My toxic supervisor ruined my health – but my university did nothing

‘He sabotaged one PhD student’s field research and another’s involvement in international policy.’

‘He sabotaged one PhD student’s field research and another’s involvement in international policy.’ Photograph: Monty Rakusen/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy

Iarrived in the UK with a highly skilled work visa and a prestigious European grant. I thought I had hit the jackpot: my contract guaranteed enough money to pay the bills and fund high-quality research, my supervisor was a big name in the field, and my project would allow me to pursue big ideas and make a difference.

But that’s not how things turned out. The superstar supervisor turned out to represent everything wrong with academia. During one of our first meetings, he made clear that although my contract allocated a certain number of annual leave days each year, I shouldn’t use them.

During one six-month stretch I didn’t have a single day off, not even weekends or Christmas. Ninety-hour weeks were the norm, and Friday and Saturday nights were primetime. Once, the superstar called me on a Friday night demanding that I retrieve a document he had forgotten and deliver it to him at home. When I asked permission for a Thursday and a Friday off to visit family, he refused. I left on Friday anyway – and got hell for it.

The superstar was publicly magnanimous but privately wretched to everyone who crossed his path. When he showed signs of this early on, disparaging colleagues and tearing his PhD students to pieces, I chalked it up to his arrogant personality. I ignored his cruel actions, shuddering – but doing nothing – as he sabotaged one PhD student’s field research and another’s involvement in international policy. When he launched a devious scheme to upturn his own denied promotion, I learned how one could circumvent merit with shrewd politics. He delivered all his hostility untraceably – as he said, never put into writing anything they can use against you.

I said nothing and did nothing: what effect would it have wrought on me? But sooner or later, it was my turn. Every day, he made certain that his abusearrived to me, in person, by phone or by thickly coded email. He chopped my research visits into impossibly short stints. One host asked why, and when I told him, he replied: “You can tell he does his research from 5,000 kilometres away.”

It came to a head when he manipulated my research and authorship privilege one too many times. I wrote several book chapters and journal articles in his name that he withdrew either after falling out with the publications’ coordinators, or because he wanted to teach me a lesson.

My health suffered terribly from the stress. Finally, I approached the head of the department and asked to work under someone else. If that were impossible, I said I would leave. The superstar threw a fit: if he could not own me, he would do everything in his power to see me disgraced. So I finished my contract remotely, plagued by serious health problems.

Meanwhile, the superstar supervisor got promoted.

When I learned of Britain’s growing interest in putting a halt to bullying in academia and promoting “dignity at work”, I compiled a detailed complaint and submitted it to the university’s HR department. It could have no impact on me, but I hoped that it might serve as on-hand support for the next casualty. Instead, it ran into a brick wall: the policies of the corporate university merely pay lip service to employment rights, and have little to do with the way things actually work.

I have yet to settle on what bothers me more: my supervisor’s perverted behaviour and ethics, or the university’s tacit support of them. Both problems extend far beyond me, my supervisor, and my university, and illustrate how toxic research culture can be. Policies are nice for sticking in the legal files, but researchers work under a different university policy: the real one.