Re. PhD Supervision/problem of boundaries with Supervisor


Basically, I have a question about my Supervisor and the issue of boundaries. Up until now our relationship has been strictly professional and he has been an excellent supervisor. Recently, there have been rumours that his marriage is having difficulties. Hitherto, we'd always had supervisions in formal surroundings. Then, suddenly, he invited me to his home for my supervision. This I thought odd because: 1) I live about 150 miles from him and don't have a car, 2) I've never been invited to his home before nor heard of any other students going there (he normally maintains a professional distance from his students and meets them in a formal setting), 3) why the sudden change in meeting place for supervision from formal to informal? 4) If he wanted to invite me to his home on a social pretext, why not invite me with my husband (whom he has met before) and on a separate occasion outside our supervision sessions. Up until now my relationship with my Supervisor I would describe as formal but also warm and relaxed. He is many years older than me and I have always regarded him in a fatherly kind of light. He's always respected my space and not made any passes at me or anything like that. At first, I thought maybe I was being paranoid about this, but my husband and a close friend think my Supervisor's motives for inviting me to his home on my own are not strictly professional. If so, I am shocked, especially as I've known him 5 yrs and he's never overstepped the mark in the past. I should add that this past year he has gone into semi-retirement and does not play as prominent a role in my Department at University. However, he is highly eminent, even famous in his field of academia and very much respected, his reputation is flawless professionally and personally, so if my worst fears are true, then I am very much shocked. It doesn't make sense this sudden change in his behaviour towards me after 5 yrs nor in relation to his reputation in the wider scheme of things. I'd welcome some honest opinions from others on this forum. What do you think? I should add that I have suggested to my Supervisor that I'd prefer to meet in the usual formal setting that we usually meet at because it's easy to travel to and because I do not have a car and his place is in a remote place in the countryside which I can't get to easily. The formal setting that I usually meet my Supervisor is the standard place where he supervises his PhD students since semi-retirement. Honest opinions and comments most welcome, thank you.


I would imagine (given his previous reputation and professional relationship with you) that he has just not considered how this might look. I would not read too much into the invitation ie he may just feel comfortable with you as a student and having the meeting at his home is for his convenience. I personally would not go to his home unless it is for a social event where others are also invited. Others that hear about such a meeting may cast inaccurate rumours which is not needed by yourself or him either. I would suggest meeting at the usual 'formal' location due to your travel arrangements or another equally 'public' location that you feel happy about.


Quote From vendredi_78:

I have suggested to my Supervisor that I'd prefer to meet in the usual formal setting that we usually meet at because it's easy to travel to and because I do not have a car and his place is in a remote place in the countryside which I can't get to easily. The formal setting that I usually meet my Supervisor is the standard place where he supervises his PhD students since semi-retirement.

I think you've handled this very, very well and have given very good reasons as to why you would like to use the same formal setting. Don't be tempted to discuss your concerns with others in the department as there could be perfectly innocent reasons as to why he has suggested the change of venue.


Interesting situation

Can you talk to other students whom he has worked with for a similar amount of time and see if they were ever invited out to his place for meetings?, this would probably give you a definitive awnser. Another thing to consider, his health hasn't taken a turn for the worst lately has it?, that be a perfectly innocent recent for the change of venue

Either way, I think you did the right thing by saying that his place is very difficult for you to get to, by merely talking in terms of practicality it diffuses what may or may not be an awkward situation quite well


Clearly workplace boundaries and sexual harrassment are serious issues.
However, based only on the information that you've given above, I'd like to throw another view into the mix, i.e. don't be too quick to jump to conclusions, just in case you have got the wrong end of the stick. There are a number of possibilities I can think of which could explain his suggestion:
1) In my experience supervisors can barely remember to put their clothes on the right way out, let alone where their students live and what transport they have. He might just have got confused.
2) I have met with my sup at his house whilst he was on sabbatical because he didn't want to waste time coming all the way into uni just to see me on the days when he wanted to work from home. As your sup is semi-retired might he just be wanting to shift his work patterns to spend more time at home and less in the office? (You could be the first student he is trying this out with.)
3) Academics can be a bit socially weird. Maybe he wants to show that through working with you he is coming to regard you as a friend and colleague rather than just a student, and he thinks inviting you to his house for a supervision is a good way to show this.
4) In my experience, unfair as it is, sups relate to each of their students differently. If he hasn't invited any other students to meet with him at home it might be that he just likes you (as a PhD student) and your work best!
Even if it is none of these things, I'd be very wary of talking to too many people about this. If it got back to him or reached anyone else in the department it could really damage your working relationship - which could be totally unnecessary if this is just a misunderstanding. In particular, I'd be very careful of accepting rumours about his personal life. What if they turned out not to be true?
Obviously if the tone of his email was suggestive or if he continues to make you feel uncomfortable then do take this further.
For the time being, your turning down the offer on grounds of convenience sounds like just the right response. I'd be worried though if every time you meet him from now on you were watching for an ulterior motive - I'd give him the benefit of the doubt on this occasion.


What Florence said - seconded

Avatar for Batfink27

I agree with Florence, and what most other people have said, too. There's plenty of possible innocent explanations, and it would be a shame for your relationship to become strained or awkward if it's not anything untoward. I agree that the focus on practicality worked well - even if he was testing the water for some further kind of advance, this will have told him you're definitely not thinking along those lines, but I agree that it's probably all perfectly innocent (probably to do with him now being semi-retired, and forgetting where you live, I'd say). Having said that, I think it's understandable that you were unsure about this - I know if my supervisors suddenly invited me to their homes I'd feel really awkward about it!


Thank you to everyone who has replied to my thread. I think maybe I was jumping to conclusions and thinking the worst and his motives were probably completely innocent and benign for inviting me to his home. He was probably just being friendly and didn't think beyond that. I suppose it was just unexpected and threw me off course a bit as it was very much out of the blue. I have said in my email to him that the normal setting we meet at is much easier for me to get to (its where he supervises all his students) but that I'd be delighted to visit his home with my husband (whom he knows) socially, thereby keeping my supervisions professional but also being courteous and sociable about coming to his home (with my husband or in a group context) in the future. I haven't heard from him as of yet, hopefully everything will be okay. Thanks once again, everyone for your kind and helpful advice:)