“What kind of gibberish e-mail you sent me yesterday? Are you out of your mind? Do you want me to fire you?”
A PhD candidate from the Middle East averts his eyes from his computer screen as his supervisor, the head of a chemical-engineering laboratory at a US university, shouts at him, saying his student work plan isn’t detailed enough. The supervisor then shares his screen and begins typing an e-mail, issuing instructions to terminate the PhD candidate’s access to the lab.
The exchange, which took place in November 2020, is from a series of videos seen by Nature that document a senior academic repeatedly yelling at his student, belittling him in front of colleagues and threatening to cut his income. The student and a former female PhD student colleague, who is also from a Middle Eastern country, allege that their group leader bullied them, but not other team members, because they were in the United States on a single-entry F-1 visa and he thus had the power to determine whether they could stay. They started recording the video meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic when, they say, his abuse moved online.
The Academic Parity Movement (APM), a global anti-bullying initiative, defines academic bullying as sustained hostile behaviour, potentially including ridicule, threats, privacy invasions and interference with career progression. Researchers who study the phenomenon say perpetrators often target international scholars because of their immigration status, financial vulnerability and lack of support networks.
“International graduate students and postdocs are more vulnerable to bullying because the power differential with their principal investigator (PI) is greater,” says Sherry Moss, an organizational-studies researcher at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and co-founder of the APM. “They are often at the mercy of their PI due to reliance on a visa and a paid lab position, both of which could be taken away at short notice. Cultural and language issues exacerbate their risks of mistreatment.”
Nature spoke to five early-career researchers working outside their home countries, who variously described being verbally abused, made to work excessive hours and being financially exploited. Some asked not to be named for fear of damage to their career or retribution. In a linked article, researchers who study bullying and those who say they have experienced it share their insights into why it happens, how those who are targeted can protect themselves and what should be done to prevent it.
The chemical engineer mentioned above says that when he started his PhD, his working days often lasted 13–14 hours. Alongside his literature search, project planning and lab work, he says his supervisor made him build shelves, carry out lab inventories and perform general cleaning duties.
As a recent arrival, he thought this was normal at first. Several months later, he started to have serious doubts about his supervisor. “He called me into his office one day and berated me for 2 hours,” he says. “Later that day, he berated me and another foreign PhD student for another 2 hours, and then later again for 3 more hours. It was about the untidiness of the lab, updating the chemicals inventory, making an inventory of the closets and storages, about extending my work hours, working more at weekends and, in his view, my slow progress. By the end, I felt like my head was exploding. I just needed to get away.”
In a video recording of an online meeting with lab members, the supervisor shouts repeatedly at the student, telling him to “shut up” and dismissing his work as “useless”. In a document about the incident later submitted to the university as part of a complaint, also seen by Nature, the student alleges that he was made to work on projects entirely outside the scope of his PhD research. “I was insulted, bullied and intimidated,” he writes.
His female colleague says the supervisor crept up behind her one day while she was reading a phone message from a friend and accused her of unproductive behaviour. “I can never forget his tone and how he shouted at me from behind,” she says in another document submitted to the university as part of the same complaint. “From that day, when he was around, I was so anxious, stressed and scared he would jump into the lab or office and accuse me of not working hard, or talking to somebody, or looking at my phone.”
The pair say they had to work long hours and attend very early or late meetings, often at weekends and at short notice, whereas a US colleague refused to work beyond his contracted hours or attend weekend meetings, without consequence . The supervisor “threatened to terminate our contracts”, says the male PhD candidate. “He knew we were on a single-entry visa, and if we had to leave the country we could not come back.”
In a further video seen by Nature, the supervisor threatens to cut the male PhD student’s salary during a dispute about who should pay for a device to back up lab data. “He abused the fact we came from another country and so we didn’t know our rights,” says the female PhD student.
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Universities, funders and national science academies have, in recent years, identified the need to better understand and tackle bullying in academia. A synthesis of previous studies, published in 2019, found that 25% of faculty members reported experiencing bullying1. One in five graduate students who responded to Nature’s 2019 global PhD survey said they had experienced bullying (Nature 575, 403–406; 2019), and that students working abroad were not significantly more likely to be bullied than those working in their home countries. A study published in the same year by the Max Planck Society (MPS) in Germany showed that 10% of more than 9,000 respondents working at its 86 institutes reported having experienced bullying in the previous 12 months2.
Moss argues that the concentration of power in the hands of lab heads makes academic science a fertile breeding ground for toxic dynamics and abusive supervision. In October 2021, she and Morteza Mahmoudi, a nanoscientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and a co-founder of the APM, published the results of a global survey3 of more than 2,000 people with experience of working or studying in academia. Their sample was self-selecting. Nonetheless, only 29% of participants who had experienced bullying said they reported their cases to their institutions; 61% of those who failed to report bullying said this was because they feared retaliation.
Moss and Mahmoudi analysed the responses of those working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics research in the United States (see ‘International imbalance’). They found that those from abroad were no more likely to report being bullied than were permanent US residents, but were more likely to report more-severe impacts, including violations of intellectual-property rights, threats to their jobs and having their data used without acknowledgement. Thirty-two per cent reported threats to cancel their visas. “Domestic students and scholars have the support of family and friends, have no language barrier, know the culture and are more likely to have a plan B,” says Mahmoudi. “That’s not the case if you are international, and your visa is dependent on your institution. You are forced to increase your tolerance of bullying behaviours.”
