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!

Manuscript relationships – 5 reasons why it’s complicated

“How is the status of your manuscript?” … “Well, it’s complicated.”

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Sounds like I would talk about a serious relationship with another human being. It is serious! But why is it complicated? What makes manuscript writing such a roller coaster ride?

  1. Manuscripts do not come alone. They are usually attached to supervisors. And co-authors. And wannabe co-authors. And colleagues asking about them. This means loooots of expectations or even time pressure from several parties. I would actually love to write manuscripts just for the sake of it. Because I can and enjoy science. Who pays a salary for that?
  2. Manuscripts are born to be criticized and to provide tons of work. Once the whole thing is done, and they have left you for a while after submission to a journal, they come back like a boomerang with lots of work attached again. Honestly, minor revisions or direct acceptance of a manuscript are so rare, they finally didn’t make it into this article. Better to expect the worse.
  3. The longer you work on them, the more they withdraw from you. Dozens of edits from co- and senior author, reviewer suggestions that want to be considered…your own words and ideas diffuse away like a sweet smell. The increasing alienation heavily correlates with the length of the publication process and the number of journals that have seen the paper. Upon publication, the paper and you won’t notice each other anymore. Really sad story.
  4. The relationship is a false friend. Many times I thought “I can quickly write this together” just to learn again that a quick paper does not exist, due to 1-3. Anyway, next time I still think the same again. The existence of a quick paper is just so damn seductive and illusive that the learning curve has to stay flat.
  5. The hardest part: manuscripts typically exist on a computer screen. There is nothing to scrunch, to tear or to burn during the process of writing. All the feelings have to stay with the writer, cause nobody can afford buying a new laptop every week. Screaming at them could be a solution – but poor colleagues or home office cat. Sometimes I miss the old pen-and-paper days.
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Working from home

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The current Corona situation forces many of us to work from home. This is especially a challenge for scientists that have to get their lab or field work done. Teaching suddenly needs to be implemented online, and students are complaining that the schedule is different from their normal curriculum. Home office is also a struggle for those whose work is otherwise not compatible with staying home, for example, because they cannot afford a computer or need special technical equipment.

In addition to that, working from home comes with additional challenges posed by our loved ones: kids and pets demand our attention and keep us away from work. It’s noisy, because mechanics are working in the neighbourhood, and the walls are thin. Other homeworkers might be alone, because contracts in foreign countries hinder their travel and personal contact to family and friends. Loneliness and fear of contracting the disease take their toll and pave the way for mental illnesses but psychologists are overstrained. The fridge with alluring snacks is far too comforting and close to the home office desk. Since the usual way to and from work is missing, we sit too much and start to feel it by gaining weight and suffering from back pain. In short, our productivity is likely to suffer and cease tremendously.

Women might be especially affected by this, because children, cooking and household are still too often our business, as is satisfying the boss’s needs, who impatiently waits on the other side of the telephone conference. Even in the middle of a pandemic, constant productivity might be the (inappropriate) expectation. I feel like everyone should be more relaxed when it comes to deadlines in the current crisis. Pressure is so inappropriate right now! There is no immediate solution other than raising the awareness that such a situation requires a period of adaptation and development of new coping strategies. What helped me a lot is giving the day a reasonable structure. Scheduling meetings frequently helps to stay in contact with boss and colleagues. Making a plan what I will work on at a particular day helps me to stay focused, and I also schedule some time for a walk or run outside to get some daylight. I also use a short, daily meditation to calm my mind, and I have a small diary to take note of even small accomplishments and pleasures to get my focus on what is working well. I so much hope everyone is doing fine and found ways to cope with the special circumstances. But if not, be sure, that’s okay as well.

What matters more: talent or persistence?

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What are the characteristics that make women successful in science? Is it networking skills, intelligence or talent? I actually doubt it. In my opinion the most important qualities to “make it” in science are persistence, selling yourself and some luck component related to being at the right place at the right time.

If you are highly talented but not very persistent you will likely become frustrated and give up after the first few rejections, which happen so frequently in academia, and your talent will mean nothing anymore. Knowing the right people, i.e. networking, can be helpful, but again what would it matter if you give up quickly. Imagine you would email a professor whose research you admire and ask for a job and she/he does not respond. Your email is probably just one in hundreds at that day, and she/he just did not notice it, was too busy and forgot to answer. A persistent person would not throw in the towel in this situation and instead try again, next time sending more high priority emails or use the telephone.

You might be highly intelligent, but if you doubt yourself at the same time (which is likely, because high IQ people tend to be more insecure by nature) you will not convince anyone. Stupid people, on the other side, think they are capable of everything. Selling yourself appropriately and be confident no matter what happens is half the battle. Unfortunately, it seems that women are often too honest about their missing capabilities and show their insecurities more often than men. If a job advertisement requests for six criteria, women would not apply if they miss one. Men would apply if they just meet a single one (or even none). Who will most likely get the job? This is also a vicious cycle since rejections will lead to more insecurities will lead to more rejections, the whole process perpetuates itself. A female, very talented friend of mine is on the job market since 1.5 years because of this. On the other hand, I saw really dumb people making their PhDs and beeing hired immediately.

