October 5th, 2013

Let’s Talk with Kalola: Grad Student Issues

Dear Kalola,

First, I would like to thank you for this site. It has been a tremendous help to me. I understand myself a bit better and am trying not to feel so much guilt and blame. I hope legislation is eventually passed and that victims will no longer have to suffer in silence. We see the attempts made to address bullying among school children, but how can we accomplish that when the adults cannot even set the proper example? It is an exercise in futility.

I am currently a PhD student at a large, public university. It has been my dream since I was a child. I was funded for two years, up until this year, when it was discontinued as a result of my bullying experiences. Funded graduate students are technically employees of the school, but they are rarely regarded as such. It also seems to be common knowledge that grad students are often subjected to poor treatment. I expected to be worked harder than ever before, which is not a problem for me, but I did not expect rampant emotional, mental, and sexual abuse.

I am not going to go into terribly specific detail as it would be far too long. The bottom line is that I was targeted for whatever reasons and subjected to various forms of defamation, sabotage of my work, illegitimate failing grades, and sexual harassment by a trusted adviser. Failure to respond to the sexual advances led to the loss of the one person who had the power to protect me from the other abusive faculty. When I took a class in another department and prepared to apply to their program because I heard they were far less dysfunctional, someone from my department sabotaged by admissions and my work in the class.

My funding was pulled and my reputation in a department I wanted to transfer to was tarnished. They know that without funding it is incredibly difficult to continue as a full-time Ph.D. student. They also treat their non-funded doctoral students as if they do not exist. You may be exempt from certain forms of bullying, but you also miss out on many of the perks that lead to good job prospects in research universities.

Even though I could take legal action for sexual harassment, I have been unable to find an attorney who will work on a contingency basis. I cannot afford to pay as it costs thousands upon thousands of dollars. The faculty are well aware of that and they know that grad students are often poor and so beaten down by the time they get through with them that they often leave with their tails between their legs. Sometimes they commit suicide. Dreams are shattered, insecurities are exploited, and futures are ruined. But whenever a student leaves, is expelled, or even dies, the faculty always blames the student. They usually manage to convince the student and others that it is the result of shortcomings on the student’s part. It makes me sick to my stomach.

I am still a registered student there while I search for a full time job. I do not know what I will do next, but I know it will be extremely difficult for me to walk away without holding them accountable for their actions. I’ve been through a lot in life and I am lucky to have loved ones who are emotionally supportive so I know I will survive this. I see other students, younger and more vulnerable, and I am scared for them. The risk of suicide is real and I see some on the brink. Faculty even joke about it in front of them. It is despicable. It should be criminal. There is a university I will not name where, over the past decade, five grad students under the same adviser have committed suicide and nothing has been done. The professor is still employed there and his abuse continues. I know I will do whatever I can to bring attention to it at my university before I walk away. I have already brought my concerns to the attention of several university officials to no avail, but I will figure something else out.

At the same time these abuses are occurring, other university officials are holding seminars to address violence and bullying on campus. What is wrong with people? How hypocritical can you be. But I guess it is the same ole same ole. Do as I say not as I do. What’s really scary is that I’ve heard grad students who are subjected to this abuse talk about how they can’t wait to become professors and have the chance to bully students themselves. Real nice. If that’s how academia works, then I want no part of it.

So yes, I agree that workplace bullying needs desperate attention and I also believe that higher education must be included, particularly graduate programs because those students are known targets. Submission to sexual exploitation and psychological abuse should not be a prerequisite for earning a doctoral degree.


Dear Linda,

Thank you for your kind comments, and I am glad that you found the anti-bullying Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) website and that it has been helpful to you.  The website has a wealth of resources including research and surveys, podcasts, webinars, audio and video resources to check out.  Check back from time to time as new material is added.

I was disheartened to hear of your experiences in graduate school.  Generally, most universities have policies and procedures in place whereby a graduate student would have the right to appeal academic and/or administrative decisions.  It sounds like what happened to you may have been improperly based on non-academic criteria.  Check your graduate studies handbook to see what you need to do to appeal the decision(s) made against you.

If you are still an enrolled student, check out your university’s student health services which may offer health exams, vaccinations, and limited mental health counseling.   If you paid a student health fee then you might as well take advantage of the services.

If your college/university receives federal financial assistance or funding and it is found that the university or department or academic program is in violation of a federal law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 USC, Section 1681, et seq., the university or department or program could lose their federal funding.  Title IX prohibits sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, gender-based bullying, and sexual violence.  To learn more about Title IX—Education Amendments of 1972 and/or to get information on how to file a complaint, go to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division’s website.

Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) is a non-profit women’s rights organization in San Francisco, California.  ERA might be able to help you to understand your legal rights at school.  Their mission is to protect and expand economic and educational access and opportunities for women and girls.  In the area of education, ERA states that they are committed to ensuring that education is an opportunity enjoyed by all, regardless of sex or gender.  ERA’s website is http://www.equalrights.org/our-work/education/.  ERA also has a legal advice/counseling hotline.  Please read their Frequently Asked Questions carefully before calling their hotline for advice.  ERA clearly states that they do not have the resources to provide legal representation to every one that calls them.  Instead, they try to help callers in understanding their legal rights at work and at school.  They may or may not be able to give you a referral to an attorney in your state.


The non-profit organization, Workplace Fairness, gives practical information to workers.  It “believes that fair treatment of workers is sound public policy and good business practice, and that free access to comprehensive, unbiased information about workers’ rights, without legal jargon, is an essential ingredient in any fair workplace.”   A good article to read on their website is:  “Will a Lawyer Take My Case?” Read item #5 first:  “How Will a Lawyer Decide Whether to Take My Case?”


Targets of bullying in the workplace often write in and complain that they can’t find an attorney to take their case.  As of this writing, workplace bullying is not against the law in any state in the U.S.  Did the employer illegally discriminate?  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination.i.e.,  age (over the age of 40), disability, equal pay/compensation, genetic information, national origin, pregnancy, race/color, religion, retaliation, sex, sexual harassment.  See the EEOC website for more information at: 

If you contact an attorney or an organization for help or advice, please stick to the facts of your situation.  Do not generalize, be specific in giving details about what happened to you.  Have your documentation in order that supports your allegation(s).  Did you follow the complaint process or protocol for filing a complaint at your university?  Who did you make the complaint to?  If you verbally complained, did you follow-up in writing?  Did you file an appeal?  If you were sexually assaulted, did you file a complaint with the police?  A police report provides documentation.  Were there any witnesses?  Did you say “No!” when the adviser made sexual advances?  The questions you may be asked may be uncomfortable.

Do not let what happened to you keep you from going forth and attaining your educational goals.  A lawsuit could take up much of your time (years) and keep you from reaching your goals.  The best revenge is going forth and being successful.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”   … Nelson Mandela, Statesman





<-- Read the complete WBI Blog

Tags: , ,

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 5th, 2013 at 9:00 am and is filed under Let's Talk with Kalola. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Having trouble? Click Here for Comments Guide

Facebook Comments


Disqus Comments

This site is best viewed with Firefox web browser. Click here to upgrade to Firefox for free. X