Should She Do It?

Nov 04 2011 Published by under colleagues, tenure

A request from a reader for advice (original e-mail excerpted and slightly altered to preserve the anonymity of the writer):

I'm a tenure-track scientist, nearing the time of tenure evaluation (a year or two to go). Recently, a senior male colleague and I have developed mutal feelings for each other (we are both single), and are considering whether to pursue a relationship.  He is not much older than I am (about 10 years), but is a full professor and the chair of the department P&T committee.   Given our university's policies, romantic relationships are permissable but he'd have to be removed from any supervisory role (i.e., not allowed to vote on my tenure case or annual evaluations).  He has substantial concerns about what our potential dating might do to my career; I feel like we could manage these issues, but worry that I am perhaps being naive.

I'm curious whether dating a colleague ever works (particularly in the junior woman-senior man configuration), whether it always casts shadows over a young FSP's career to be involved with an older man in the field, whether there are things that can be done to mitigate the possibility of damage (e.g., not disclosing it at work beyond our department chair, as mandated by policy-- though obviously, if things work out, at SOME point we'd have to do so, and "we've been dating for 3 years and are getting married!!" may not be the way to do it; not publishing together; something else I'm not thinking about?)  Precisely how bad of an idea is this, exactly?

Other information: He has dated in our field before, so has a bit of a reputation (and met his ex-wife when she was a graduate student in a closely related discipline; she moved to another instution when they divorced.)

So far my pretenure evaluations have been positive but not home runs (my teaching and service are great, I should try to publish more than I do, though [description of recent improvements in publication record].

In general, I don't think it is a good idea to give relationship advice to someone you don't know. Yes, we out here in the blogosphere are, in theory, more 'objective' than this woman's friends in real life, but maybe in such cases objectivity is not a good thing -- we don't know these people and can only evaluate the situation from incomplete information.

But let's do it anyway.

Actually, I think that all we can really do that might be helpful is to say how we might view such a situation if we were in this woman's department or in her field.

I don't think I would really care one way or the other, or, at least, not in any way that would affect this woman's career. If I were in her department, I wouldn't vote against her for tenure, for example, just because she decided to date a senior colleague, even one with "a bit of a reputation".

That's not to say that there wouldn't be some consequences, especially within the department if the relationship doesn't go well, but I will leave it to others to go negative with their advice on this issue.

Beyond this specific situation, though, I was thinking about whether (and how much) it matters how successful the woman is in terms of how much freedom she has to pursue whatever relationships she wants, with no/fewer consequences.

For example, does it matter in this case that the woman in question, although apparently doing OK, wasn't hitting "home runs" in the early years of her tenure-track position? Does that change how we view people (in general, or women in particular) in terms of their professional and personal lives, or can we separate these? I think I view them separately, but am not sure that is true in general.

41 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    No. Full stop.

  • Alex says:

    First, forget about whether either of them is an academic for a moment. He has "a bit of a reputation"? If I were her real-life friend, I'd say no. Period.

    Second, if she absolutely must be an idiot about relationships and date a guy with "a bit of a reputation", at least have the intelligence to wait until after the department has voted on tenure. Dating this guy might not affect how her colleagues vote (or it might), but it's still a really bad idea to have that sort of entanglement while vulnerable at work.

  • sciencecanary says:

    The guy does sound like a jerk, and a serial predator of younger women he encounters in his professional life (or am I reading too much into the limited information provided?). At least his ex- could move to another institution. If this is the Love of the Century, then.. whatever. But if it's a mild interest in dating this distinguished older colleague, why not wait.

    But there is more than one question here. Should she date this man? No. Would you as a professional colleague hold it against her if you thought she was doing something stupid with her personal life? I hope not.

  • moom says:

    The biggest issue with these relationships is what happens if it doesn't work out. And here she hopefully gets tenure and both stay there forever. I dated a grad student in my department when I was a post-doc (1 year age difference). It was very tough when she broke up with me. Now we are friends and have both moved on from that place. But not everyone is like us...

  • anon says:

    can everyone in the department who will be voting on her tenure *really* be objective if they knew or guessed? Won't they be in an awkward position of "am I letting this influence me?"/"am I being too harsh to compensate for any perceived favoritism?"

    independent of the lady's question, I really want to know whether people think their decisions in such circumstances will still be magically shiningly objective and unaffected --FSP says she won't care one way or another, but what if fsp had to make a career decision about the person?

    sooo... perhaps my vote would be for after tenure at all costs (if).

