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Graduate Matters

Dark academia: dealing with toxic work environments

A step-by-step guide to exiting unhealthy research groups.


While many kind and supportive supervisors grace the academic sphere, it is an unfortunate fact that not all graduate supervisors are such a dream come true. In some settings, students are overworked, psychologically harassed, and pitted against each other in unhealthy environments that do not foster learning and teamwork. In 2019, Statistics Canada released a study on harassment among faculty and researchers in Canadian postsecondary institutions. Of the PhD students and postdoctoral fellows who reported that they had experienced workplace harassment, 66 per cent of those respondents identified their perpetrators as a person in a senior position or with direct authority over them. In particular, this study concluded that individuals with disabilities, those who represented a sexual minority group in their field, or Indigenous peoples faced the highest risk for workplace harassment. While many choose to speak out against the abuse they have faced in academia, it persists as an underexplored issue which many students do not know about when starting out their degrees.

Identifying the issue

Sometimes these workplace dynamics might sneak up on us and be hard to recognize at their onset. Here are some questions that might identify an unhealthy working environment:

  • Do you feel supported in this current environment? Do you feel like you are encouraged to learn and grow to the best of your abilities?
  • Do you feel respected by your graduate supervisor(s)?
  • Are you able to take holidays and time off? Do you feel pressured to work overtime and on weekends/holidays?
  • Are you subject to discrimination of any kind?
  • Do you feel micromanaged or constantly under surveillance? Conversely, do you feel as though you receive no guidance in your research and cannot reach your supervisor?
  • What is the dynamic with your lab or teammates? Does your supervisor foster collaboration and support among their students?
  • Would someone who cares about your wellbeing (a parent, mentor, or friend, for example) be happy to see you in this working environment?
  • Would you recommend working here to a close friend?
  • Are you getting closer to or further away from your career/personal goals by working in this environment? Do you feel like you are growing or shrinking, with respect to your personal and professional goals?
  • Are you happy?

Does your supervisory relationship exhibit any of these or other red flags? Try the Bad Boss Bingo if you are still uncertain.

Graduate studies are fundamentally a time when you are training for your career. Identify if you are in an environment where you are doing your best learning and where you are thriving, surrounded by people who bring out the best in you.

Exit strategy

If you decide that you are in an unsuitable workplace, first and foremost, equip yourself with mental health resources. Speaking with a counselor or psychologist at your university’s psychological services can help you to identify a course of action to improve your working conditions and – if appropriate – leave a toxic setting. A counselor can also be helpful after an initial transition to ease any worries and anxieties associated with starting over in a new environment.

It is worth mentioning that mediation is an option to improve the current working environment. If you believe that a third party mediator could help resolve the issues that you are facing with your supervisor and/or fellow students, it could be helpful to reach out to the appropriate resources such as your student association, ombudsman, or psychological services office. These offices may be able to sit down with you and your supervisor to discuss the behaviours that make you feel uncomfortable and find a solution to ending them so that you can continue your studies with this person.

If mediation is not an option or is unsuccessful, the next step is to figure out where you would like to go after leaving the unsupportive setting. Do you need to finish your degree to be able to pursue your desired career, or can you find an alternative route to get to the same end goal? Could you use co-supervision, internships, or studying abroad as a means to avoid working with your current supervisor as much? Do you wish to switch universities to find a more suitable supervisor elsewhere? Or, do you simply wish to knock on the professor’s office next door and ask if they have an available space for you to join their group? You can start getting the wheels in motion by meeting in confidence with your proposed new advisor to discuss your candidature with them. When it comes to choosing a new supervisor, here are a few tips on choosing one of the good eggs.

Once you have clarified your plans, you can begin finding the right administrators to set them into motion. Your graduate program likely has a program advisor or program director – typically a professor who has the added responsibility of guiding graduate students in their progression. Send this person an email requesting a meeting in confidence. If this person unfortunately happens to be your current supervisor, ask another trusted faculty or staff member for assistance at this point. Explain to the advisor the issues that you are facing, your plan of action, and specifically what you would like from them. They will likely ask you if you have spoken to the professor to whom you would like to transfer, so it might be helpful to have already started the process of finding a new workplace at this point.

The actual transfer is far more challenging emotionally than it is in terms of paperwork. If you are leaving the institution there might be a few more emails and forms to fill out, but once the correct administrators are notified, the process of switching is rather quick. External funding agencies should be contacted directly about your desire to transfer, as some scholarships may not be transferable or will need to be reassessed. In terms of leaving the research group, however, you will need to tidy up your workspace, leave behind clear copies of your results, and say your polite goodbyes, but that is pretty much all.

On your way out the door, feel free to raise a little hell, as appropriate. You can inform your department head of the situation in your previous working environment in hopes that they might have a conversation with your ex-supervisor. You can have a chat with your university’s ombudsman or psychological harassment office to discuss the treatment of students in your old group, if needed. Taking up the matter under applicable regulations unfortunately might only lead to a tedious stream of paperwork resulting in very little tangible outcome. It’s up to you to decide the justice that you desire as recompense for the time that you gave to an unsupportive supervisor.

Call to action

Toxicity in academia is a long played-out trope. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Maybe you will choose to ally yourself with the students who are currently in an unhealthy working environment. You might join committees, associations, or unions at your university which work to understand student issues and fight for their rights.

Choosing to leave a toxic environment makes a statement, especially if you sit down with the head of your department to discuss your reasons for leaving. Raising awareness of the dynamic and starting conversations – while daunting and challenging, especially for introverted peacekeepers – is an important step to incite change. This is not just to defend your rights, but also to defend other students, present and future.

You also do not need to leave the working environment if that is not the right decision for you. For instance, if graduation is in sight, if you think that the situation might improve, or if you believe that there are more positives than negatives in your situation, you do not need to uproot and find a new group. You can certainly sit down with a few resources, though, to try to improve your situation, such as your university’s psychological services, ombudsman, harassment office, and your graduate program head and department head.

Have you overcome toxic, unsupportive working environments during your graduate studies? Share your story in the comment section below.

Kelly Burchell-Reyes
Kelly Burchell-Reyes is a PhD candidate studying organofluorine chemistry at Université Laval.
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