On academic bullying

Today we look at bullying in academia with Dr. Sherry Moss, PhD from Florida State University, and Benson Pruitt Professor in Business and Professor of Organizational Studies at Wake Forest University.

David: You wrote “that only a few confront their bullies either by speaking up about injustices or explicitly stating how they expect to be treated. This can improve well-being, but it is risky.” After more than 3 decades of experience in STEM departments, I find that bullies thrive in environments where caution is encouraged, and I think this is a basic mistake. I think we need a culture change where we encourage students, postdocs, and junior faculty to speak forthrightly about bullies, even directly to them, a tall order no doubt. How do you react?

Sherry: Ideally, targets of bullying would not only confront the bully but also feel comfortable and supported when they report the bully to institutional authorities (e.g. department chairs, HR, ombudspersons). Unfortunately, evidence suggests that this does not happen. Targets are fearful of retribution from bullies which can take the form of poor recommendations, threats about revoking lab positions or work visas (in the case of international students/post-docs), or encouraging others to shun the target. And many institutions take the side of their star researchers and grant producers because they don't want to lose them. Or worse, they do nothing at all. At the Academic Parity movement (, we are working to (1) raise awareness of the extent and forms of bullying in academic science, (2) provide support for targets of academic bullying and (3) encourage institutional change through encouraging all stakeholders (e.g. funding organizations, institutions, individual scientists) to hold institutions responsible for cultivating a safe and healthy learning environment for budding scientists.

David: You wrote that “Institutions should conduct exit interviews of lab members”. That seems like an excellent idea. Do you know of any department in any field where this has become institutionalized?

Sherry: Some institutions do have exit interviews for graduating/departing students but it is not always clear what is being asked. This is a question worthy of further exploration and there is much to be gained by examining existing practice and content and recommending items that directly address the experience of bullying.

David: I find letters of recommendation to be an excellent way for spiteful and backstabbing mentors to easily end the careers of their supervisee and have argued against them. Is there a substitute that is compatible with the empowerment of young scholars?

Sherry: This is a particularly vicious problem and there is little relief. Due to the nature of scientific inquiry, students must work for years in a lab to perform the necessary investigation to produce a stream of research and/or dissertation worthy of graduation. It is very difficult to easily transfer to another lab without having to completely start over and lose years of work. Thus, graduate students are particularly vulnerable to bullies because the alternative of leaving is particularly costly. It is difficult for me to imagine a strong substitute for a glowing letter of recommendation from one's PI.

David: On average, my experience in STEM has been that If you don’t resemble your mentors and you don’t have the inclination to accommodate, you tread on shaky ground. I have fallen through the thin ice and had to change venues a few times but ultimately survived. But I came away with a strong sense that this would not have been the case if I were female. Can you describe your experience climbing up the academic ladder?

Sherry: I do not work on research about academic bullies because I've been a target. One of my research areas is abusive supervision and I see this happening in academic science. But your suspicions are correct. When a PhD student/post-doc, for example, doesn't "look" like his or her PI, he or she will more likely be the target of abuse. According to our research, females are not necessarily more likely to experience specific forms of abuse, but they have a lower threshold for what they consider to be abusive, so they are more likely to report being targets of bullying. International scholars are more likely to experience specific forms of bullying found in academic science such as threats to cancel their visas or lab positions. Those studying in foreign countries are particularly vulnerable to the abuses of their leaders due to the precarious and temporary nature of their time in country.

David: Thank you Professor!

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