Monday, January 31, 2011

Taking Action

A postdoc wrote to me about her discomfort with the fact that her supervisor is "involved" with one of his own grad student advisees, a former undergrad who then became this professor's grad student. Not surprisingly, the situation makes everyone else in the research group uncomfortable.

I can relate to that. When I was a grad student, I was very uncomfortable with the fact that my advisor was having an affair with one of his own students. I had just started grad school when this going on, but some of the more senior students wondered how it would affect their letters of recommendation; they were applying for the same faculty jobs as this woman.

Irony (?): One of these advisees later lost a tenure-track position because he was "involved" with female students. He was in the wrong era and/or at the wrong institution to be able to emulate our ex-advisor without consequences.

Back then, we believed that there was nothing we could do about our disapproval of the advisor-advisee affair. Our choices were to try to ignore it or quit. There was no administrative office at the university for complaints about such things, and my department didn't even have a graduate program advisor. Every individual advisor had sole authority over their research group. My advisor wasn't the only professor in the department involved with a grad student.

That was then; this is now. These situations are much less common than they were, but obviously they still occur. What to do?

Take action. It is too bad that anyone's postdoctoral or graduate school time has to be consumed by any of this, but it is important to alert someone.

Today, in the 21st century, all (?most?) universities have at one administrator whose job it is to deal with these situations and who are also sensitive to the possible consequences for the other advisees and for the student involved in the relationship. Ideally, a group of concerned students, postdocs, and others will organize the complaint together.

Possibilities for people or offices to be alerted may include:

- a university-level ombudsman, or perhaps a graduate or postdoctoral program office that deals with personnel issues and conflicts;

- the department chair;

- for graduate students: a department- or program-level graduate director who oversees the graduate program; or

- for undergraduate students: an academic advisor or counselor.

If the department is well run and there is a culture of respect for students and postdocs, department-level administrators may be supportive, but it's also possible that these people will be reluctant to confront a colleague about a situation like this. It's likely that they are aware of the situation, but have done nothing about it.

Depending on the situation, it might be possible to discuss the situation informally with a faculty member in the department, just to get a sense for how well known the affair is and whether the department has any interest in taking the lead in dealing with it. If I were the department head, I would want to know about this.

If the department is aware but hasn't done anything about it, the most effective course of action is to alert someone outside the department.

Ideally, it will not be difficult to find the relevant person or office responsible for investigating complaints of improper advisor-advisee relationships, but it might take some searching, depending on the institution. I just did a few test-searches on the websites of randomly selected universities, and it wasn't too hard to locate a likely office or at least a list of resources by searching on a few obvious key words.

Some universities have a Women's Center that may have a list of resources. At others, the relevant information can be found in the "human resources" webpages for students and staff. Some universities have administrative staff devoted to postdoctoral concerns.

I don't think any of us faculty are eager for our colleagues to be punished -- even the colleagues we don't like -- but I think the vast majority of us would like ethical rules about advisor-advisee relationships to be taken seriously. Professor-student relationships can occur, but the professor cannot have any role in the student's academic program, and most certainly can't be the student's grad advisor.

Long after I finished graduate school, I learned that a professor in my old grad department was involved with a former undergrad who was now his graduate student. Soon after I learned about this, I was at a conference at which I talked to another professor I knew from that department. He said that he and his colleagues were living in fear that the upper administration would find out and would take a dim view of the situation and that everyone in the department would suffer as a result. I said to him "Just imagine if the administration finds out that you all knew about this and did nothing about it. Even if we ignore for a moment that this situation is TOTALLY WRONG, don't you want to be the kind of department that shows some initiative on things like this? Aren't you even concerned about the student?" No, he just wanted this old professor to retire as soon as possible so the problem would go away.

So I told an administrator about the situation. I happened to know this administrator, so that made it easier for me to bring it up. The result? I don't know what further conversations or actions took place, if any, but the professor retired the following year (without scandal).

All this makes me skeptical that departments are willing or able to take action in these situations, hence my recommendation that someone beyond the department be alerted first. I hope that readers with more experience in the inner workings of administration or with direct experience with this type of situation will weigh in with alternatives, more informed advice, or other support.


Clarissa said...

Thank you for writing this great post! It's important that people realize how such things can be handled. Too many people suffer in silence while unscrupulous professors or thesis directors abuse their power of students.

Unknown said...

I can't say I have more advice (actually, I got a lot of advice from the post, so thank you)... However, I did want to share a situation that I thought was appalling.

