Emotional Abuse in Academia

Academia can be a wonderful experience of learning and growth for some. However, for too many, it is an experience that leaves them damaged. Academic environments, much like relationships, can be toxic to those who are vulnerable, who do not know how to (or realize they have to) set boundaries, and do not have a support system that understands what they are going through. Emotional abuse is not uncommon in higher ed. institutions. Professors and advisers can be manipulative, abusive and sometimes bully their students with little to no recourse for those on the receiving end. Many times, first generation students, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, international and undocumented students, women, non-gender conforming and transgender students, and students of color, and those living the intersections therein, are among the most vulnerable members of the population at academic institutions.

Students, especially graduate students who are particularly at the mercy of their faculty advisers, do not know to be on the look-out for abusive treatment in what is supposed to be a safe learning environment, and thus may not recognize the abuse as something they should not be experiencing and do not deserve. The problem is graduate school is “supposed to be hard.” So when students try to explain that things are not right, start to experience symptoms of the unnecessary stresses caused by abuse, people, and the student, often attribute it to the fact that grad school is expected to be difficult. But even though graduate school is supposed to be challenging and force you to grow and mature, graduate school is not supposed to be traumatic and is not supposed to break your spirit or dim your light. Yet some students find themselves in this situation where their ambitions have placed them directly under the supervision of emotionally abusive individuals.

Why don’t we hear about the emotional abuse that takes place in the halls of academia? The power structure leaves students heavily at the mercy of their abusers, and students are (rightly) afraid that they would have no actual protection and all their work, as well as hopes for a degree, will go down the drain if they make noise about an abusive faculty member. Unfortunately emotional abuse in academia is common enough that there’s a tumbler blog called “Academia Is Killing My Friends” that allows students to anonymously describe the abuses they experience in graduate school. There are not very many resources for emotional abuse specific to academia (I found one article), but much of the information available for emotional abuse in relationships and the (fewer) available for the workplace can be helpful.

The fact is, in higher education, the professors are not hired because they are good teachers. Oftentimes they are hired because they excel in their particular subject of study. Being good at a subject does not necessarily mean you are a good teacher, or even fit to be in a position of power, especially when it comes to manipulating young minds. Professors can also be narcissists, racists, sexist, and have a whole host of psychological traits or personality disorders that make them high achievers but terrible abusers and bullies. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much information about the prevalence of narcissism, borderline personality disorder, other personality disorders or psychopath tendencies (these sound extreme but are not that uncommon) among academic faculty because, of course, who is conducting the studies? It is clear that mental health issues are prevalent among graduate students and instead of this being addressed as a problem, it is treated as the norm .

This post is not to discourage students from applying to graduate school. It is possible to have a mentally healthy graduate school experience. I wrote this post is to warn those who do apply to graduate school, particularly those from vulnerable groups, to be aware of their vulnerability and choose their programs, advisors and research accordingly. Be sure to go into the situation prepared. Learn to recognize the signs and tactics of emotional abuse and know that these tactics can be used by professors, faculty, PI’s and advisors. Being able to recognize emotionally abusive and manipulative techniques such as Gaslighting empowers you, so if faced with people who use this, you can extract yourself from the situation as early as possible to protect yourself. Remember, you are in graduate school because you are worthy, good enough, have a light and ambition that placed you there. Graduate school will challenge you, push you, but it is not supposed to traumatize you or dim your light. If you find that is happening please seek help, through counseling, through support of trusted colleagues and peers, and by taking action to get out of abusive situations. Some things are just not worth it.

To those who are not in the situation but know graduate students who are fading before your eyes, reach out to them (send them this article), believe them when they say something is wrong, direct them to resources. Don’t just chalk it up to “grad school is supposed to be hard.” Do not put undue pressure on anyone, no matter how proud of them or impressed by them you are, to continue in a program that is destroying their spirit and sense of self. Help them find alternatives. Recognize the difference between difficulty and toxicity and be there for those who are in toxic environments. It can make a world of difference.

Photo by Ryan McGuire


© 2016 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved