Early career researchers' perspectives on power abuse in academia

Jana Lasser     |     jana.lasser@tugraz.at     |     @janalasser

slides available at

Who am I?

  • 2008 - 2015: Studied physics in Göttingen.

  • 2015 - 2018: PhD at MPI for Dynamics and Self-Organization.

  • During PhD: part of Max Planck PhDnet, 2018 president of PhDnet.

  • Now: PostDoc in Computational Social Science lab at TU Graz.

  • Ongoing: Advisory board member N², engagement for open and transparent research practices.

  • Cases of power abuse in the Max Planck Society

  • Two big cases in institutes in Garching and Leipzig in 2018, big media fuzz.
  • Many conversations with affected people and PhD representatives.
  • We (PhD reps) started to see patterns and points of friction.
  • See N² position paper, May 2019 "Power Abuse and Conflict Resolution".

    What I am going to talk about

  • Power differentials & the ubiquity of power abuse in academia.

  • Serious consequences: mental health & bad scientific practice.

  • Ways forward: what can we do to prevent power abuse?
  • Power abuse in "the wild"
    Case I: mobbing

    Situation Big, time-critical project, PI is under high pressure, doctoral researcher (DR) gets pregnant.
    Conflict DR wants to take maternal leave, preliminary results don't support the primary hypothesis.
    Consequence Emotional pressure to work overtime, take no or only short maternal leave, don't produce "negative" results.
    Help? Equal opportunity office is not contacted, because of fear for the success of the PhD project and degree.
    Outcome Depression, PTSD, good scientific practice is endangered.
    Case II: mobbing and power abuse

    Situation International DR with a short contract duration. PI and lab assistant are married.
    Conflict Personal conflict between DR and PI around taking vacation.
    Consequence DR is not supported in the lab. Missing support and materials lead to lower quality of results. The contract is not renewed, citing missing results as reason.
    Help? Works council or ombudsman is not contacted because the international DR didn't know about them.
    Outcome The PhD project is aborted.
    Case III: power abuse

    Situation DR wants to finish the PhD degree within the agreed upon time (3+1 years).
    Conflict The PI insists on another publication and refuses to let the DR finish.
    Consequence Finishing the PhD degree is delayed, the contract runs out. The DR continues working on unemployment money. Because of the interpersonal conflict, the PI does not issue a letter of recommendation.
    Help? The DR contacts the ombudsperson, but they refuse to act because they insist they are not responsible.
    Outcome The DR gets their degree, but their scientific career is over.
    Case IV: power abuse

    Situation Well-known PI, many DRs, risky projects, weak PhD committees, short contract durations. International DR with a young family.
    Conflict Contract renewal is tied to short-term scientific success and publications. The DR's residence permit is tied to the work contract.
    Consequence DR works 70+ hours / week, doesn't take vacation.
    Help? Ombudsperson is not contacted since they are employed by the PI on a short-term contract themselves and not independent.
    Outcome Sloppy science, immense psychological pressure.
    Power differentials in academia

  • Employment: Supervisors often decide over contract durations, extensions and payment level. Visas might depend on the existence of a working contact.

  • Evaluation: Supervisors supervise the daily work and evaluate the PhD thesis in the end.

  • Reputation: Reputation is necessary to secure positions. This is codified in the letter of recommendation that supervisors are often asked to provide.

  • Knowledge: Fluctuation among early career reserachers is high. They often know less about institutional mechanisms and their rights than their supervisors.

  • See Lasser et al. 2021 "Power abuse and anonymous accusations in academia – Perspectives from early career researchers and recommendations for improvement" in Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung for details.

    Singular cases? Bullying as manifestation of power abuse

    "While working at your institute/center, have you at any point been subjected to bullying by a superior?"
    See "Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2019" and "Arbeitskultur und Arbeitsatmosphäre in der MPG" for details.
    Satisfaction of doctoral researchers
    Serious consequences: mental health & bad scientific practice

    Prevalence of depression and anxiety

    Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2019

    Demographic factors of anxiety

    Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2019

    Relation of anxiety and depression to supervision satisfaction

    Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2019

    Relation of anxiety to bullying and harassment

    Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2019

    Satisfaction with supervision and giving up

    Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2019

    Many factors correlate with mental health

    Bad scientific practice

    Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2018

    Is the Ombuds-system enough?

    Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2018

    What happens if I report misconduct?

    Max Planck PhDnet survey report 2018


  • Cases of power abuse, mental health issues and bad scientific practice are widespread.
  • There is a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing towards the relationship between supervisor and DR, and the academic working environment as an important factor for mental health.
  • So far we know little about the direct relation between power abuse and bad scientific practice. Singular cases nevertheless point towards patterns.
  • Ways forward

    Power abuse and conflict resolution

  • Prevention of power abuse: Professionalisazion of supervision, division of supervision, evaluation and employment, implementation of a healthy feedback culture.

  • Protection of victims: Support by the institution for the completion of the degree. Continued access to data and facilities. Possibility of anonymous reports.

  • Arbitration of conflicts: Implementation of a code of conduct. Establishment of independent, multi-stage conflict resolution mechanisms. Confidentiality and documentation of cases. Continuous communication about the existence of arbitration processes.

  • Consequences for offenders: Consequences dependent on severity: Mandatory training and coaching. Co-supervision. Complete prohibition to supervise. Notification to funding bodies. Criminal prosecution.
  • See N², 2019 "Power abuse and conflict resolution" for details.

    Some best-practice examples

  • Formalization and professionalization of supervision:
    thesis advisory committee

  • Accountability of supervisors for supervision quality:
    institutional guidelines

  • Managing and communicating expectations:
    supervision agreement

  • Empowering doctoral researchers:
    PhD representation

  • ...

  • Does this work?


    Does this work?


    Does this work?


    Does this work?


    Does this work?


    What's next?

  • Read the survey reports for the Max Planck Society, Helmholtz association and Leibniz society.

  • COST action "researcher mental health": large-scale survey on researcher mental health, looking for participating institutions

  • "Netzwerk Machtmissbrauch" for the DACH-region: official start mid Oktober, looking for members.

  • Interested? Contact me at jana.lasser@tugraz.at or Twitter @janalasser.