Parent Trap

Nov 09 2010 Published by under advising, teaching

A reader wonders:

Did I make a mistake in agreeing to advise a graduate student who has a parent in our same field of research? (but not at my department or university). I didn't really think about it in the beginning. The student was promising and I didn't think of the student in any different way from any other student, but later I started to get paranoid for reasons I am too paranoid even to describe. Also, the parent comes to my talks at conferences and sits in the front. I try to be a good advisor, but sometimes situations arise that cause stress between advisor and student. Do I have to worry that these situations will affect my standing in my field if my student tells the parent that I am an evil advisor and the parent (a senior professor) somehow seeks revenge in the many and varied secret but effective ways that academics have of doing this to each other? Should tenure-track faculty in particular avoid advising the offspring of people in their same field?

Actually, I would rather avoid this issue, for reasons I am too paranoid to describe even in an anonymous blog, but I feel your pain. Mostly I will open this up for comments from readers to give advice about being the advisor in this situation, but I can also think of several other scenarios that might also be interesting to discuss:


- an undergraduate in your class is the offspring of a professor at your university;

- an undergraduate in your class is the offspring of a colleague or other known person in your field at another university;


- one of your faculty colleagues is the offspring of someone in your field;

- one of the (unsuccessful) candidates for a faculty position is the offspring of someone in your field;


- one of your students or colleagues is the offspring of a highly placed administrator at your or another institution of higher education.

These situations differ from those in which one of your students is the son or daughter of a famous person who is not an academic. We are discussing here the specific case in which your job as a teacher, adviser, or member of a committee brings you into contact with the offspring of someone else in your field.

If you have been in this situation, did you worry that news of all your flaws as a teacher, advisor, and human being would be spread far and wide? Did you worry that your interactions with the offspring would affect your standing in your field, and not necessarily in a good way? Or did you have an excellent experience advising such a student or working with such a colleague?

33 responses so far

  • plam says:

    I've seen undergraduate version 1 at my undergrad institution, but I don't really know what happened. I've never seen the other possibilities. However, I have the same last name as my grand-advisor (no relation).

  • Alex says:

    First, this situation reminds me of a seminar talk in which the speaker showed photos of lab members in the acknowledgments slide (common practice in many fields) and then said "This student is actually the son of the first grad student I had many years ago." But he had no story (amusing or painful) that he would offer.

    Second, on this:
    an undergraduate in your class is the offspring of a professor at your university

    I have a standing offer to a colleague who complains about an under-achieving son: Enroll him in our university so he can take my class, and I'll assign him twice as much homework as everyone else.

  • Ewan says:

    One of the first undergrads working in the lab (with a grad student colleague of mine, not me, thankfully) was the son of the editor-in-chief of one of the *very* top journals.

    Which did give rise to some amusing blackmail thoughts when I caught him at midnight one time having blockaded the door to the grad student office so that he could use it as a quiet place for some quality undressed-time with a young lady...

    ...yeah, he was pretty embarrassed 🙂

  • Postdoc says:

    This is a very spooky question and your answer is also very spooky. It makes me hope I never have to face a situation like that. Do you think you could say something though about the "secret but effective ways" that senior professors have of attacking each other?

  • ChemProf says:

    We have had two sons of faculty members in our own department and the niece of another complete bachelors and master's degrees in the department. NOT a good situation for the faculty having to teach these students. Fortunately they avoided me.

  • Anonymous says:

    I was the undergraduate taking courses in my dad's department. I know my TA took some heat after I reported some lackluster teaching. Sorry about that, anonymous TA! (Though you really were lackluster).

    How about having the child of a major donor in your class? And you're told about it ahead of time by the development office? Now *that* is awkward.

  • AnthroChick says:

    My husband was an undergraduate in his father's department. He knew every faculty member by name, had been to their houses, played with their kids, even on occasion guest-lectured to their classes as a high schooler (yes, he was *that* precocious). There were no problems on his end taking classes from these faculty (or their TAs) - maybe it helped that he and his father agreed on which faculty weren't very interesting/smart or that he had developed a lot of respect for them over the years.

    He did, however, have to take his father's class (it was required and his father was the only one who taught it). They got permission from the chair (or maybe even the dean?), and my FIL had a grad student grade hubby's assignments. This worked until hubby's lab partner cheated on an assignment and they tried to bring the student to honor court. The honor court made a big freaking deal about father teaching son, claiming they were out to get the cheating student.

