How common is bullying in grad school?
November 24, 2012 1:31 PM   Subscribe

How common is bullying in graduate school?

I am asking this question because I want an honest answer. I'm curious about what the prevalence of bullying is-- I think this makes a big difference in terms of the quality of life at a place and also because a supportive environment helps with overall career trajectory.

Yes, it's important to choose your advisor--- I have a pretty good sense of people off the bat, although sometimes I'm wrong. But overall what I wonder is how common it is for graduate students to feel dismissed, demeaned, and alone to an extent that is not directly tied to mastering the subject matter.

If there is a sense that the intellectual pursuits of grad school and any thorny interpersonal interactions are tied up in each other, I would like to know that too.

My personal history toward this: nobody should be bullied, but I'm pretty sensitive in general. I am not bullied in my current line of work and am picky about associating with people who put down and demean others; I never join the crowd for this sort of thing. I also was highly, highly bullied, both physically and verbally throughout school and have seen firsthand that university professors too can target their students.

I don't see university ombudsmen as being receptive and would never get engaged in a formal grievance procedure but also want to be realistic about choosing a department and career that limits these experiences. Life is too short to be miserable.

Well, any insight would be helpful! I am ready to embark but would like to hear any caution or stories about the prevalence of this kind of thing in academia.
posted by kettleoffish to Human Relations (42 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
An old coworker of mine said that, in the Classics department where he got his Phd, there was a kind of in-group culture - you were one of the favored students, or you were nothing. That isn't exactly bullying, but I bet it is not too uncommon.
posted by thelonius at 1:40 PM on November 24, 2012 [8 favorites]

What kind of graduate school are you talking about here?

A Ph.D. program will always feel like bullying to some people... someone will always think your work and ideas are crap, and someone will probably not be shy about telling you that. Your advisor won't necessarily be a nurturing mentor: your advisor just wants work to get done in the lab or within his program, and if there's a financial crisis, you can't be assured that he won't cut you loose. None of this is "bullying" in the traditional sense, but if you're sensitive, you're going to feel like you're being picked on: and you won't be directly picked on, it's just that unless you are the valued Golden Child of your advisor, the only person who cares about your work and whether you finish is you. Everyone else will either feel apathetic about it or be aggressive about pointing out who their work is superior to yours.

And you'll be stressed about grad school and your future.
posted by deanc at 1:45 PM on November 24, 2012 [23 favorites]

This is likely subject-dependant. For example, I know the Earth and Env. Sciences department at my university well, as an undergrad, and will be doing a grad program with them as well. Part of the reason I want to do my masters here is because they are some of the most awesome people I know -- but I think the subjects tend to attract people who are more laid back. Whereas the chem department is freaking scary as hell -- but that's full of people trying to get into med school, and I have never met people more intense than pre-meds.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:45 PM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I never went to grad school - my undergrad degree was useless enough, thank you. That said - in my work I talk with, and have become friends with, many graduate students.

This: "how common it is for graduate students to feel dismissed, demeaned, and alone to an extent that is not directly tied to mastering the subject matter. "

Very common. Very, very common.

It's still *school* - and the stakes are much higher.
posted by jammy at 1:47 PM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've seen some really horrifying stuff in my department from advisors. Stuff I'd call gaslighting. Stuff like advisors taking credit for students' work. Yeah, for sure, it can happen. Try to talk as honestly as possible with current students. The first things I say to interviewing students is, my advisor is an amazing human being. She may be too detail oriented, she may make you rerun analyses a dozen times, but she is a good, caring person who knows you're a human being. If you don't hear something along those lines from current students, I'd be wary.
posted by namesarehard at 1:49 PM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

deanc's comment is right on, in my experience. Many people I know (me included) treat social interaction within an academic context as part of the job and nothing more, which means they're on their most professional behavior and not especially interested in petty dramas. Other people approach it differently and invest much more emotion into academic interactions.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:52 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're doing everything right in being selective about who you associate with and trusting your intuition - but you are not expecting your interactions with others to go well.

Having that expectation makes a difference. Not because bullies can sense it and are turned into non-bullies by it. But because you trust your intuition to switch on when you need it.