During my PhD studies, I visited a prominent Professor and University in the field. I sat in on said Professor's class (1st of the semester) where he proceed to ramble on about his self importance. Anyway, while talking about the greatness of himself, he had the stones to mention that he dated his graduate student and that he married her etc etc. He even seemed to suggest that universities were great because you can find love. I know my view of him changed after that.

I did have a separate question. Do you think ANY grad/postdoc-faculty personal relationships are off the board or would it be ok between two (vastly) different groups? Like Physics and History (or whatever). That to me doesn't strike the same cord.

Anonymous said...

If two grown adults decide to have a relationship, it's nobody else's business. You failed to prove why this is a problem in the first place. If one (i.e., the student) is coerced into this relationship, then it's a different story. If either use this relationship to violate the rules, then it's a different story. Otherwise, it's nobody's business.

Anonymous said...

He was one year from retirement and dating a grad student. ewwwww!

Dr. Hefner, I presume.

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree with everything that you have written. But I would add that if the advisor is untenured, the postdoc or grad student had better have a contingency plan in case the advisor gets fired. Might not be a bad idea for tenured advisors either.

Anonymous said...

With all of the boring stuff that happens at a university department, isn't it nice to have some juicy gossip?

Anonymous said...

When I was in grad school my roommate started dating her advisor. At first it was a state secret adding to the attraction no doubt.

2.5 years later they got married and she stopped grad school after her MS and took an industry position. They had two lovely children. Five years late he died in a car accident.

Point is life is short, enjoy it to the fullest and I hope everyone is as lucky as she was to meet the right one.

A distinction must be made between creepy/controlling affair and one that is wholesome and good and leads to marriage and children.

I don't think a unilateral yes or no works in this situation.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I was a graduate student in a lab where the PI had several short term affairs with his undergraduate students, one long term affair with one of his previous graduate students while she had been his advisee, and was having an affair with a postdoc while I was in his lab. I wouldn't have worried so much about the postdoc affair except that he took several very important aspects of my project, the other graduate student's project, and the research associate professor's project...and then he handed these completed data sets to his honey and allowed her to get the first authorship on a PNAS paper. She, of course, had not contributed to obtaining the data in the first place (she'd only been in the lab for a single month!) but was very happy to get the first authorship. I told my thesis advisor (a female professor in a different department, with whom I still have a good relationship) about the situation, and she commisserated with me, but insisted that there was nothing that anyone at the university could do about the situation. It was his right to take data obtained in the lab and choose the person to write the manuscript and also to choose the authorship order (we were all authors on the manuscript, but listed as second through fourth positions, of course). I've heard of other similar storied, and my conclusion is the most faculty/departments do not take professional ethical behavior seriously when it comes to trainees. In several cases, the unethical mindset extends far beyond situations involving trainees, and even in those cases I see the remaining faculty choosing to turn a blind eye. This behavior is cowardly and damages the reputation and stability of the profession.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me it would be very hard for group members to turn the prof in. Even though collective action should theoretically protect them all from retaliation... still, changing advisors/groups is hard and many of them might feel they'd have to do that after the bust.

I'd be very interested to hear stories of any students/postdocs who have reported their advisors for improper relationships.

Anonymous said...

Sadly this still happens, and it's not always the dirty old men. I'm aware of one 30-something prof who sleeps with his (female) grad students. Not in my dept but yeesh.

Anonymous said...

I can't even imagine being in that situation. The advisor-advisee involvement is just so obviously unethical. I found it already awkward enough for people in our lab group to be dating during grad school. And this happened 2 times in our pretty small group (of 5-6 people), and caused all kinds of shifts of power. people were making decisions of whose names to include on papers based on who they were sleeping with rather than who contributed to a project. These shifts of power become very obvious when you have a small group to begin with.

former post doc said...

I would go "informal to a faculty member who can talk to the prof in questions". In regards to the affair, the main problem would be imho if the prof is married with someone else since then it's both a grad/prof affair and something they want to keep secret.

I have had both scenarios and in both cases the lab took action by using the person in the lab closest to the prof. In the "secret love" it got to be the lab manager who had to explain to the prof that the whole lab was uncomfortable and people had started talking about it... and then the Faculty members realised that it looked embarrasssing....

The other one, the grad student changed advisor - the affair continued and many people were slightly uncomfortable. Then again, they were still together after 15 years so... but as for lab dynamics, that went out the window since the prof and the grad student always influenced the feelings one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

I think you're absolutely right that such relationships are conflicts of interest (at the very least), and that neither grad students nor faculty need stand by helpless to do something about it. That being said, I do have a cautionary story for anyone who suspects such activity and is debating whether to take action.