    • T says:

      "even on occasion guest-lectured to their classes as a high schooler (yes, he was *that* precocious)."

      Wow. I'm sure at the time he really did believe he was invited to guest-lecture in the classes of his dad's direct reports solely because he was *just that precocious!* But don't tell me he believes that now. Too funny.

  • Lyrebird says:

    I will have the stepchild of my Head of Department attending my taught Masters course next year... also this student has a famous father in my field and her mother is highly placed in my department as well. Should be interesting.

  • I have both supervised at Ph d level the offspring of professors in or near my field, and taught offspring at undergraduate level. I think if we are doing a lousy job word gets around anyhow, so we shouldn't be any more paranoid about these offspring spreading the word. We should merely try to be professional and competent. Otherwise we may end up refusing to take on students simply because they are the parents' children - and that is not reasonable.

    In fact the problem I have had has been the other way round, trying to remember not to make dismissive comments about the parent in public in case that gets back to the child.

  • hkukbilingualidiot says:

    I could think of so many amusing scenarios, occurances and stories that could arise from all this, but of course only if I were not in that situations. 😛

  • Katie says:

    I currently have the daughter of one of the deans in my class. Luckily it hasn't been a problem because she's one of the more motivated students and gets the best grades. In fact, it may work out to my advantage because she loves my class.

  • Anonymous says:

    As a graduate student, I had a version of Undergraduate Scenario #1 -the student was a child of a professor in our department. I didn't know this (last name was common), and only found out after I graded one of the student's papers. It was awful, with an incoherent argument, terrible grammar/spelling, and it completely missed the point of the assignment. The student failed (badly). I was told by the student that I need to re-grade because the student was clearly far too advanced in his/her level of thinking for me, and I had missed the brilliance of the paper. I refused to do this, the student said the parent would get involved, and I would regret it. Thankfully, I was a TA, which meant that I bumped it up to the professor (who ended up passing the student and providing extra credit assignments). Thinking about it now, it still makes me feel annoyed. I have no idea if the professor would actually have gotten involved, or if the student just felt that the threat of this would be enough.

    • Per says:

      so your professor-boss copped out and basically did something dishonest which is passing a student who actually shouldn't have passed, giving that student extra chances which not extended to other students, solely because of who this student's parent was. This is academic dishonesty on the part of your professor (whereas you did the right thing). Furthermore, this brat of a student got rewarded for being dishonest. This is so sad.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I think it can be awkward for the student, too. My grandfather was a researcher involved in a well-publicized research controversy at the time my father was an undergraduate in the same field. Dad was a B student who didn't particularly like his professors. At graduation, the professor from whom he'd taken half his major coursework casually mentioned, "Oh yes, I know who your father is," and my father has been talking about the exchange ever since (we're talking 40 years ago now).

  • S Seguin says:

    While I've never been privy to such a direct relationship, at my uni, there are some people who have long standing, close family friend relationships within the department (ie, grad student had a professor's children as her flower girls at her wedding, another was coached in softball by different faculty...). Seems to me, they are privileged to better mentorship as a result. And in all of these cases, these people are NOT on grad student committees just to avoid that type of awkwardness.

  • becca says:

    What, you mean all advisors do not treat *all* advisees with the same respect and professionalism they would treat the parent colleague? I'm SHOCKED. SHOCKED I SAY!!!@!!@!!!

  • GMP says:

    I advised a family member (not an offspring) of a senior faculty colleague in my department when I was a beginning assistant prof. In retrospect, this was a very stupid idea. I ended up having to let the student go. My senior colleague was not happy, and he had all sorts of comments on how I am supposed to advise students (based on what the student, his family member, had told him). This was early enough in my TT that it blew over by the time the colleague was supposed to vote on my tenure case, but it led to a significant and permanent cooling of my relationship with my colleague.

    The advice for junior faculty is simple: don't advise anyone who is related to someone with the power to adversely affect your future career trajectory.

    One may say: well, it is likely that a big-name scientist may have an offspring with great talent in the same area; doesn't such a student deserve good advising? Of course, but the talented offspring could and should pick an advisor who is a true peer (similar seniority and fame) to the famous parent. Fortunately or unfortunately, there's no way that the famous parent's clout won't be a factor in the offspring's career anyway if their fields are too close. I suppose this is the reason why, in the several families I know of where one of the parents is a famous scientists, a talented offspring simply chose a different area of specialization wherein to carve their own fame.

