The Pathology of Normalcy: Abuse of the Best PhD Students

November 4, 2014

As a former corporate attorney (Columbia, JD, 1982), I had an atypical perspective on PhD education. My legal education and my years in New York had taught me that, when something is wrong — especially when something is wrong in a publicly funded program at a state institution — you should say so. That may seem like common sense — but then, common sense can get you terminated.

I summarized my own years in PhD programs in a post titled Overqualified for Higher Ed: The Life Experience PhD. The point of that post is that PhD programs can be so narrowminded, so stuck in dysfunctional ways, that they may actually deskill and debilitate students. In many fields, a majority of PhD students are eliminated before they complete their degree — essentially wasting years of their lives, and redirecting enormous amounts of private and governmental money to university faculty and administrators that would have been better spent elsewhere — and those who do finish may find that their educations have made them more knowledgeable in a narrow specialty but practically worthless on the job market.

It is not just a matter of wasted time and money. There is an element of psychological warfare. As discussed in a related manuscript, the most ethical and forward-looking students can be targeted for abuse, by faculty and by fellow students alike, for failing to condone and facilitate corrupt practices within their institutions. It is possible for a new arrival to be a misfit in such a program, not because s/he lacks skills and attitudes needed to lead the next generation of undergraduates but, on the contrary, because s/he is basically too good for the program in question.

Such outcomes illustrate an observation by Eric Fromm (1955, p. 15): “the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” Fromm may have been particularly driven to that realization by his origins in, and flight from, Nazi Germany. But his observation — “that human nature and society can have conflicting demands, and hence that a whole society can be sick” (p. 19) — can obviously apply to the smaller scale of a particular community, organization, or family.

Fromm’s argument is that, in effect, there are at least two ways in which you can be a misfit in, for example, a PhD program. On one hand, you can become a misfit from the perspective of the state or society that funds the program and that entertains certain assumptions and expectations about that program. In this case, you facilitate immoral uses of funds and abuses of students, lending your active or passive support to the corruption of higher education generally and of your program in particular. The interests you serve are not those of the public; they are the private and selfish interests of faculty and administrators who are basically looting the system.

You may tell yourself that you are going along with such behaviors so that, someday, you will be on top of the heap, and then you can reform the system; but someday never comes. For one generation after another, the corruption becomes more firmly embedded. If you are going to stop it, you have to begin now, and for most academics “now” is not a comfortable word.

So you can be a misfit within the larger society by abusing that society’s trust in your university department. Or you can become a different kind of misfit by doing just the opposite: you can speak up, stand your ground, or otherwise demonstrate your commitment to the larger social interests. In this case, you become an irritant to the faculty members and administrators who wish to pursue their thefts and abuses without interference. By blowing the whistle, initiating a formal complaint or grievance, or otherwise signaling your determined nonconsent to the embedded corruption, you make yourself a target. As demonstrated, again, in posts from my own experiences at Indiana University, academia will not tend to celebrate your stance and recommit itself to appropriate outcomes. The very nature of a corrupt entity is that it rejects loyalty to abstract principles of fairness or honesty; it sees investigations and judicial proceedings as mere tools or maneuvers, to be manipulated for predetermined purposes.

The extent of the corruption of PhD programs is not in dispute. As noted in a set of articles in the prestigious scientific journal Nature (April 21, 2011), PhD education is seriously flawed — around the world, and in the U.S. in particular. In one such article, Mark Taylor of Columbia describes the situation as follows:

The system of PhD education in the United States and many other countries is broken and unsustainable, and needs to be reconceived. In many fields, it creates only a cruel fantasy of future employment that promotes the self-interest of faculty members at the expense of students. The reality is that there are very few jobs for people who might have spent up to 12 years on their degrees. . . . The academic job market collapsed in the 1970s, yet universities have not adjusted their admissions policies, because they need graduate students to work in laboratories and as teaching assistants.

Note that these Nature articles are focused particularly on PhDs in science and technical fields, where (one is often told) there is relatively robust demand for highly educated individuals. The situation is even worse in other fields. In another of those Nature articles, David Cyranoski et al. puts it this way:

People who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack. Supply has outstripped demand and, although few PhD holders end up unemployed, it is not clear that spending years securing this high-level qualification is worth it for a job as, for example, a high-school teacher.

Nor is there any doubt that PhD students are fair game for abuse. Here, however, the academics tend to fall silent. For some reason, there does not seem to be a great deal of research, by professors, into the forms of abuse that professors indulge. This phenomenon, explored to some extent in my manuscript, is the subject of research underway by Esther Israel. According to Israel’s unpublished early documents (citations omitted),

There is little empirical information about the prevalence of academic termination specific to the discipline of psychology . . . . The lack of current information and dialogue likely reflects the difficulties of attrition research and also suggests that the effects of this phenomenon on the graduate student, the academic institution, and the psychological discipline at large, are unexamined. In particular, the perspectives of terminated students are unaddressed. . . .

(Israel, herself, was ejected from a PhD program after identifying an instance of academic dishonesty — an experience that I, myself, had at the University of Arkansas.)