  • Chris says:

    In my department, there's quite a few married couples, although the vast majority are at the same career level. We've got Prof/Prof, Assistant Prof/Assistant Prof, postdoc/postdoc, Assistant Prof/postdoc (he's a brand new Assistant Prof, she's about to get a tenure track job) and various technician/admin couples on my floor alone! The Prof couples have often published together and work in a very closely related areas. The Assistant Prof couple work in quite different areas on different models but are currently co-advising me on my Masters project (officially I'm with him but practically I'm with her at the moment)... this has not been a problem at all for me. My friend found out and thought it was weird ... maybe objectively it is but if everyone remains calm and professional, I don't see the issue.

    /just saying

    So my advice would be to go for it. It can work out.

    (Disclaimer: I'm not from the US so titles and jobs used in this description are the equivalent in the US)

  • Anonanon says:

    Wait til after tenure to take it further. If this really is a get-married-and-stay married relationship, a wait of a year won't matter.

  • another anon says:

    I have to agree, his concerns are legitimate. What would happen if she chose not to enter into a relationship with him? He is the chairman of the P&T committee (which I assume is promotions and tenure). I assume that her rejection (or deferrment) would not affect her tenure application. Or am I, too, being naive? The situation is fraught with layers of complication and much of it is unpredictable - even by the two people who have all the available knowledge. My best advice would be to say (to yourself and your senior colleague) that you need to focus and your tenure application (including publication record) and perhaps now is not the time to enter into the important process of a new relationship. Real feelings (capable of outlasting all our direst predictions) will be able to sustain a waiting period.

    Good luck - whatever you choose!

  • There is only a problem if she gets tenure and it is rather obvious that she wouldn't have if the relationship had not existed (whether or not her boyfriend formally has a say). Sadly, I know many such cases (most with junior (at least scientifically) woman and senior man). I have no sympathy at all for this; permanent positions are few and far between and someone getting a position she shouldn't have otherwise is just wrong in so many ways, especially if the reason for it is that she just happens to have the right boyfriend (which is why I am so sceptical of many schemes designed to help dual-career couples).

    On the other hand, I know many dual-career couples, some of whom met on the job, and it is obvious that both have earned it, to the extent that many people who have known them for years don't even realised they are married (in one case, they even have the same last name). In that case, if she deserves tenure, if there is a problem then it is not hers. I wouldn't hide the relationship, but neither would I flaunt it (at least not on campus).

    Apparently some institutes do not allow relationships among the staff. I would not work at such an institute and would not live in a country in which such discrimination is legal. (I think it is OK to require the department head to be informed, though---which raises the question who should be informed if the department head is the one involved in the relationship (yes, I know about such a case as well).)

  • Anonymous says:

    Oh, for the love of god. NO.

    The relationship sours before she goes up for tenure? Bad. The relationship sours after tenure? Stuck with him in the dept. All goes well for perpetuity? Potentially bad feelings with colleagues. No matter how principled the guy is, there is huge potential for conflict of interest and the appearance (or reality) of favoritism. Even if the letter writer gets no advantage out of it, some of her peers might think she did. (If I was untenured and this was going on with my colleagues, I would be unbelievably pissed. But my dept is very disfunctional). And he has done this before? A. Not principled. B. It ain't going to last.

    Also, she should do some digging about his ex wife. Why did they get divorced? Did he cheat with a new student? Did she get tenure? Did she ever have a chance?

  • Relationships within the same department are risky, but all relationships carry a risk of going sour. The problem for academics is that tenure is seen as so valuable and so hard to get that it distorts all perception of other life choices. It might, in fact, be best to wait until after tenure to form a relationship with a senior colleague, to avoid the perception that one slept one's way to tenure.

    On the other hand, prohibiting academics from dating in the same department may be nearly equivalent to prohibiting them from dating at all, at least in some fields, where there is little time or opportunity to meet anyone outside the lab. Many stable relationships have started from respect for each other as co-workers in the same lab.

    On the other hand, the fact the guy has previously divorced someone met under similar circumstances might indicate a certain lack of commitment. More details about that relationship (as seen by both sides) are needed to form a clearer prediction of the future possibilities of the current relationship.

