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Jen Heemstra on 3 things faculty can do to prevent bullying

Don’t shut your door and hide under your desk; you can help

by Jen Heemstra
December 1, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 47


Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Put a stop to bullying.

I’m being bullied by another student, who is my mentor. When I brought this up to my principal investigator, they removed this student as my mentor and addressed the situation by telling the student to stop. However, the bullying has continued. I am afraid to complain about this again to the PI because of fear of retaliation. This other student is very well liked by the PI, while I don’t know where I stand. I really don’t know what to do.—Anonymous grad student

Grad school comes with enough challenges—dealing with bullying shouldn’t have to be one of them. Last month, I offered advice on how to cope with bullying. However, students in these situations can do all the right things and still have bullying damage their careers. I think faculty can agree that this outcome is unacceptable, and this month I want to focus on what we can do to help.

If you’re like me, the amount of formal training you received in conflict resolution before starting your faculty job is exactly zero. And the mere thought of wading into a conflict may make you want to shut your door and hide under your desk. Despite these challenges, I think we need to recognize that this is a part of our job as faculty and that our students are counting on us to get it right. Ready? Let’s dive in.

Don’t be the bully. Just as yelling the phrase “I’m not angry!” in the middle of a heated argument exposes a deeper reality, we should all stop and pause for a moment when our inner voice claims, “I’m not a bully!” We may live much of our lives feeling powerless at the mercy of reviewers or funding agencies, but we do have significant power when it comes to managing our labs and mentoring students. I certainly have moments when I use that power in a way that I later regret or when my words cross a line from helpful coaching into mild aggression. If you don’t recognize the times that you are doing this, then it might be happening more often than you think. So how do we prevent this? One approach is to solicit anonymous feedback from the members of your lab. Our group does this twice each year. Ask for examples of times that you were a supportive mentor or handled a situation well and times that you could have done better. For the latter situations, think about what you can do differently in the future.

Be aware of your blind spot. Unless you spend most of your day physically in the lab, then there are many conversations you are not part of. Moreover, some members of your group may act differently around you than around their peers. If bullying is occurring, you are unlikely to witness it in person. Each of us also has a blind spot because of the groups that we identify with. People’s identities—including their race, ethnicity, and gender—influence the way they are treated by others, and people in certain groups are especially susceptible to bullying. A member of your lab who is from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, is LGBTQ+, has a disability, or is a woman is more likely to be targeted. Additionally, that person’s experience may feel magnified, especially if no one else in the lab is from that demographic group or if your institution lacks appropriate support systems. We can’t always remove our blind spots, but we can work to correct for them. Take initiative to learn about the challenges that individuals from underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics face, and if a member of your group reports bullying, first aim to understand the context behind that person’s experience. Ask questions and listen to the answers with an open mind to build your understanding of the situation and that person’s experience. Ask what you can do to handle the situation in a way that empowers your group member.

Don’t go it alone. Faculty might not have been trained to handle these situations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn how. The knowledge and resources you need are out there in the form of books, podcasts, and short courses. If you’re not sure where to start, pick up a copy of the book Crucial Conversations, which provides a road map for how to have difficult conversations and resolve challenging situations. You can also seek out help and advice from those around you—a colleague or friend can be a sounding board to explore multiple perspectives on the situation, and a mentor or coach can help you formulate a strategy to stop the bullying and resolve the conflict. Perhaps most importantly, keep the lines of communication open with the members of your group who are involved in the situation.

By listening and taking action, you have the power to transform someone’s grad school experience and provide a pathway for them to stay in science.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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Elle (December 3, 2019 11:19 AM)
Jen, another great article! Too true about faculty having no real training for management or mentorship. I loved the concrete suggestions in this article, including soliciting anonymous feedback* and getting some outside reading. Would that every faculty across the world were required to read your writing and engage in real internal reflection on their behaviors and how it can affect their students.

But seeing as that's not the case, it does give me pause. I'm sure you'll agree, the faculty members reading articles about bullying are the very ones who care about the issue and are already trying hard to be good mentors. Those who don't care about the issue......won't read the article. And who will make them?

Jen, do you see a solution for this without change coming from, well, the money? It would be great if this could be a self-correcting problem with faculty leading the charge...but somehow I'm just not convinced that that can happen. Call me a pessimist.

*On the matter of anonymous feedback, sometimes a response to this is "but a PI will easily be able to sniff out who's writing what, so true anonymity is impossible!" What's your take on this? As someone who's attentive to her students, do you find it easy to determine which of your students is writing which comment?
Vi (December 4, 2019 10:18 AM)
On the anonymous feedback: In my opinion this ONLY is effective if students (or subordinates) trust that their advisor or boss will really treat as anonymous and won't try to figure out who said what or ask for more clarification. (That's the exact situation some of us at work are in. Boss did "anonymous" survey and now wants people to come and talk to him about their critical responses...)
s (December 16, 2019 11:07 AM)
The anonymous tactic is kind of sad. It shows that those individuals have not developed effective communication skills in order to confront someone privately and it means there can be no revealing discussion or conversation between both parties in order to clarify what actually occurred and resolve it. Confronting someone can be done safely, but it is a skill that has to be learned while growing up and it is not a valued skill taught in public schools. People also have to learn to pick which battles they will fight, lest they become known as complainers.

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