A dear friend of mine was a grad student at a large research university. She is reasonably shy, somewhat eccentric, and a bit older than many of the other grad students (30s at the beginning of her program). She had difficulty relating to the younger students, and ended up striking up a friendship with an older male faculty member. He was not her advisor, although she did take a class from him. Their relationship consisted of meeting for coffee a few times a week, and she felt that he was one of the only friends she had. The relationship was not romantic; not only did she have a long-distance boyfriend, she later said that she would never consider dating someone so much older than she.

Unbeknownst to either of them, their relationship was observed by several grad students who came to the conclusion that they were having a romantic affair. These students did just as FSP suggests and went to an external administrator to voice their concerns. They were convinced that this relationship was leading to special treatment in the course they all took with the faculty member. Their action led to a series of meetings between my friend, the faculty member, the department chair, and several external administrators. At first, my friend was surprised but eager to explain that this professor had actually taken her under his wing and helped her feel more comfortable in the department. As time went on, however, it became clear that none of the grad students believed her or her professor friend, even though the inquiry uncovered no misconduct. She felt utterly humiliated and ostracized. She and the professor were advised to end all out-of-class contact to avoid the impression of favoritism, which left her in the position of losing her only friend, being unable to make new ones amongst the grad students, and feeling like she had a scarlet letter pasted on her chest.

As a direct result of this incident, my friend decided to leave the department and the university. Although she was originally a doctoral student, she left with a master's and went elsewhere for the PhD. She is still embarrassed that her former colleagues misinterpreted her friendship with her professor, and is convinced that this would never have happened if he had been female. Certainly, it would have been a far harder case to "prove," although of course why should a gay relationship be less imaginable than a straight one? Unfortunately, this story demonstrates the danger of relying on the familiar narrative of the younger-female-student and older-male-professor to interpret student-faculty relationships. Yes, this has happened, but it's certainly not universally true, not nearly so.

I suggest that before a student decides to bring these serious accusations against another student and a faculty member, he should make some attempt to speak to the student. Perhaps there is a relationship, and the student is feeling isolated as a result; maybe it's a misinterpretation, as with my friend. Either way, you have nothing to lose by reaching out to the student, and you may very well help someone in need. There is no going back after accusations are made officially and publicly, even if no wrong-doing is uncovered.

Miss Outlier said...

There are of course rumors and stories in my department of situations like this that have happened over the past 20 years, but I am grateful that the current environment is not like that at all. There are definitely resources available to grad students having issues like this. So, just saying that there are some places that have a good structure in place, which is a good sign.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, your colleague's reaction to the situation in his own department is all too often the way departments respond to any "unpleasantness" associated with their faculty. They just wait for it to go away. If there is a student or postdoc involved, why bother doing anything since they'll leave sooner or later anyway? And all too often the ones that decide to jump ship mid-cruise are the females who refuse to continue putting up with the bigotry of the offender and the turning a blind eye of the department. I should know, I almost jumped ship because of this exact behavior at my last department.

Anonymous said...

Here's our Universities official policy. We had a tenured faculty member in another Department fired for an egregious violation of this, so it can be enforced. Thank goodness it has not happened in my Department, at least in a way that it became apparent to anyone

Amorous Relationships
According to a system-wide policy adopted by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in 1996, it is misconduct, subject to disciplinary action, for a University employee, incident to any instructional, research, administrative, or other University employment responsibility or authority, to evaluate or supervise any enrolled student of the institution with whom he or she has an amorous relationship or to whom he or she is related by blood, law, or marriage. It is misconduct, subject to disciplinary action, for a University employee to engage in sexual activity with any enrolled student of the institution, other than his or her spouse, who is a minor below the age of eighteen years.

Friendships or mentoring relationships between faculty or instructional staff and students are not proscribed by this policy. Nor is it the intent of this policy that such nonamorous relationships be discouraged or limited in any way.

Anonymous said...

PS as a grad student James Watson came back to Harvard where he gave a talk at the dedication of the then new Biochemistry ad Molecular Biology Department. His talk was on the topic: How I cam to Harvard and found a wife. Luckily, seating was limited, so grad students were relegated to watching on a video feed in a separate room, where hilarity could be indulged. Even in 1981 this as viewed as well beyond the pale by those of us at the student level.

studyzone said...

At the university where I went to grad school, there was apparently a huge scandal in the 1970s along these lines that led to the university developing a formal policy for handling advisor-student relationships. Once a complaint is received, the university ombudsman investigates, and if the relationship is confirmed, the student is removed immediately from the lab, preferably to a different program/department if at all possible. Usually, a formal reprimand is placed in the advisor's file, and this may affect promotion decisions. If the relationship is with an undergrad, then there are more serious repercussions for the advisor. I know of two such advisor-grad student relationships - in one case, the grad student moved to another lab (and eventually married her advisor). In the other case, the grad student transferred to a different university all together. I have also heard that in the 1980s, a tenured professor was fired following a relationship with an undergrad who was in some of his classes, and who was also his advisee. The bottom line is that dealing with it became a university issue and not a departmental issue, and according to my advisor, faculty are very comfortable with that policy.