    As a faculty member, I would hope that I could evaluate a fellow faculty member for tenure independent of any relationships they have formed, but I am aware that personal feelings can influence one's judgement without conscious intent. In this case, even if no formal relationship has been entered, if the snior faculty member is aware of the strong possibility of a future relationship, he should recuse himself from the tenure case.

  • profguy says:

    Don't do it. At least not til after tenure. But probably never would be the best idea.

  • Anonymous says:

    There may be some good benefit to NOT dating this guy. If the senior prof has the concerns the writer says he does, then he may be perfectly accepting of a "we probably shouldn't date right now" rejection. Then, if the *friend* relationship continues, then she's got a strong sponsor on the P&T committee, and he may be willing to go to bat for her if she's on the edge of a yes-no vote.

  • anon says:

    Couldn't the senior colleague recuse himself of the tenure decision and appoint someone else to act in his stead in this case? You'd think there would be some effort on his part to ensure a fair decision that other members of the department would be comfortable with. As for having previous relationships with other colleagues, I think it's natural for some people who work together or who see each other every day to grow an attraction and have things go from there. If they make each other happy, I would be supportive. Relationships sour for various reasons and may have nothing to do with the working environment or the circumstances in which the relationship began. I would not pass judgment on person because he or she is divorced.

  • GMP says:

    "Don't shit where you eat."
    One senior collaborator even says it's a bad idea to have close personal friends at work, it's too dangerous. Any type of relationship where you give a lot of yourself is a bad idea at work, especially for academics with tenure, where you really may be stuck with your colleagues for the rest of your career.

    That having been said, her letter sounds like she is really into this guy and will likely pursue the relationship: excusing his reputation, being sure that they can find a way to work around the potential issues with her career, thinking about marriage some time in the future; at no point is she wondering what happens if the relationship dissolves. Coming to think of it, the letter actually sounds like they have already started seeing each other and she's looking through the sex-haze glasses...

    I know several women in related fields who dated senior men in their areas. The women ranged from decent to stellar as scientists, but every single time people were talking behind their backs that the woman was sleeping with the guy just to get ahead. It ties to the still common perception that women inherently don't belong in science and that they always need 'help' (even when they clearly don't); these misconceptions are hard to overcome. I suppose the situation may be different if he weren't senior and established but her peer instead. If your letter writer is serious about her career, she will stay as far as possible from a romantic entanglement with a senior coworker and will make sure all of her accomplishments are crystal clear to be hers and hers alone. Standards for women are much harsher than for men, and any perception of weakness in the professional life (or personal life for that matter) can be punishing.

  • Cherish says:

    I'd go with Gasstationwithoutpumps. Aside from that, if he does have issues with commitment, asking him to wait until tenure is a good check to see if he is as committed as she is.

  • Glfadkt says:

    No. No! NO! A million times NO! Avoid that situation at all costs. The overwhelming majority of potential outcomes are bad...

  • Anon says:

    If the two of them wind up dating and are still together and happy at the time of the tenure evaluation, I suspect it will actually help her:

    In my department, we have a couple in which one person was hired after the other already had tenure. The second hire had no experience in the sub-field for which the department advertised, did not present a job talk on that sub-field, and has not done much work in that field. The second hire has hardly published at all since arriving here, has gotten poor student evaluations, and is a pain in the ass in service work. This person's research plans are not in any way novel, and even if everything works perfectly the results will not be suitable for research journals (nothing new there). This person insists that (s)he is an expert in several sub-fields and insists on being part of any initiative in those sub-fields, despite minimal background or accomplishments and no willingness to do any actual work on those initiatives.

    Despite all this, there is ZERO chance that (s)he will be denied tenure, because the department values collegiality too much to deny tenure to the spouse of a full professor.

    OTOH, if the letter-writer dates this guy and then it goes sour, I suspect that if she were in my department there are people who would vote to deny tenure, to make the unpleasant situation go away. This is what happens when collegiality is your chief concern.

  • if you have to ask, you shouldn't do it.

