Let’s talk about narcissistic abuse in academia.
Many of us have become scientists out of passion and curiosity. Such mental resources are crucial in research, where working hours can get long, experiments can fail, career prospects and funding are scarce. However, even the most passionate may not withstand all of the possible difficulties thrown their way — especially workplace abuse, which may take the most extreme form in narcissistic abuse.
Academia is a place of hierarchy – and as such, it may attract toxic individuals who seek external validation in the form of a scientific title, who need constant praise and objectify those working for them. Not all professors are narcissistic, and not all narcissistic people qualify for a clinical diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (which can only be professionally determined). However, if you notice disturbing behaviours such as ghosting in your scientific group, if you are afraid to communicate any issues, if a simple confrontation gets dismissed, it is time to pay attention. In extreme cases, it could be needed to address a third party (an onsite neutral mentor or a therapist) as soon as possible. Note that not all therapists will be equipped to deal with similar workplace issues – which is why I am writing this article and providing relevant materials in the footnote.
Narcissistic group leaders can be dangerous to your career or even your health. They will not be able to take constructive criticism, you may witness outbursts of rage, and you may not be believed by your teammates. Due to the high power imbalance in academia, this type of abuse may be less noticeable than in industry. Cases of skilled and willing early-career scientists who have been bullied and ghosted out of the research are numerous. As committees frequently consist of abusers or enablers who believe abusers, many of such stories remain unheard of. Victims often decide not to take any action because they know they will be again manipulated into silence.
So why isn’t the issue more widely known, and – on a positive note – what can be done to discourage such behaviours in research groups? The power imbalance has to be mentioned again – a lot of PhD students are dependent solely on one advisor and only have their scientific output assessed. Rarely any questions are asked about the quality of their working relationship. Frequently, any suggestions that the mentorship is poor or the student’s mental health is declining are dismissed. If universities have any neutral mentors who should be addressed in said situations, their existence is not advertised.
Which is what should change. Early Career Scientists should have – and know that they have – options of talking to professional mediators. The „human” part of a PhD or a research project should also be assessed – does the student feel welcome? Can they address any issues related to their contract – not just research, but compatibility with the group and their advisor? If there happens to be a misunderstanding, is it resolved right away? Do international students have the support they need in a foreign culture, are they met with appropriate treatment?
In general, do your colleagues feel respected – and safe to talk about their experience?
A research environment without such safety is not a place where you can get a PhD – which, after all, is a scientific and mental challenge on its own. If your brain is dealing with a toxic workplace, you will not squeeze an advanced degree out of it.
So what could PhD students do themselves to ensure their wellbeing?
Do not get isolated – scientifically and socially. Discuss ideas with more than one senior scientist, and insist that your advisor talks to you about the past and future research. Make clear plans and demand clear feedback. If you find yourself dismissed or if you start experiencing burnout in any way, check out the options your university provides. Do not hesitate. Things will not improve with time if you do not take any action. Communicate your issues to the point – if this does not work, involve a third party. Quitting or transferring is the answer only to very extreme cases. Most of the time, you can do it. A passion lost can be found again.
The luckiest students work with professors who do not see them as lab equipment, but as curious young minds that need guidance to keep the flame of their scientific interests burning. Professors who see them as people, respectable younger colleagues. And it is in their groups that research is most enjoyable. Which is what I wish upon anyone who aspires to become a scientist.
In darker times, surround yourself with people who help you just because it is the right thing to do, not because of their own interest. Doing science should fill you with joy. It not always does, but there are ways in which you can help yourself and others. If you experience workplace abuse, know you are not alone.
Remember also that there exist many paths outside of academia that can prove to be fulfilling and exciting. You have already done some research, which means you have a curious mind and a set of transferrable skills. The world is wide out there.
And a shoutout to all – please stand up for yourself or your colleagues if you see inappropriate treatment. This is the only way to ensure a respectful environment in which a diverse crowd can thrive and make discoveries.
If you suspect you might be a victim of narcissistic abuse in the workplace, check out these youtube channels:
Dr Durvasula Ramani: https://www.youtube.com/user/DoctorRamanDurvasula
Dr Les Carter: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIELB1mz8wMKIhB6DCmTBlw/featured
Or write me at aiplonka (at) protonmail.com
independent tutor and writer
Formerly an EGU member
This blog post was written by Agnieszka Płonka
with revisions from ECS representative Maria Tsekhmistrenko.