Intersecting spheres

Jun 01 2011 Published by under advising, faculty, graduate school

A reader wonders:

What do you do if you and one of your advisees share outside interests that bring you into social contact off campus, and some of these interactions might affect your advisor-advisee interactions on campus?

That is, what if an advisor and an advisee (think: grad student, but could also be undergrad or postdoc) have a hobby or other outside interest in common and see each other frequently outside of work/campus? Perhaps these interactions are quite positive -- perhaps advisor and advisee become friends outside of work, owing in part to these shared interests.

Is there a problem?

There might be. I haven't been in this situation as an advisor, but here are some related questions for discussion, formulated based on additional information in e-mails I have received on this topic:

Does the beyond-campus interaction/friendship affect the advisor-advisee relationship in some ways that are unfair to other advisees?

It could, but I think there are ways to deal with any perceived inequity arising from external interactions with some (but not all) advisees, much as we advisors (should) deal with perceived issues related to the fact that it's normal to enjoy conversing with some advisees more than others. Perhaps with some students, all conversations are restricted to research and other academic topics, whereas with others, conversations may range widely to politics, movies, cats etc. As long as we are alert to the situation and are careful to be equally accessible and supportive of all advisees, this should not be a problem

As a grad student, I had some low-level anxiety that my grad advisor's shared interests with other advisees in certain outdoor activities (in which I did not participate, but they all did together) made him like them more, and that this would color his overall opinions and therefore his letters of reference.. but in the end, there was no reason to worry.

What about the dynamics of the advisor and advisee who share an outside interest? If you are sort-of friends off campus, do you switch off that aspect of your interaction when on campus?

This is where it will be useful to have reader input, as I have not encountered this myself. I can imagine that it could be awkward if you know something about your advisee's personal life -- maybe they are having a crisis, for example -- but you aren't sure whether to acknowledge this on campus, or pretend you don't (really) know because you don't necessarily have this level of knowledge about your other advisees.

A (too) simple answer would be to say that we advisors should just do our advisor-jobs the same way, whether or not we know the details of our advisee's personal lives and even whether or not we like them, and provide whatever professional support is necessary and appropriate in our role as advisor. More difficult would be deciding whether/how to use 'outside knowledge' of an advisee's emotional state when providing (or withholding) criticism of an advisee's work. If you know that an advisee is having personal problems, for example, should you hold back or behave as you would without the additional information/insight?

Speaking from inexperience, I would say to put on your advisor hat and have the professional conversations you need to have with your advisees about their work. Even though you might know that you will likely upset a fragile or sensitive student with criticism (however kindly worded), or you might suspect that you will harm your beyond-campus friendship with an advisee (by exerting your authority as an advisor), you aren't doing an advisee any favors by withholding feedback about their work. If you give a struggling student advice that is constructive -- e.g., here's what you need to do to improve, and here are some suggestions and guidelines (perhaps to be worked out more fully in discussion) -- this might help the student more than if you tread lightly around them, not wanting to upset them.

But that's easy for me to say -- I am not in that situation. So, I am interested to hear from those who are: advisors and students.

20 responses so far

  • Z says:

    I'm American, mind you, but it has always seemed to me that Americans freak out too much on this kind of thing. When you meet someone you know in academia outside life in academia, you find out they have a life and so do you ... that's really all. You can worry that so and so and so and so share trade secrets because they are also sailing buddies or whatever, but you can also worry that the sky might fall. Smarter just to realize, people have lives and so do you, and officially we are a democracy so it is OK for you to recognize that this is the case.

  • Dr. Confused says:

    In my department, all students are advised by two faculty members, though the degree to which both participate in supervision varies from 50/50 to 95/5. One of my 60/40 supervised students (me 60ish) is a member of the same small religious congregation as his other supervisor. It doesn't seem to have affected the supervision much, although at one point, when the other supervisor was taking months to read thesis chapters and papers, the student mentioned that maybe the faculty member would be more responsive to another student who he didn't feel friendly with. (I couldn't sign off on the thesis as I am too junior to be recorded as a primary supervisor). Interesting hypothesis, and backwards to what you said above, but I don't think it's valid in this case.

  • I have been in exactly this situation as a PhD and postdoc supervisor on several occasions. One of these occasions was when a student I had taught in his undergraduate course, and then supervised as a PhD student, stayed on to work with me as a postdoc. Having both been in the department for so long, we had many mutual friends, and some of them invited each of us, together with our partners, to go skiing together. With this particular postdoc we managed very well to switch between our work and personal lifes for many years. He now works on the other side of the world but we still have a lot of email contact both personal and work related.

    The other two circumstances have been slightly different. Part of my research involves periods of several weeks on field work involving 30 or so people from several different institutions. I have led two of these in recent years. In both cases, I have had my PhD students deeply involved in the research. The nature of the fieldwork means working closely together, and since we are often in strange places, the necessity of sticking together for meals and "downtime" too. This means that we know more about each other (e.g. have seen each other being airsick etc) than you might possibly want... but in both cases it has been fine, and once we have returned to campus all is well. I do think it has made a difference to those students to see their supervisor muck in with the mundane jobs, and suffer for science in the same way!