In another study, published in 2018, postdocs were interviewed about their experiences at five major research universities in the United States4. One postdoc said: “When I arrived … my PI explained to me that he approved my visa renewal. He then told me he was going to pay me 70% of the salary he promised before I got here. When I asked him if this is normal, he just asked me if I was serious about working [at the university].” Another participant reported: “Our PI creates this pressure-cooker environment in our lab. You see the foreign postdocs sleeping on the floor of the labs, working 100-plus hours a week. PIs know what they are doing. They take advantage of these guys.”
One Chinese biomedical chemist told Nature that paying international researchers less than US researchers was commonplace at the US university he worked at as a postdoctoral researcher. When a previous group leader of his ran out of funding in 2012, the terms of his J-1 exchange-visitor visa meant returning to China if he did not get a new job within a month. He was offered a second postdoctoral position, at a different university, to develop imaging methods for cancer diagnosis on US$10,000 less than his previous salary of $46,000, and felt he had little choice but to accept.
“There was a range of salaries, but the postdocs from India and China were all at the lower end,” he says. “My friend, who was also Chinese, was a chemistry postdoc on a $28,000 salary. The Americans were on more like $39,000–40,000 and up.”
He says he accepted lower pay because his supervisor promised to help him to obtain a more secure H-1B graduate work visa. But in 2014, when the J-1 visa was close to expiring, his lab head was unwilling to pay the minimum required salary of $68,000 for the new visa, and told him to apply for a permanent-residency green card instead. Applying at short notice was, he says, not just time-consuming and expensive, but also risky and stressful because those whose applications fail face deportation. His application was ultimately successful. “The visa is a big issue,” he says. “It means your professor has a hold over you, and can ask you to do whatever they want.”
The biomedical chemist says his supervisor provided him with no networking opportunities or training in skills such as writing funding applications or communication. By 2015, his self-confidence was shattered. He took a job as a technician in a US state government organization. “Like all postdocs, I wanted to be a professor,” he says. “But I changed my mind. If it means treating people the way I was treated, I don’t want to be a professor.”
Demonstrating that researchers from other countries are paid less than their colleagues can be difficult. Not so in the case of a group of postdocs employed by the University of California, Davis. In 2013, the trade union UAW Local 5810 — a California-based part of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America that represents postdoctoral scholars — filed a complaint on behalf of Brazilian entomologist Cherre Bezerra Da Silva after discovering that his annual salary was around $13,000 less than what his fellow postdocs were being paid.
In 2015, the university acknowledged that Da Silva had been classified as a visiting scholar despite his having been employed as a postdoc, and agreed to award him $16,000 in back pay and damages. It also made payments to two other foreign researchers for the same reason. A subsequent investigation showed that at least seven foreign researchers had been misclassified.
The link between employment and visas makes international researchers more vulnerable to pressure associated with the extension of contracts or funding.
A PhD student in the lab of Ian Baldwin, who at the time was director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology (MPICE) in Jena, Germany, alleges that when he asked to visit his parents in China for the first time in 16 months, Baldwin told him his stipend would not be extended when it ran out, which meant he might not have enough time to complete his PhD.
“He said, ‘if you go home this year, I won’t renew your stipend’,” the Chinese biologist says, “and that people should take their vacations after their theses.” Baldwin, who is still funded by and works at the MPS, says he does not recall making the alleged statement. He also told Nature: “I don’t see that as an unreasonable managerial statement, particularly when someone is not making any progress.”
The Chinese biologist says that Baldwin could be difficult with researchers of all nationalities, but that the consequences of not having contracts extended were more serious for scholars from abroad: “For students from middle- and low-income countries, it’s a catastrophe; no contract means no visa, no income, leaving the country and problems completing our PhDs.”
Following an investigation into a number of complaints about Baldwin, his department was restructured and downsized in 2015. The MPS appointed a mediator to deal with disputes and told Baldwin to attend coaching sessions. It was agreed that another scientist would always be present when he had meetings with students.
Entomologist David Heckel, managing director at MPICE from 2015 until last year, says: “I saw Ian Baldwin raise his voice and become abusive towards [the Chinese biologist] during a meeting. It was rather shocking to witness.”
Baldwin says that he and Heckel had a longstanding poor working relationship (Heckel disputes this). Baldwin adds that tensions with colleagues were down to a cultural difference between his own “American, more direct” leadership style and a “more indirect and consensual European and German style”. “I regret and apologize if my style has been perceived as too direct, even brutal by some,” he says.
In November 2020 , the MPS terminated Baldwin’s directorship of MPICE. An MPS spokesperson refused to say how many individuals had formally complained about Baldwin, but said he had also received many letters of support from colleagues and collaborators.
And what of the PhD candidates from the Middle East who were repeatedly yelled at, belittled in front of colleagues and threatened with income cuts? Ironically, they were saved by COVID-19. Their supervisor continued to verbally abuse and bully them online, which meant they could record the incidents and send them to their university administration. They say his bullying resulted in them suffering stress, anxiety and regular nightmares and panic attacks.
Following an investigation, the university assigned them a new PhD supervisor. They graduated, dropped their academic ambitions and now work in industry. The pair are recovering slowly from their experience. He gets stressed when senior colleagues request routine meetings. Her heart rate leaps at the sound of Microsoft Outlook notifications or mention of their abuser’s name. “I still have nightmares, but they are less frequent now,” she says.
Their former supervisor kept his job. Last year, the university celebrated his work on its website after a major US funding body awarded him a substantial grant.