As for your actual question, I don't have a citation for you. You should assume that bullying is as common in graduate school as it is anywhere. I can attest that there are departments without bullies, for sure.

One thing that seems to imprison grad students is the belief that they're indentured servants totally at the mercy of their supervisors and that all decisions they make are irrevocable. Age and experience tell me this is not so. If the zombie apocalypse hits your department, go somewhere else. If your supervisor is the world's only expert in Andalucian goat horn carvings, find the world's only expert in Galician goat horn carvings and work for them. I don't mean to minimise the importance of getting along well with everyone and in making sure your recommendations are good, especially when you're just beginning to build your track record, reputation and network. Do all you can to be in favour. But you're nobody's slave, and you know where the door is at all times. Right?
posted by tel3path at 1:52 PM on November 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

It was very, very common in my MFA program. Certain professors picked favorites and encouraged meanness (and I don't mean harsh critique; I mean the professors sat there and laughed when one student said to another "this poem is really awful") in poetry workshops and some of that spilled over between students outside of class. Certain individuals participated in this more than others. I experienced a lot of mean girl hazing in my first year which was pretty much gone by my second, when these people graduated. And my program was one known for its friendliness between students.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:00 PM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far- they have been illuminating.

By the way, by bullying I don't mean competition; I realize that will always exist where there are limited resources.

But above and beyond that there are some people who enjoy hurting others-- I have known some professors who really gloried in making students cry or pulling rank on non tenured associates. How common is it to end up with an advisor like that, or in a department where this is tolerated?

Also the stories about cohorts are important too-- that's an aspect of grad school that hadn't really occurred to me in writing this question.
posted by kettleoffish at 2:20 PM on November 24, 2012

Somewhat common.

This is one of the big reasons why it is especially important to pay attention while you are visiting the programs you are applying to for interviews. In my anecdotal experience artistic disciplines tend to have more capability for viciousness than scientific ones, but it really depends on culture of the department and advisor.

I am not especially sensitive to these things but definitely found labs where I realized I had to say fuck no because I'd be miserable.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:20 PM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

What kind of grad school are you contemplating? For a classics department, I can well believe that thelonius's friend described things accurately. But also, there are about 10 departments in the US that generate PhDs (at least competitive ones) in subjects like classics, and the departments' reputations are usually pretty well known. You can pick a school where there is less of that kind of thing-- well, until the school poaches the freak from hell from the very school you intentionally avoided. You will also see people who were never viewed as promising stay the course and get a good job,while the bright star burns out or loses interest. Somehow, though, I get the sense you are not going into some little niche field in the humanities, because people who do that are sort of like moths to the flame. Tell them it's going to suck, and it just makes them more determined.
posted by BibiRose at 2:21 PM on November 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

Competitiveness might read as bullying to you, and graduate school can often be very competitive, and attract very competitive people. This will vary with discipline and school prestige.

James Watson described graduate school like so:
"Take young researchers, put them together in virtual seclusion, give them an unprecedented degree of freedom and turn up the pressure by fostering competitiveness."

Graduate school can be tough because there is a combination of things that might feel like bullying even if (I don't think) it is, as deannc describes, and actual bullying as PhoBWanKenobi describes.

There are some advisors who are bullies, do everything possible to avoid them. And it is possible, most advisors are good people who wish you well. You can't do much about the students, aside from try to assess the departmental culture before you start, and practice your existing skills at engaging with only those you want to engage. All that said: I loved graduate school. I had a great advisor and a good set of peers.
posted by pseudonick at 2:22 PM on November 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

