In many leading scientific nations, early-career researchers who arrive from other countries are playing a growing part in research. The proportion of postdoctoral researchers on temporary visas in the United States, for example, rose from 39% in 2009 to 56% in 2019, while that of research assistants working in the United Kingdom but born elsewhere increased from 43% in 2013 to 50% in 2021. That’s good for science, because, according to some studies, researchers who work outside their home nation are disproportionately productive, at least when measured in terms of publications and patents1.
That life can be hard for junior scientists is hardly news. Research going back many years shows the ways in which poor job security, low pay and intense competition for permanent positions can lead to disenchantment. Junior scientists face other problems too. One 2021 survey of more than 2,000 — mostly early-career — scientists found that most of the respondents had either witnessed or experienced bullying by academics in positions of authority, and that bullied researchers working abroad reported more-severe impacts than did their domestic colleagues, including threats to cancel their visas2.
According to the study, carried out by Morteza Mahmoudi, a nanoscientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and Sherry Moss, an organizational-studies researcher at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, most targets of academic bullying do not report their experiences, because they fear retaliation. For international researchers, the stakes are often even higher. Complaints about their treatment at the hands of more-senior academics can put both their professional prospects and their residency in the host country at risk. That makes quantifying the problem difficult, although it is highly likely that most of those who are affected by bullying suffer in silence.
An accompanying article features accounts of PhD candidates and postdocs working abroad being verbally abused, threatened, made to work excessive hours and being financially exploited. Nature agreed to their requests for anonymity because the researchers feared the potential negative career impact of speaking out. In this second article, they join researchers who study bullying in academia to share perspectives on why bullying happens, what bullied researchers can do to protect themselves and how the exploitation of scientists who work abroad can be addressed.
Imbalance of power
In a study published in 2018, Christopher Hayter, a higher-education and science-policy researcher at Arizona State University in Phoenix, reported cases of foreign postdocs in the United States working more than 100 hours a week and experiencing pay cuts that were linked to the renewal of their visas3.
“It’s just part of the way universities work that there is very little oversight” of principal investigators (PIs), says Hayter, whose study was based on interviews with postdocs, PIs and other employees at five US universities. “The structures that govern universities are made up mainly of PIs and former PIs. They have no incentive to set up systems to observe what’s happening in labs and check people are being treated properly.”
Mahmoudi and Moss are co-founders of the Academic Parity Movement, which campaigns against bullying in academia. They emphasize the gulf in power between PIs and early-career researchers, noting previous research by Bennett Tepper, a psychologist at the Ohio State University in Columbus, on the consequences of this gulf4.
“The main driving force for bullying is power difference,” says Mahmoudi. “And the power difference between international researchers and their supervisors is greater than between domestic researchers and their supervisors.” Hayter agrees, saying that international postdocs experience many of the same problems as those working in the countries of their birth, but to a greater extent. “Their foreignness makes them more vulnerable to some of the challenges that all postdocs face,” he says (see ‘Harassment and discrimination’).
When visas are weapons
One contributor to this power imbalance is the control that academic managers have over international scholars’ immigration status. Although many senior academics nurture and support students and junior researchers from abroad, five international early-career researchers told Nature in the accompanying article that they had variously endured verbal abuse, bullying, threats and financial exploitation at the hands of their managers because they feared their temporary visas might not be renewed if they complained.
A chemist from the Middle East described how his PhD supervisor at a US university used immigration status as a weapon during a campaign of abuse and bullying against him and a female colleague. “He knew we were on a single-entry F-1 visa, so we would have to stay with him until we graduate or get a permanent-residency green card, which is hard,” he says. “He knew we would do anything he said and work harder than the others in the lab so we could stay. He took advantage of that.”
Among participants in Mahmoudi and Moss’s study of academic bullying, only 29% reported their cases2. Of these, 58% reported that the outcomes of their complaints were unfair and biased. Even among those who receive a fair hearing, visa systems can mean the odds are still stacked against them.
“An institution’s complaints process often takes at least a couple of months,” says Mahmoudi. “If you no longer have a position, you have very little time to find a new one, so you may have to leave the country before your case is decided. Bullies often use the threat of visa cancellation to ensure their targets stay silent.”
Some researchers say the mistreatment of international scientists is part of a widespread exploitation of immigrant workers. In 2010, higher-education researchers Brendan Cantwell at Michigan State University and Jenny Lee at the University of Arizona undertook a series of in-depth interviews with 49 postdocs and supervisors at four universities, two each in the United States and United Kingdom5.
Cantwell and Lee set their work in a theory of “academic capitalism”, in which universities increasingly shift away from serving the public good and towards serving private, market-based interests. They also described some universities as operating in a “neoracist” framework.
The study found that some senior academics might find employing Asian postdocs appealing for reasons “related to their temporary visa status … limited English skills, and the assumption that [they] are non-striving people who do not demand advancement opportunities”.
Cantwell and Lee also found that some postdocs felt under pressure to live up to racial stereotypes such as these, leading to discriminatory working conditions. “International postdocs, especially those from Asia, reported feeling that they are expected to spend much more time working and are afforded fewer liberties to meet family and social obligations.”
So what can be done to better protect international researchers? Those who spoke to Nature about their mistreatment while working abroad said a good starting point was to get to know their rights. Policies set out on graduate-school or faculty websites and in employment contracts include information on things such as working hours, holidays, PhD milestones and student choice in research projects, for example.
