How to Bypass Bullies and Get to Graduation

Graduate students should be prepared to identify and deal with them now more than ever, argues David Mihalyfy.

December 3, 2020
 
 
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Resource scarcity, organizational turmoil, retaliation for not pursuing faculty positions -- all can cause the bullying of Ph.D. candidates. Thus, as COVID-19 lays waste to college budgets and tenure-track job prospects, it’s also likely to spin off its own epidemic of academic bullying.

Even if you don’t think it can happen to you, you still should consider the possibility. Bullying can quickly spread within a program, and forewarned, as they say, is forearmed. I grappled with a couple bouts of bullying during grad school and have since also learned from the many others out there who’ve had similar experiences. Here are my five biggest takeaways, and I hope you might find them helpful, as well.

Know academic bullying exists. Some people are simply unaware that academic bullying exists and thus cannot name their experiences; others are inured to occasional sharp words and unfounded criticism and thus cannot initially identify the drastic upticks in frequency and intensity widely held as hallmarks of bullying. Thankfully, the higher education news media is increasingly supplementing its coverage of related issues like committee management with explicit treatments of bullying. And just knowing that word allows you to locate resources like the New Workplace Institute blog to consider the various definitions and perspectives as you think through your own situation.

I now know that I became a target of behaviors commonly described as part of bullying. For example, when a faculty member turned on me after learning I was no longer pursuing academic jobs, I experienced derisive language, hypercriticism, goalpost shifting (arbitrary changes to project goals and standards), bystander passivity, and mobbing (bully-instigated mistreatment by a group). With this vocabulary, I can now speak in a more detached way such experiences, as well as to broader issues like how programs enable bullying.

People studying and working in academia should also acquaint themselves with narcissism, not for armchair diagnosis and accusations, but rather for potential insights brought from examining different patterns of human behavior. For instance, reading Psychology Today coverage made me reflect on issues of reciprocity and status, and I now hypothesize that my first bully neglected basic project management because they ultimately viewed their personal imprimatur as the hallmark of scholarship and thus the key to an ever-rarer tenure-track job.

Ground yourself in curricular and accreditation standards. To strengthen your position and undercut any administrative refusal to scrutinize faculty behavior, read through curriculum and accreditation standards, and build standard-derived and standard-compatible language into your written interactions. You’d be surprised at how many standards assume a basic level of program and project continuity that can be violated by severe, scattershot academic bullying.

For example, my curriculum stipulated that the dissertation midpoint review “occurs at a time determined by the student in consultation with the adviser,” and Association of Theological Schools accreditation standards required everything from facilitation of “an orderly progression of studies” to evaluation of “teaching competence.” Thus, when a bullying committee member demanded a different process and timing for my midpoint review at my midpoint review, I already had in my possession several instances of correspondence where they previously acknowledged the adviser-determined process.

Accordingly, try to preserve all of the curricular and accreditation standards through downloading documents and screenshotting webpages. That way, in case standards shift or your program attempts to edit them retroactively, you can show which were operative during the bullying you experienced.

Maintain professional best practices. In maneuvering bullying, make sure to uphold standard best practices. You should already be preserving all files, following up conversations with written summaries, giving refreshers on the state of the project when circulating a new bit, running documents by the project head and keeping disagreements constructively “on the issues” with opportunities for everyone involved to save face. Keep on doing that, and an extensive paper trail will emerge naturally.

Bullying can manifest as or with the most random professional malfeasance, so scrupulously keep absolutely everything. Although I did well over all, I slipped up by discarding a marked-up printout of my very first dissertation chapter. Under normal pedagogy it would have been disposable; the chapter’s eventual complete overhaul would render minor wording suggestions moot, and the professor’s major insight about analytic framing was adopted wholesale into all subsequent work.

But my midpoint review proved otherwise. Then, my committee met to holistically review all unrevised chapters written to date alongside summaries of cumulative feedback and needed work. My first bully, however, not only dominated that time together by switching goalposts by procedurally demanding revised chapters, as well as lobbing rapid-fire criticism without giving me opportunity to respond, but they also afterward gave me written comments on just one single chapter, my very first. They had actually reread and recommented on the exact same unrevised text of the one and only chapter that they had already given me feedback on, disconnected from the explicit process and seemingly unaware that they had already performed that task. Everything would have been amazingly documented if I’d been able to line up two different sets of their comments on identical dissertation text.