IME, really bad in-group culture and bullying is more common in the humanities, especially the snob humanities - comp lit, cultural studies, philosophy. I've observed several STEM programs in my work capacity, and while sometimes mentors/PIs can be waaaaaay too demanding or pushy, the general climate of the programs is much better. I haven't seen too much of the "taking credit for students' work" stuff either. It seems like the happiest graduate school situation would be to work with a moderately successful but not super-star PI in the middle of their career, either in a STEM program or in a pragmatically-oriented field in the humanities (Sociology seems to be pretty decent, for example.) Anywhere where someone is a star or wants to be a star, or where the super-precise deployment of humanities language is really important (where people will stick the knife in if you use "cyborg" in the wrong sense, or something), or where there's some really pointless orthodoxy (dueling schools of psychoanalysis studied by people who have no interest in becoming psychiatrists but instead want to bring those things to bear on literature, for example) - that's where people will be really mean. Where the stakes are really high (working with the superstar!) or really low (everyone is going to be adjuncting in comp lit in Outer Nowheresville in ten years, and that's if they're lucky).
posted by Frowner at 2:22 PM on November 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

I have never seen bullying between grad students, but in my program there is a LOT of ruthless competitiveness, which includes students stealing each other's work and ideas, and sabotaging each other. It's fucking caustic.

I have also seen a lot of favoritism from advisors that gets to a level of bullying. Publicly putting down one student's work, when it's easy to picture that the same exact result from another student would garner praise. Lack of objective standards, etc.

And I have seen a LOT of people not being treated like human beings. Decisions being made that don't respect their autonomy or huge investment of work, basically treating them like disposable and slaves. I'm not exaggerating.

So, yes, choose your advisor carefully, listen to the rumors, and protect your own work. Also, know your own goals going in, so that you can keep your eyes fixed on that point and ignore the shenanigans around you.

(I'm at a ruthlessly competitive school studying science, so YMMV elsewhere.)
posted by kellybird at 2:23 PM on November 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

How common is it to end up with an advisor like that, or in a department where this is tolerated?

In my experience, the professors were rarely outright in encouraging this stuff. Sometimes they would say stuff that was slightly snarky or passive aggressive but rarely flat-out mean. It was more that they played subtle favorites and didn't do much to discourage catty, cutting, competitive behavior by those favorites. (In fact, those favorites were usually rewarded tangibly with better TAships, etc.) It's easy for me to see now that the way to avoid getting hurt in such an environment is to not participate and not care whether or not your professors liked you--much less the other students--but it's an intense and emotionally trying time in many ways and I certainly didn't have the capacity to disinvest myself until later.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:26 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know about surveys across institutions, but there is not only a big power difference between professors and graduate students, but also in general an environment with a lot of competition for resources (time with professors, access to special equipment, money for conferences and at some schools copies and printing).

Combine that with a job - grad school research - that can be very unstructured, plus bosses who are selected for skills other than personal warmth, and you have an environment with much potential for bullying and general dickery.

Uh, or so a friend tells me.
posted by zippy at 2:27 PM on November 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here are some anecdotes from my time as a grad student in a department that was theoretically very enlightened--a source of cultural critique rather than a target of it.

A young woman once visited my graduate program as a prospective student, and she gave the impression of being snobbish and difficult. A group of students, coincidentally all women, visited the department chair to talk about her while I happened to be present, and they uniformly opposed her admission. But the only reason they could give was that she was as arrogant as you can possibly imagine. The chair and I had observed the same issue, but I pointed out, "This is academia. Arrogance is allowed." The chair LOLed, because it's really true. Anyway, the woman was admitted, and she turned out to be very pleasant, generally modest, and easy to get along with--likely just someone who'd tried too hard to impress or assert herself during her visit.

Who was the bully in that story? Take your pick. Every person in the story is a candidate, including me, but I don't think anyone actually was.

While I was in grad school, several students eventually confessed to me they'd been terrified of me when they first arrived. And I'm pretty sure the main reason why wasn't so much my demeanor as the fact that I was an obvious candidate for being first to observe their flaws or squish them in an intellectual discussion even though I tried very hard to be gentle and supportive.

And the lesson there is I think you're likely to feel threatened even when no one's out to get you. I certainly felt that way when I first started.

My advisor was very experienced but apparently hadn't figured that out about students. He enjoyed clever disputation for its own sake, even if the other person wasn't really playing, and without knowing it, he made an awful lot of people cry. Since the most visible incidents involved women--both faculty and students--he was perceived as a bully. I'd actually avoided taking classes from him until I felt like I could withstand it, and that worked out--he really didn't mean any harm, and our relationship was eventually good enough for me to point out to him when he'd crossed a line. I don't know how much my input helped, but he softened a lot over the years.