“I think most bullying happens because international students arriving in a foreign country with a different culture don’t know whether there are detailed rules that set out their rights,” one interviewee says. “The first thing people need to do is to educate themselves.”
Many people who experience bullying do not raise complaints because they fear they won’t be believed. Collecting evidence can make all the difference. That could simply mean forwarding any incriminating e-mails to a personal address, saving them on a hard drive or recording web-based lab meetings.
“I would recommend anyone who feels bullied that they start to gather documents and evidence,” says the chemist from the Middle East. He and his colleague felt able to complain to their university only after the coronavirus pandemic meant their supervisor’s abuse shifted to online lab meetings, allowing them to record it. “Without evidence, I would still be stuck in his lab,” he adds.
The two chemists also highlight how international scholars can sometimes find themselves interacting mainly or solely with others from their own countries or other foreigners, potentially leaving them isolated and unaware of their rights. One of the reasons researchers who work in their home countries are less vulnerable to mistreatment is that they are often more aware of sources of advice and better able to access assistance when things go wrong.
“As international students, we kept ourselves to ourselves,” says the female chemist. “Later, we found there are a lot of nice, decent people in the university who were willing to help us. People should not be scared to talk to others and seek help.”
At some universities, early-career researchers have gone beyond informal networks to pool their strength and actively campaign for improved rights and protections. UAW Local 5810 is a union that represents 11,000 postdocs and academic researchers at all campuses of the University of California and at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California. It is part of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.
“About two-thirds of our postdoc members are from outside the US,” says Neal Sweeney, president of UAW Local 5810. The first employment contract negotiated by the union with the University of California, in 2010, included protection against discrimination on grounds including race and nationality. It also included defined processes to deal with disputes, and a right to arbitration by an independent third party if university procedures cannot resolve disputes.
“The contract doesn’t mean problems, including discrimination, have gone away,” adds Sweeney. “But just having it in place has improved the rights of postdocs, and it means we have a much stronger process to address them when they happen.”
Researchers working abroad are more vulnerable to mistreatment if they have short-term contracts. A biologist from China told Nature how, under his PhD supervisor Ian Baldwin, at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, he was provided with a two-year stipend. After this was renewed, Baldwin told the student he would not be awarded further funding if he went ahead with a trip to visit his parents. The student says that short-term funding had much greater impacts on junior researchers working away from home.
(Baldwin, who is still funded by and works at the Max Planck Society (MPS), says he does not recall saying this. He told Nature: “I don’t see that as an unreasonable managerial statement, particularly when someone is not making any progress.” A spokesperson for the MPS said it couldn’t answer some questions about Baldwin, because this would violate his legal rights as a member of staff. They also stated that new management training and coaching for staff have been introduced, and that all Max Planck Institutes are now required to conduct work and leadership-culture surveys on a three-year cycle.
UAW Local 5810 has previously negotiated a minimum appointment term of one year, a period which it is trying to increase, in part because of the link between employment and US visas for foreign members. There are many other unions representing early-career researchers in the United States and in countries across the world.
Although unions can help to enforce the rights of international researchers, many researchers think change should instead come from the top.
Mahmoudi says university leaders and higher-education policymakers will not do what is needed to stamp out bullying until the extent of the problem is more widely appreciated. Researchers, scientific journals, universities, funders and academic societies are among those needing to do more to highlight the issue, he says. “Most members of the public think ‘academic bullying’ is something that happens at school,” he says. “Many don’t know it happens at universities, so the first step is we need to raise awareness.”
Funding agencies have, in recent years, taken steps in the right direction to combat bullying and harassment in general. In 2018, for example, the biomedical funding charity Wellcome in London introduced policies to crack down on bullying. Organizations applying to Wellcome for funding must confirm that lead applicants have “not had allegations of bullying or harassment upheld against them for which there are current disciplinary warnings or active sanctions”. The organizations must also have clear policies on staff behaviour.
Wellcome further states that it could ban institutions from making grant applications if they fail to investigate such allegations in an impartial, fair and timely manner. In March, it reported having received 39 allegations of bullying or harassment relating to organizations it had funded between the policy’s introduction and September 2021, and that it had applied sanctions in seven of those cases.
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, outlined measures designed to combat bullying, as well as sexual harassment, in 2019 and 2020. These state that universities must inform the NIH if a senior scientist is removed from a team receiving a grant because of an investigation into their behaviour. Penalties for perpetrators include being kept off peer-review panels, suspension of pending grants and having requests to transfer funding to other institutions refused when they change jobs.
However, Hayter argues that measures such as these will not solve the problem because they rely on universities acting against their own interests by reporting cases. Mahmoudi points to a 2018 report6 by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, showing that the rate of cases of sexual harassment against female researchers had not decreased in the previous 30 years despite the introduction of university guidelines and monitoring.
Many universities already have policies against bullying, but Mahmoudi argues that impartial national, or even international, bodies are needed to educate institutions in how to conduct fair investigations into complaints.
Others say that without fundamental changes to the ways in which senior scientists are assessed and incentivized, bullying and exploitation of foreign early-career researchers will continue.
This is a sentiment shared by the Chinese biologist who worked for Baldwin. “Professors are judged on how many papers they publish, impact factors and how much funding they secure for their institutions,” he says. “Perhaps they should also be evaluated on how good they are at teaching, and whether they are nurturing the next generation of scientists.”