Threatened for making a complaint


After the 3 most horrible years of my life, I contacted the Head of Department in confidence to raise issues regarding the supervision of my PhD. It came as a surprise when I was threatened by my internal examiner. I was told that making a complaint will have ramifications for my career, all academics know each other, things could be made difficult for me, and that I should just walk away with my PhD.

I'm keen to raise the issues I have with my supervisor (not necessarily with an official complaint) because I watched several students before me suffer the same bullying and poor supervision and I don't want anyone else to go through that. I'm now a post-doc in a different field at a different university. Could the academics at my previous university destroy my career?


I'm afraid the answer to that one is a resounding 'yes'. It's disgusting, isn't it? I've been prey to this. I know this sounds defeatist, but I would just drop it. I was quite surprised to find just how incestuous the academic community really is. They could affect your academic career without you even realising it, because it's all done with such strategy and subtlety.


woody, I dont take it too much to heart. If you were staying in the same field as your supervisor he can certainly make things difficult for you by passing remarks and comments about you to his buddies at conferences and so forth. However if you are in a different field I seriously doubt he can destroy your career. As your a postdoc now, your ex supervisor is inconsequential. Ultimately you will be judged on your publication record not on what your supervisor says about of luck


Yes, but there won't be any publication record if they put the ex student on the black list.

Just drop it for now.

And fight back once you've established yourself.


I know how you feel. I was treated pretty roughly by my supervisor and was forced to quit after 7 months of my PhD. I have now heard that he is putting undue pressure on and making life extremely difficult for one of his other students (to quote, somebody told me that this person was close to having a nervous breakdown – but that’s just talk). When I reported this to the college tutors (as a way of reinforcing my case) they asked if this student had actually complained. He hasn’t. I wrote a report about my miserable experience and if any of the other students will complain about him it will reinforce my case.

The professor in charge of pastoral care in the department said to me "well, you're out of the situation now, at least you don't have to go through it with him anymore; somebody else will".


It sounds like you want to do something about it; just like I did (to prevent what happened to me, happening to someone else). And that examiner telling you that you should not do anything about it has probably heightened your feelings of the unjustness of the whole situation.

All I can say is you are so lucky you’ve got your PhD. Poor me, I still need to look for one and I don’t know what this academic has done to my reputation….


I thought I was the only one. I didn't even actually upset anyone overtly - this academic just didn't like me. She has, I'm afraid blocked publications and had really stinging anonymous peer reviews sent to me via email. I am actuallly now frightened to send articles for review. I wish I could be completely anonymous. I think that academia is the worst profession for bullying I've never experienced anything like it. Everything - including the PhD process - is too opaque and students (and junior staff) are horribly unprotected.


This is pretty much what happened to me (control freak, abusive supervisor), but I didnt complain and went along with it. When he got axed (internal politics), I was tarred with the same brush, and am finding it impossible to find work.

However: I wish I HAD made a complaint, because I am in pretty much exactly the same situation I would have been in only without the satisfaction of knowing that I tried to change things.

I am not saying what to do. I do find it interesting though that most of us advise taking the "quiet way" out, and thus guarantee the cycle perpetuating.


This is freaking me out. I am pretty new in acedemic world, and I have naively felt that sudents are very protected. I have also almost complained for some minor mistreatment that I have encountered so far. I'm so glad I kept quiet. I'm also already feeling that academia is almost like an alternate universe, I'm stunned to hear some of the stuff that goes on, it's really really brutal.


I'm serious.

Does anybody feel strongly enough about starting some kind of society/organisation which helps students in our situation?

To be able to give all people a fair crack at academia. To not be bullied, belittled, targeted by people who should not be supervising, least of be allowed to get the job of lecturer primarily because they are good friends with the head of department (i.e.).

I have NO JOB now. I'm desperate to find a PhD because I love my line of work, but am increasingly untrusting of the system.

More and more students are coming forward telling us on these forums of the bad experiences they have: it takes a small cohort of like-minded people to change the way things are.


Science, technology, humanities, art etc. will not grow if supervisors like this are allowed to stifle the imagination of students to gratify their insecurities.

There is no fair and just system allowing people who want to follow a scholastic way of life to blossom, develop and add their special qualities to the weave of scientific/humanitarian expansion. How will these areas grow if there are a majority of supervisors incapable of harnessing the best from their students?

I have loads of time of my hands now... maybe we should make a stand. A proper system in place that prevents all students in academia from this type of treatment. A system that gives everybody a fair crack at producing work that everyone is capable of, under the correct guidance.

I don't think it's too much to ask at all.


But how?

If we come out publicly we will suffer the same consequences as if we made a complaint through the uni. I’m guessing that no academic wants a student or employee that may complain. And is there not an attitude that only less academically able students complain? And if we name the institutions and academics we could end up in court.


Exactly the type of questions we need to address if we create a movement against bullying in the academic setting.

"If we come out publicly we will suffer the same consequences as if we made a complaint through the uni."

Why does everyone in the cohort have to come out publicy? Only one person needs to do it on everyone’s behalf. Everyone else can stay anonymous unless they don’t mind going public.

"I’m guessing that no academic wants a student or employee that may complain."

Whistleblowers have a bad time and they have a bad reputation, don’t they? But they survive somehow…

"And is there not an attitude that only less academically able students complain?"

Yes. I must be a less academically able student. I won prizes for coming top every year of my four year degree, yet when I went into research I was told I was incompetent. I can’t quite figure it out… can you?


"And if we name the institutions and academics we could end up in court."

Do we have to name the institutions? Can’t we say we have evidence of it going on in institutions across the UK/wherever?

Anyway, that’s why we need to discuss these issues. Your questions are exactly the type of questions that need to be addressed.


And, quite frankly, taking a stand for being treated unfairly is a sign of being assertive and taking control of the situation... a skill that a good student/prospective university lecturer needs to have....