Anyway, yeah, it's going to be messy and ego-threatening.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:36 PM on November 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

This completely varies by nation, field and institution. There is no useful general answer if you want to know your own odds of ending up in a situation like that.

The useful thing you can do is to talk, in person or by phone (not in written form) to current grad students at the programs you're considering, and ask them about the culture there, about specific potential advisors you have in mind, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:48 PM on November 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

It really depends on your definition of bullying. Yet this is further complicated by the fact that bullying behaviour is generally defined by whether the victim feels bullied or not.

Two years into grad school (UK, humanities) and I have never been actively singled out, belittled, demeaned or excluded by either staff or cohorts. I've been criticised, and I've felt isolated and lonely at times but I've also never been anything other than supported. Even if I were to be bullied, my university has policies and structures in place so I could have it investigated.

In my opinion a good department recognises that a PhD involves an awful lots of physical and psychological hardship, and prepares for it through providing resources, guidance and support. For instance, every grad student in my department has two supervisors - even though only one of mine has direct expert knowledge of my area - and as a result those truly toxic supervisor-supervisee relationships don't tend to appear.

And yet academia still attracts certain prickly personalities, and I have seen academics (both staff and students) display quite nasty behaviour that I doubt would be allowed in other arenas. I've witnessed some awful flamewars on academic listservs. A friend of mine gave a paper last week, and her supervisor actually asked her - in front of our 20-strong department - 'how would you rate your research question, on a scale of 1 to 10?', essentially forcing her to speak of her personal insecurities in a public forum. It may not be bullying, but it sure didn't sit right with me.
posted by dumdidumdum at 3:38 PM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Competitiveness might read as bullying to you, and graduate school can often be very competitive, and attract very competitive people. This will vary with discipline and school prestige.

Agreed. Bullying is usually about using force to intimidate or coerce. For bullying to exist, it would seem necessary to have a large difference in power. Large child to small child. Boss to employee.

In graduate school, there is deviousness, dishonest, and a whole host of other behaviours that results from trying to locate the best performers in a given group. Bullying does not seem conducive for anyone in this situation.

Graduate school is tough. It's a game of musical chairs and everyone's trying to climb up. That's the nature of the game. That's what it was designed to do.
posted by nickrussell at 3:41 PM on November 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

This completely varies by nation, field and institution. There is no useful general answer if you want to know your own odds of ending up in a situation like that.

The useful thing you can do is to talk, in person or by phone (not in written form) to current grad students at the programs you're considering, and ask them about the culture there, about specific potential advisors you have in mind, etc.

Absolutely this. The most you can get here are anecdotes, which don't really tell you anything about the overall prevalence of anything, since this is not anywhere close to random sampling. It also depends a LOT on your definition of bullying. You will definitely get your work criticized, and often harshly, without placating compliments, but I don't consider that bullying.

(I have not experienced anything that I would describe as bullying in my STEM grad studies but I'm sure it exists in every field, although not all workplaces will allow it).
posted by randomnity at 3:42 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Undergraduate (for me) was a free-wheeling milieu of high-school nerds and outsiders who became fabulous, cool and beautiful overnight and were rewarded for being smart. Undergraduate was all about expansion, discovering gifts and talents, perhaps dropping out and starting a famous band, relationship experimentation, doing all-nighters and meeting many new people.

Graduate school, however, was almost none of that. It felt, by comparison, exclusive, critical, arbitrary and subjective, a strange return to high school values and small-mindness, where competitive spirits were sharpened to a keen point and there was, yes, winners and losers. Amongst my age cohort in various programs there were reports of large numbers of students resorting to anti-depressives and certainly most of us, myself included, experienced loneliness and alienation.