A search suggests that, notwithstanding the professors’ apathy on the matter, large numbers of present and former PhD students do take an interest in abuses that they and their classmates have experienced and observed. A brief look at a few of the websites turned up in that search yields the following remarks:

  • Shannon Lee of WorldWideLearn offers a list of seven myths about earning your PhD online. Among these, she claims that “Students pursuing an online doctorate degree will have the same financial issues as those who are getting their degree in a brick-and-mortar classroom setting. The cost of an online degree might actually be a bit less.” These are falsehoods. The financial issues in brick-and-mortar programs tend to be completely different, and less severe. Traditional PhDs commonly obtain funding through assistantships that include tuition waivers, stipends somewhere near the cost of subsistence, and other benefits (e.g., health insurance).
  • Bridget criticizes graduate school in general as a potential waste of time, often undertaken for lame reasons (e.g., “I didn’t have a job lined up”; “I didn’t know what else to do”).
  • Geremia asks whether a dean can suspend a PhD student in response to an apparently unfounded accusation, while denying the student an opportunity for an fair and appropriate formal hearing on the matter.
  • An article by Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic presents data on the “scientist surplus” mentioned above. Mike offers further commentary; so do others.
  • James Mulvey says that a quote from Thomas H. Benton (2010) — “There should be a special place in hell for the professors who—at the end of an advisee’s 10-year graduate program with no job in sight—say, ‘well, academe is not for everyone'” — changed his life.
  • offers 12 (Million) Reasons Not to Get a PhD, noting that “the number of PhD’s who filed for food stamps tripled to more than 33,655 in 2010.” That post draws commentary elsewhere.

The financial orientation of those sample results is matched by the abuse orientation of a few examples from another search:

  • A Canadian webpage cites the Canadian Human Rights Act as providing protections against sexual harassment — though that promise did not appear to be borne out in the case of one Canadian woman who has contacted me with remarks about apparent manipulation of her university’s grievance procedures.
  • Anders Nilsson states that, at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institutet, “one in six doctoral students has suffered harassment or discrimination, often at the hands of their own supervisors.”
  • Kean Birch cites numerous sources, including The Adjunct Project, and concludes that “the two-tier (or three-tier if we include graduate student labour) structure of university teaching is deeply problematic, structurally embedded and performatively embodied all in one.”
  • An unnamed student, quoted in The Guardian, says,
    • When I was 17, my college calculus teaching assistant raped me. I reported the assault to multiple university offices and the police. Yet, he went on to complete his graduate degree at our prominent university. I felt so threatened by the lack of institutional response – if he could do this with impunity, what else could he do? – that I returned a $30,000 scholarship stipend despite living below the poverty line, and left the state. In the 11 years since, university responses to sexual harassment have improved. Yet, significant problems remain. Sadly, I know this first-hand because a professor assaulted and propositioned me as a PhD student this year.
  • Keith Appleby experienced a “kangaroo court” in disciplinary proceedings at the University of Oregon reminiscent of my own experience in similar proceedings at Indiana University.
  • Brian Martin provides a discussion of academic exploitation, which he defines as “the taking of credit for work done by a person in a subordinate position.” That may have happened to me; it has happened to other students I have known.

Finally, a few illustrations from a search focused particularly on forms of psychological abuse:

  • An anonymous student (in a post in the Bullying of Academics in Higher Education blog) describes various behaviors indulged and fostered by faculty, including shunning, stealing ideas and work product, being expected to work beyond contractual hours, and being subjected to demeaning remarks in front of others.
  • A black student describes the response of a black professor when he questioned authorship (apparently involving another instance of stealing someone else’s work): “Who the *uck do you think you are?  Don’t you know I could *uck your career up?” Pursuing the matter, the student said a black administrator later explained, “oh no we don’t want this information to get out because [professor so and so] brings [insert famous politician] yearly to this university.”
  • Gina Hiatt says, “As an academic coach, I could add many more examples of graduate students and professors of all ranks being victimized by mean, nasty, harsh, underhanded, passive aggressive or bullying behavior at the hands of other academics.” Hiatt quotes Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca, the authors of Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About Itfor the observation that such aggression is increasingly common. Hiatt offers advice for those who receive such treatment.
  • KettleOfFish asks how common bullying is in grad school. There are numerous responses.

In these various ways — psychological, financial, and so forth — it appears that abuse of PhD students is common. In that case, it does seem remarkable that, while there are no doubt many professors who do not abuse students, there are not (as observed by Israel, above) many professors who have made a point of researching and/or agitating for change. Abuse recurs, and becomes more established and accepted, precisely because those who could have made a difference are often unwilling to do so.

While that can be cast as a matter of personal moral failing, the better conclusion may be that it is, to borrow the word used above, a structural problem. The people who are accepted into graduate education, and who thrive and become dominant there, tend to be immoral, in the sense of prioritizing their personal interests above all else. Some commit actual abuse; the rest are merely complicit in it. In Fromm’s term, theirs is the pathology of narcissism, defined as extreme or excessive selfishness, self-centeredness, or preoccupation with oneself. The academic sphere is designed to promote a disgusting sort of person — the kind who may claim deep concern about random charitable and sociopolitical causes, but who evinces a practical absence of empathy for suffering that takes place right before their eyes.

As I say, one would readily conclude that this pathology is not pervasive, were there an evident widespread struggle, in academia, between the abusers and their more principled adversaries. The unfortunate absence of any such struggle does seem to make the point.


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