Bullying of PhDs


    The ‘feudal’ master-servant relationship existing between a PhD supervisor and his or her student1 has another facet seldom broached by academics. That is bullying. Employment legislation prohibits bullying at work, but, because PhDs are not salaried or contracted, they are not legally ‘employees’ and so are vulnerable to capricious supervisors.

    I regret to say that the conduct of my PhD supervisor was tantamount to bullying. Corroborative complaints by peers and by me proved futile, culminating in my supervisor misappropriating corresponding authorship after editorial review of our manuscript. Although nebulous commitments to PhD supervision published in guidelines are welcome, they are merely cosmetic unless enforced impartially against the occasional aberrant supervisor. Experience has left me disaffected with my university, which is ostensibly content to allow a rogue supervisor to usurp authorship and confidence by allowing vulnerable PhDs to be bullied.

    PhDs may now, however, be able to seek alternative recourse. In an unprecedented move, the British High Court has granted a student at the University of Cambridge, Mr Beg, judicial review to challenge internal academic procedures2. Mr Beg was allegedly denied an MPhil because he criticized a professor. If future legal challenges are to be avoided, reform is required to make possible equitable adjudication in alleged cases of supervisor misconduct. If UK institutions insist on maintaining the status quo, the courts may now intervene and universities will increasingly become embroiled in unwelcome litigation3. Denying the existence of bullying could become costly. Universities competing for funding and kudos can ill-afford to risk harbouring known aggressors, thus condoning their conduct and bringing departments into disrepute.

    Inevitably, ‘whistleblowers’ (whether on matters of personal or academic misconduct) risk damage to their careers4. To ensure scientific integrity, postgraduate students need adequate protection from the repercussions of ‘speaking out’. PhDs should surely be protected from bullying and unfair termination of studentships, in the same way as ‘employed’ researchers are protected by legislation and contracts.

    Name and address supplied


    1. 1

      McComb, J. Nature 387, 448 (1997).

      ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

    2. 2

      The Guardian 27 January 1998.

    3. 3

      Robinson, J. Education and the Law 9 (2), 93-107 (1997).

    4. 4

      Macilwain, C. Nature 385, 669 (1997).

      ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

    5. 5

      Poon, P. J. Law, Med. Ethics 23, 88–95 (1995).

      Google Scholar 

    Download references

    Rights and permissions

    Reprints and Permissions

    About this article

    Cite this article

    Bullying of PhDs. Nature 393, 407 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/30831

    Download citation


    By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.