My HOD, Bullied Me! But I Earned My PhD With Pride!

I was silently declared an outcast, and even being seen talking to me was a crime enough to invoke the HOD’s displeasure against the party seen with me.

I am one of the youngest doctorates from my University, having completed my research work in the UGC recommended record time of 2.5 years at the age of 25 years. The decision to pursue the PhD was a decision that I took when I was just 7 years old.

It was because of the influence of my mother, three of my aunts, my uncles, my cousin, and two of my sisters-in-law from my parental side, all of who have completed PhDs during the early period of their academic careers way back in the 1980s. I grew up under the influence and shelter of such accomplished women, who served as my role models.

I secured the Second Rank in the faculty of Arts at, the University of Allahabad (2011) upon Graduation, for which I was selected for the UGC’s PG University Rank Holder Fellowship. This stipend motivated me further on the academic path since I could see myself getting established economically as well.

Despite the guidance I received from my elderly, my journey through the PhD programme was far from being a smooth one.

Not an easy ride

My father suffered a stroke and passed away a month before my final year examinations of PG. The suddenness of his death shook my entire family. My sister was merely 14 years old then. Even though my mother was a working woman, she was too shocked at having lost her husband too after her two babies.

Suddenly, I didn’t remain one of the children but the elder daughter of the family. But I knew there is no time left to mourn. With less than a month to my final examinations, I had to top once again to fulfil my father’s lifelong wish.

My academic success could be the only worthy tribute to him. And I worked hard to accomplish that. Ultimately, I topped the final year of Post-graduation in English Literature in the year 2013, consistently 5 times in a row (Graduation and Post-Graduation).

Some male students spread rumours about my academic success just because I was a girl born to a professor and doctor, so somewhat privileged, but my selection in PhD cleared all doubts.

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I qualified for the all-India level research admission test for PhD conducted by the university. My happiness knew no bounds as I saw my name on the list of selected candidates. Little did I know, that the real ordeal was about to start as I was soon going to be a victim of the power politics in the institution.

As happens with every student, I too had idealized one of my professors since my graduation, as it was her lectures that made me fall in love with the subject of English Literature. Seats for doing PhD are limited in each University and each faculty member can take only a limited number of students under their supervision so that each of the teachers has an approximately equal allocation of students.

I once again confirmed my intention of doing the PhD under the guidance of the teacher I mentioned above, and she consented, stating that she would not give consent to any other student since I asked her first, and she only had one position available.

The HOD (Head of the Department), then, was the wife of a very influential civil servant of the country, and use to surround herself with the shared aura of her husband’s position, so much so that people were afraid to go against her, leave alone voicing their discontent.

I apologize for referring to a lady’s political power in terms of her husband’s, but this is what happened to me. I should mention that the HOD’s position is on a 2-year rotational basis, which she acquired solely because of her professional expertise and nothing else. However, the treatment I was subjected to was an unjustified one.

Finding a supervisor became a ‘matter of ego’

As happens in most institutions, the seat under the HOD is the most coveted one, it was so in my alma mater too. However, I was unaware that even the topper of the department was also much coveted. As luck would have it, the HOD was quite willing to take me under her supervision and called me to discuss her idea.

I was pleasantly surprised and frankly admit a little proud that the HOD who had never taught me in my Undergraduate and Post-graduate years has noticed my academic performance.

As I had already discussed my research idea with the professor I mentioned before, I went to the HOD’s cabin to politely tell her that I am already halfway through my synopsis after having discussed my idea with the other professor. When I told her this, she said that we could rework my idea with her and tempted me with the potential favours she could grant to my academic career.

There were other faculty members too who tried to persuade me to come under the supervision of the HOD, and I too could see the benefits of submitting the research work under the HOD and felt tempted by the offers.

I asked for advice

However, almost instantly, I felt a pang of guilt at this thought.  I was brought up in a family of academicians and teachers, and Guru-Shishya loyalty was taught to me as the most sacred code of ethics in academics.

I knew that the deadline for submitting the synopsis was in a week, and by now almost everyone had talked and discussed their synopsis with the teacher they are comfortable with. If I were going to leave the supervision of the other professor, I would be breaking the sacred code of loyalty that I had established with her since my undergraduate years.

So, I again politely requested the HOD that since I have been working with the other professor for quite some time a comfort level and rapport have already been established and with only one week left for submission it will be best for me to continue working under her as I was already halfway through my synopsis.

