Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.

If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Graduate School

Being bullied? Here’s what to do

Recognize what’s really going on, enlist support, and be kind to yourself

by Jen Heemstra
November 5, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 44


Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Don't let bullying get the best of you.

I’m being bullied by another student, who is my mentor. When I brought this up to my principal investigator (PI), 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

This topic is one that hits close to home because we all know someone who has been bullied, or we have been bullied ourselves.

Bullying can take on many forms, including physical violence, verbal intimidation, and psychological manipulation. Most workplace bullying is verbal or psychological, not physical. However, the effects of these abuses can be just as devastating as a physical attack. Bullying can make you feel helpless, hopeless, and afraid. This can in turn affect your work—it’s almost impossible to perform at your best when you don’t feel safe. Perhaps most insidiously, workplace bullying is often subtle, leaving the victims to wonder if it is even real or if they are just imagining that they are being targeted.

No amount of career progression allows you to escape bullying, and it can even get worse with each promotion or award. In science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, this is especially true if you are from a group that is underrepresented in these fields. I’ve found that the more successful you become, the more potential you have to become a target for attacks.

So what can you do in these situations?

Recognize what is really going on. Bullies’ actions are usually driven by their own fears and insecurities and have more to do with how they view themselves than how they view you. Being the subject of insults or intimidation does not mean that you have done anything wrong or that you are underperforming. In fact, it may be a sign that you are excelling to the point that your attacker is feeling threatened by your success. You can use this knowledge to reframe the situation and empower yourself by channeling empathy for the person who is attacking you. Recognize the deep insecurity that may be driving the bully’s actions, and contrast that with the confidence you’re gaining from your own accomplishments. If you are willing to do so, you might also consider having a conversation with the bully to try to understand what is driving their interactions—for example, the person may perceive that you are receiving extra attention or opportunities from your PI, and clearing up that misunderstanding could help ease the attacks.

Enlist support. Being attacked can feel isolating, so fight back by seeking the counsel of trusted friends. They can remind you that you’re not alone in the struggle and offer perspective on the situation to reinforce that you’re not imagining the attacks or overreacting. A counselor or therapist can also be a listening ear and provide you with tools to protect yourself psychologically. Most importantly, in this situation, congrats on having the courage to talk to your PI! And kudos to the PI for being responsive to your concerns, even if the response did not resolve the situation on the first try. As you think about a follow-up conversation, you can reestablish mutual purpose by framing the discussion around your research success and how this person’s actions are interfering with that shared goal. Additionally, if other students in the lab have witnessed the bullying, they may be willing to speak up in support. Sadly, because of the power structure in academia, both options carry some risk, so you also need to carefully weigh the potential cost to yourself and your career. If you become concerned about your PI’s response, you can also talk directly to your department chair or director of graduate studies.

Be kind to yourself. Focus on activities that you enjoy and that make you feel strong and confident. For me, this is rock climbing and writing. Engaging in these activities helps me feel more in control of the situation by reminding me that the person who is bullying or harassing me doesn’t get to define who I am or what I can accomplish. It’s also wise to think strategically about how you minimize the impact of the bully on your coursework and research. Harassment creates noise that can be distracting and difficult to tune out. Experiment with different coping strategies to help yourself stay focused on your work, and consider whether there are nonessential commitments that you can drop so you can put the time you need into self-care and the activities that are most important for your career success.

If you find that you’ve exhausted all your options or that the cost of further action is just too high, the best plan may be to protect yourself and get out of that lab as quickly as possible. This breaks my heart. Students in this situation can do all the right things yet still be pushed out of science. That is completely unacceptable and means that faculty have a huge responsibility. We’ll talk about that next month.

Jen Heemstrais 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.



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Nari (November 6, 2019 11:04 AM)
That's a very thoughtful points and advice with constructive steps every body can use. It is indeed more common in this kind of work environment to which every one trying to finish there line few step ahead thinking it really matter? if that is involve somebody else suffer. I advise all our work is to make this world better place? isn't it?
Elle (November 6, 2019 1:10 PM)
"Sadly, because of the power structure in academia, both options carry some risk, so you also need to carefully weigh the potential cost to yourself and your career."

How is it that we have accepted this as reality? Not just in academia but in many aspects of society, bullies prosper as long as they keep playing the game. Why must the bullied take on the onus of weighing these risks, and why must the courses of action that offer them sanctuary from their torment simultaneously come with a cost to their career development?

Bullying can come from miscommunication, whether between individuals or within the bully himself, a deep misunderstanding of one's own emotions that manifests as retaliation against a vulnerable other. When possible, of course it is better to resolve such incidents peacefully with all parties coming to an understanding of one another. But otherwise, there must be institutional punishment for continued and recurrent bullying. The way it is now, a well-off and "successful" bully will get nothing but a slap on the wrist for their repeated harm and discouragement of future scientists. Should this behavior not count against their apparent success, in the form of a lasting and visible penalty? Would this not serve as a deterrent against future bullying?
Gretchen Dandurand (November 8, 2019 3:08 PM)
This topic hits close to home for me. I had worked in 15+ years in both the academic and private sector. Out of all of them, I had only 2 positions where I wasn't bullied. Even when I brought the bully's treatment of me to the attention of people with more authority than the bully, I was reminded of my position as opposed to the that of the tenured professor or boss. I ended up leaving my PhD program with an MS because my 1st and 2nd PI's were both bullies. I didn't have the energy to go find yet another PI and risk being bullied again.

At my final job, the bullying was so severe and I received so little help that I was fired becauae I could barely function. After being bullied in place after place, I was worn out. I became a bigger target for bullies each time this happened - each time I asked for help and received none. There needs to be some sort of checks and balances that prevents this from happening. After not working for almost 10 years, I am trying to build a cannabis education business (it's legal in my state) where I work alone. Even this makes me nervous at times but I have to remind myself often that I am in control. I can change venues if it becomes too uncomfortable working with the person in charge.

I really hope that my case is not typical and that few people lose so much. I wish there was some way to prevent this from happening to others but there isn't. My only suggestion to those experiencing bullying is to get therapy early even if it's your first time being bullied. I waited because I didn't think this was going to happen again and again. I also thought that the faculty would be able to come up with a solution the second time because they had at the first university. Two very poor assumptions. To anyone who is experiencing bullying, I wish you the best.

Sally (November 13, 2019 6:37 PM)
And also if you want any kind of help, do not go to HR. Consult with a workers' rights attorney. HR may know or even be complicit in the bullying. And tell everyone else what is going on. Let people know what the company is really about.

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment