Ah, Academic Hazing. Few graduate students escape the ivory tower without it, though the degree of hazing varies considerably by department and university. I certainly experienced my share, but I was extremely fortunate compared to most of my peers; many encountered faculty who seemed intent on throwing wrenches into otherwise elegant, streamlined dissertation plans, or actively derailing comprehensive exam or dissertation defenses with ostentatious erudition. A few I know even experienced borderline (or blatant) sexual harassment. Now, before I go further, I want to state that most faculty members are wonderful, beautiful, supporting people who want nothing more than to see graduate students succeed.
I have observed that some junior faculty (i.e., tenure-track or newly tenured) instigate academic hazing with their graduate students. If we assume that many junior faculty are suffering from impostor phenomenon (which the research supports), then it’s no stretch of logic to assume that those feelings are manifested through academic hazing. In other words, some junior faculty may feel inclined to prove themselves to their “more worthy” peers, and some elect to do so by asking graduate students questions that likely most veteran faculty would be unable to answer. Academic hazing in these cases are (usually) unintentional attempts at increasing status, typically to the detriment of the graduate student.
Sadly, some academic hazing is carried out by high-ranking faculty. Depending on the size of the department, this can create an almost impossible situation for a graduate student. If Sally relies on Professor X for funding, research, advisorship, or all three, then Sally has little to any recourse should Professor X be hell-bent on participating in academic hazing.
If You Are Experiencing Academic Hazing, There Are Things You Can Do
Pick your committee and advisor(s) carefully
This, I think, is the most efficient means to prevent such hazing. We advise all our clients to select their committee strategically, accepting the inevitable politics of academia and maneuvering accordingly. Yes, this sometimes means that you drop advisors in favor of others who support YOU and your research. That said, one’s committee selection is always at the mercy of department size, faculty interest, etc. According to graduate student attrition research, a graduate student’s relationship with his/her advisor is a major factor in whether or not the student drops out. Take it seriously.
Be up front about how you feel with your advisor/committee
Sometimes, faculty are simply unaware of how they’re treating you. Thus, if you feel like you’re being hazed, speak up and let them know. Graduate school is difficult enough; you don’t need to mess with these issues.
Talk to your fellow students
After experiencing harsh treatment by her adviser, a friend of ours found out that this faculty member had a track record for mistreating female graduate students. Many of her colleagues had dropped this adviser after similar treatment, and he never faced punishment because he knew exactly how far he could go without sanction. If our friend had spoken with her fellow students as small offenses occurred, she may have been alerted to his pattern before she received the full brunt of his hazing behavior.
Talk to your Director of Graduate Studies or the head of the Graduate School at your university
Another graduate student we know experienced continual manipulation by a faculty member for whom she was working as his research assistant (i.e., co-opting her research ideas such that she had no work to call her own after 18 months of working with him toward her dissertation). This student received a great deal of support from the Dean of her Graduate School. This person was a tremendous ally and advocate for her rights as a student. These administrators want to know when graduate students are experiencing mistreatment, and the situation cannot be improved for others if they do not know about such behavior. It can seem scary, but don’t be afraid to speak up!
If hazing reaches a certain level, contact your Title IX Office immediately
When in doubt, contact your Title IX Office (every university has one). These offices are there FOR YOU, with the explicit purpose of protecting students from all forms of discrimination. In my experience, Title IX offices will do absolutely everything they can to help you. But it starts with you letting them know what you need. If you need some help, contact them immediately.
I say again: Most faculty members are wonderful, beautiful, supporting people who want nothing more than to see graduate students succeed. Find these people. Ask them questions. Get them on your committee.
While the status differential between grad students and faculty can create an unfortunate opportunity for hazing, we have also heard about and personally experienced relationships with faculty mentors who provide tremendous support and care about their students. They are everywhere; try to seek them out.
To sum up, I give you the words of one of my dear mentors:
“This is YOUR program, not your committee’s. Consider them your board of advisors. If they don’t do their job, fire them and find someone that can.”
Want to Learn How to Thrive in Your Graduate Program? Head over to The Grad Academy Online for an online course that teaches you how to read, write, and succeed in graduate school. Find our course at JOIN.THEGRADACADEMY.COM.