Anonymous said...

I haven't known (aside from vague rumors) any grad students sleeping with advisors. However, I know a guy (at an institution other than mine) who eventually married a woman who had taken an undergraduate class from him. To the best of my limited knowledge, they didn't start dating until after she graduated, and from what I can tell (I know the couple, as well as many of their relatives) their relationship today is apparently a healthy one. I don't know what anybody could have or should have said if they were having coffee on campus a lot before her graduation.

On the other hand, I know another person who dated at least one student who had previously taken an undergraduate class from him. As far as I know these relationships started after the class was over, but I also know that these relationships ended very poorly for the women involved. I think it had less to do with the power disparity per se (these students were not majoring in his subject, so their class with him was generally the end of any involvement in his department) and less to do with him being the sort who didn't care about boundaries or propriety.

The only time that I really knew anything about one of these relationships was after they had been dating for a while, she was near graduation and not taking any classes in his department, and he left the university soon after. And at the time there was a lot I didn't know, so I didn't know if I should say anything. Thinking back, I wish I had said something.

Anonymous said...

what about female professors shagging boy grad advisees. Boy gets phd and boy marries older woman (to thank her) and take her last name?

There is always two sides to every story.

Women like older men, especially the married ones. Some people (boy or girl) are shameless....

Anonymous said...

you would think that someone as intelligent as a professor would be able to be more discreet about an affair with a student and thus not anyone would find out.

seriously, are these professor-student lovebirds so dumb as to be walking around campus hand in hand or being otherwise having no more discretion than any 'normal' couple?

I do agree that it's unethical if the professor is the student's academic advisor. But I just wonder HOW are these affairs made known, aren't the involved parties discreet?

furthermore, in these situations you mentioned, FSP, was the professor also married while having the affair with the student?

I bet that if the professor had been married, the affair with the student would have been kept a lot more discreet!!

Perhaps there are more cases of such affairs going on, in which the involved parties are being discreet and thus no one knows.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

A couple of folks have made the (completely correct) point that not every such affair is automatically corrupt, evil and exploitive.

OK, I agree. Now what?

What metric could you use to tell the "must take action" cases from the "aren't they cute?" sort?

For that matter, if you are in such a relationship, how do you know if it is the real deal or somehow twisted by the disparity in power betwixt you.

The rule "no romantic relationships between people in a single chain of command" is a compromise between all's fair and no relationships between people in the organization.

Not great. Not fair in every case, but better than either extreme.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:46 : "If two grown adults decide to have a relationship, it's nobody else's business. You failed to prove why this is a problem in the first place."

It is a problem and it's other people's business ONLY BECAUSE one of those people in the relationship is the boss of the other, and thus this could lead to favortism in the workplace. Favortism in the workplace affects all other employees because this is not fair to them and they could lose out on opportunities or resources without having a fair chance to compete for them.

It's a similar situation to how if you were a school teacher it would not be ethical for your own child to be enrolled in your classroom because you might give preferential treatment to your own kid.

It's also similar to how in many family-owned and -run businesses, a junior family member gets preferential consideration for promotion or responsibility over employees hired from the outside. (but hey if you own the company you make the rules, it's different in a public organization like a university).

by the way, I met my husband through our former jobs where he was sort of my boss (not my official supervisor or someone I would directly report to, but someone in a higher authority position). We kept our relationship secret for two years. Then I got a different job for other reasons. then we got married several years later.

Anonymous said...

"A distinction must be made between creepy/controlling affair and one that is wholesome and good and leads to marriage and children.

I don't think a unilateral yes or no works in this situation"

I think the wholesomeness of the relationship is irrelevant. (and no one else's business except the parties involved)

The point is that professors have lots of power to make or break their students' and postdocs' careers and thus it is giving a trainee an unfair advantage over other trainees to be involved in a romantic relationship with the advisor.

No one is saying that professors and students are off limits to each forever. But only for as long as one is the official supervisor of the other.

If they want to date, get married and have kids - fine. Just transfer the trainee to a different group or department so they are not supervisor-employee anymore.

It would be the same issue if a professor was already married with kids and and his/her SPOUSE now wanted to start grad school or do a postdoc under them, with them as the advisor. Um, no.

