Supervisor/Supervisee Relationship- What's Appropriate?


Right, I need some advice. I am going to school in the UK but am originally from the US where the rules are much more puritanical so it's hard for me to judge what's right. I am wondering about my relationship with one of my supervisors. He is only about ten years older than me and we get on exceedingly well. Maybe a little too well but it's hard for me to judge. That's why I need advice. He's very open with the students and he is a regular at pub crawls, etc. We never go out just the two of us but we often seem to pair off at social events. I get a very strong vibe from him and there is almost surely sexual tension. He's married though. In any event, we seem to be becoming really great friends and I sometimes treat him the same why I treat other friends. I might playfully push him around or call him names or tell him to F off, but all in fun. We do talk about relationships, mostly mine. I've been having boyfriend issues and he asks about it so I tell him. And yes, we have talked about sex in the abstract, not about sex with eachother. He sends me emails that aren't really necessary to send, like he's trying to keep in contact in between meetings/events where we will see eachother. He more or less decided for me that we would be going to a seminar I hadn't planned on going to. I've really grown to like him as a man and I think (it's speculation, but my instincts are pretty good) he might like me as a woman. Personally, I find this makes me more comfortable in our roles as supervisor/supervisee but maybe other people wouldn't see it that way. I like that we are a bit of a married couple. I don't think either of us have any plans to bring this tension to a climax (no pun intended) but I was wondering if anyone thought it was a dangerous place for a supervisor/supervisee relationship to be. Others have commented that we might be borderline innappropriate, but what do people expect when there is so much alcohol fueling academia? One professor/friend said he'd never talked sex with his students. Another student told me I should see my supervisor as a "god-like figure". I don't see him that way, but I respect him and have strong affection for him. Does he not have enough power over me because we are so close? Maybe he's just a new, younger, hip generation of supervisors who would rather have a pint with their supervisee than lord it over them. Is that very wrong? Please advise.


I would be very careful here... as your supervisor, his main function is to guide you to completion of your PhD, not to be your friend (or something more even). How close are you to completion anyway?

I think it would be a good idea to set up some boundaries i.e. to agree to be a bit more 'formal' when directly discussing your work.


As time goes on, things will change. Either the sexual tension will escalate, which will put you both in a very difficult professional situation (not to mention personal). Or, you'll both get bored of each other which will lead you down the slightly healthier road of just being good friends - which is a nice thing to have with your supervisor.

Thrilling though the former might be, it's the latter which should probably be encouraged... you can do this by cooling things down a little. As suggested above, by being a bit more formal.

It's your choice. (up)


You need to remember, you are NOT like a married couple. For no married couple does their relationship/flirting/ etc... put their professional lives at risk. If you do take things further with your supervisor he will no longer be your supervisor; Universities have codes of conduct about this sort of thing. Also, there are extreme moral issues at stake here. Many staff in your department may have met his wife. It's not going to go well for either of you.
You may have misread his behaviour, and as a result yours may be inappropriate. I can;t really see any circumstances under which telling your sup to 'f off' even in a jokey way is a good idea (to be honest, it seems a rather immature way to deal with friends....).
I've been to social occasions with my supervisor (with others present) including where lots of alcohol is available. We still tend to 'talk shop' and although I'll ask after his wife and kids, it stops there.


Yes, in my opinion this is inappropriate behaviour.
For what it's worth:
- going for a drink with supervisor - OK
- getting drunk with supervisor - no
- talking about life in general - ok
- talking about sex - no
- telling him to F- off (even for fun), calling names - no, very unprofessional for both of you

I don't see my supervisor as a "god-like figure" but I do respect him and although I would say I get on well with him I would not want to be "close". I think you need to back off. Ask yourself if you would be happy doing exactly what you are doing if other professors (or indeed his wife) were present. No? Then you have your answer.


I think people may be right and you're treading a fine line. On the other hand, everybody works best in different ways, so whilst I don't think it's ever going to be helpful to allow sexual tension to get into what is always going to be a primarily working relationship, if you both feel that you will benefit most from a situation where you are friends as well as colleagues etc, then I certainly wouldn't step back too far either. It's not altogether surprising that, as two like-minded people, you get on very well socially as well as professionally. On the other hand, if you are being noticed by other colleagues for these reasons and not for your work and professional behaviour, I would worry that it could be damaging to you. And one more thing: remember his wife. Think about how she would feel about the sort of relationship her husband is cultivating with you. Not trying to blame you in any way (to some extent I would argue that this side of things is fundamentally his responsibility), just pointing out that if you become too close or 'like husband and wife' you could be being far more hurtful than you imagine.