  • Morgan says:

    Athough I'm only a graduate student, I know of 2 unrelated cases of children following in their highly-regarded-parents footsteps in my field of study at the graduate level. Oddly enough, both students have chosen the same faculty advisor for their degree. I'm not sure how to interpret that little tidbit...

  • Mark P says:

    I am not clear why this is so scary and involves so much paranoia. I advised a grad student who was the daughter of a colleague at a major University--not in my own subfield but close enough. He NEVER so much as made a peep during her entire time with me, and she was a TERRIFIC student. I never put one minute of worrying into the issue.

    The undergrad version could be, in principle, more problematic, but in the three examples I experienced, the two in class were excellent students and the third, who worked in my lab, was the undergrad of the decade. Once again, I never heard as much as one word from the parent.

  • I don't know whether any of the students I have had were related to anyone else at the university, and I really don't care. I don't see how a person's relatives have any bearing on how the student is graded or advised. If you are thinking about that rather than about the work the student is doing, you are failing as a teacher or adviser.

    I do know of one grad student who is (or was) also on the industrial advisory board for the school of engineering. The only way we treated him differently was that we didn't offer him funding, because he was rich enough to pay his tuition out of petty cash. Like many of our older re-entry students, he has been a good grad student, doing well on both coursework and research.

    • AnthroChick says:

      Maybe anthro is different from engineering, but I would be upset if my department didn't offer me funding. In my field, funding means that the department pays our tuition and gives us a small stipend, and we work as TAs or sole instructors. I could easily have paid my tuition at Big Southern State U because of my spouse's job, but I wanted the experience of teaching (which also puts me in a better position to get a job later).

      I guess what I'm saying is that if funding comes with an expectation/requirement of service, and that service is imperative for getting a job in the future, it's reasonable to fund a grad student, even if s/he has plenty of money.

      Sorry, a little off-topic. I'm guessing engineering is different (i.e., that there is no teaching requirement with funding) from the social sciences, though.

  • UnlikelyGrad says:

    My oldest sister took my dad's (college-level) organic chemistry class when she was still in high school. She consistently got A's, and her fellow students claimed it was only because her father was the professor.

    Of course she proved them wrong when she took organic chemistry as an undergrad some 10 years later--for fun, as she was majoring in Mechanical Engineering--and scored straight A's. (She also took p-chem--for fun--the following year and got straight A's.) Now she's a professor doing interdisciplinary work involving organic & physical chemistry.

    As the child of a professor who knew lots of professors' children growing up, I found that they generally fell into two groups:

    (1) The sort who did as little work as possible because they thought they could get away with it (due to their parent's position).

    (2) The sort who excelled in the same field their parents did. I, and two of my sisters, fell into this category. In retrospect, I think this was because of the way my dad was--he lived, breathed, ate, and slept chemistry, and so it was hard for his children not to pick that bits and pieces of chemistry knowledge even at an early age. (Incidentally, I had a friend in high school whose parents were both English professors. He is now an English professor himself. The girl I knew whose parents were both biology professors is now a professor of biology. So I think my family is not terribly unusual in that regard.)

    One of the profs here has a son who's a freshman, and who is enrolled in freshman chemistry. I'm pretty curious which of the two groups he falls into.

  • SciPostdoc says:

    I was an undergrad majoring in the department where my parent was a senior tenured professor. I don't know if the other professors had a problem with this or not, but I had excellent grades, was extremely interested and motivated and very humble (LOL). I enjoyed the experience as it was a small university and I knew all of my professors very well.

    I went on to get a PhD at an R1 in my parent's field. My PhD advisor was a tenured, full professor who is highly regarded in our field. My advisor met my parent on several occasions and they got along well. My research/thesis had it's ups and downs as most generally do, but my parent never did more than give general advice and encouragement. When I hit rough patches with my advisor, my parent would help me to understand the advisor-student relationship by relating some of the bumps from their past, but never got involved beyond that. I think that boundary was very important for both my parent and my thesis advisor.