Can you imagine going to lab group meeting and having to compete for your advisor's attention, time, limited resources like grant money tp buy stuff or travel, with his own wife?? (or if your advisor is a woman, then competing with her husband)?? Don't you think that would be unfair to all the other students and postdocs. Can you imagine if let's say there was limited funds for group members to go to conferences. So the professor decides to present his wife's research over yours so she can go to the conference with him and basically have it be their little family vacation. Wouldn't that make you mad and be blatantly unfair?? or maybe the wife is mad at him over some personal issue at home so to placate her he lets her get away with shoddy work in the lab that if it came from any other group member you would get reamed. You can see all sorts of possibilities...

so it's not a matter of whether someone's relationship is seedy or wholesome/family-oriented. It's the fact that it can lead to unfair treatment in the work place.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 2:29: "It is a problem and it's other people's business ONLY BECAUSE one of those people in the relationship is the boss of the other, and thus this could lead to favortism in the workplace."

How can you speak of "favoritism" in a grad student - advisor relationship. My relationship with my advisor (as his student, not lover) is in no way in competition to that with his other students. Either I'm a good student who publishes, defends on time, and gets jobs offers, or not. What his other students do or don't has no effect on my performance whatsoever. If I were to decide to date my advisor (by mutual agreement), I fail to see how this is unethical. In the end, a committee will decide if I deserve my degree, job offers, fellowships, etc.

Nevertheless, I agree that dating an employee (not a grad student or postdoc), or an undergraduate student is a completely different ball game.

Anonymous said...

oh boy, this stuff still happens right under our noses and profs get away with it. When i started grad school (c. 2004), there was a professor who's marriage was falling apart and he had some mental health problems with it all. It all would have gone under the radar except he spent an extremely large amount of time with one of his advisees leading to many rumors. ultimately he divorced his wife and after some female grad students in a related research group (the groups frequently collaborated) voiced their concerns to the appropriate dept. people & university people, the advisee changed advisors.

fast forward, the advisee graduated (still spending lots of time with former advisor throughout) and they were married recently. Ex advisor recently tried to get advisee voted onto the research faculty of the dept and it was denied, woa Nelly, now that's a scandal. They are currently looking at other options and as sad as it is that they may have to leave, it may be best for them to start with a clean slate elsewhere.

Ms.PhD said...

FSP, I appreciate what you're saying but are you serious? You're usually more practical than this.

I have witnessed many examples of faculty-student/postdoc affairs, and in every case the departmental policies seemed to be "don't ask/don't tell". As in, don't say anything unless you want to be the victim of a huge amount of backlash.

Especially if, for example, the PI who is sleeping with his grad student/postdoc was previously married to another PI who still works in the same department.

Nobody will thank you for making their dirty secrets public. The faculty involved might get a slap on the wrist at most.

Or, you might come to realize over time that everyone knows because they're doing it, too. I worked in one department like that (several faculty were involved with trainees), and I have a friend who did her PhD in a department that sounded even worse, at another school.

Also, be careful to note that while many schools have rules about this for students, postdocs may be completely unprotected (who are neither students in programs risking loss of accreditation, nor employee members of unions).

@Anon 2:46, why it matters is because it's usually a sign of an unprofessional work environment, which often means sexual harassment violations. Which are typically impossible to prove.

But you're absolutely right that in most cases, faculty colleagues will respond as you have done: by asking for proof that it's a problem.

Anonymous said...

The many permutations of spousal hiring practices put an interesting spin on this.

I know a faculty member who was hired by a university with funding for their spouse to have a permanent position in their lab.

I have worked in groups with husband & wife both hired by the supervisor (one hired initially, the other later).

It seems to me these spousal hire arrangements, which apparently we're suppose to support as useful to women in particular, put folks in some awkward positions!

These relationships are potentially just as vulnerable to the "favoritism" issues raised as one of the key objections to faculty:student relationships.

Unknown said...

My relationship with my advisor (as his student, not lover) is in no way in competition to that with his other students.

Anon at 10 PM, you seem astoundingly naive, or in a utopian laboratory that is rare as hen's teeth. Even equally loved children are in some level of competition for the parents' attention.

Affairs between supervisors and advisees are the mark of unprofessional behavior, and if the draw is too fierce, the ethical approach is to change the supervisory relationship. However, if other people are bothered by a less-than-professional environment caused by an affair, then let me echo the previous comment and advise that caution and care be used in pursuing the matter. As was noted, an incautious accusation can ruin a career.

Alex said...

Following up on Anon @ 5:38pm, suppose that a department hires two spouses, and one of them later becomes department chair?

Suppose that two faculty marry and one of them becomes department chair?

