If you wish to tell someone about your experience, or talk with someone about resources and steps you can take, you can click on this link, which will take you the Disrupting Academic Bullying Referral Form.  It is your decision to include as little or as much identifying information about yourself and/or the parties involved as you wish.  The information is confidential and will be sent to the Graduate Student Ombudsperson. If you include contact information, he will email you to see if you would like to set up a confidential and informal meeting to discuss your experience further.  If you do not wish to meet with him, he will not take any further action, and your report will be used anonymously to track general trends.

Below are suggestions for things you can potentially do to help lessen the negative impacts of bullying on your quality of life regardless of whether or not you choose to go through other channels to resolve your issues. The video is an excerpt from a presentation done by Ombudsperson Bryan Hanson that provides a quick overview of strategies, while more detail is available in the drop downs below.

If you are being bullied, you are not alone. There are people in the Virginia Tech community here to help you.

The Support Resources page has information about places you can go for help outside your department.

However, help may be closer at hand.

Talk to your advisor
If your advisor is not your bully, they could be a good person to talk to about what you are going through.
Below are some actions they could potentially take.  Whether they do or not is up to them, but these are some of the options available to them to help you deal with the problem.

  • Listen to your experience and concerns.
  • Provide some context to your experiences and give you their perspective on whether what you are experiencing is normal for graduate school or not.
  • Depending on who is bullying you and the power relationships involved, your advisor may be able to talk to the bully and ask what their perception is of the situation, and potentially mediate some sort of resolution.
  • Your advisor might be able to bring the issue up the ladder to the department head, program director or the dean of your college and potentially advocate for you if that is something you are comfortable with.

These are also actions that a faculty member who is not your advisor may be able to take if you have a close relationship with them.

Talk to your committee

If your advisor is bullying you, you could potentially talk to another member of your committee, your program director, or department head.

Other members of your committee might be able to listen to you, provide some context to your experiences, and potentially talk to your advisor.  However, many faculty are reluctant to get involved in the relationships between their colleague and a student.

Yet one advantage of talking to members of your committee is to have them hear your perspective.  It may be that they are only hearing your advisor’s side of the story and that may be affecting how they consider and/or treat you and your work.  Sharing your perspective with them may give them a better understanding of the situation that changes how they interact with you.

Talk to your Program Director or Department Head

If switching advisors is a step that is necessary, your program director and/or department head can help with the logistics.

One issue to keep in mind about approaching people in your department is that they are not confidential.  You don’t have much control over what they do with the information you give them or what next steps they take. Ideally, they would defer to you as to what you were comfortable with them sharing or doing next, but this may not always be the case.  

Talk to the Ombudsperson

Another option is to go to the Ombudsperson.  He is a confidential resource and will not discuss your situation with anyone else unless you give him permission.  Therefore, he can provide a good sounding board to talk about your experiences and get some feedback on what your options are going forward.  He can talk you through the next steps that are available and discuss the potential outcomes for different actions.  He can point you to different resources to help you meet your needs or resolve your issues.  He can coach you in communication strategies to help you approach situations or meetings with more clarity and confidence.  He can also facilitate meetings between you and someone with whom you are having difficulties if that is a step you want to take.

Being bullied can make you feel isolated, alone, and create the impression that no one supports you.  Reaching out to  friends and colleagues you trust can help lessen those feelings. Being bullied doesn’t make you weak or undeserving of support and help.

Bullying doesn’t always happen in isolation, it is possible that others have been or are currently being bullied by the same person.  If other students are experiencing or witnessing similar behavior, you may be able to work together to bring your concerns to relevant people in the department or university administration.  It is harder to dismiss the concerns of multiple students, especially if they can show it is a pattern of behavior.

Try to identify people in your circles who can offer different types of support.

  • Someone who can listen.
  • Someone who may be able to offer advice
  • Someone who can advocate for you
  • Someone who can problem solve.

One person may be able to take on multiple roles, but it is unlikely one person will be able to do all of these things for you. Having a support network is helpful, as you can access more people to potentially fulfill these roles.

Finding people to help isn’t always easy.  Your advisor may be the best person to approach first as they should be invested in helping you succeed.  If you are being bullied by your advisor, the graduate coordinator in your department, other members of your committee, and/or your department head are options. Outside of your department, the Ombudsperson can help you work through the possible ways of getting help. The Ombudsperson is a confidential resource so he will not take action or talk about your case with others without your permission.  Dr. Karen Depauw, the Graduate Dean, is concerned about academic bullying, and is someone you can go to for help.