Also, as part of best practices, avoid language that implies or stigmatizes mental illness when discussing bullying behavior. Judicious words for common faculty deficiencies like “inattentive” and “inconsistent” do not capture the capricious viciousness of bullying, while inflammatory and inappropriate words like “unstable” or “crazy” will only add to your problems and make you cede ground as the reasonable party. Instead, seek synonyms like “erratic” and “abnormal,” or describe concrete behaviors as if you were an anthropologist crisply taking field notes, saying, for example, that a faculty member kept speaking over you and not letting you talk.

Keep your cool. Although a bullying situation is stressful, stay as calm as possible. Just acting normally can sometimes be enough to trigger egregious bullying behavior. For example, after I arranged a committee change to drop the second bully, I sent a standard email thanking them and cutting them loose on the rationale of the project’s emerging need for different expertise. Since my program prized keeping up appearances and since being smart seemed important to that faculty member, I also asked if I could follow up on the helpful feedback they’d previously given me.

Although the bully had previously sometimes not even replied to important correspondence, within a few hours they had copied my adviser on a withering email denigrating my work and rejecting my request. While a nasty situation to experience, it also provided compelling written evidence of something pedagogically awry.

As you keep cool, especially be attuned to times when the bully’s oral criticism outstrips their written. Often, bullies will throw the kitchen sink at you and step out well beyond their expertise, including giving extended feedback on your writing as writing, even when they do not possess knowledge of basic composition techniques or pedagogies. Although typical scholarly engagement usually entails discreetly parrying or glossing over any such askew viewpoints, do consider following up in writing on these kinds of oral pronouncements, to better document their behavior and facilitate dissociation on academic grounds.

Recognize that timing matters. Strategies for dealing with bullies can range from seeking advice and help to a change of committee, adviser or even institution -- ideally relying on goodwill you’ve built up in your program and elsewhere. Many programs even have faculty members who regularly pick up the pieces and take on advisees from malfeasant colleagues. Whatever approach fits your situation, though, remember that it’s not just what you do, but when you do it.

If I were a graduate student now, I would take a hard look at my program, to see if any corner of it harbored extreme negligence or bullying. If so, I would put out feelers to identify a potential adviser elsewhere and explore transferring. Knowing your options never hurts, and you can save yourself a lot of grief by identifying incipient nonsense and removing yourself from an institution that enables irresponsible and abusive professors.

You can also find yourself in a lot better place. One Ph.D. candidate I know discreetly tapped their conference contacts and ended up elsewhere with not only a more helpful adviser but also a massive reduction in fees.

If you’re already at a point where bullying has flared up or others have locked shoulders behind a bully, a very good tactic can be biding your time for an opportune moment -- for instance, initiating a committee change when your bully is absorbed in some other endeavor, or waiting for a new administrator to take office and then sharing with them your situation and select bits of the paper trail.

At the end of the day, remember that you’re preparing to protect yourself when no one else necessarily will. No one has to know about the extent of the bullying or the leverage that you accumulate, except if you choose to disclose it.

Much beyond any bullying, too, it’s easy to feel a sense of loss, whether for a pedagogical relationship unexpectedly and unilaterally perverted, or for a compromise to your well-being -- understandable perhaps only to those who’ve faced not just discrete bouts of anger, like we all have, but also arbitrary and unrelenting humiliations with no obvious path forward and no end in sight.

Yet while it’s nothing that you would choose for yourself or ever wish on anyone else, any experience that’s forced on you can still present possibilities for growth, whether how you treat others, a recommitment to core academic values or a deep-seated personal support for antibullying laws. Part of learning is not knowing where you’ll end up, and even profound educational aberrancies can still teach you something.

Bio

David Mihalyfy (@mihalyfy) received his Ph.D. in 2017 from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He now works in assisted living and maintains a practice as an independent scholar and freelance writer.

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