20 Warning Signs Your Professor’s Abusing You
Because psychological abuse isn’t limited to intimate partners
The recent events in Orlando and the revelation that the murderer was both possibly queer and definitely a domestic abuser have gotten me thinking a lot about my own experiences with abuse. Domestic violence often starts with emotional abuse, a la these 15 signs that one’s boyfriend is controlling. Even though the article is written by a non-expert, many of the signs rang true for me as things to be concerned about, based on my experience.
I have definitely been in a situation where the abuse became violent. And on the other end of that, when I finally told members of my housing group at Harvard what had been happening, two of them asked me what I had done to make the guy treat me that way, as if I had somehow broken him to the point of him suffocating me and smacking me. (That’s not a thing, by the way: when someone who is in a position of power over another uses violence to try to control them [“punish” them], it is never the fault of the disempowered person. Of course victims of abuse have a right to self-defense, and domestic violence/abuse is a classic example of a site where the power dynamics of the outside society come to bear on how people relate to one another.)
But intimate relationships and family relationships are not the only sites of abuse. All kinds of nasty things happen in the workplace. Perhaps because I am a survivor of intimate partner abuse, it is pretty easy for me to see this in the workplace I am familiar with, academia. Below, I present a list of warning signs that you are experiencing academic abuse. I am certain it is incomplete; it is based largely on things that have happened to me or in a few instances, people I know. If these things are happening to you, it’s not okay. Seek help by any means necessary, including an ombudsperson, a department head, a dean, a professional society officer, a member of your PhD committee, or organizing with fellow grad students. I know that the nature of academia makes escaping hard though. I don’t blame you for doing what you gotta do to survive. Make going to therapy a priority.
That could mean leaving academia, if it’s that or suicide. No professor’s opinion is worth your life. If you’re feeling suicidal, tell a friend. If nothing else, contact the National Suicide Prevention Line. Don’t suffer in silence.
- My advisor puts me down.
Your advisor tells you that you are stupid. Yes, this has happened to me, that exact word, “stupid.” They may use synonyms. They may say, “these students who are academically behind you are better than you.” They may tell you that you are not good enough to achieve your dreams, rather than working with you to improve your capacity to be a valued and productive member of the community.
2. My advisor doesn’t like it when I talk to other professors.
Your advisor tells you that you are not ready to talk to other professors, and if you do, you will embarrass yourself. They tell you that you are not up to the task of navigating a conversation with another professor.
3. My advisor doesn’t believe my projects can succeed.
Your advisor asks you questions that even they aren’t sure of the answer to and then gives you a hard time when you don’t know the answer. They project their anxiety about whether your projects will succeed onto you, thereby setting you up for failure.
4. My advisor is always asking me for details about how I spent my day and commenting on how I spend my free time.
Your advisor doesn’t respect your personal boundaries or your autonomy as an adult. They feel entitled to tell you how to live your life. They tell you that you are behaving poorly when you try to establish boundaries. They may tell you that you have hurt their feelings.
5. My advisor is hostile to me having an independent opinion.
Your advisor becomes angry with you if you have an opinion about your project or other university-related activities that doesn’t perfectly line up with theirs or is expressed in language/a dialect that they might not have chosen themselves. They may tell you that you’re stupid (see above) or they may tell you that you are hurting their feelings by not agreeing with them. You feel pressured to conform to their ideas.
6. My advisor always seems to know things about my life that I haven’t told them myself.
Perhaps your advisor is checking your public social media posts. This can feel invasive and transgressive as well as counterproductive. They feel entitled to poke around in every aspect of your life, regardless of what boundaries you have drawn. They are unable to stay within the professional realm in your conversations and seem to be digging into your life without permission.
7. My advisor doesn’t like it when I start collaborations with other people.
This one is tricky because on some level, it is up to an advisor when bringing someone into the group to clarify expectations on this front. But in the theory community, I think it is important to let students have some freedom to explore ideas with other people, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of their major responsibilities. This can become a problem if your advisor suggests that it’s okay for you to talk to others or has never told you it’s not, but when you actually do it with some success, they are nasty about it. This kind of possessiveness and jealousy is not healthy for the mentor or mentee.