And yes, I witnessed bullying of professors towards students, one in particular was particularly vicious: disparaging other professors and students quite openly and generously. Is that bullying? I don't know, it certainly seemed out of line and those in the line of fire did not have a good time of it.
posted by nanook at 3:46 PM on November 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

(physical science, top-10 but not snobby school, defending next month)

There are two profs in my dept who I would describe as bullies, but toward their own students only. Those students are mostly int'l (and thus not able to suss out the problems by talking with their current students during the prospective visit -- we don't do lab rotations). At least one is actually totally reasonable and helpful on other students' committees, so I think it's about relying on students for data to keep one's own reputation afloat and just poorly managing the emotions surrounding that. The concept of an advisor taking credit for a student's work has no meaning in my field, because if any profs are doing their own lab work, something is totally wrong and weird.

If you're going into a field with laboratory work, the thing to realize is that you will depend on older students -- primarily in your advisor's group but also others if your dept is collaborative -- to teach you how to run experiments and analyze data, in addition to softer skills for navigating the dept. As a senior student I feel that passing on my skills is absolutely part of my job, and I'll give everyone a baseline reasonable amount of help. But I'll spend extra time helping a friend vs. someone who's been around for years and never bothered to chat with me. I expect to receive the same differential treatment from other student/postdoc colleagues. But you know, part of grad school is becoming acculturated to your field and building up a network; old guys collaborate and coauthor more with their personal friends too. I haven't personally seen any forcible exclusion among grad students, but loners don't tend to fare as well. In a dept with serious bullying going on, this aspect could blow up into something pretty terrible.

The other things that's weird is that during the ~5 years of grad school -- if most people enter right out of undergrad and you're in hireable field -- everyone transitions from undergrad mode to professional mode. So maybe you have some fun times at bars with your whole cohort first year, then for a few years people settle into their projects and develop a smaller number of friendships, and a year or two later you run into a girl you haven't talked to much in a few years but once saw running around in her underwear drunk, and she's interviewing for jobs and acts like a total ROBOT to you. And the point of that is: where people are on that continuum changes how they approach making friends, e.g. the sorts of information exchanged to build trust. If someone wants to explain to me how to make professional friends without oversharing before my new job starts in January, that would be awesome.
posted by ecsh at 4:47 PM on November 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

A lot of people here are conflating bullying with other things that aren't bullying.

Also, people love to talk about how [their field] is infested with bullying as no other field, that this kind of bullying wouldn't be "allowed" outside of [their field]. In fact, bullying is most commonly found in places where bullies are at, which could be anywhere. Academics with little or no experience of the private sector, in particular, seem captivated by the fantasy that corporations are pristine strongholds of professionalism and that the moment anyone in a corporate environment says anything that could be construed as discriminatory, the cops come screaming up and clap the offender in jail. The reality is somewhat different and in almost any workplace I can think of, unless there is something going on that you can literally dial 999 about in the moment, bullies are "allowed" to do anything up to and including actual criminal activity, and if you are the victim of any of this, you may find that you're the only responsible person on your side.

So we have to be clear about what your choices are here: go into academia and probably get bullied, or go into some other sector and not get bullied? No. It's, recognise bullying environments early enough to avoid them, and develop personal power for handling and escaping negative situations when you have to? Or, give in to FUD, avoid academia because everyone says you might get bullied there and become a bullied accountant instead because everyone says bullied people have to stay bullied?
posted by tel3path at 5:09 PM on November 24, 2012 [13 favorites]

As another anecdote, I can say there was definitely bullying in my (humanities) grad program, from professor to undergrad, professor to grad, and from grad to grad. And I don't mean competition, but public insults, deliberately making others cry, deliberately ostracizing others from social groups or opportunities. It was very cliqueish (although as the cohorts changed over the years, the interpersonal dynamics changed for the better - a lot of it has to do with the specific cohort at a specific time).