  • jen says:

    It's unfair and it's stupid (and as GMP says it's due to the "perception that women inherently don't belong in science and that they always need 'help'"), my experience, a junior woman in science dating a more senior man is often gossiped about as sleeping her way to the top. I'd also recommend waiting until tenure to pursue anything - if you already have tenure, there shouldn't be the perception that you are with him to 'gain' something academically (of course, if you start dating him the day tenure is awarded, your colleagues may assume that you were actually kinda-sorta together beforehand...which may actually be kinda-sorta true, whether or not this had any bearing on your actual tenure application).

    I guess it depends in part on how much you care what other people think. To some extent, you shouldn't have to care about the opinions of your colleagues if they are rooted in sexism (the idea that you have to sleep with a guy in order to make tenure because the womenz aren't smart enough to do it on their ownz). But, on the other hand, those people with those opinions may very well be voting on your tenure case...

  • M says:

    I believe pretty strongly in how important it is to find the right person - so if this relationship is "it," then I would say it is foolish to pass it up. If it is not, then of course you can get in a tangle. So I guess my advice would be to make sure it's something you're pretty sure is serious before going down that road. Having things go sour is a risk you have to take in finding that fulfilling relationship, which is really not all that easy to find and not to be taken lightly. Of course - so is a fulfilling job - but I believe it's easier (relatively) to find another job (even a tt position) than to find another partner that is the right match.

    I am in involved in what could be construed as a controversial academic relationship. I am a female. I am not at all aware of any negative opinions about me regarding my abilities, and I believe that's because I work my butt off and do awesome work and that defines who I am. If anybody thinks otherwise, I simply give them the finger (perhaps figuratively), and know that they will come around once they work with me or learn more about me.

    • Z says:

      Yes, but you're actually *in* the relationship. In this case, she's into it and the guy is against it. "I am concerned about possible negative effects on your career," is a nice way of also saying "I am not interested in deepening this connection at this time."

  • anon says:

    Since an earlier version of this comment didn't get through:

    If the department is the sort of environment where getting along ("collegiality") is valued above all else, then dating him will either be very good for her tenure case or very bad. Just hear me out:

    I know at least one place where everybody values the group cohesion so much that they have ignored their own guidelines to give good performance reviews to a very unproductive spouse. This couple is well-integrated into the social life of the department, one was hired long before the other, and when the second member of the couple was hired that person was already very good friends with a number of faculty. In that sort of environment, where the friendly vibe is almost a bit creepy (people in other departments note how unusual it is to see so many people in that department having dinner together on weekends), denying tenure to a member of a couple would simply be unthinkable. (This speaks more negatively of the department than it does of the unproductive spouse, IMHO.)

    OTOH, if the letter writer were to date him and then have an unpleasant break-up, a group that values its cohesion above all else might judge her unfairly and deny her tenure, just to make the unpleasant situation go away.

  • userj says:

    It's a tough situation. I actually think that a lot of the women in this situation are actually better scientists than their senior husbands... but no one ever gives them a chance because of the stigma and assumption that they are just glorified lab techs who got their professor jobs because the dept wanted to recruit/retain their big wig husbands. It's really sad - in my department alone I can think of at least 3 examples of this and it makes me fell ill.

    No matter how awesome the letter writer is, if she ends up with this guy, she'll be shunted into this role by her department. It's not about tenure as much as it is ending up being considered a minion of a more powerful person for the rest of your life. Even if that person is someone you love, do you really want that? It's likely as not to screw up your relationship... and certainly will screw up your career.

  • Notorious Ph.D. says:

    Technically, Jen, I believe that it would be "sleeping one's way to the middle."

    That said, I agree with the commenter above that the tone of the letter makes it seem like the writer has already decided. But in case she hasn't, I'm going to parse some of the verbiage (it's what we Humanities types do best):

    1. "[We] are considering whether to pursue a relationship." = this has already progressed beyond the significant glances and/or casual flirtation phase. The reader doesn't say whether the entanglement is already sexual or not; the choice seems to be whether to enter into something serious, on which point...

    2. "He has substantial concerns about what our potential dating might do to my career; I feel like we could manage these issues..." = He's fine with the way things are at this point (whatever that point may be); she's not. Ditto the fact that she's already thought "marriage" while he's still hesitant about a relationship. The two seem to have very different ideas of what's going on here. Forget academia; forcing an issue like this never goes well.