My summary of this is that intelligence is nice to have, but for a career in science, it’s not mandatory. Selling yourself and be persistent is way more important.

Or as Noble Prize winner Jennifer Doudna recently said: “Walk into a room like you own the place. A man would do that without compunction”.

Women in STEM, who are your mentors?

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Do you have anyone you can look up to? Are these people great humans, great scientists or both? Do you know them in person or are they distant idols? How did you find these people and how do you stay in regular contact with them?

What I have learned so far is, you can meet great mentors everywhere, and it is so important to have them. One person I would label with being a mentor is a former colleague that knows me very well. He is one I can always ask things like “is this still normal?” or “what would you do in this situation?”. Some are people I got to know during conferences had special knowledge about something I am still working through. For instance, other scientists that start applying for faculity positions (like I do) or that already got the grant I’d like to apply for, or moved abroad as I am planning to do. I also follow some people on twitter, that can teach me important lessons, e.g., how to be more confident or how to talk more openly about mental health issues.

This is a personal recommendation, but I commend to find support far away from your current working environment, and with “far away” I rather refer to spatial than topical distance. It is important to get input that is different from the one of your current colleagues and supervisors and also crucial to get different and neutral opinions that are unbiased by self-interest. As a postdoc, it also happenened to me that students approached me to ask for help, and it is a very good feeling to be asked for support. Don’t fear rejection at this point!

Ideas to find a mentor:

  • Attend meetings, conferences and summer schools whenever possible. At conferences, there are sometimes sessions for early career scientists. I commend use these to get in touch with people at the same career level.
  • Check for mentoring events and programs in your university or graduate school.
  • Find people on social media. It might be a good start to look for someone who has expertise in the area you need help.
  • Approach scientists in your field via email. Ask science-related questions or questions about a paper you like. Ask for collaborations, joint grant proposal writing etc.

Unspoken expectations

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What I realized is that there are many unspoken expectations towards women in science that many women probably adapt to without even notizing the inappropriateness, since they never learned it the other way. From my experience, it is for example very common that female researchers are exprected to arrange birthday and other presents for their colleagues, to keep offices, labs, shared kitchens and social rooms tidy, to serve guests with coffee, actually to be the utility man for all obnoxious “small” jobs that need to be done, and that men apparently can’t do that well. And the dangerous thing is, if you don’t learn to say no at the very first instance (saying no is another important topic we should talk about later), the job sticks on you forever.

I actually started to refuse some of the above-mentioned expectations when I started on my current job. Not in an egoistic “I won’t help anyone” way, but in a way that demonstrates clear boundaries. Like, if my male colleagues do not feel they need to contribute to these jobs, I will not feel responsible either. Of course, I was critizied and trying to be manipulated with peer pressure to do the things anyway. A very common thing is that you are labelled as “egoistic” or even “anti-social” (it really happened to me!). Being labeled that way is just a means to make you act their way, because people do not respect your boundaries. At this point, many women tend to think they are not okay, feel guilty and tidy up the office to be likable again. I can just commend to take the labels and use the cleaning and present-buying time for science (like men do most of the time without being labeled). Setting and defending boundaries will just give you more respect in the long-term and people will stop having these expectations at some point.

What are your experiences in this area?

The CV of failure

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You constantly hear people talking about their academic successes, let it be in the workplace or on social media. The cool conference they visited abroad, the paper they published so easily, and the job they got despite 500 high-potential competitors. It’s very easy to hear and read about what worked well. But no one talks about failures and how long publishing that last paper really took. A while ago, I started writing a “dark CV”, a Curriculum Vitae of Failure so to say, which is all about the rejections I received during my career. After all, these rejections show that I at least tried to be successful, they prove dedication to my work, and persistence despite my work being rejected and that’s why I found them equally worthwile not take note of.

I am early in my postdoc, so my dark CV is probably not as long as the one of a tenured professor but I am working on it ; ) The dark CV reaches back to my postgraduate studies and right now it contains:

Rejections for:

  • Summer schools (2)
  • Manuscripts (9)
  • Jobs (3)
  • Grants including travel grants and fellowships (4)

But isn’t this awesome? It means, I hit the paper-submit button 9 times! Who cares about the outcome 😉

I would be interested to hear about your dark CV! What was the longest time it took you to publish a paper? The longest period to successful job application?

It would be great if we could handle our failures the same way we show off with our successes. And be proud of them comparably.


She in STEM admin

A platform for women in STEM

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Dear Shes in STEM

This blog is for all women in STEM no matter which career stage you are: Everyone from undergraduate to professor level is welcome to participate. I feel the need for a platform to share our experiences in the work place, including:

  • Academic work culture
  • Everyday challanges in STEM work
  • Women in leadership
  • Women in male-dominated fields
  • Role models and cliches
  • Diversity
  • Mental health
  • Toxic work environments
  • Work-life balance
  • Mentoring (finding and being a mentor)
  • Networking
  • Pregnancy and motherhood
  • Challenges in times of Corona

I am so much looking forward to have comprehensive discussions on the abovementioned topics, to learn from each other, to provide support to each other. I will start by sharing some of my everyday experiences.


She in STEM-Admin

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