That said, I was able to quickly recognize bullying behaviors and navigate around them - it did mean withdrawing myself socially quite a bit, avoiding classes or collaborations I might otherwise have taken, and sucking up to certain professors, but it enabled me to do my work and get done as quickly as possible. I just stayed all business all the time, did good work, and never had any issues personally. I finished with a master's though, so I can't speak for the full PhD experience.
posted by Ms. Toad at 5:20 PM on November 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have been in and around my current department (where I was a student, and now a post-doc) for nine years now. At any given time we have around 10-15 grad students. We have a similar number of professors. I have known about one instance of bullying of a student by other students (who were in a position of power over her in her part-time job), which led to disciplinary action. I have also seen a certain professor systematically bully his female grad students, some of whom leave the program without a degree, and the rest of whom switch advisors. (I don't think he has successfully seen a single student through to graduation). There has also been a prof-on-prof case of bullying, which led to disciplinary action and early retirement (of the bully).

The first situation is not one people would have seen coming, but there were a lot of unfortunate and unusual circumstances that made it possible (all three students teaching together at two different campuses with different supervisors at each; all three sharing a native language that mean people overhearing wouldn't know what was happening and couldn't act as witnesses; the student being bullied having extremely low self esteem and believing she deserved it; all three sharing an office together (which is actually contra to general practice here which puts a max of two students in an office and aims to have women sharing with women).

So what I'm saying is you probably don't need to worry TOO much about something like that.

But the second case is more common, I think. However, it's easier to see coming. You just need to ask your potential advisor's current students (and past students if you can find them) what he/she is like. Most of this guy's students would warn you off and maybe even seek you out to do so if you don't ask. Hell, I'VE warned off a prospective student of his when she visited campus. So you can probably avoid this situation relatively easily too.

And the third case is one that needn't worry you yet :)
posted by lollusc at 5:25 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Each of us in academia is working from a pretty small sample size, so speculation about how common something might be is going to pretty damn speculative. I did not see and don't believe there was bullying at either my MA or PhD institutions, though at the latter there was definitely an "in" crowd. (The professors did not encourage this, really there were two grad students who were really emphatic in insisting there were people who belonged in the program and people who did not.)

My sense is that genuine bullying is uncommon in grad programs. Not unheard of, but uncommon.
posted by LarryC at 5:51 PM on November 24, 2012

I agree that it's common for competitiveness and high expectations to feel like bullying in a grad school setting.

One reason for that, I think, is that academic culture really makes it very difficult to maintain firm boundaries between your professional and personal identities. For a lot of grad students, their research is who they are and what they do, and so any criticism of their research is a blow straight at the very core of their identity. Which sucks a lot.

In my experience, students do better at maintaining that sort of professional/personal boundary who (i) start grad school later in life, (ii) have a nonacademic spouse, or kids, or some other strong personal connection to the outside world, (iii) get involved and stay involved in a community outside of school, ideally one where they feel like they're doing useful work and helping other people. If research is just one more thing you do in between changing diapers and cooking dinner and seeing friends and volunteering at the soup kitchen, you end up getting daily reality checks that put the whole thing in perspective. You know you're a good person with worthwhile skills and a big support network — and so when someone says your work sucks you can say "no it doesn't" or even "oh, gee, maybe it does" rather than "OH GOD HE JUST SAID MY LIFE WAS MEANINGLESS AND EMPTY."
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:06 PM on November 24, 2012 [9 favorites]

Here's some research.

I was bullied in my grad school program. It was pretty rough, and slowed my progress towards degree by making it difficult to access my department's resources.
posted by spunweb at 6:07 PM on November 24, 2012

> It was very, very common in my MFA program

I don't remember seeing any at all in my MFA program, on the other hand. I can think of one woman who might think of herself as being bullied because she received a lot of criticism in workshops, but that was because she was not writing well for the particular job she was trying to do (she was a fine writer at other times), and because she was hostile to feedback.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:59 PM on November 24, 2012

I don't have experience in this area, but I thought it would be worth mentioning Dr. Kenneth Westhues' work. He is a Canadian professor with a very thorough background in workplace mobbing, especially in the academic setting. He also has a very comprehensive website that might be of interest to you.
posted by livinglearning at 9:06 PM on November 24, 2012

I don't remember seeing any at all in my MFA program, on the other hand. I can think of one woman who might think of herself as being bullied because she received a lot of criticism in workshops, but that was because she was not writing well for the particular job she was trying to do (she was a fine writer at other times), and because she was hostile to feedback.


