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Being Friends With Your Supervisor


Matilda_Tone

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(I apologize of this is in the wrong section or has been addressed elsewhere- I did a search but didn’t find anything).

I have been thinking about this lately, and am wondering if anyone has had the same experience/has any thoughts.

The basic question is: is it a bad idea to be friends with your graduate supervisor and to hang out outside of an academic setting?

I bring it up because, after finishing my MA, I am considering returning to my undergraduate institution to do my PhD, and the person who works on my area of interest there (and who I would thus want as my supervisor) is a professor I have kept in touch with, see fairly often, and now consider a friend. (And before anyone asks, when I say friend I mean JUST, and only ever, a friend- nothing inappropriate).

In some ways, I suppose this is a good thing- as I am completely comfortable with the person and know that I enjoy their company. On the other hand, I worry that it is a bit odd, and I have recently wondered if I should pull away socially if I am seriously considering having this person as my supervisor (though that may be a bit tricky, considering the number of mutual friends we have). Or perhaps I am just overanalysing things, and this is more common than I assumed.

I never thought it would be an issue, or that I would return to the university, because I intended to pursue a different topic. But now that things have changed and I might end up applying to work with him I am not sure what approach is best.

Thoughts?

Edited by Stef242
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(I apologize of this is in the wrong section or has been addressed elsewhere- I did a search but didn’t find anything).

I have been thinking about this lately, and am wondering if anyone has had the same experience/has any thoughts.

The basic question is: is it a bad idea to be friends with your graduate supervisor and to hang out outside of an academic setting?

I bring it up because, after finishing my MA, I am considering returning to my undergraduate institution to do my PhD, and the person who works on my area of interest there (and who I would thus want as my supervisor) is a professor I have kept in touch with, see fairly often, and now consider a friend. (And before anyone asks, when I say friend I mean JUST, and only ever, a friend- nothing inappropriate).

In some ways, I suppose this is a good thing- as I am completely comfortable with the person and know that I enjoy their company. On the other hand, I worry that it is a bit odd, and I have recently wondered if I should pull away socially if I am seriously considering having this person as my supervisor (though that may be a bit tricky, considering the number of mutual friends we have). Or perhaps I am just overanalysing things, and this is more common than I assumed.

I never thought it would be an issue, or that I would return to the university, because I intended to pursue a different topic. But now that things have changed and I might end up applying to work with him I am not sure what approach is best.

Thoughts?

My father is a professor and many of his graduate students have come to our house for dinner. Granted, this is usually after they've finished all their course work and have begun their thesis, I think. While none of them would do something like use his first name*, they are certainly friendly with my father. He is also certainly involved with their lives, and I've even met a few of his students' parents. One particularly special student invited all of our family over to her house for traditional Bengali food (which was awesome, as a child). This closeness is not always the case, especially it seems in the sciences (one of my friends who was a year away from graduating in plant biology had an adviser who he didn't see for months at a time because she was always working at her private company...). However, I don't see it as a big problem to be friendly, as long as the professor can still fairly criticize your work, and you keep certain professional boundaries.

*This no first name thing was confusing as a young kid, because I kept saying "What, you mean 'dad'? He's not special, you don't have to call him that."

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Thoughts?

I think it's ok to be friends, particularly if you are in the same age range. When I was in undergrad, professors with terminal degrees told me that they put in the work to earn the title so I had better address them as Dr. X. Fast forward to grad school and my advisor prefers I address him by his first name, which I never do. He is 20+ years older than myself and my upbringing subconsciously forces me to address him as Dr. On the other hand, I know a graduate student in the department that is 2 years younger than her advisor and they are really good friends and refer to one another on a first name basis. So I personally think it goes with your individual situation. If I was uncertain, I would use a default formal mode and refer to the advisor as Dr. SoAndSuch and minimize the social time to activities that involved a decent portion of the lab.

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Jacib and MemphisMomma- thanks for that insight, it helps. We have been on a first name basis for a few years, so it would be odd to go back to being formal, but I suppose it would be best to make an effort in an academic context.

There does seem to be a divide in this respect between humanities and sciences- friends of mine in science have many stories of distant, and often mildly terrifying, professors. In humanities (I am in history) it seems much more relaxed...though I am not sure if drinking with your advisor once a week is quite normal.

I am pretty certain that he will still criticize my work fairly (though I suppose there will always be a grain of doubt)- one thing that worries me is the double shame (on both a personal and professional level) that I will feel if I do badly (or heaven forbid, drop out). Suppose it comes with the territory. I would, frankly, prefer to work with someone else at the university, and thus attend a good institution in a city I love without having doubts about my social time, but it would be silly to pass up the chance to work with an expert in my field.

