Abusive academic supervision is unfortunately extremely common in doctoral studies. Defined as “sustained hostile behaviour from one’s academic superior” (see Tepper et al., 2017); typically involving “ridiculing, threatening, blaming, invasion of privacy, putdowns in front of others as well as interference with [the phd process]”, it is frequently devastating for students. As it typically occurs out of the blue, and can escalate very fast, it often leaves students confused, and in doubt as to their own capabilities. It also decimates their mental health and their relationships, and can lead students to medical leave, non-completion of doctoral studies, and long-term psychological and economic harm. Abusive academic supervision is never acceptable, and contravenes the Chalmers Code of Conduct!

Examples include, but are not limited to, the supervisor:

  • Sending demanding or demeaning emails;
  • Making personal criticism, e.g. personal criticism of work, but also about private life, appearance, etc.
  • Criticizing the researcher in a demeaning way personally in front of others, e.g. reminds the researcher of past mistakes;
  • Setting devaluating tasks, i.e. tasks below usual tasks;
  • Displaying aggressiveness aiming to limit researcher activity; e.g. threats on contracts, etc. that exceed their supervisory authority,
  • Setting tasks exceeding the capabilities of the researcher; e.g. setting impossible deliverables or standards.
  • Shunning, such as keeping the researcher out of group activities and group life, including social activities;
  • Depriving the researcher of work tools, e.g. not providing the same as to other researchers, including computers, workspace, etc).
  • Depriving the researcher of work rights, including vacations, weekends, right to private life, participation in social activities of the department, etc.
  • Being highly controlling, including using coercive control, e.g. using a critical or threatening tone in supervision meetings, removing the right to speak or setting apart from group, shouting, lecturing, etc.
  • Demoting, e.g. making unfounded warnings and disciplinary threats, withdrawing or threatening to withdraw funding and/or supervision, threatening to terminate employment and/or visa, demotes authorship on papers, etc.;
  • Putting pressure on the researcher to resign or to switch doctoral studies to another university
  • Displaying unwanted sexual behaviour (having a “#MeToo” moment);
  • Etc.

Any of the above feel familiar? Get in touch. The DOMB can help in cases of abusive supervision, and has helped in a number of cases already.

Tepper, B. J., Simon, L. & Park, H. M. Abusive Supervision. Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 4, 123–152 (2017).