Academic bullying – Experiences with toxic supervisors

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Mental health issues have come to the foreground in academia. The system is prone to the development of mental illnesses, due to the many challenges scientists face, let it be the short-term contracts, lack of funding or the publish-or-perish mentality. In addition, working in highly competitive research areas can lead to the constant fear of being scooped by other groups. Also the voice in your head telling you that you are not working fast or well enough is a well-known companion. Meanwhile, we have to stand our imposter syndrome suggesting we are not as capable as we should be and everyone else instead is a superhero. If the worst comes to the worst, even the working environment itself can be hostile when insecure and often highly narcissistic group leaders use their power and your dependence for blaming, gaslighting and threatening you. We can be lucky when our colleagues do not join them in their bullying campaign. Above all, we are also often separated from our usual support network, for example during a research stay abroad.

Academia already taught me some very hard lessons in this regard, and my mental health really went downhill. We have to talk about toxic supervisors at this point. I had a Phd supervisor telling me I would never find a job (which I did immediately). My postdoc supervisor said I was not worth to be promoted, my character was poor and I would not be a good example for students. I was forced to share first-authorships, silenced at conferences and had to give up talk slots. I got degraded by long letters to HR and was not allowed to enter the lab to work on my own project. Work I published w/o him got belittled. Important information was retained from me, and I was threatened to lose privileges if I would not do this and that. I was blackmailed and my achievements were constantly negatively compared to those of other people. I was not allowed to talk to my colleagues about their projects or join meetings, because my boss was afraid I could have good ideas and claim an authorship that I would not deserve in his eyes. Through all these treatments, I got severely depressed, experienced frequent panic attacks and finally went to therapy and rehab.

What would I advice someone in a similar situation?

-Only talk to people you trust. Dependent colleagues (especially PhD students) are not the best options. To my experience, they finally stab the dagger in your back if they belong to the narcissist’s fan club and only get to see the charming, nice person the PI pretends to be to the outside world.

-Get as much help as possible, especially if a depression kicks in. It can take your life, and this is absolutely not worth it. Leave the place if you can afford it and if you have other options that do not require a reference from the current employer.

-Keep a diary about the bullying actions, emails, conversations etc. This is often the only proof you can collect (but it counts).

-Find support outside work and things that get your thoughts away from this environment. Activate your network to find new options.

-Set boundaries where possible and defend them.

-Don’t give up and know your worth. If you forgot about it, ask former colleagues, bosses etc. to tell you what you are capable of. Can be helpful if you are sitting in a really dark hole.

-It’s not your fault, it is the environment! You are sufficient and whole as you are even w/o achievements!

ALWAYS: If you apply for a new position, try to talk to former staff members or specifically ask the prospective PI to talk to current or former employees in private. If the PI refuses, you know what is going on.

-Check how productive former employees were in this working group you apply for. If constant bullying was happening, then they were probably not very productive.

-Don’t get blinded by the scientific achievements of a principal investigator. He/she needs to be human, this is much more important than a good H-index. In my opinion, “H” should stand for human and really mean something else than it does.

If you now wonder how the story ended: I am still in this job, and my colleagues don’t know the reason for my sick leaves because most things happened behind closed doors and no one would believe this anyway. Of course they have an idea but are too frightened to get involved and to “really” know it. I tried to fight by involving the staff council, mediators, doctors, therapists…but frankly speaking, it only got worse. The more the person felt threatened, the more dangerous he became. We somehow negotiated a silent co-existence. But the ultimate solution was: I applied for part-time and started working on a proposal alongside my work, which eventually got funded and secured me a new position with a (hopefully) much better PI starting soon. Fingers crossed!

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