I feel like it would be smart and proper of me to turn down invitations to things from my former, and possibly future, professor- but another part of me doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.

I do think I am fretting a bit too much, and perhaps shouldn’t worry until I am certain that I really will be attending.

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Jacib and MemphisMomma- thanks for that insight, it helps. We have been on a first name basis for a few years, so it would be odd to go back to being formal, but I suppose it would be best to make an effort in an academic context.

There does seem to be a divide in this respect between humanities and sciences- friends of mine in science have many stories of distant, and often mildly terrifying, professors. In humanities (I am in history) it seems much more relaxed...though I am not sure if drinking with your advisor once a week is quite normal.

I am pretty certain that he will still criticize my work fairly (though I suppose there will always be a grain of doubt)- one thing that worries me is the double shame (on both a personal and professional level) that I will feel if I do badly (or heaven forbid, drop out). Suppose it comes with the territory. I would, frankly, prefer to work with someone else at the university, and thus attend a good institution in a city I love without having doubts about my social time, but it would be silly to pass up the chance to work with an expert in my field.

I feel like it would be smart and proper of me to turn down invitations to things from my former, and possibly future, professor- but another part of me doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.

I do think I am fretting a bit too much, and perhaps shouldn’t worry until I am certain that I really will be attending.

Oh I didn't mean to imply it was impossible to be friends--I meant quite the opposite. At my school, it was very common for professors to be refered to by first names in private (that is, when the professor wasn't there) if we respected them. We would talk about "Constantin" and "Omar" and "Rory". Those three I remember specifically no one ever refered to them by last names, though we talked about them a lot. In graduate school, I think its even more common because my friend in a biology PhD program only refered to the heads of his labs as "Aaron" and "Daphne". I don't know what he called them to their faces. I think part of it is my pops gets a kick out of being called "Professor". If a professor didn't care, it'd be okay, especially if most of their students called them by their first name, and it wasn't like the whole class used their last name except one student. I don't think you should eliminate the possibility of working with someone because you're on a first name basis with them. I mean, at almost every school you will find a case or two of a professor who has dated a graduate student. I doubt the graduate student is expected to continue call the professor by their last name. There was one (coke dealing) professor at my school who was a well known fixture at hipster parties. He was close friends with undergraduates... one of my most uncomfortable nights of my undergraduate experience was capped off with someone declaring "[Professor] Y brought an eight ball!" and every one scurrying out the kitchen while I slipped out the back with the kid who brought me there.

Now, I am not suggesting you start buying drugs from your professor/friend (that experience was deeply unsettling to me), but I'm saying an appropriate professional relationship is not a problem. This person in some ways would be your boss, but that said, I have been quite close with several of my bosses. We would drink together, hang out together, etc. With one boss, it was commented on a little ("Your schedule is great because your X's favorite!" complained a coworker once) but then again, professors are known to pick favorites. I'm a teacher now and I can tell you from experience, even if all your students are great, you will definitely have favorites. It helps you stay sane.

As for the first name thing, one solution is simply avoiding refering to them by ANYTHING in public. Don't say "Excuse me, Professor N" or "Excuse me, Jim", just say "Excuse me, I have a question." When other students aren't around, continue as before. Or talk with the guy about it and discuss what each of you expects. I am personally petrified of refering to people incorrectly so I make it a practice to avoid using names unless I'm trying to make a specific point or I'm particularly close with them.

I think most of the times professors agree with students' decisions to leave programs, so while (God forbid) if you made such a decision, it might be a disappointment for him, he would presumably understand the underlying reasons behind it and support it if it were the best thing for you. Plus it will certainly give you the networking edge.

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I'm a bit surprised, frankly. I find it perfectly normal to be friends with profs, especially once they are no longer evaluating you.

Even when they are evaluating you, it *can* be totally appropriate. I don't call any faculty in my dept by their professional name, I've been to bars with faculty, and I babysit for my advisor's infant, and she's told me I am "like family". Of course, every situation will be different (and I'm sure there's a field difference, as suggested above). There's also variability within depts--most of my fellow MAs are totally casual with faculty, but there is one woman who still calls her advisor Dr. X (but she's also intimidated by her shadow).

Edited by LaurenA
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As for the first name thing, one solution is simply avoiding refering to them by ANYTHING in public. Don't say "Excuse me, Professor N" or "Excuse me, Jim", just say "Excuse me, I have a question." When other students aren't around, continue as before. Or talk with the guy about it and discuss what each of you expects. I am personally petrified of refering to people incorrectly so I make it a practice to avoid using names unless I'm trying to make a specific point or I'm particularly close with them.

