Bullying of a PhD Student - One Wrong Word/Death by Paper Cuts

After completing my undergraduate degree, I received a PhD scholarship at the same university in exchange for 15-hours/week research assistance. My undergraduate dissertation was related to the project topic and I had a lived experience of being a member of the social group under investigation. I thought my dreams had all come true; I was to work on a project closely linked to my own research topic and would receive a substantial bursary. That was until the nightmare of working in the most dysfunctional 'team' of people I have ever worked with began.

I remember the day it began. I was early for a meeting. Two members of the 'team' soon arrived and I made polite small talk with them. My mistake seemed to seal my fate for the next three years, particularly with these two people. I casually asked if the two experienced Research Assistants were "just" Research Assistants, or whether they were doing PhD's/research themselves. One wrong word. My innocent question (no malice intended in any way - I have problems with anxiety and sometimes my nerves get the better of me) was met with a very angry response that they were not "just anything!” I was shocked at the aggressive response, so much so that I meekly said that I did not mean to have offended them. I now realise that I would set a benchmark as to how I would accept being spoken to from then on.

Next, the Project Leader (a Social Work Professor) had possibly thought that I was a Social Work graduate, not, in actuality, a Sociology graduate. When I explained this during a one-to-one meeting I was met with silence. I believe that a conflict of ideas and perspectives was potentially key as to why I was bullied, and it came from the top of the project hierarchy. Indeed, it was a gendered hierarchy to say the least, with female members of the 'team' having more secretarial roles than anything else was.

Then, my undergraduate dissertation supervisor (who stayed on as my PhD supervisor) created a scandal at the university. It came to light that he was living a double life and had fabricated a certain amount of malicious gossip about a Professor at the university to deflect from his own highly deceitful behaviour (a close colleague of the Project Leader). I always respected my supervisor and would speak highly of him. I believe that, potentially due in part to my (unwitting) respect for my supervisor, that I was judged guilty by association through gossip and hearsay. I was eventually asked outright if he had ever approached me for an inappropriate relationship, as this was apparently his MO. I absolutely had not, and respected student/lecturer boundaries - plus I was not in slightest bit attracted to him and knew and liked (one of) his partner who was also a PhD student.  

In all honesty, I can only speculate as to why I was targeted, after wracking my brains for almost 3 years, these examples merely serve as potential explanations and potential reasons as to why what happened, happened at all.

The bullying began in earnest; here are some examples (some specific, some general):

1. One of the 'team' was allocated as my supervisor (wholly under-qualified with an MA in Social Work and an insatiable desire to become an academic) - who stole ideas from my research and used it for the project without my knowledge, or permission.

2. The same supervisor would regularly pass off my ideas and contributions as their own.

3. During meetings the two Research Assistants would purposely avoid ANY eye contact with me. Alternatively, they would glare at me, to the point that I became so uncomfortable that I simply had to look away.

4. My contributions in meetings were minuted as 'someone' said/suggested.

5. Whilst sat next to a Psychology lecturer, another member of the 'team', I was repeatedly flicked at below the table (I know this one may sound a tad strange!).

6. Most of my contributions to the project were ignored and/or credit given elsewhere.

7. A child who had been part of the research was asked to attend the university and the Project Leader had bought her some gifts, including a t-shirt.  She, the Project Leader, asked me if I knew whether she had bought the right size for the child.  I said that the child was probably around my size. She exclaimed that she was glad she bought "extra large"...this was in front of two other colleagues who simply sniggered.

8. I was constantly overloaded with work/emails/phone calls (some late at night). Travelled hundreds of miles on weekends, to prisons, alone.

9. I was 'set up to fail' on one occasion - where the data collection and data input (my responsibility) deadline was set on the same day.

10. I was regularly shouted down in meetings, to the point that I stopped contributing.

11.  I was excluded from all publications resulting from the project, even though I was initially promised at least one publication. 

12. The project did not receive certain permissions from the relevant authorities. I was asked to work off campus at the Head Office of a NGO that was working with the project to complete certain tasks relating to those denied permission. I refused.

13. I requested that the supervisor who was stealing my work and/or ideas be removed from my supervision team. Moreover, he did not understand my research. I was threatened with my bursary being removed, as there would be nobody from the applicable School remaining as a supervisor. Thankfully, another of my supervisors, not connected to the project, was.

14. I was regularly ignored and/or isolated during coffee breaks/external meetings/project conferences.

15.  Whilst travelling to undertake fieldwork I was asked if I was "one of those scary feminist types" by a male member of the 'team'.

16. Regularly worked well over the 15 hours/week, causing my own work to suffer.  Either that, or be chastised for not appearing to 'pull my weight'.

17. The Project Leader, toward the end of the project, placed one of the Research Assistants 'in charge' of me, and to 'monitor' certain tasks I was given.

18. I was belittled and undermined in front of individuals from external organisations.  To the point that they eventually ignored me too.

19. At the beginning of a conference (around 200 students in attendance), there were three people who were presenting, myself included.  A close friend and colleague of the supervisor I had had problems with introduced the other two speakers, and completely ignored me. I introduced myself when it came time to present (embarrassing, confusing and devastating all in one go).

20. Made out to be incompetent/a burden/troublemaker to other departments/lecturers/fellow PhD students.

The list goes on, and on, and on and, in all honesty, it is becoming painful reliving it all (death by paper cuts methinks!). Eventually, my partner, friends, and family began to notice that my mental health was deteriorating rapidly toward the end of the project. I didn't go out any more, was constantly lethargic, couldn't concentrate, became weepy, became distant, isolated myself, gained weight, was prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping tablets by my GP, and so on. I also suspended my studies after my second Viva as I had lost all motivation and my work was suffering. Two months before the three-year project was due to end, I attempted suicide.  Thankfully, my mother found me in time. I was released from hospital after spending just over a week under observation on a psychiatric ward. I am sincerely sorry to have put my partner, friends, and family through that.

It has been 8 months since my spell in hospital, 6 months since the end of the project, and my suspension is coming to an end. I still receive emails relating to the project, which does cause me some anxiety and stress, but at least I can ignore them now I am not contracted to reply to them any more. I do feel slightly stronger, thanks to a wonderfully supportive partner, friends, and family. I am due back in a month or so to complete my PhD. I am apprehensive to say the least and truly believe that if I complain about all that has happened, I will not be afforded the opportunity to finish my research. I believe the university would rather me go, than potentially damage their reputation. I simply do not know who to trust, or if anyone is even trustworthy at this university. I just want to finish my research, leave this university, and get on with my life.

Wish me luck!