To schedule one-on-one meetings with the Dean, contact Marilynn King (making3@vt.edu)

Bullies thrive on the power gained from causing emotional turmoil for the targets. Eliminating this source of power can be accomplished by confronting the situation and speaking up. Consideration should be made if there are hierarchical sources of power that could compromise the target if they speak up, but if the bully is a peer, the strategy of confronting the bully could eliminate the power gained from bullying behaviors.

Here are some tips to confront a bully constructively:

First, make sure you are adequately centered and you are able to speak from a calm position. Do not engage if you are emotionally charged.

Next, focus on the bullying behavior rather than the individual. For example, try not to lead with, “John, you are a obnoxious and dismissive jerk that is impossible to work with” You may find better results with a statement like, “John, working with you is becoming unproductive. I feel it is difficult to share my ideas when they are flippantly dismissed. I also feel disrespected by not being allowed to speak without interruption. The inability to express my thoughts is compromising our progress and I would like if we could communicate better so I can contribute to the work we are doing.

This simple exertion of your understanding of what is happening and your assertion that it is not ok can lead to the end of the behaviors. Bullies know what they are doing, if even on a subconscious level, and this effort may bring to his or her consciousness that it is not going to be effective.

 

In general, it is a good idea to be mindful and track your interactions with your team members be they supervisors, graduate students, undergraduates, or staff.  It can help make sure all of you are on the same page regarding getting work done, and lessens the chances that something will drop through the cracks.

One strategy is after every meeting with member(s) of your team, send them an email summarizing the main points of the meeting and the things that each of you committed to do going forward.  It can give you a resource to look back on if things are progressing more slowly than expected or if there are questions about work assignments.

Documentation of communication can be especially useful if you are, or think you are, the target of bullying. As we talked about on the main page, some of the ways a bully can target someone are through consistently unrealistic work demands, or work overloading.  They can assign tasks that are ambiguous, contradictory, or that are deprived of purpose. Some may attempt to humiliate their target, sometimes in public. Documenting when and how these behaviors occur can help you figure out whether what you are experiencing is academic bullying.  Keeping track of what work they assign you can help you determine if the workload is unrealistic.  If they use mocking or derogatory language towards you, documenting it can show if it is a one off situation or a pattern of harassment.  Email can be a tangible way to document communications between you and your bully.  Being able to back up your points with documentation can help you have more constructive conversations with your bully and feel more in control.  Documentation can also lead you to a better understanding of how the bully’s behavior would have to change and what boundaries you would need in order to work effectively with them.  This can give you tangible goals when working to resolve your situation.

Being the target of bullying can cause stress related health problems.  There is no one way to reduce stress, but there are resources at the university that can help.

  • Cook Counseling offers individual and group counseling sessions free of charge to students who have paid the health fee.
  • Exercise facilities are available at McComas and War memorial gyms, as well as group exercise classes, pilates, yoga, and rec sports.
  • Finding a new activity or hobby, or taking up one you used to enjoy but dropped in grad school can help reduce stress, give you time focusing on something enjoyable, help you meet people unrelated to your research.  Gobbler Connect can help you find clubs based around your interests.

Having a large professional network is helpful in a number of ways. Expanding your network can help you find allies and advocates as well as minimize the impact of the bully on your daily life.

Being bullied can lower self esteem and professional confidence.  Improving your professional skills can help you build peer/support networks at the university and gain proficiency in transferable skills that will help you find a job in or outside of academia. Realizing that you have marketable skills can help you feel independent of the person who is bullying you and that you are not trapped in your situation.

Making connections with people in your field outside of academia can give you access to people to ask for advice and perspective. It can also give you a network that you can tap to find a career outside of academia.

Joining professional or student societies can be a way of building that network. The Graduate School also offers several opportunities for Professional Development and classes and certificates such as Preparing the Future Professoriate, Preparing the Future Professional, and Communicating Science.

 

Being bullied at work can be more difficult to deal with if your identity, self-confidence, and sense of worth rests on your work. While it can be hard to push back on the idea that you should give your all to work, having a fulfilling life outside of academia can help ground you when situations at work/school feel out of control. Spending time with family and friends outside of work/school and getting involved with activities unrelated to your research can help bring perspective on the things that are important to you.

If needed, Cook Counseling can help you identify aspects of your life outside of work that are important to you and strategies to achieve work/life balance that improves your quality of life.

Regardless of how your situation is resolved, recovering from being a target of bullying can be challenging.  This webpage offers some advice and tips that you may find helpful.

More Resources

Blog Posts about academic bullying and stress in graduate school by Dean Depauw:

More experiences with academic bullying:

https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/jul/28/not-all-phd-supervisors-are-natural-mentors-some-need-training

Avoiding bullies:
Having a bully for a supervisor will negatively affect your graduate experience. This blog post  talks about a toxic mentor and contains some advice on what to keep an eye out for when looking for supervisors.