I recognize that the relationship between a chair and a tenured professor is different than the relationship between a professor and grad student, but what if one of the members in a faculty couple is a lecturer without tenure, and the other member of the couple becomes chair? What if one of the members of the faculty couple is soft money faculty and the other is chair? Or the director of a multi-investigator Center that the soft money research professor gets support from?

I have no easy answers here, but it's worth pondering.

Anonymous said...

The idea that professor-student romances are wholesome -- as long as they lead to marriage and children -- is just toooooo hilarious. Thanks for the chuckle, Anonymous!

But for all of you confusing these issues with spousal nepotism: Get a grip already. Your university probably already has a policy on spousal hires of all sorts. You should go look it up. At my university, no one is allowed to be the direct supervisor of his or her spouse. So, hypothetically speaking, if I wanted to hire my husband as a postdoc, I would first need to find someone willing and able to be his supervisor. I would also have to jump through the usual hoops demonstrating why he should be hired over everyone else. And there are plenty of acceptable reasons why he should - for example, if he helped to write the grant that would fund him. Favoritism? Perhaps, but no more than usual.

FSP, I find your approach of taking action truly refreshing.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know where the anonymous person with a utopian lab is. I was in a lab where one female student was clearly favored over all the other students (female and male) and the rumors were rampant. She spent lots of time with the advisor (way more than the rest of us). No one ever proved anything but the favoritism was awful for everyone (except her, no doubt).

Anonymous said...

We were warned explicitly not to date any undergrads during our TA orientation. I am surprised there is nothing of this sort for faculty.

My experience with favoritism involves professors who take on their children as trainees.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 8:25, maybe that lone female student was the favorite because she was smarter and more motivated than the rest of you.

All of my mentors had favorites. The good ones tried to keep it in check, or at least not be too obvious. As a PI, I try to be scrupulously fair, but I also have my favorites, as does my chair. It seems inevitable.

Anonymous said...

My doctoral advisor starting sleeping with his other female grad student when I was halfway through my doctoral program. It poisoned the atmosphere in the lab and made everyone uncomfortable. They were not at all discreet and so rumors were flying around about him sleeping with one of his female students. People might have assumed it was me, esp. since I was the more senior. I went to our dept graduate chair and asked to change advisors, explaining the situation. I was literally afraid that people would think I slept my way to a PhD.

I was permitted to switch advisors and after a year or so, the grad student my former advisor was sleeping with was reassigned to a different advisor. This seems reasonable to me - you can't help who you fall in love with, but there are ethical issues with these power relationships, and so changing the situation to accommodate the relationship (if the two people really want to continue the relationship) makes sense. So, it sort of worked out, but it took awhile and it certainly wasn't easy.

Anonymous said...

@ Alex:
"Following up on Anon @ 5:38pm, suppose that a department hires two spouses, and one of them later becomes department chair?

Suppose that two faculty marry and one of them becomes department chair?"

in that case, one of the spouses should resign, step down, or transfer elsewhere. That's the ethical thing to do. It's inconvenient, yes, and it could be very unpractical for a career, but it's still the ethical thing to do.

Anonymous said...

when I was a postdoc, one of the other female postdocs blatantly flirted with the PI all the time. And he did seem to favor her. As in, going out of his way to introduce lab visitors to her thus making it seem as if the entire lab's work consisted solely of her project, forwarding job opportunities to her but not to us, when lab space reorganization was being discussed it was her project that was given priority over every one else's....

was she smarter and more motivated than everyone hence earning his extra approval. I seriously doubt she was WAY smarter than the rest of us to warrant getting WAY more favor from him...

Alex said...

in that case, one of the spouses should resign, step down, or transfer elsewhere. That's the ethical thing to do. It's inconvenient, yes, and it could be very unpractical for a career, but it's still the ethical thing to do.

Well, maybe. But keep in mind that a department chair often has, in practice, only very limited authority over a tenured professor. So, if the spouse who isn't chair has tenure (or something equivalent to tenure for certain unusual institutions or positions), and if there is an Associate Chair in the department, then the Chair could defer to the Associate Chair in any matter pertaining to the spouse.

EngineeringProf said...

in that case, one of the spouses should resign, step down, or transfer elsewhere.

That's absurd and thoroughly impractical. Out of curiousity, are you a faculty member?

If both spouses have tenure, I think there are simpler solutions: e.g., have the Associate Chair handle all situations involving the Chair's spouse.

I think it would be ridiculous to expect one member of the couple to resign. That would be bad for the couple, bad for the department, bad for future hiring, bad all around.

Anonymous said...

