Bullying supervisors - what really is the best strategy to deal with it?


Just wanted to get people's thoughts on this.

Several of my lab mates are bullied by our supervisor. I use this term because the people affected tend to be the ones with less confidence, who don't answer back and don't stand up for themselves. Other people (including me) have a good relationship with this supervisor so this issue doesn't affect everyone.

If this happens to you, what is the best way to deal with it?

1. 'Put up and shut up' so that you can leave with a good reference, decent PhD and some publications

2. Tell the person directly that you don't appreciate being shouted at and made to feel worthless, in the hope that they will stop

3. Tell the department head or some other people that you want the person dealt with in some way, bearing in mind that this is likely to have repercussions for you?

Changing universities, departments or supervisors isn't an option in these cases for various reasons.


Certainly not 1 or 3.

I will start with 3 because this is the most serious mistake (probably ever, that a subordinate can make... in any organisation with a top-down structure of hegemony). I will then move on to 2 which is the second most serious mistake (out of the options you have given us).

3) In any political situation marked by vertical power structures, all subordinates have to respect the chain of command.

This is because in any conflict situation the person with the most power wins.

If a subordinate goes above a line manager's head by reporting him/her to his/her superior this is the equivalent of political suicide. Effectively you have threatened his or her position in the organisation by threatening him with a very powerful weapon (relative to your line managers position in the hierarchy, i.e. their boss). NEVER DO THIS. NEVER EVER. If your line manager believes you have done this he/she will do everything in his/her power to destroy you. If you report your line manager to someone with more power than them they will take this is a direct declaration of war. As your line manage has more power than you, you will be crushed/terminated. End of story.

1) 'Put up and shut up' does not work either, it communicates acceptance of the treatment, feeds his/her feeling of power, makes them want to control you even more, and destroys your self esteem. Your supervisor may not even be aware that they are bullying you. Most of the time they don't care if they are or they are not, they just want results with minimal effort. Being passive is not a good choice because it does not resolve a negative situation. It perpetuates it and therefore increases its potency. Passiveness will destroy you from the inside as you develop more and more the feelings that you are worthless resulting in chronic depression.


2 is more like a solution.

The relationship between a supervisor and a student is not always a symmetrical relationship.

This is because the supervisor has more power than the student.

He/she has a monopoly on knowledge/power and resources.

A good supervisor cares about students, fosters relationships of mutual respect, altruistic regard and concern for the student.

A bad supervisor does not. A bad supervisor is selfish and inauthentic. A bad supervisor only cares about personal advancement.

If you have a bad supervisor and want to influence how they treat you, then you have to win power/leverage. You have to find out exactly what they want and give it to them in drips and drabs so that they become more dependent upon you. Then when you know they are hooked, you pull it away from them.

If they start to treat you better in the hope you will give them more of the good stuff - then you have won.

The balance of power has to be shifted in your favour.

One way to do this is to build up a network of support where researchers shift dependence away from the supervisor/student relationship so that the supervisor becomes almost redundant while still giving the supervisor a half decent amount of what he/she wants. Then the supervisor is within your power.

Personal aside: on my Master's course there was a Lecturer taking one of our tutorials. He has lots of power within our University because he wins lots of funding. He is egotistical and arrogant. He is condescending. He asked the class their opinion on something. No one answered out fear of being ridiculed. I gave an extreme and radical answer. He laughed at me and condescended me. I looked at him directly in the eye and said: "your opinion bores me". The class gasped. He blushed.

Then he winked at me and smiled.


I had a sociopathic lecturer who decided to use me as a target. I told a lecturer about the full on abuse I had. Some bullies won't listen to you, for them it is a drug. They won't change, but the only thing that can stop them for a while if to have some sort of consequence for their behaviour.

Chances are whatever you do anyway, the bully will still do it! Even worse for me as they had just become head of department. You're half screwed really. (I know I maybe am as I can't get a job or a job studentship) :(


Purchase a cup and print the following picture on it...
Place it on his table and leave a note "From ALL of us" :-)


Option 2 is the best approach.
In standing up to someone, you do need to come across as someone worthy of their respect, rather than as a victim. Huxley's anecdote was hilarious and right on the mark.


Thanks all.

It is a hard one. I wonder if option 2 is even possible really when the students are that afraid of the person. I don't think they can speak up for themselves like some other students can. Also, manipulating someone to change their behaviour is difficult in this situation too.


I would go trough all 3 steps.

At first I would put up and shut up, thinking s/he in a bad mood, under pressure for a work ecc (even if s/he "bullying" only me). If this behavior doesn't stop, I would talk with my supervisor, trying to figure out why and kindly asking to stop. 3rd step is essentials if things don't change and this bullying behavior starts affecting your work.


I am going through the same thing, I finished another one of the disastrous committee meetings yesterday and instead of being supportive, I was ridiculed in front of the other members. I am just in shock because it feels like I am the one targeted in my lab. I have spoken and done everything I can. I feel like I need extra data to prove my worth. Death seems like a happy place than facing this every single day.


Try to remember that this is not your fault Chopsticks. No one should ridicule anyone. You could have all the data in the world and it won't make any difference. It is not about your personally, it is about horrible people picking on you to feel better about themselves. They haven't matured since being in the playground at school.


Thanks you Tree of life. Just hoping that this nightmare will end.