For what it's worth, I never felt particularly bullied during workshop, but I witnessed it happen to other students. I find the general thread in the answers here--that bullying doesn't actually happen during graduate school but it simply due to sensitive students (particularly women) being unable to take criticism--to be exemplary of a lot of the attitudes of some of the more egregious bullies I encountered. There's a difference between being critical and being mean, but I found those lines were often blurred during graduate school, where the balance of power is fairly horrendously skewed. And it is. Professors can dictate the future and the livelihoods of those they teach. The suggestion that grad students are on the same level, power-wise, with professors who can determine their income, their letters of recommendation and reference, their job assignments, and whether or not they even be allowed to stay in the academy is pretty bizarre to me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:14 PM on November 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

I guess I'm an outlier, but in my (professional Master's) grad school program, there isn't really bullying. Students tend to get along very well and support each other to various extents. Our student population is something like 30% fully funded and 70% not funded at all, so that breeds some generalized resentment, but it doesn't usually get personal. Things get very stressful here, but it almost always fosters a sense of solidarity rather than crabbucketing. When things do go south, it's usually in the form of everyone snapping at each other rather than a select few being picked on.

We do a lot of team-based work, and I will say that some people get a reputation for being hard to work with or low-contributing, and suffer for that. In my assessment this is almost always fairly meted out, and not bullying.
posted by threeants at 9:41 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: PhoBWanKenobi, thank you for pointing that out. Indeed, the research linked to by spunweb defines "workplace bullying" simply as victims' perceptions of having been bullied. There's no other way to study or talk about this phenomenon that believing on the whole people are good reporters of their experiences of it, which I think they are. Some interesting stories here. 'Nuff said.
posted by kettleoffish at 10:02 PM on November 24, 2012

The argument has been made that the structure and goals of graduate school may closely approximate hazing: students are encouraged to be singularly focused to the exclusion of having other things going on in their lives, and are in some sense broken down and re-made in the image of their faculty/discipline. In as much as hazing is a form of bullying, the structural incentives toward this type of socialization in grad school are perhaps a good thing to be aware of before embarking on a program of graduate study. I've never discouraged a student from attending grad school because of this, but I always recommend to everyone who asks for my advice on this that they keep some part of their life separate from grad school. Maybe they have a hobby or volunteer activity that they really enjoy and get a lot of fulfillment from, or maybe some sporting or outdoor activity -- anything that can keep whatever's going on in school from coming to seem all-encompassing, whether what's going on in school is positive or negative.

I think instances of "regular" bullying occur with similar frequency as in any setting? Departments and disciplines that are more insular are probably worse, but the particular cohort that you are studying with can make a big difference. Also, one of the results of the bottleneck between undergrad and grad school that I found is that, while fellow undergrad's opinions about faculty might not have been very well-aligned with my own opinions ("professor so-and-so is terrible" often meant that I would actually get an interesting, challenging class), I learned quickly to listen to fellow grad students' recommendations about which faculty to seek out or avoid. Departments, and sub-disciplines, can vary drastically, so visiting and getting a feel for the specific people you'd be working with ahead of time is a really good idea.
posted by eviemath at 12:28 AM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think its worth making a point slightly different from most here in relation to this part of your question:
I also was highly, highly bullied, both physically and verbally throughout school and have seen firsthand that university professors too can target their students.

This was also my experience throughout school & I came to realize that there was something about some me & some other people that is basically a big neon sign across the forehead that says "PICK ON ME". And anybody with the slightest latent tendency to pick on people finds it hard to resist, even if they're generally decent people. I would suggest that your life in general, including after grad school, would be improved by working on this.

For me the big change came when I became a Christian - I think I got a totally different perspective on myself as a valued, lovable human being. You may wish to address this differently - therapy may be helpful. I'm absolutely not saying that anybody deserves to be bullied, or that it is in any way a victim's fault, but we have to live in the real world & deal with society as it is.