    Now I am postdoc still in my parent's field. My parent has been helping me network for tenure-track positions, which may seem odd, but with the current job market, I will take all of the help I can get. My parent does not contact people directly, but sends along job postings to me and gives advice on how to approach people/write applications/prepare job talks. Overall, it has been a positive experience for me to have a parent in my field.

  • Patchi says:

    My experience is with the other side of the fence. My father is a scientist and his uncle was a very famous one in my home country. I did part of my undergraduate at the same institution where my father worked and it was a mixed experience. My father's friends all new me from birth. I felt a bit patronized and I think they made sure I was learning as much as I could from them. There was also the group that saw me as an impostor, regardless of the fact that I was top of my class. Apparently I could only get credit for an answer or comment if it was given in class - if I came back the next day with something all I heard was "it had to have come from your father". Most of the time I felt like I had to keep proving my worth every day and even then they would probably doubt my abilities. I felt a lot better once I transferred (with a full scholarship by the way) to a private school in a different country where no one knew my pedigree.

  • miri says:

    I was a graduate student in my father-in-law's department, although he did something totally different from my interests and I never took a class with him. The odd thing was that neither of us discussed it often - why bother? - and other graduate students and faculty would get irritated after learning of the relationship. It wasn't as though we "hid" it, it is just an odd thing to bring up. I don't think that anyone ever gave me special treatment because of our relationship or avoided me, but it was nice to have someone to talk to about academia during holiday gatherings.

  • Han Aiwen says:

    I had a friend in college who was a "fac-brat". He purposely majored in a different field from his dad (humanities instead of science) and took only one class in his dad's department. Generally he just tried to stay as far away from it as possible. His dad would invite him to grab coffee before class and my friend preferred to just keep his head down and go straight to class. In the end the totally different majors kept them separate and he had an understanding with his parents that they didn't show up at his dorm (he lived in the dorms the entire time, not at home) and always gave him the distance he needed to develop a good campus life.

  • tim says:

    Both the writer of the letter and the science prof talk about paranoia and being "too paranoid to even express". However, they show no paranoia when expressing their psychiatric abnormality.

    Obviously, these cases are all personal, so commenting from experience does not help the letter-writer one bit. All the commenters on this blog tend to comment from their own experience which is natural but stupid. Yeah, i had no problem. Yeah i did. So people are all different. Jeese.

    Here's the deal: stop whining, treat the student like any other and stop thinking about it. You can not turn down a student just because he/she is disadvantaged with the burden of having superb connections. You are making is a problem. Regret nothing. Ever. It's a waist of time.

  • ParanoidProfessor says:

    I am in a situation where the offspring of a senior professor in my department has requested to join my lab as a graduate student. This blog is giving me second thoughts.

    I see two possible outcomes: 1) the student is great and everything is rosy, or 2) there are problems which are going to be much worse as a result of this relationship.

    It is hard to "treat the student like any other" because "any other" student who underperforms you would kick out. However, in this case, things could get very nasty if that happens, so it is far from clear that this is an acceptable situation unless I already know for sure that the student is so outstanding, personable, hard working and dedicated to my subject that there is zero chance of a problem.

    Among the many subtle and secretive ways that FSP mentions revenge could be taken are negative promotion and tenure votes (not just for you but your allies, mentors, mentees etc.), denial of lab space, undesirable teaching assignments, etc. etc.. So this is not just a petty dispute where family members are concerned.

  • NonUS FSP says:

    I am with GMP (and others) on this: If you are not tenure and well-established, just don't take such a graduate student into your research group. This is asking for trouble and you just don't need the extra stress at this point.

    If the student is great, well, good for him: S/he will find another, more established supervisor and will thrive.
    If they are even just average, even if they just tend to procrastinate or are just not fit for the topic, then they are better off with someone who can deal with them without fear.

    Taking on a graduate student is a very personal choice, and because it is a big commitment, professors are allowed to exercise a great deal of not necessary totally justified preference.
    For example, it is totally fair not to take on a student who smells bad or has mannerisms that appall you.

    For an undergrad in class, the story is different, since neither you nor them have a choice (in most cases). So, try to ignore the issue.

  • CCPhysicist says:

    I can top most (if not all) of those situations, but no details here.

    What I will say is that it is pretty easy when the parents involved are consummate professionals and the children have not fallen far from the tree. I had few concerns going in because I already knew and trusted the people involved, and I would imagine the same was true on the other side.

    I can, however, imagine just how bad it could be under other circumstances.