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