In response to Alex's question:
I know of several cases where spouses work in the same department and one was rotated into the department chair position. (I agree with Anon 12:05, often the chair position rotates among all senior faculty in the department and does not involve much in the way of direct power over the other faculty.) Regardless, in the cases of which I'm aware, the Dean handled all administrative matters for the non-chair spouse. This way, the two spouses were never in a direct line of supervision.

Phillip Helbig said...

Two adults: their business and theirs alone. If there is favoritism, then it is wrong because it is favoritism. As long as no-one else is hurt, let them do what they want.

Much worse are the "dual-career couples". These people say with a straight face it is OK, nay, it is their right to get a job they otherwise wouldn't have because they are married to someone who is more successful.

Anonymous said...

"My relationship with my advisor (as his student, not lover) is in no way in competition to that with his other students."

Hahahahahahahahaha and lolz.

Anonymous said...

When I was a graduate student, I 'interrupted' my committee member and his graduate student, IN HIS OFFICE, WITH THE DOOR OPEN.

I practically ran to the office of sexual harassment on my campus. They were very receptive to helping me and the guy was immediately removed from my committee. In all honesty, that's all I really cared about.

After that, the female student was openly hostile to me. Although the students in the department were well aware of what was going on, the administration was not. Apparently the fact that I outed them did not sit well with this woman. Tough cookies. Next time, close the damn door.

I absolutely feel like I did the right thing.

Anonymous said...

In case you think this cannot lead to someone prominent being punished (quite appropriately in this case):

Google Arnie Levine scandel


Madscientistgirl said...

I am just dumbfounded that anyone could say a prof sleeping with a student is just fine. There's the power differential (and thus the question of whether it is truly consensual) and the effect on the work environment, both because it makes everyone uncomfortable and because it raises questions about the fairness of evaluations and the distribution of labor and praise. I'm sure there are couples in this situation who have completely healthy, happy relationships where both parties can handle the situation in a way that is fair. (Even in those situations other people can be uncomfortable.) But the vast majority of these relationships are sick and involve at least one person using the other for sex. We cannot make policies for <1% of all cases. People who are truly mature adults can handle keeping their pants on while trying to change the situation to one which is not unethical and does not adversely affect other people in the group/department.

Anonymous said...

My department has a TON of couples in it -- some met while here, others both got positions simultaneously, others had one member arrive with the job and the other was negotiated later. It's not rocket science to figure out a way for partners not to have any conflicts of interest. As someone said, you can have the dean or another administrator do the necessary decision-making or letter-writing; we often use our vice chair for that if need be. One leaves the room if the partner's file is being discussed, etc.

This is a completely different situation than having a personal/romantic relationship between people at different levels like advisor and student.

Anonymous said...

In my first TA meeting as a grad student, the Department chair showed up to make a speech that began, "First of all, those of you who are single, please do not date your students." One immediately raised her hand to ask if it was OK for the TAs who were married to date their students.

To think a PI can date a student or postdoc with disrupting the lab is naive. A case I observed: Post-doc A was widely known to be sleeping with the PI. Not only did PD A take advantage of the situation by monopolizing resources and bullying grad students (3 left without their degrees in as many years), when PD B (a much better scientist) went on the job market, two schools offered interviews with the expectation that PI would also be coming if they hired B (One was already lobbying their school for an endowed chair for PI!) When they learned PD #B was not the love interest, someone else got the job.

a. b. said...

I'm sorry, but anyone with a strong opinion that anything "two adults" do is just fine in any situation, posting as "anonymous" doesn't really help you seem more credible. Really.

I'd be very uncomfortable with teacher-student relationships, no matter the age. The age doesn't matter-- the student-teacher context does. I asked my husband just now (he's a grad student) and he was flabbergasted. "How is that student going to get a job? A rec letter? When they have to get it from their spouse?"

Anonymous said...

I a dumbfounded too by the comments about how 2 adults blah blah... Are you all insane? How is it OK as long as there is no special treatment? When people can't even control minor unconscious biases how can they treat someone they're in love with same way as others? How is it OK for the imbalance of power? My head hurts.

I recently heard about a young female PI sleeping with male grad student. I could say, well at least now women are doing it too, but I just think it's disgusting no matter who does it. If it's your one true love, you have to get out of the advisor-student relationship. I don't think it's that great if student changes advisors either. Like I can flunk a senior colleague's lover without any consequences?

I'm still shocked there are people who can defend these things.

Anonymous said...

I did my PhD in a rather small department. One of my friends there, a PhD student who started a couple of years before me, was in a relationship with a junior lecturer in the same department. They were living together but not working together, except in the sense that they happened to be in the same dept. Then her supervisor left the university and moved abroad. The only person left within the field, qualified to supervise a project such as hers, was her own long-term boyfriend.

