A survivor’s guide to academic bullying
To the editor — Early-career researchers,
and particularly those who come from
under-represented groups in science,
technology, engineering and mathematics
(STEM), are susceptible to bullying.
However, they can arm themselves with
awareness and be prepared for abusive
behaviour on the part of superiors within
the academic hierarchy.
I was a target of academic bullying, but
I am also a survivor. After I started writing
on academic bullying1,2 and established
a non-profit organization to increase
awareness among stakeholders (https://
paritymovement.org/), I was overwhelmed
with email correspondence and phone
calls from others who had been targeted
or who had observed this phenomenon.
Based on this correspondence and my own
experience, I learned some key lessons that
targets of academic bullying can employ to
protect themselves and fight back.
First, try to document and record
your interactions, including the abusive
behaviour. This can be accomplished by
saving emails, writing memos to document
verbal conversations, or making sure to
have conversations in the presence of a
Second, consult your institution’s
ombudsperson or mediation office. The
professionals there, trained in dealing with
harassment and bullying, will listen to your
issue and offer guidance. Often they do not
have the power to act on your behalf, but they
can advise you on the best course of action.
One important piece of advice, after you
speak up, is to insist that the institution
provide a summary letter of their findings
on your complaint case. With that in place,
if any future employer has a question about
what happened, you have evidence that
your claims were upheld by an investigation
and there was no wrongdoing on your part.
However, be aware that such a summary
may also include negative, unsubstantiated
or biased testimony regarding your
own actions, which could damage your
Third, look for others who might be
experiencing the same situation but are
afraid of speaking up. Band together,
document your stories and amass evidence.
It is much more difficult for an institution
to ignore or brush away the concerns of
multiple researchers who present their case
Fourth, have an exit strategy in mind,
ideally in advance. This may be another
position in a different laboratory group,
department or even institution. Importantly,
this may mean cultivating other mentors
and collaborators well in advance so that you
can ask them for recommendation letters.
Starting the moment you decide to
speak up, you should be prepared for
retaliation—and it might come from
unexpected sources and colleagues. Think
through all the potential consequences
of speaking up, which may range from
tainting your reputation to being fired. Even
a well-founded complaint documenting
a clear history of abuse may elicit strong
And my last piece of advice: remind
yourself that you are a target, not a victim.
Just like targets of sexual harassment, you
did nothing wrong to bring on this bad
behaviour, and it is not your fault. It is
important to remember that you got
to your position by hard work and
scientific talent. Have confidence to stand up
to your bully—by finding allies, drawing
on institutional resources and reclaiming
Ultimately, of course, the only effective
way to stop the chain of academic bullying is
for the entire scientific workforce to decide
that bullying will no longer be tolerated in
our workplaces. ❐
Morteza Mahmoudi ✉
Department of Radiology and Precision
Health Program, Michigan State University,
Michigan, MI, USA.
Published: xx xx xxxx
1. Mahmoudi, M. Nature 562, 494 (2018).
2. Mahmoudi, M. Lancet 394, 1410 (2019).
M.M. is co-founder and director of Academic Parity
Movement, a non-profit organization dedicated to
addressing academic discrimination, violence and bullying.
Nature HumaN BeHaviour | www.nature.com/nathumbehav