In my case I haven't been bullied in over 20 years, despite being a woman working in competitive & male dominated fields, & anybody I mention my history of being bullied to now finds it incredible & hard to imagine. So, definitely pick a good grad school, but I would also advise doing what you can about any underlying issues, just to improve your life experience in general.
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 12:53 AM on November 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

. There's a difference between being critical and being mean, but I found those lines were often blurred during graduate school, where the balance of power is fairly horrendously skewed.

There is a notorious legend in my department where one professor was holding a small department lecture on her work, which involved computers that could understand/detect human emotions. And one of the examples the professor used was that the computer would be able to detect frustration in a user and adjust the interface and/or provide hints/tips to help the user and make him less frustrated. My advisor chimed in with, "That's fucking bullshit. The fucking computer interface shouldn't fucking make the user frustrated in the first place!" And this was regarded by many of us as a shining moment of a professor who just couldn't filter himself when he felt strongly about something, half in the sense of, "oh, that's our crazy professor!" and half with, "way to tell it like it is!"

If you consider this an amusing story of socially inept professors abrasively pontificating about their opinions while providing good fodder for stories, then you will be fine in graduate school. If you consider this sort of thing to be bullying, then you will have to adjust your emotional sensitivities to make it through.

One thing that I think is important to keep in mind about grad school is that, first and foremost, nobody cares about you or your research. People don't find grad students' research "threatening". At worst, because the process of research involves public presentation of your results in front of an audience, members of the audience will explain to you why you're wrong, in public.

it's an intense and emotionally trying time in many ways

This, a million times. Also, you'll be probably trying to balance off personal/romantic relationships, as well, which just compounds the issue.

Full Disclosure: I once had it out with my advisor and then went home and cried. In part because the chances were good that I was not going to finish my Ph.D. I still finished.
posted by deanc at 6:22 AM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: a big neon sign across the forehead that says "PICK ON ME". And anybody with the slightest latent tendency to pick on people finds it hard to resist, even if they're generally decent people.

Oh, I don't know about this-- I don't think having a tendency to pick on people is that decent. Maybe that's my big neon sign. :)
posted by kettleoffish at 10:11 AM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been in two different graduate programs, an MA in social sciences, and a JD. Oddly enough, bullying was rampant in the MA program, which was technically not very competitive, whereas it wasn't so bad in the super-competitive JD program.
In part, I think it had to do with my being more sensitive during the MA program. It had nothing to with accepting criticism, the bullying came from other students - some of which seemed dead set on putting others down. (I guess I had the neon sign that those A-holes* couldn't resist.) It didn't help that many people in that program felt like it was a dead-end field and, I don't know, they wanted to discourage others from pursuing it? I have no idea, I'm not going to pretend to understand the pathology of a bully.

I had thicker skin when I went to law school so that kind of crap didn't bother me, but maybe others weren't so lucky.

I guess it's the perception that their bullying is effective which keeps them picking on someone continuously. Whereas if someone seems (pretends to be) impervious to it, then it's wasted energy.

*I agree with you. Decent people don't take pleasure in picking on/putting others down.
posted by Neekee at 11:00 AM on November 25, 2012

My advice to prospective graduate students is always to talk to several current grad students before attending a program. That is the only way to get a read on the climate of a graduate program. There are few other reliable signals available. As others have said, the opportunity for problems abounds because of the nature of the process, but most of the problems simply come down to personality. In some cases there are jerky advisors or students, but just as often there are well-meaning but clueless or short-sighted advisors or students who cause the biggest problems.
posted by Tallguy at 12:43 PM on November 25, 2012

Response by poster: Ok. "Be the change you want to see in the world" and all that. Thanks all.
posted by kettleoffish at 6:24 PM on November 25, 2012

But above and beyond that there are some people who enjoy hurting others-- I have known some professors who really gloried in making students cry or pulling rank on non tenured associates. How common is it to end up with an advisor like that, or in a department where this is tolerated?

In the sciences, not that common, unless you are in synthetic organic chemistry in which case vaya con dios. The humanities are tough because there seems to be less official oversight for grad students compared to the sciences, but I have little direct experience there so I can't be that helpful, sorry. But really, just ask other students in the departments you're applying to when you interview - this is something you can get a good sense for during interviews.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:16 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

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