We were all good friends with both of them (in as much as you can be good friends with your supervisor). Sure I thought it felt a bit strange that my supervisor was also my postgrad friend's bf, but not because there was any favouritism that we could detect (if anything there was more of a difference between the treatment of other postgrads, obviously neither of whom were in a rel.ship with the supervisor). For me personally, my main problem with their rel.ship was probably the fact that as I went through the toughest phase of the PhD I couldn't vent freely to this one friend about my supervisor-related frustration ;-)

Anyway: I agree that such a relationship is in general unethical, to be discouraged, fraught with problems. But in this case, I would also have felt it rather unethical to report them to someone (it never entered anyone's mind, actually). What would have been the possible outcomes?
-them breaking up an otherwise happy relationship that was running on 7+ years by the time I left the dept (and thus forcing her to leave her home, besides)
-her quitting her PhD
-him losing his job (unlikely)

I just couldn't see that as the kind of thing that friends could inflict on eachother. By friends I think primarily on the postgrad girlfriend.

So: if there are noticeable consequences for the way things work in the department, if other people feel unfairly treated for example, then action should of course be taken. But I can't see how the categorical "report'em!" is justified either.

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe that anyone would take such a petty issue to an ombudsman.

I ended up here because I was searching for resources on how to deal with an advisor openly discriminating against you, with no consequences. I WISH my advisor were sleeping with a student, then they would leave me alone and stop victimizing me!

Anonymous said...

I have a similar situation I'd like to get your opinion on. My husband is an elementary school tenured teacher. He once had an affair with a twenty two year old college student who was his student teacher. This is water under the bridge with our marriage but I worry his indiscretion could lead to him being fired. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

The only person who should be able to complain is the person who is 1) in the relationship and 2) in a position of lower power. Otherwise, it isn't anyone else's business unless other people are suffering in some real way (and being "uncomfortable" doesn't count as real suffering in my humble opinion).

Anonymous said...

My former PI and I are co-authoring a book chapter together. He's married and in his 50's and I'm a 24 year-old female undergrad. Lately, he's been making crude sexual comments while we've worked together, he hugs me when I leave, and last night, he invited me to go camping with him.

I know I would regret the act of sleeping with him (for a number of reasons, potentially), but I also know that this chapter might be just the edge I need to get into a great PhD program. A PhD is all I've ever wanted, and I want it so badly I can taste it. I know I'll get there with or without him, but I'm sure it would probably be a lot easier with him. I have no idea what to do. I'm angry with him for abusing his power. I'm angry with him for putting me in this position. Yet, I'm having trouble coming up with a solid reason why I shouldn't. Yes, I'll regret the act of it, but might the benefits outweigh the cons?

Female Science Professor said...

It is extremely unlikely that this is a good idea. You know he is a creep who is abusing his power, and he could well have a long history of preying on female students. Does anyone else know about his behavior? I hope so, and I hope he will respect your wish to keep your collaboration professional. What do you think he would do if you said "I'm not comfortable with your hugging me" the next time he attempts this? Would he stop his creep-behavior or would he retaliate? Is there a way you can report his behavior?

Anonymous said...

Hey, you last anonymous.
Don't do it really.

From the point of view of somebody that once as an undergrad had an affair with a professor (this was my first relationship/romance/anything ever), I can tell you that the consequences were terrible. Contrary to you then, I was inloved in him and he was twice my age. The guy interfered with my undergrad studies by telling me that he had spoken to all other faculty members that I couldn't/shouldn't take any courses at the department. I wasn't sure if I believed him, but the shame about the whole thing made it impossible me for at all to interact with the teachers (as according to him they knew about my immorality).
Not to mention that he later wanted to reinitiate our relationship by various offers of relationship vs advantages. And not to mention that he was a sadistic, violent pervert. In the end, a friend of mine interfered, reported this to somebody else, and (without my wish or permission) the chancellor of university talked to the professor to leave me alone and to stop hitting on his students. (He was also coordinator for undergrad programs.)

2 years of depression -- 2 years of no university credits.

But the worst part I will tell you, is to later answer questions, e.g. when your male PhD advisor will be
asking you "Why did you have no credits in this period?" "What happened?" "Why did your studies take such a long time?"

If you don't answer truthfully, you create a mystery and a basis for lack of trust.

If you answer...well, I haven't dared to yet. I guess my PhD advisor in such case would never want to speak to me on a one-to-one way again.

Anonymous said...

Professors, please refrain from dating your current and former students. It is unbecoming to the profession.