    3. The letter writer further wonders "whether it always casts shadows over a young FSP's career to be involved with an older man in the field." I submit that "older man in the field" is not the problem; "senior departmental colleague and chair," on the other hand, is -- especially, as some have already pointed out, in a professional field where a woman has a hard time getting taken seriously, even under the best of circumstances. This point is doubly true for a person whose publication record is, by her own admission, not a slam-dunk for tenure.

    4. Finally, though most of the letter made me shake my head and wonder at the hole (personal AND professional) that this person is potentially digging for herself, there was part that made me giggle; to wit, the idea that the letter-writer proposes to "not disclosing it at work beyond our department chair." To which I can only say: has she met academic departments? The news will leak out, and the two members of the couple will be the last to hear it. That's just the way academic departments work. Heck, chances are that these two are much less subtle than they think they are, and that people are already talking.

    So, I'm with the contributors who say: NO. Full stop. And I do mean stop.

  • Anon says:

    The concern I have is that the male professor is head of the P&T committee. Once a relationship is entered into that's a conflict of interest. The letter doesn't mention whether anyone else would be undergoing P&T at the same time, but I think anyone else being evaluated is something that this couple should factor in to their decision-making.

    While I agree with the sentiment that finding the right person is hard, and depsite the divorce, I don't think we know enough about whether this really is a love-match or not, the conflict of interest that this presents is significant. Indeed, I wonder whether it being at this decision point is enough that the senior faculty member should consider stepping down from the position anyway.

  • Z says:

    Notorious PhD is exactly right. If the relationship is more important than the job she should quit/go into industry or something and pursue relationship. But, it sounds as though they are seeing each other and he is pleased with a casual situation.

    The real problem, then, is what happens if she stops the casual situation and he gets mad. Will there be retribution?

    After tenure I was in a relationship with another tenured person in another department. Sounds foolproof, right? ... not. I slowly discovered how vengeful he was and started to fear to break up because of what he could be capable of doing at work. When I did finally break up, that kind of thing did in fact happen. They can get to you via administrators and students, if they're in the same college (e.g. Arts and Sciences - a very large college, but one dean and one set of gen ed requirements). Especially if they have a rep of any kind, really watch out.

  • CCPhysicist says:

    "Developed mutual feelings" means, what, exactly? That this is 1951 rather than 2011 or that the euphemism barrel is empty? I hope it is the former and not the latter.

    I am imagining deans and provosts, not to mention university lawyers, having a panic attack right now when reading this because it sounds to me like a problem will exist if the guy does not quietly resign from the P&T committee. "Mutual feelings" already is a "romantic relationship" because one person has apparently raised the question of whether to date openly. He should know better, and it sounds like he has belatedly figured that out but doesn't want to admit to her how risky his position is.

  • SS says:

    Date him. If you receive tenure, excellent. If you dont, you have an instant sexual harassment lawsuit that makes you a millionaire. Cynical, but real.

  • He has dated in our field before, so has a bit of a reputation (and met his ex-wife when she was a graduate student in a closely related discipline; she moved to another instution when they divorced.)


  • anonymous says:

    Wow, I know a similar couple... she's a doctoral student, he's her advisor. I think they've tried to hide their relationship. He is ... unsavory, to say the least.
    I don't think it's advisable to date anyone who is in a position of power or influence over ones career beginnings. At /least/ the party with power/influence should recuse him- or herself from all decision making discussions. It could work out-- IF the department members (and person dating the prof.) have good reason to trust that their colleague will act responsibly when whichever tenure decision is made.

  • anonymous says:

    This is really an interesting post but mostly (at least for me) because of how quickly the comments divided between how interested the man is in actually pursuing a relationship. I'm a graduate student in a department that is primarily male and I've had the vice versa conversation with my colleagues more times than I can count. The argument tends to go (from the male perspective) that they are certain dating one of the students (easily switched with subordinates) would not affect their evaluation of said student. In fact, unless the University could prove that it did, they should not have to fear retribution for dating a student currently in their class. I also had that same viewpoint argued to me by a student who was desperately trying to sleep with me and I had to have him removed from my class.

    So I guess, based on that, the OP makes it sounds like she already knows, perhaps subconsciously, he's not really that interested in a relationship. At the very least, he shouldn't care so much about stepping down from his admin position because of rumors since he already has a reputation. In the long run, pushing the issue of a relationship might be a net loss for the OP since the senior male sounds half-hearted about it. I might try to find someone else.

