One sees signs across many campuses encouraging people to “say something” if they “see something,” but what does that mean for graduate students? Many graduate students experience some form of abuse, but we often feel helpless to do anything about it. We sense that something is wrong with us rather than the institutionalized patterns of derision, infantilization, neglect, and exploitation. To make matters worse, a blanket of silence shrouds this abuse. Those who are brave enough to address the issue are often suppressed or dismissed. Until we can bring about structural change as the next generation of scholars, we need to focus on supporting each other, finding individual solutions, and pushing our universities to provide greater protection.
In my own case, after many months of fruitless and unnecessary work, constant denigration of my mental competence and even my character, I was forced to give up my research fellowship and find a different advisor who would oversee my last comprehensive exam and direct my dissertation. Through the university Ombudsman, I contacted the associate dean of the Graduate School, who was incredibly helpful and was willing to back me in my department, and I am fortunate to have a supportive guidance committee, colleagues, friends, family, and husband who helped me navigate months of paperwork and uncertainty. Finally, I found a new advisor who has made the transition as smooth as possible, and I have been able to move forward in my degree.
However, I know that is not the case for everyone. In doing some research for the post, I ran across numerous accounts of graduate students who were forced out of their programs because they had no way to redress the attacks and could not find any alternatives that would allow them to continue. The problem is even greater for women, who are all too often harassed sexually by male professors and peers. To shed light on such abuse often means sacrificing one’s career. The long-term solution lies with us; we can begin to change the culture of academia one department and class at a time by holding each other to higher standards, but we will need administrative and professorial allies to confront current injustice.
If you are dealing with abuse of any kind, please know that it is not your fault. If someone you know is going through a similar experience, please let them know that they are not alone. My colleagues provided the support and encouragement I needed to get through a very difficult situation.
- Form graduate student support groups. Contact your counseling center for materials that will maintain a positive focus for the group and address the issues that come up.
- Contact a counselor to help you deal with the negative mindset, lack of self-confidence, and shame that often result from abuse.
- Share what is happening with trusted friends and family who can provide some balance to your perspective and remind you of your many strengths.
- Contact your Ombudsman, Graduate School, graduate director and/or department chair, and trusted professors who will maintain confidentiality. These people will help you determine the best course of action and provide the support you need to see it through.
- Save emails, record conversations, and document instances of abuse to protect yourself and provide evidence if requested or necessary.
Some Resources Online:
- Spotting the Signs of Emotional Abuse
- How to humanize higher education and reduce human suffering
- Surviving a Bad Advisor
- Grad Students’ Live Journal
- “My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition
- PhD education and mental health: A follow-up
Also be sure to check out your counseling center’s website for other helpful information and support groups that might already be available.
“No one, ever, under any circumstances, deserves to be humiliated, undermined, insulted, shunned, marginalized, ganged up on, or even spoken to harshly. If it has happened to you, you did not cause it to happen. And you are not alone.” 
“Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.” Leonardo da Vinci
“All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men [or good women] do nothing.” Winston Churchill.
[Image by Flickr User TheJudge310 used under Creative Commons License]
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