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What Every Target of Workplace Bullying Needs to Know

Working With An Unsupportive Supervisor - Part Two

by Timo

Continued from Part One...

Custos left from the party around 23. I escorted him to the door for hand shaking. His facial expression was shocked and disrespectful. Hand was so sluggish that it was difficult to shake.

Next time I saw my Custos was two days after the defense. When I arrived his room, his face turned red and his face show disgust. We had a very short conversation, since he was hardly able to speak anything.

When the supervisor discussed with other people about my work, he appeared to unilaterally focus on its negative aspects such as the thesis being late.

About 5 weeks after the defense, a laboratory engineer, who had a long experience about salaries, called me. She was angry and depressed. She had tried to raise my last salary due to me to become a doctor, as was the common practice of the laboratory. My supervisor had, however, refused to do so. The meaning came clear. No thanks in the end.

After the defense I had meet the retired professor and another one of the pre-reviewers. They had started to behave in a peculiar way (avoiding eye contacts etc.).

The behavior of my supervisor is characteristic for workplace bullying /1-4/. The question is not about a bad day or a bad week, but a persistent "pattern" of mistreatment. The bullying was “subtle”, which is typical for academic environment.

The timing of bullying was worst possible. After all, I had just recovered from the depression caused by the rejected articles. PhD ceremony happens only once in a life and an identity of doctor is a life-long one. Custos has an important ceremonial role. Pride of the thesis, if successfully defended, is part of academic culture. One may compare the situation to weddings, where the priest bullies the bride and bridegroom.

After the defense I suffered sleeping disorders and flashbacks several months. I was not able to read my PhD thesis for many years. In post-doctoral parties I feel myself uncomfortable near the number one table, where the Custos and Opponent sit. My symptoms are typical for chronic posttraumatic stress disorder, a common consequence of bullying /1-3/.

Later, the supervisor has explained his behavior by accusing me of hard stress caused by the thesis delay, although he had promised my graduation for the head of department by the end of the year. The timetable had, however, become very challenging due to the supervisor himself. When we finalized our last article, he prohibited in sending it to the editor prior his comments. We waited the comments several weeks. Nothing happened. Finally, the retired professor decided to send it without supervisor’s permission, since defense timetable would otherwise collapse. The pre-reviewer was late, because of waiting the final version of the article.

The end of research branch

Soon after my PhD defense, I left the university. The laboratory had a long tradition in our research field, so I had took care about its continuation. I guided one master´s thesis maker and purchased one project related to the topic. The supervisor hired the same student for the project, whose results he had earlier abandoned.

We had had good experiences about utilizing master´s thesis in scientific articles. I, therefore, made a scientifically ambitious plan together with our financier for the thesis worker. The supervisor rejected the plan. He also discouraged us in making any scientific articles.

The licentiate student made her research without any instruction a long time. This naturally hindered her studies. Finally, she asked help from the project partners and from the retired professor. With the aid of them she wrote two good scientific articles. The project partners planned to carry on the studies and purchase more financing. The supervisor told, however, that he was not interested to continue. The laboratory even withdraw from the project prior its ending. The licentiate’s thesis was finalized as unemployed. The loss of supervisor’s interest was surprising, since he had originally been enthusiastic about the topic and had encouraged us for cooperation.

Later, the research branch of ours again gathered plenty of scientific and financial interest. Meanwhile the big projects at the laboratory ended causing lack of finance. At this situation it would had been a wise idea to focus the research on our field again (the researchers in close contact with the laboratory had been hoped so). Once terminated, the research branch was difficult to revive. Valuable contacts and know-how had been lost.


Two out of three postgraduate students in our research group and the retired professor suffered from supervising that had altered unsupportive for academic work. Research cooperation had become difficult. The postgraduate studies were ceased, which was also a financial problem, since the budget money was allocated by means of completed thesis. My PhD defense was a small-scale scandal.

The roots of the problems are in the change of generation in supervising. This is a common source of tensions in academy. A retired professor, the actual supervisor, continues studies, while the new supervisor holds the power. I suggest that our problems would have been avoided, if the power and guidance were concentrated on the hands of the retired professor. He had originally hoped more power relating to our research. Example could have been taken from those universities, who offer official positions (such as a research director) for the retired professors instead of consult agreements. The positions include possibilities to independently decide about the research plans of the students, the use of financing, thesis timetables etc. The official position is usually decided at the upper level of the university organization and not by one supervisor alone. With a clear position, the retired professor could have been motivated to continue the studies after our graduation.

I also note that I was ordered to cede my thesis for pre-reviewing, although the retired professor with experience on tens of PhD theses warned that it would be unwise. Do these kind of orders violate the rights of students? According to the rules of our university, PhD candidate decides his thesis timetable. Budget estimations should not control the graduation timetables, since unexpected drawbacks may always happen.

I would also like to question, whether it is wise to close down research branches in the middle of successful studies. I have been familiarized myself to three such cases and in all of them, the ending of studies has been regretted afterwards.

Finally, I manifest that it is important for researchers to freely implement their ideas. Certainly, co-operation with companies limit the freedom in making science. Anyhow, the limitations should be as minimal as possible. Good ideas are rare and difficult to replace. Research synergy is difficult to build, if the research partners are seen as potential competitors.


1. Peyton P.R., Dignity at Work, Eliminate Bullying and Create a Positive Working Environment, Brunner-Routledge, 2003.

2. Rayner, C., Hoel, H., Cooper, C.L., Workplace Bullying, Taylor & Francis, 2002.

3. Workplace Bullying, Wikipedia article

4. Bully On-line

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