Eleven former PhD students in Sweden and England accuse Emily Holmes, professor of psychology, of having bullied them systematically. The researchers have suffered from stress reactions that have led to vision impairment, sleep disorders, and suicidal thoughts.
Now they finally dare tell their story.
By Lennart Kriisa
She settles into the sofa in the editorial office of Psykologtidningen. Haltingly starts to tell of her time as a researcher and the pressure she was subjected to that finally led to her going to the emergency room.
“More people will suffer. No one can conquer the conspiracy of silence,” she notes dejectedly.
Some leaders at the psychological department at the university of Uppsala agree with her. They have been opposed to the professor recruiting new PhD students, to no avail. The spirits were higher during the autumn of 2018. At that time, the staff was informed that a professor of psychology had been recruited from Karolinska Institutet.
“We only knew that she was a world-famous researcher. It was like having a rock star come visit,” one of the employees recollects.
But the roots of this story reaches back far earlier than this, around the turn of the millennium, when Emily Holmes was making great headway in her career at Oxford and Cambridge. Psykologtidningen contacted psychologists who at that time were part of the professor’s research teams. They share their experiences on condition of anonymity.
“I have been expecting this conversation for over ten years. At some point, the truth had to be told,” one of them says.
Let us call her Annie. She is now a psychologist and has left her research career. After a few minutes, Annie simply has to take a breather.
“Look, my hands and legs are shaking. The memories still haunt me, it seems. I wasn’t aware of that,” she says.
The first few months she was proud of being included in the research team. The professor expressed admiration of her talents. But then she had some personal problems and turned in a report that was not picture perfect.
“That made me a target for Emily Holmes. Everything I did was wrong.”
She lay sleepless at night, and stress mounted in the daytime. Annie turned to two authorities at the university of Oxford, both responsible for oversight of the work environment. Both came up with the same answer: she had to quit her job.
“They didn’t even jot down what I said. I was a junior researcher and would not stand a chance against a professor.”
Annie decided to put up with it. Like all other people in the group. Psykologtidningen at this point gets into touch with another psychologist. Let’s call her Julie. Two people warned her before she joined the research team. “She is extremely demanding” one said. “Decline,” the other one advised.
Julie promptly discovered that at least someone in the group was picked on at all times. One day, the turn had come to her. Emily Holmes thought that she had solved a task poorly. Julie was told of this in no uncertain terms, despite having followed the instructions to the letter, according to herself. After this incident, censure and praise was given unpredictably.
“I never knew what a particular day would entail. I was deemed good and bad alternately.”
Julie says that she was bullied. Time and again, she was called into the professor’s office with its four chairs and large windows.
“I can still visualize the room. Remember all the times I wept in it. It’s rough thinking back upon.”
The PhD students in the research group racked their brains. Informing the leadership at the institution was out of the question.
“We knew that the leaders admired her. They would never side with us,” Julie says.
Julie defended her thesis and was subsequently helped by the professor to further her career. Furthermore, she adds, at times the professor could be very cordial and understanding. That contributed to Julie not choosing to leave.
When rumour of the toxic work environment started to spread in Oxford, Emily Holmes got a new post in Cambridge. New PhD students were recruited. One of them would later inform the leadership of her trying conditions. A decision was made that the PhD student would never again have to meet Emily Holmes alone.
Emily Holmes kept getting lots of articles published.
Karolinska Institutet got wind of her successes, noted that the professor Emily Holmes had Swedish roots and offered a part-time visiting professorship. The head of the department at that time, Bo Melin, professor of work psychology, was head of recruiting.
“We had heard a few rumours of difficulty in co-operation, but nonetheless, we pressed on. I should have been more diligent,” Bo Melin says today.
There were whispers of the harsh work environment in the professor’s research team at Karolinska Institutet as well. One of the former PhD students – we’ll call her Rebecka – recounts what happened at the turning point.
“I liked working with the professor at first. She was very capable and watched strictly over the ethical side of things. But when I turned in a text that she felt did not cut it, I received a telling-off that took me completely by surprise.
Rebecka says that Emily Holmes bestowed a completely new personality on her. She was supposedly weak and ill, unable to learn from criticism.
Several years later, Rebecka had left Karolinska Institutet and watched a documentary about the Christian sect in Knutby in Sweden. That was an epiphany.
“On the surface, everything is more than great. We were the chosen ones, the elite. But behind our closed doors a darkness filled with punishments and fear welled up.”
The leadership pondered how to handle the situation. A decision was made that one of the PhD students would not have to meet her advisor without supervision. After that, the problem solved itself. Emily Holmes announced that she had accepted full-time employment at the university of Uppsala. The management there had not bothered with references, just as at Karolinska Institutet. The university of Uppsala had applied a special provision in the higher education ordinance, which states that a professor of special standing may be recruited without advertising the post.