  • HFM says:

    I agree that this has "bad idea" all over it.

    If the issue is the position of power, why doesn't the senior prof resign his seat on the P&T committee? He could go to the chair, say that he and the writer have developed feelings for each other, and he would like to trade the P&T for another (probably worse) assignment until she goes up for tenure to ensure there is no conflict of interest. If he's not even willing to make that small concession, when the writer is talking about marriage(!), I do not see how this could end well.

    The letter also isn't clear about when the senior prof in question met his ex, but if he was a professor at the time, that's another bucket of hot fudge on the creepiness sundae. I do know otherwise decent human beings who picked their helper-wife from among their grad students (decades ago), but times have changed, and the writer doesn't seem inclined to quit and "type the papers" of this person anyhow.

  • The Letter Writer says:

    Thanks for all the advice-- I'm the original letter writer, and you've all given me a lot to think about. People asked for some further information, which I am happy to try to offer:

    To be very clear, we are NOT having an affair. We had been spending time together outside work this semester-- getting dinner together if we were both working late, going out for drinks as part of a group-- and after a month or two of this kind of socializing, had a conversation in which he said that, if we didn't work together, he'd ask me on a date (and that the main reason he hadn't done so was concern for my career-- it is of course possible, as some commenters have noted, that that's an excuse and he doesn't actually want to date me, which would certainly render my own deliberations moot, but my sense is that it was sincere, for what it's worth.) Since that conversation, we've agreed to stop spending time together outside work for at least the rest of the semester while we think things over.

    My comment about marriage is certainly premature (to say the least! I'd meant that as the most ludicrous time point I could think of at which someone might publicize a relationship...), but given the obvious risks of pursuing a relationship, I wouldn't be entertaining the possibility of dating at all unless that was something I thought was at least a possible outcome. I do appreciate the advice to think more fully about what my situation at work would look like if a relationship ended badly.

    His "reputation" is that, in an approximately 15 year career, he's been involved with a half-dozen or so women in the field, including his ex-wife; not all of them have been more junior than him. (The tenor of gossip is more "Gosh, does he ONLY date women in our field?" rather than "Be careful about that predator.") His marriage ended because of her infidelity; all reports are that he was devastated.

    Our field is one in which women are reasonably well-represented, so the general suspicion that a woman couldn't succeed on her own is not one that is held widely (if at all) in the field or my department.

    I doubt this changes anyone's advice, and I don't mean it as a defense of something that I've already decided, but I appreciate the thought that has gone into these comments and wanted to offer what further information I could. It is sobering to hear the almost-unanimous chorus of NO NO NO, and as I said, thinking more heavily about what it might look like not only if things worked, but if they didn't, has been really helpful. You all have given me a lot to think about, and I'm grateful for the advice.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    DATING IS A BAD IDEA! Full. Stop.

    Furthermore, I suggest that the writer formally requests that the sr. colleague recuses themselves from head of P&T for her case (perhaps even from the full decision). NOW. Also, a private conversation with a department chair should be seriously considered, even at this point.

    The person up for P&T needs to be extraordinarily careful. You never know what people will say behind closed doors, good or bad.

  • Anon says:

    If she knows the feelings are mutual, he needs to recuse himself from the P&T committee for her evaluation. End of story.

    As for the rest of it, wait till you get tenure then figure things out.

  • annakarenina says:

    Recently tenured faculty, happily married, 2.2 kids has an informal mentor, also happily married, at a different U. Over the years, mentor and mentee have been very helpful to each other in navigating issues etc, mainly via email and phone. About two years ago they got to spend several days together for a professional gig. They "developed mutual feelings" etc. Nothing happened, but things haven't been the same since. *sigh*. How to save the professional part of the relationship?

  • Z says:

    annakarenina, it may never be the same.

    letter writer, good it isn't worse. he should still recuse. having said what he did, he should recuse, and with the 2 of you "thinking about it," he should; you should talk to chair, yes.

  • repeat anon says:

    well done letter writer! as i read and wrote here i wondered if you would come and look to see what people responded and i am very impressed by your wisdom and self knowledge. again, whatever you decide, may it go very well with you!

  • testan says:

    bad idea
    and he's just not that into you!