'One in five PhD students experience undesirable conduct'

From screaming supervisors to professors wanting hugs, many PhD students experience undesirable conduct, warns interest group PNN. Whistle-blowing often yields no results. "It was made clear to me that I would not win anyway."

photo Yeexin Richelle/Shutterstock

There has been much talk about social safety in higher education. According to trade unions FNV and VAWO (which merged with The General Union of Education, AOb) four out of ten university employees suffer from bullying, gossiping, exclusion or abuses of power. The Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) published a major study on harassment last year.

Unfortunately, undesirable conduct occurs at all levels of academia. PhD students are also confronted with it, warns PhD Network Netherlands (PNN). This spring, PNN conducted a large survey among 1,601 PhD students. Approximately nineteen percent of them have experienced undesirable conduct - the female respondents significantly more often than their male counterparts (21 and 13 percent respectively).

Sex discrimination

The most commonly reported form of undesirable conduct is discrimination (nine percent). Female PhD students in particular experience sex discrimination, while international PhD students feel treated differently because of their country of origin or ethnicity.

Around five percent of respondents have been affected by a violation of scientific integrity; they may have colleagues who have been made co-author without any contribution, who have tampered with research results or are guilty of plagiarism.


Three percent of PhD students has felt sexually harassed at times, for example through inappropriate sexual comments or unwanted touching. In no less than 96 percent of the cases, it is women who experienced this form of undesirable conduct.

The specific examples that respondents mention in the survey are remarkable - from a supervisor who screams when she is dissatisfied to a professor who asks for hugs. One PhD student describes how her superiors shared sexual fantasies about her.


The question is what you can do as a PhD student in such a case. Of the respondents who have reported undesirable conduct to the university, less than half are satisfied with the support they received; in fact, 36 percent are very dissatisfied.

"It was made clear to me that, as a PhD student, I would not win this," writes one respondent who raised the issue of an integrity violation. "The board buried its head in the sand and made me a scapegoat," writes another.

Bottom of the ladder

Many PhD students get tangled up in complicated proceedings, or are even discouraged from starting a procedure, explains new PNN President Rosanne Anholt. "The problem is that PhD students are in a vulnerable position. They are at the very bottom of the hierarchical ladder and are heavily dependent on their supervisor."

In her opinion, offenders with 'star status' still too often receive protection from the university, for example because they secure many grants. "That's the worst part."

Status blind

Therefore, the PNN is calling for affordable, 'status blind' hotlines for PhD students who are confronted with undesirable conduct. Independent ombudsmen, for example, can take better action on behalf of the PhD student.

"Fortunately, universities are increasingly looking at social security," says Anholt. "But something like this has to filter down to where the problems really occur. Useful policies for management are not enough, because it only truly becomes clear how important this subject is to people when you get to department or research group level.”

At TU/e

The issue of undesirable conduct receives attention at TU/e. In January, women in science network WISE hosted a play about #MeTooAcademia, which was followed by four online ‘Active bystander’ training sessions last week. The four training sessions were part of TU/e’s Diversity Week.

During the sessions, participants learned how they, as bystanders, can recognize and change undesirable conduct. Evelyn Douw, who organized the sessions on behalf of WISE, says that forty employees took part in each of the four sessions, which were scheduled to take place

earlier this year but were eventually held online due to corona. “And I have another 75 people on the waiting list for new training sessions. We’ve had many positive responses to the sessions. We are currently in talks within TU/e to add the session to the standard package of training sessions,” Douw says.

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