Bullying by supervisors is alive and well – now is the time to tackle it

The arrangements that trap PhD students in toxic relationships with abusive supervisors must be reformed – here’s how, says Timothy Ijoyemi

Timothy Ijoyemi's avatar
University College London
11 Nov 2021
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Supervisor bullying of PhD students is a stain on universities and higher education

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In recent years, a chorus of former PhD students have broken their silence over abusive behaviour suffered at the hands of their supervisors. Their horrifying accounts variously relate being belittled and humiliated in front of colleagues, having supervisors explode with anger upon hearing of scientific setbacks, even supervisors sullying their students’ reputations in the eyes of prospective employers. The toll of this sustained torment on students’ mental health can be devastating, with reports of anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide having emerged.

Supervisor bullying deters talented students from pursuing academic careers. It can also compromise academic integrity by pressuring students to falsify data to avoid provoking backlash. This is a lose-lose situation for all of academia.

To make matters worse, the unprecedented demands of the Covid-19 pandemic risk diverting attention from nascent efforts to address supervisor bullying precisely when many of the conditions that feed into it, such as work frustration and economic inequality, have worsened. More optimistically, the state of flux created by the pandemic also presents an opportunity to finally get to grips with this issue requiring bold and urgent action.

But why focus on supervisor bullying of PhD students when bullying affects academics at all levels? While all forms of bullying must be eradicated, the power imbalance of the student-supervisor relationship makes students uniquely vulnerable to bullying from superiors who can destroy careers before they’ve even begun.

Indeed, once a student has progressed to a certain point in their PhD, their supervisor is usually so intertwined with the project that they are virtually indispensable to its completion. Students jumping ship partway through their PhD are likely to lose access to essential resources bound to their existing supervisor, including research funding and access to crucial lab equipment, not to mention their supervisor’s expertise. Any student raising the ire of a malicious supervisor also risks forgoing the glowing reference and authorship credit on papers that could be pivotal to landing their first postdoc. It’s little wonder that so few PhD students report their experiences of bullying.

The arrangements that trap students in toxic relationships with abusive supervisors are something that universities and other stakeholders can and must work together to reform. A key focus must be making it easier for students to change supervisor partway through their projects. Here, funders could make provision for finance allocated to PhD students to be transferred to a new supervisor if bullying has occurred. Where this isn’t possible, universities should have a fund available to plug or mitigate funding shortfalls that accrue to students decoupling from abusive supervisors.

Furthermore, investigative committees should have the power to force offending supervisors to continue providing access to equipment or other resources needed by a targeted student to complete their project, with conditions around this carefully set to eliminate opportunities for reprisal – for example, mandating that the former supervisor be absent during specified access times.

Any effort to ease supervisor transition must be paired with a robust anti-bullying policy that sets out disciplinary action to be taken against supervisors found to have bullied. Consequences for repeat or particularly egregious offenders should be severe, ranging up to dismissal.

Research has found that reporting of academic bullying is low largely because targets doubt that it will lead to meaningful action. To inspire greater confidence, anti-bullying policies must be communicated to incoming PhD students as a prominent part of their induction, with clear definitions given of what constitutes bullying, how complaints will be investigated, what disciplinary actions may result and what measures can be taken to minimise negative impacts on reporting students. To increase confidence further, at least one example should be given of a previous case where a complaint was upheld with a resolution favourable to the targeted student.

Ensuring that investigations are conducted fairly is essential to earning supervisor and student support. As such, investigative committees should be made up of individuals external to an accused supervisor’s department. This would help avert conflicts of interest that could otherwise impel investigators to protect or sabotage an accused colleague.

Beyond the university itself, there’s much that can be done to tackle supervisor bullying. Funding bodies should follow the lead of the Wellcome Trust by attaching conditions to their grants that allow funding to be withdrawn from supervisors found to have bullied. Where this occurs, funding should be transferred to another principal investigator from the same department to reduce impacts on others funded by the same grant. Funders could also collaborate with universities to obtain records of academic bullying by grant applicants and factor these into funding decisions.

Gatekeepers for academic metrics, including those that publish institutional rankings, could also collaborate with universities to incorporate bullying records into their assessment criteria. This would benefit gatekeepers by driving up standards in the institutions on which their existence depends, while those institutions would benefit from outperforming competitors on a metric bound to influence student enrolment. Most important would be the benefit to students now belonging to institutions better incentivised to root out supervisor bullying.

The stories of supervisor bullying that have emerged in recent times are a terrible stain on higher education. It’s past time for the multi-pronged effort needed to reform a system in which bullying has been able to thrive. In the ruins of the pandemic, opportunity for drastic change abounds. It would be grossly unjust to the next generation of PhD students if inaction prevails.

Timothy Ijoyemi has more than 10 years’ experience in higher education. He has a passion for equity, diversity and inclusion, and at UCL School of Management he researches and supports on various projects to improve student and staff experience. 

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