8. My advisor responds negatively to almost everything I say.
You start to have the feeling that your advisor wants to put you in your place and make sure that you know that they are superior to you. They are rarely if ever encouraging, and they are always ready to tell you that you are doing something wrong or incompetently. This is different from the important and needed constructive feedback that a teacher can give a student but rather veers into picking every statement a student makes apart, even when the gist of it was correct. This can be a tough balancing act for an advisor.
9. My advisor tells me that if I do anything without them, I will fail.
Your advisor wants you to be completely dependent on them for idea formation as well as execution. They repeatedly tell you that you can’t be successful without their involvement. They may go out of their way to impede your success, including telling other people that you are not yet competent to work with them.
10. My advisor will never admit that they are wrong.
Even when it is really obvious that your advisor has made a mistake, as happens sometimes, your advisor refuses to admit this. Your advisor might blame you for the error entirely, or try to distribute error to you, even if you had no part in their actions. They may claim you misinformed them or that you were inaccurate in your communication. Sometimes it will be the case that you made a mistake that they are compounding, but if you are finding that they never take full responsibility for something, likely this is an abusive behavior. No one is perfect 100% of the time and some mistakes are 100% one person’s fault.
11. My advisor questions my judgment about what’s good for me.
Your advisor tells you that having a romantic partner is a problematic distraction or tries to tell you how to manage your medical issues, despite not being your health care provider. If you tell your advisor that you don’t want to work with someone because you find that person to be harmful to you, they might tell you that you are showing bad judgment. They don’t respect your internal sense of what is a healthy situation for you.
12. My advisor talks about hurt feelings whenever I stand up to them.
If you tell your advisor that something in the dynamic isn’t working for you, they may tell you that you are hurting their feelings. This is an attempt to avoid taking responsibility for problems they may be causing by making you feel guilty for raising the problem at all. Your advisor should never talk to you about their feelings. That is what their partner/therapist/friends are there for. Leaning on you for emotional support or using emotional behavior to get you to stop asking for things you need/want is an abuse of the power dynamic between you.
13. My advisor makes me feel like I have to ask permission to do anything.
In the case of a graduate program, your advisor’s number one responsibility is to get research done while training you to be more independent. As time goes on, you should become more and more independent, and your advisor should be trusting you with that independence. If they don’t, they have failed as an advisor. You should not be afraid to exercise your brain by having your own, independent ideas. If you are, that’s a problem.
14. I now feel that my ideas are all stupid and that I am fairly incompetent.
Even if you are still a trainee with things to learn, you should not feel stupid and incompetent overall. You should feel competent with some things and like you are developing new competencies as time goes on. If this is not the dynamic of your advising situation, this is a problem.
15. My advisor comments on my physical appearance and/or my body parts.
No. None of your advisor’s fucking business.
16. My advisor has made sexually suggestive comments to me or touched me in ways that make me uncomfortable.
No. As someone who has power over your career, your advisor should not be doing anything that could make you feel like you have to do things you don’t want to do in order to succeed.
17. My advisor offers unwelcome commentary about my race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, correct pronouns, religion, and/or child bearing/adopting status.
No. None of your advisor’s fucking business.
18. My advisor leans on me for emotional support.
This may not bother you, but it’s unprofessional. They need to lean on people that they do not have professional power over. Professors should not have any kind of intimate contact with people that they have power over.
19. My advisor doesn’t believe me when I say I have experienced discrimination, especially discrimination that they will never be subject to.
This is gaslighting. Your advisor is telling you that what you know to be true about your experience is false. If you are a minority and you are an adult, you basically have a PhD in “is this discrimination?”
20. My advisor refuses to defend me against discrimination.
Here in the United States, as well as in Canada, your advisor has a legal responsibility to address discrimination based on gender, sex, race, and religion. In Canada, this extends to gender expression and sexual orientation. In the United States, rights around gender expression and sexual orientation are variable. Regardless of what the law says, however, you are entitled to a harassment-free working environment, and if your advisor isn’t doing everything they can to ensure you one, they are part of the problem and silently condoning the harassment you are experiencing.