Ditto as Timefortea has said.


i cannot imagine a situation whereby it would be ok to discuss sex with my supervisor! we are colleagues, but this relationship is not an equal one. he is the teacher, i am the student. although i feel that i get along well with my supervisor, and we occasionally have short conversations about family/life outside uni, i would never assume that we are friends. i think it is extremely important to maintain an entirely professional relationship. that is not to say this cannot be a good, friendly relationship, but there are definite lines that should not be crossed. i think you are getting into something too complicated that could potentially be damaging to your career (if people have already described the relationship as 'borderline inappropriate' then this will not be doing you any favours). as previous posts have said, think about this man's wife and how she would feel about you flirting with him. pushing him around and calling him names is, in my opinion, entirely inappropriate for a professional relationship and i can't see how this man can maintain a supervisory role with you if this continues.

if i were you, i would take one big step back. there is no harm in getting along with your supervisor, even going on pub trips occasionally together (in a group situation), but anything more than that is, in my opinion, completely wrong and can only lead to problems further down the road. what would happen if you were to cross the line with this man? you would probably lose respect from all the people in your dept, he could no longer supervise you, and you would be destroying his marriage. the fact you have posted on here suggests to me that you already know there is a problem - i would tone down your behaviour with this man and try to get back on a more professional footing. by all means stay friendly, but the sexual element of this should be removed entirely.


======= Date Modified 04 Mar 2009 11:04:12 =======
I second what has been said, but would like to more strongly emphasise that the main point why this situation is dangerous is not a moral one, but one of power: as has been said, as much as it might seem like your relationship is an equal one, from a structural point of view it is not and will never be (unless you change supervisors). The problem when personal issues are mixed into such situations is that you tend to forget that in the end, he's got more power than you have, you are dependent on him in terms of your PhD and career. Also, should this personal relationship for any silly reason turn ugly, he'll have more means available to be a damaging influence. I'm not saying that this is necessarily the case, but there is a very clear risk for you in there, which is more to do with the structural coordinates than with his person.


All very good advice. Just remember: Its very exciting to walk the tight rope but when you fall (and it'll just be a matter of time) its going to be painful. Go for the surgeons' cut - chop, chop and move on to safer grounds.


sigh, i had written a long post but then it just went AWOL.
to synopsise, change this situation ASAP, it will never end well.


I woud second the comments below as I think it can very, very messy.

Mind you, academic flirting happens and its one of those things about knowing the difference of what you should be doing versus what you really want to do. Its very easy for us to sit on the other side of a keyboard telling you the right thing to do, but its harder at your end.

That said there are often two supervisors, one proper primary supervisor who is like a boss or line manager. Its probably not wise to be too overfriendly or inappropriate with this one. Other technical supervisors like second supervisors that may be younger academics that are guiding you, but not necessarily responsible for you may be more friendlike, go out and get drunk with etc. I think the boundaries can blur here, and I know of second supervisors that have had flings with their students. Its frowned on, but no one ever really took it that seriously around my uni.


Mid-life crisis for supervisor I think. He probably thinks he is still young enough to join in with his students and hasn't quite sorted out the boundaries that are necessary for a proper supervisor (him) and student (you) relationship. He has a wife, so that should make you back off, its a short step to the 'my wife doesn't understand me' scenario and then what? Regard him as unavailable, stop pretending he is doing this for your benefit, its his ego that is being inflated. I like my supervisor, a lot, but he isn't my friend, he tells me bits about his life that are part of the normal pleasantries before he gets down to tearing my work apart - well not really he usually thinks its quite good, but if he did criticise it then that's fine too, I'm there to learn not be his mate, and it would be much harder for him to do his job properly if the student/supervisor boundary had been crossed. I think you should cool things off, but do it carefully, wounded egos can be difficult to manage, and get yourself back on the proper supervisor/ student relationship, you will be the one to suffer of the present set up goes pear-shaped.


Eek! Yes, I agree with all that has been said previously. If you read all these replies you don't need to hear the gist of the problem again, but I just want to say that I think it's very good that you posted on here because often when you're without objectivity you can't see what this looks like to others. When reading your post my first reaction was pretty shocked, and immediate "no no no no no!" and it seems like that is the case with the others. Take from that the strength of feeling, not against you but about how awful this could turn out for you. You need proper, professional supervision and you have a PhD to focus on! I feel for you and hope that you can extract yourself without too much difficulty.


As with everyone else here, I support the idea that you need to get out of this situation. I have mentioned this on the forum before, but shortly after commencing my PhD I began a relationship with the Head of my Research dept. We were on and off for a year, and two and a half years later we are no longer together but still very close, and there is major tension between us, luckily he is now at another university. However, the period after we split as a couple was horrendous - having to see him round uni, just awful. And this is a guy who was not directly involved with my PhD - imagine how it would be with your supervisor!