Yeah... I like that strategy, too!

I work with professors right now, but I am not a professor. It's a constant struggle to get them to respect me as a professional. For better or worse, one of the ways I try to get the point across that we're on equal footing is by using first names in emails, once we meet face to face. It's going to be strange to have to think of myself as an inferior again, especially with profs who I've recently worked with as an equal (if I go to the school where I work).

:blink:

That being said, I take criticism best if it comes from someone I know well personally. For me, it would be easier to develop my graduate work if I can trust the professors critiquing it, and calling someone by their first name (to me) is a marker of that kind of trust and comfort.

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Do you think there's a difference for male or female students? I'm an undergrad right now, so I'm not really in a relationship with my professors where I'm working with them. But that being said, I've noticed that male students get treated differently than me. To be honest, many professors treat me like the pet, so I am favored in some cases. All of mine are male. But the same professors always chat up the male students and never me. They always shake my boyfriend's hand after a conversation, but never mine. They know me better than him, but they always chat with him, not me. They treat me more like a teenaged daughter than an adult, which kind of irks me sometimes, although it never has had negative academic effects, since they expect more from me than others. Does this change in grad school, do you think?

Edited by anxiousapplicant
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I work with professors right now, but I am not a professor. It's a constant struggle to get them to respect me as a professional. For better or worse, one of the ways I try to get the point across that we're on equal footing is by using first names in emails, once we meet face to face. It's going to be strange to have to think of myself as an inferior again, especially with profs who I've recently worked with as an equal (if I go to the school where I work).

Why would you have to think of yourself as an inferior? I get treated by my professors as a junior colleague, meaning that they treat me and my work honestly and with respect. Now sometimes this means they don't couch their criticism at all but other times it's awesome and means I go to happy hour and drink with my favorite professors.

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As a young female, I sometimes worry that I'm being too friendly with some of my professors and it could be interpreted the wrong way. Not that I have sexual intentions towards them, or that they have them towards me, but I guess it's just such a reinforced stereotype and common story about college girls and middle aged professors that I worry about creating a false impression. In high school the boys in one of my classes refused to accept that my grades were always higher than theirs, saying it was because I'm a girl and the teacher was supposedly a pervert. I would hate to have that experience again. Aside from that issue though, I don't see why being friends with an advisor would be bad. I've been friends with my bosses and supervisors at work, and I imagine it's probably quite similar to that.

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so glad i saw this thread. i was actually kinda struggling over this question recently. im going to grad school in the fall, and technically i havent been accepted at one of the schools im talking about right now but thought i'd throw this out there and see what people think.

right now i go to a small liberal arts school with an extremely friendly atmosphere. im seriously considering two schools for grad school, both of which i like very much for many reasons (program, faculty, location, etc.). one thing im trying to debate with myself between these two schools is that at Univ.A, i'll potentially be working with a young-ish prof who's very friendly and personable, and the feeling i get is that she is the kind of person that becomes very good friends with her grad students outside of the lab. however, the potential mentor at Univ.B, is definitely the kind of person that will be an excellent mentor but stays away from students' personal life pretty much. for me its really a dillemma since i've always been close to my undergrad profs but im not sure if its gonna be the same case in grad school...

any advice?

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Over the years, I've been in a variety of situations, both in and out of academia, and I've found that I thrive most in situations where I'm friends with my supervisor. My advisor right now is female; we clicked right away because we have very similar personality types. My previous research advisor was male, and about my age. We also became friends. (And yes, we really were just friends. I never felt otherwise and it was pretty clear that he felt the same about me.)

I honestly can't imagine being in a advisor-advisee relationship where I can't really talk to my advisor...where I can't say, "I know this situation has nothing to do with my research, but this is really bothering me to the point that it's interfering with my work. Do you mind if I vent a little?"

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This is a great thread. I have a similar concern; my potential advisor at one of the schools I applied to is someone I know socially as well. I've been a little worried about what that would mean if I went to that school. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, everyone--definitely reassuring.

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I don't have much to add, other than that I'm really surprised so many grad students do not call professors or even their advisor by their first names. I have yet to meet a professor that wants to be called anything other than their first name, and that's from new faculty up to established, tenured faculty in their 60s. I understand professors wanting to be more formal with the hordes of undergrads they teach, but I haven't seen it as a graduate student.

In general, I don't think there's anything wrong with being friends with any faculty member, advisor or not.

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