    In my early days as a supervisor, with no money to go to a conference, I did once share a twin room with a female PhD student for a few nights. That was a step too far....

  • Anon says:

    I would not want to have an adviser that I am not friends with. Why would I spend 6 years working with someone that only shares research related interests with me? It was great having an adviser that went out to happy hour, played hockey, cooked dinners, etc with me and my fellow grad students.

  • simjockey says:

    I had a similar problem with my master's thesis advisor. He insisted on knowing each of students personally. He would often invite us for lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, I had many other commitments and I couldn't accept all his invitations. I also (somewhat unwisely) got into political arguments with him at the beginning of my research work with him.

    I was a bit apprehensive about all this, but I think I did my work fairly well because he gave me awesome recommendations for grad school. We're still sort of friends now, but I'm a bit more comfortable declining personal invitations from him.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "liking" and "not liking" trainees should be 100% off the table.

  • SeeBee says:

    I'm with Anon. My advisor is not just an advisor, but a mentor and a friend. She's been the one who has been my guide in figuring out just how to live while pursuing an academic career. My daughter calls her University Grandma.

  • kt says:

    I had an advisor I was not friends with and he did a good job, funded me, taught me a lot about writing and my field, and helped me get out the door with a piece of paper that said something about a doctor of philosophy. I was sometimes jealous of my friend who was friends with his advisor (pizza, camping, sports) but that advisor didn't come through with funding, prodding, or whatever else it takes to help someone get out the door. My friend still doesn't have a PhD and the advisor-advisee relationship is broken; they are not friends or working together anymore at all.

  • R says:

    I'm fortunate enough to like all of my students very much, although I share different degrees of interest in non-science activities with each of them. My issue, which is related, has less to do with "liking" and more to do with the difference in style that they have in terms of the quantity of interaction with me. Some are very proactive and come to chat with me every day, about work and outside material. This gets me into a mode where I don't seek them out, since I know that I'll be able to check in at least once a day to see how there work is going. However, that gets me out of the habit of looking after the quieter ones. In this case, I know that it's my own responsibility to keep track of all of them equally well, and I just have to set up some more formal meeting times with the ones that are less proactive.

  • Postdoc says:

    What about a professor that has a cohort of advisees (postdocs, ergo, "employees") with whom he goes drinking on a regular basis, discuss science, papers, helps them writing grants and advance their careers... while another subset of postdocs do only have a professional relationship with said professor?

    I respect the opinions of those who said that pizza and camping with their advisors was/is great. But when professors make a clear distinction about who's their employee/friend and who's just an employee, things start getting fishy. Afterwards one notices how the employee/friends are always in the professor's publications, submit more grants and are "on the loop" while the just-employees are lucky to get one-hour appointments with the professor every 3 weeks.

    People prefer to work with people they like as friends? Sure! Is this a risky, problematic behaviour if the frontier between employer and friend is blurry? Sure as well.

  • GMP says:

    It's hard to imagine me having overlapping spheres with my current students (all guys, all but one single, none have any kids). As an advisor, I try not to be too intrusive and I am honestly happy we don't have much out-of-work overlap. I will take the group to dinner/drinks when someone graduates, but that's about it. I am really not comfortable having them at my house, for instance. My primary job is to make sure the students are funded, progress well in their research, and to offer academic and professional advice. I have more in common with my postdoc (he has a family) plus the mentoring I need to do with him is a bit different -- he's more independent, and needs guidance on the finer points in academia. But even so, getting too friendly makes me uncomfortable and I think collides with my primary job which is to look out for all trainees professionally. Familiarity breeds contempt.

    I think you have to like all your advisees, or at least you have to not dislike any of them. If you catch yourself feeling very negative about a student (which can happen after repeated disappointment or aggravation), it's best to recommend that the student find another advisor as your ability to mentor them effectively has been compromised.

  • Sally says:

    Like SP, I had minor worries that my advisor liked his other advisees better than me and would treat them better professionally because he shared outside interests with them. It wasn't an issue. My advisor knew how to separate personal and professional interactions, so I didn't need to be his best buddy outside of work for him to be 100% behind me in my career.

    It's definitely not true (or shouldn't be) that your advisor won't like working with you if you don't have the same outside interests. My advisor and I got along very well during the workday, then went home and did different things. Tabby cat enthusiasts and triathletes can be collegial and even respect each other's different ideas of fun!

  • Alex says:

    It is really strange that some students insist they must be friends with their advisors. Hokay... That's an odd one.