Hearing this and after having tried for half an hour to persuade me, the HOD was out of herself and decided to go to any extent for her ego satisfaction. She called up the other professor and citing her overbearing influences on account of her husband’s position signalled that she and her husband would be offended if I had not publicly apologized to her for not coming under her supervision.

Why did I have to cater to someone’s ego?

The other professor then called me up and advised me to apologize to the HOD for the sake of her ego satisfaction.

I agreed immediately even when I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong because I didn’t want a problem in my otherwise untainted academic career. However, the HOD was not ready to let the matter go; definitely not with a mere apology.

She made me stand in the corridor from the morning office hours till the evening, during which she called me inside her cabin twice, only to humiliate me in front of the peon screaming that She wouldn’t hear a word from my mouth without the witness of my potential supervisor.

She would then go on to humiliate me till I was in tears, upon seeing which she instructed me out of the room to cry in the public eye. When other teachers tried to intervene since I was the topper of that year’s batch, she would automatically change her stance saying:

“I don’t know why she is crying. I never forced her to work under me. She is the PRIDE OF THE DEPARTMENT. And no one can stop her from pursuing a PhD from this institution.”

Everyone now pitied me

Saying this, she used to speak the last line with such chilling pauses and stresses that every teacher would leave her cabin without another word. Again, she would rush me outside with renewed humiliation and inconsolable cries.

My batch mates, my teachers, my juniors, for all of who I was an inspiration till the previous day were now pitying me for my plight.

I called up my supervisor seeking her guidance in this matter, and she suggested standing there till her bouts of anger are spent over me, and she accepts my apology. She called me inside for the third time in the afternoon at around 2 PM and commanded me to come with my supervisor.

It would only be then that she would consider listening to my apology. I requested my supervisor to come along with me. She had left for home by then. But seeing the gravity of the situation, she returned to bear witness to another episode of my humiliation at the hands of the HOD and repeated apologies to me.

After this, the HOD finally said that she has no hard feelings whatsoever, and she never wanted me to apologize as I am “THE PRIDE OF THE DEPARTMENT; THE JEWEL ANYONE WOULD LOVE TO TAKE UNDER THEIR SUPERVISION.”

I never thought that this statement would become a paradox for me.

I came out of the HOD’s room to leave for my home while my asthma was getting triggered. I was exhausted from crying all day long and needed rest. Furthermore, I had slept for an hour or so when my supervisor called me to say that today’s episode was too much for her health to handle, and she does not want to offend the HOD any further.

My supervisor of choice abandoned me

That is why, she would not be taking any student under her supervision for that academic year and I should search for another supervisor before the date of my interview, which was scheduled in the next five days.

I got the shock of my life because if it had not been for my loyalty towards my teacher, I would not have been in this ordeal in the first place and here she ditched me because she did not want to be on the brunt of the HOD’s wrath.

I was so desperate at this juncture that I immediately called up the HOD to take me back into consideration. However, she said that she was busy then and if I wanted to talk to her, I must come to her the next day accompanied by my mother.

Now she wanted to humiliate my mother

My mother was working as a professor in another subject at the same university and was the HOD of her department. I was reluctant to take my recently widowed mother to face the same ordeal as I had faced yesterday, especially when she was still mourning and working full-time to get our lives back on track.

But other professors suggested that she won’t be so rude to a colleague, and perhaps she wanted to end things on good terms by calling my mother for a cup of tea.

But as suspected, she had called my mother to receive an obligatory apology on my behalf only to sign the letter of consent for someone else’s candidature, telling my mother how all students were dying to come under her supervision, so her seats are filled. I was again brimming with tears for dragging my mother into this.

I tried to request many other teachers from the department then, but having witnessed the entire incident, everyone felt threatened by the HOD and politely declined my request. Furthermore, I was desperate as the interview was in a day and I didn’t want a gap year on my resume.

My mother became my greatest support then and comforted me telling that “the appointment of the supervisor isn’t a prerequisite for appearing in the interview and your academic credentials are enough to promise you at least the last seat even if you get a zero in the interview. You just prepare well for your interview and see what happens next. It is the duty of the HOD to provide a supervisor to any candidate that has cleared the interview.”