Several PhD students have testified to what happened after this.
“I was told that she had no confidence in me whatsoever. Then all hell broke loose. She berated until I wept.”
Another person describes punishments.
“At one point, she and I met 14 times per week. Everything I did had to be checked, since I was so incompetent.”
One of the researchers contacted the leadership of the department. Many were astonished. Several thought the professor was unusually pleasant. But this researcher was close to foundering, and the faculty made a quick decision about changing the supervisor.
Subsequently, the department was told that several people in the research group were not doing well. A written statement from another PhD student was turned in, but no one wanted to make a formal complaint. The faculty then sent out an anonymous survey concerning the work environment.
The results did not point in any direction. All result for all research groups were similar.
“I wasn’t assured the survey was truly anonymous. I only focused on getting the work done and leaving Uppsala forever,” one former PhD student says.
A person in a leading position at the department decided to look into the Emily Holmes’ past at Karolinska Institutet, and the suspicions were substantiated. But nothing happened in Uppsala.
Timo Hursti, prefect at the psychology department in Uppsala, feels that the department has done everything it could.
“If no one steps up, our hands are tied.”
He feels that Karolinska Institutet ought to have contacted them when the professor was recruited if there were known problems there.
Mats J Olsson, prefect at the department of clinical neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet, disagrees.
“Uppsala could have contacted us, but they never got in touch. Personally, I always call former employers before recruiting anyone”, he says.
In November last year, Emily asked to be allowed to recruit a new research assistent at the department in Uppsala. Nine days later, the position was announced.
In the ad: “Honest and plain communication is necessary for this position”.
Footnote: Emily Holmes has declined an interview but sent the following statement:
“I am deeply sorry to hear that the people you have interviewed felt bad, and feel very saddened to hear this. I would never wish for anyone at work to feel bad in anyway, and I welcome any issues to be raised at work with me so that any difficulties can be properly dealt with. I am fully committed to supporting those I work with and seek to do my best for them. I have only respect and well wishes towards people who have once been part of my research group, and continue to wish them and their careers well.”
1 “I tried to give notice, since I was completely stressed out. I was told that I only thought of myself and lacked empathy. Then she added that the world of research is small, which I perceived as a threat.”
2 “I neither told my husband nor my friends about how bad I felt at work. I was ashamed about not being good enough. Once I contacted the ombudsman for PhD students, but the only advice I got was to resign. I am still scared of making mistakes at my new place of work, and I apologize for all sorts of things.”
3 “Tasks were taken away from me. I did not understand why. I was also told that my name would be removed from an article. When I called this into question – I had worked my fingers to the bone for months – I was told to get out of her room.”
4 “All of us in the research team were told that we were better than everyone else, even world-leading in our field. This led to us isolating, and I started to look down upon other researchers. That might have been why I could bear being so humiliated later on.”
5 “When I finally fell apart in front of a colleague and told them how stressed I was, that I couldn’t stand being chewed out any more, my colleague was very understanding. That’s when I realized that it might not be me that was at fault. I had been working seven days a week for months on end and always carried my computer around to be able to answer questions quickly.”
6 “I knew that the report I had turned in wasn’t perfect and explained that I had family problems. That was apparently not an excuse, and after that, everything I did was wrong. My name was expunged from an article, and I could not do anything about it. I contemplated suicide and still attend therapy sessions.”
7 “I received lots of praise for a while, but then I was worthless. During one tongue-lashing I was told I would never succeed as a researcher on account of my poor writing skills. Since praise was mingled with criticism, I got more and more unsure of myself. I ended up in the emergency room with impaired vision.”
8 “I left the team bud didn’t dare to tell why I resigned – that I couldn’t stand being bullied any more – and blamed all on something else. My goal was to get out of there and save myself. I gave up my research career and will probably not return.”
9 “At one time it became known that we in the group had talked about one of us being bullied and that this was dreadful. We were all given an earful, since we were supposed to speak to her of any problems, not with each other. For a while, I was subject to this as well, since I allegedly had made a mistake even though I had followed all instructions.”
10 “She gave me tasks to do right off the bat, before I had even started work. This was presumably a test of my loyalty. The first week I overheard a researcher being told off through a closed door during a Zoom meeting. Each and every week someone on the research team was the special victim. I got palpitations of the heart because of all the stress.”
11 “I was called into her office where she waited with a hardcopy of my report. She started to mark everything she thought was bad with a red felt pen. When I tried to interpret the scribblings I missed a couple of things and had to start all over again. It could take ten versions before she was satisfied, and this was not to make me a better researcher but to walk all over me.”
You can read the Swedish version here.