestions for assistance, only to be told that someone with dyslexia was unsuitable for a doctorate and told to leave. A letter of complaint to the dean of the faculty and head of school failed to even receive an acknowledgement.

From this experience and that of other PhD students we have spoken to, it seems that the status of these young people makes them particularly susceptible to bullying and harassment. On the one hand they do not have the fixed working hours or holiday entitlement of employees, meaning that many feel pressured to work excessive hours to fulfill the often unreasonable demands of their supervisors (my daughter was criticised for taking leave to attend a relative’s funeral and for taking time off to cope with the stress caused by constant criticism of her work). On the other hand they can find it difficult to access the support services available to undergraduate students.

It seems that this group of academics has been overlooked in recent publicity about the mental health of university students. Due to the nature of their studies they are often isolated and subject to unacceptable levels of of stress.
Name and address supplied

 Scientists are no different to other people, except their intellectual abilities may well make them better able to game any system. So it is no surprise that individual scientists can behave very badly. As a postgraduate director responsible for graduate students for several years, I saw the results of this poor behaviour first hand.

I perceive two main barriers to altering these behaviours. The first is that individual graduate students and other early career researchers see no benefit and a whole lot of hassle for them if they complain, so mostly they put their heads down, grit their teeth, get their PhD, or their research paper, and leave for pastures new – in and out of science. The second has been the reluctance of those who are in a position to stop these behaviours to act to mitigate the potential for bullying and harassment, without a formal complaint being made.

Institutions carrying out scientific research must have transparent and powerful structures in place to prevent harassment and bullying by all-powerful principal investigators and not only to give better avenues for complaints to be heard – but also for action to be taken. Changing culture takes time but initiatives like Athena-Swan are slowly embedding a more inclusive and transparent culture.

Finally, it behoves all scientists to call out the unacceptable behaviour which can go hand in hand with the hugely competitive, hierarchical, winner takes all mentality that is pervasive in scientific research, rather than ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. 

Lesley Jones
Professor of neurogenetics, Cardiff University

Source: The Guardian

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