Armed with her motivation, I appeared in the interview and definitely didn’t score a zero because even the HOD knew that she could be legally implicated if she will deliberately stoop to partial behaviour after the large-scale notoriety of what she had subjected me to.

If I was the ‘pride of the department’ why did you bully me?

During the interview, she again stated: “You are the pride of our department; I wonder why no one is willing to take you under their supervision. Anyway, I have requested one of our associate professors to guide you since all professors are unwilling to take you.”

I couldn’t have been happier at the thought that my dream of pursuing a PhD and making my parents proud is not getting delayed.

However, the HOD’s wrath was still far from over. I was silently declared an outcast, and even being seen talking to me was a crime enough to invoke the HOD’s displeasure against the party seen with me. I spent the 6 months of my Pre-D. Phil programmes as a sidelined and ostracized individual who was left unseen.

This treatment was further breaking my confidence and willpower to continue my PhD.

But luck was on my side

Perhaps the goddess of luck smiled on me after passing through this ordeal, as my new supervisor was the most understanding teacher and one of the best human beings I ever met. She became like a second mother to me.

She stood by me when the same HOD tried to subject me to further problems and didn’t let her come in my path of completing my PhD in the record time of 2.5 years. Likewise, she even warned my new supervisor to be aware of me because I must have been insane for not choosing her over everybody else.

During this time, since my colleagues were afraid of talking to me, I was getting plenty of time for library and research consultation. I further engrossed myself in studies and qualified for the all-India level National Eligibility Test (NET) in English Literature.

I published 10 International research papers in refereed, peer-reviewed; high-impact factor journals and presented papers in 2 International and 6 National and UGC-sponsored seminars. Presenting papers in one of these International Seminars was forbidden to others by the HOD because the Indian Members of the organizing committee refused to felicitate her.

But since I was already banished from her realm of unwritten rules and my supervisor was very supportive, I was able to present a paper in that seminar while many others missed this opportunity because they were afraid of the HOD.

I continued my hard work

I continued to secure new academic heights throughout my PhD, with constant support from my supervisor and my family. As luck would have it, my supervisor received her long-due promotion while I was still under her supervision and became a professor. The jab that the HOD took at the time of the interview became a hole in her back because I submitted my PhD under the supervision of a Professor.

Soon the reign of terror of this HOD ended and with the appointment of a new HOD in the department I started gaining acquaintances, friends, and juniors once again. My teachers started appreciating my work once again, and I faced no further hurdles in my PhD.

Since I had complete command over my area of expertise, my PhD viva went smoothly and left everyone impressed.

I kept the publication and distribution of my marriage card on hold till the week before our wedding because I wanted the Doctorate designation to appear before my name on my marriage card, continuing the tradition of my family of having completed a PhD before marriage and succeeding.

I joined my alma mater as an Assistant professor

Soon after, I joined my alma mater as an Assistant Professor in the position of Guest Faculty at the age of 25. However, this was a temporary position.

When I applied for a permanent position in one of the degree colleges, this previous HOD came as an expert in one of the interviews and started grilling me up and humiliating me to give vent to her long-suppressed wrath at seeing me succeed despite all her efforts to break me and to fulfil her initials threats she humiliated and disapproved my selection.

I remained in the position of Guest Faculty for the next three years, too, despite all her efforts to bring me down. Then I took my maternity break and these years expanded my research to become the only internationally published research author from the department in the last many years.

I didn’t let her hurt me any more and continued working

Today, at the age of 31, I am a published author of 1 international research reference work and 4 original works of literature with 10 citations in various research papers.

Ironically, many of the HOD’s students including the one she consented to sign in front of my mother left her guidance as soon as her tenure as HOD was over only to seek guidance from my supervisor who is the lovely human she readily accepted them.

Many of this HOD’s students filed a complaint against her, charging her with the extortion of their scholarship money in the form of expensive gifts.

My purpose in writing this piece was to bring to light the unspoken, unwarranted, and unfair exploitation along with the unprofessional conduct in the field of academia.

Such conditions exist and may deter one to leave their passion midway but if you stay put, there definitely is light at the end of the tunnel.

Image source: Courtney Hale, via Getty Images, free and edited on Canva Pro

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About the Author

Dr. Nishtha Mishra

Dr. Nishtha Mishra is an internationally published author. She is a Doctorate in English Literature from one of the reputed Central Universities. She has been an all round topper and has 5 gold medals to read more...

25 Posts | 16,309 Views

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