    I had all experiences. My MSc advisor sexually harassed me - the friendliness was unwanted. My first PhD advisor had her favorite who was at her house often and "in" with everything. I was not the favorite but I did see her socially, though i almost always spoke work with her. My other PhD advisor was friendly and we went out a few times (with another student) since we liked the same kind of music, but nothing that would jeopardize our professional relationship. During postdoc I worked with 3 people. Again some dinners and personal conversations, but nothing sticky icky. Overall my first experience was the absolute worst and perhaps that made me wary of closeness.

    But I have seen other cases where this is ill-advised. An assistant prof I know had a disastrous situation with her first grad student that ended up a mess for both parties. They got too close and she couldn't give her criticism without this affecting her friendship. They both lost 2 years of productivity working together.

    I have made a conscious effort to be a little removed from my students' lives. I am relatively young, don't have kids, and am an extravert and I joke a lot. So I have to purposefully maintain a bit of a distance. I am very friendly and warm in lab but I think they all know it's professional.

    I think they need an honest, caring, effective advisor more than they need another friend.

    However, if I happen to know a student is going through something personal, I would definitely use this knowledge in advising them. I also keep their personality type in mind and try to make my feedback suited to their needs. This is not about getting mushy, it's about management.

  • mathgirl says:

    I'm happy that my PhD supervisor was never a friend of mine. He was a great advisor and a great mentor. Yes, I went to his house a couple of times during my PhD to celebrate special occasions, yes, he was friendly, but that's it. It was (and is) always a professional relationship.

    I see it very hard for an advisor to be friends with his/her students and still treat them all the same. It's not natural, friends are not equivalent.. And if you can't treat your students all the same, you're in big trouble. That's the reason I'm glad I had a professional relationship with my advisor, and I try to do the same with my students.

  • Anon says:

    Aside from shared recreational interests, the overwhelming sentiment seems to be that all students should be treated equally. Is that how everyone feels?

    For example, if the PI is invited to write a paper and decides they wish to write on a topic related to one student's project, and this results in a second author paper for that student while no similar opportunities arise for other students - shouldn't the other students accept that this happened owing to the PI's interest in the topic and not because the PI likes one student more than another?

    Students may end up being treated differently for reasons ranging from circumstance to differences in ability (GMP has discussed mentoring students of different abilities before), but PI's have goals for their research programs too, and these may result in unequal levels of investment between students.

    Most students have it ingrained in them, that they should take full responsibility for their degree program. If another student is involved in an additional collaboration, theoretically this takes nothing from the other students. As a student, is it fair to expect that all students of the same supervisor will be treated the same?

  • kt says:

    Anon at 16:35, no one here has discussed at all what different research programs and projects do for different students. The question is about off-campus relationships and hobbies -- rock-climbing, drinking, knitting, extreme sports -- and how those affect the advisor-advisee relationship.

    It may be worth discussing how different research interests affect an advisor's investment in a student. It is a different question.

  • Karen says:

    My advisor and I are friends, but not close friends; we're both savvy enough to know to keep the relationship professional. I'm nearly through with my thesis and will shortly have my MS degree, and I'm looking forward to having a closer relationship with my advisor and his wife, without a professional relationship to hinder it.

  • Anon says:

    Thanks kt. I intended to change the topic. My comment was in response to mathgirl having said 'and if you can't treat all your students the same, you're in big trouble.'

  • EuropeanFemaleSciencePerson says:

    Well, both my husband and I have a few friends who are former students/advisees. Not all, but a few. And there have been some I have known in other spheres - church, sports. I just try and be professional about it: I don't talk about my colleagues in the showers, I don't tell my colleagues what kind of a goalie Student X is. And I try to be fair to all, meaning I'm probably harder on the students I consider friends than I might have been otherwise.

    Two of my former advisees are the kind of friends I would call at 3am in the morning if there was a crisis and I needed their help. What a shame if I would have kept myself from knowing these two, just because they happened to be my students? One of my husbands we have even gone on vacation with together - we have so many common interests.

    I think we worry far too much about what other people are thinking. Just be fair in what you do, and ignore the whispers.

  • Isabel says:

    "Two of my former advisees are the kind of friends I would call at 3am in the morning if there was a crisis and I needed their help. "

    Hopefully *not* while they were your advisees. That's the difference - no matter how much you have in common. Even in the most casual and friendly situations, there is a line that is never crossed, and an ability to switch on a dime to total professionalism, based on awareness of and a respect for the heirarchy that remains intact. True "friendship" is based on equality, so cannot occur until your advisees have their PhDs and have moved on.

    If my advisor called me off-hours about a practical crisis it would be be okay (eg her house flooded, she needs me to come by with my car because she doesn't have one or she just needs an extra hand to bail out or move stuff to higher ground). After all, she is used to seeing me every day, I have a car and she doesn't, we work in the field together so we do a lot of everyday favors for each other and know each others needs and strengths, so that would be very natural.

    But *not* an emotional crisis (her husband left her, she just found out she has cancer) where she needs someone to talk to, that would be really weird. Even though when out in the field or over dinner we do discuss personal matters pretty freely.