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Problems with a PhD student- personal not academic

(32 Posts)
GameOldBirdz Wed 05-Oct-16 14:38:25

Sorry if this is lengthy but I want to explain the situation fully.

I have a very good RCUK funded PhD student just into his second year.

In March, he split up from his long-term girlfriend. The day after she told him it was over, he came in for a pre-arranged supervision. He was heartbroken, cried and the meeting turned into more of a therapy session than supervision. I didn't mind at all.

After that he became a bit more needy with supervision. That was okay but I mentioned it to him in a friendly way. He said his personal issues had knocked his confidence and made him question why he was even in the UK doing a PhD any more. The plan had been for them both to come to the UK (from EU countries) and do their PhDs. Now he's here alone. So, that was all understandable.

Then on a few occasions I'd mentioned workshops/events that I was going to and when I arrived I'd find he was there even though it was irrelevant to his work. After these workshop/events, he'd make a point of coming to find me to travel back to the department/city together. I, again, put this down to him being a bit needy and also procrastinating because he had a big review to write!

A couple of weeks ago, we were at the same conference. The conference was in the city I grew up in so I met up with an old friend who's gay (relevant) and a party animal. After the conference dinner, a group of us delegates (about 15 people, mix of PhDs, postdocs, lecturers and SLs) went out to a club. My gay, party animal old friend met us there.
At the club, me and my old friend were dancing the way only fag hags and gay men can (dirty dancing, grinding basically). A couple of times my PhD student also started dancing with me like this which I felt really uncomfortable with so I laughed it off and walked away.

We were all pissed that night by my PhD student was more drunk than the rest of us. At one point he told he he thought I was really sexy, that he'd fancied me for ages and when we arrived back at the hotel he tried following me to my room and I had to work quite hard to persuade him he wasn't coming in.

I should say that this clubbing with PhD students isn't atypical in my discipline or at this particular conference. The group I was out with had a few PhD/supervisors. I also don't think I overstepped the boundary in offering him support when his relationship broke down. Okay, grinding with a friend in a club with my PhD student wasn't my best show but this conference is well known for being a hot bed of debauchery so others have done much worse (not that that's an excuse).

He's been back home for a couple of weeks but is due in for supervision on Friday. I'm a bit apprehensive about him coming in. He's hurting from his relationship breakdown and is on the rebound. I've been kind to him and he's attached himself to that.

Do I mention that I feel things have become murky and that we need to reset some boundaries? Or do I leave it and assume he'll get over his heartbreak and move on from whatever weird crush he has on me?

Sorry for the long post. I feel really conflicted about it all and there's no-one in my department to really speak to about it.

GameOldBirdz Wed 05-Oct-16 14:57:27

I should have said I'm 30 and he's 28.

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 05-Oct-16 20:04:04

I think you should tell someone in your department, so that you have some record of your side, should anything go wrong. Do you have a departmental mentor, for example?

I've got to say, though - FFS, don't go clubbing with your students! Even if it isn't atypical, you don't have to do it.

He was out of line (badly), though. He needs to be told (while he's sober) that this is inappropriate behaviour and that you are his supervisor, so you expect a certain level of professional behaviour from him.

MrsNellyLovett Wed 05-Oct-16 20:18:45

OP, you've had some good advice here and on your other thread. But you should get off MN and speak (not email) to your DPGR. You're on the edge of a world of trouble here.

LordRothermereBlackshirtCunt Wed 05-Oct-16 20:24:59

Just very quickly, as I'm in the middle of cooking dinner. I'm a PhD supervisor and am gobsmacked that there are academics who go clubbing with their PG students. IMO this is compromising and inappropriate.

I agree that you should speak to someone - your HoD, I would say. But I would not be impressed if one of my colleagues came to me with this story.

LordRothermereBlackshirtCunt Wed 05-Oct-16 20:33:40

I also would seriously question the wisdom of this: He was heartbroken, cried and the meeting turned into more of a therapy session than supervision. I didn't mind at all.
You're an academic and a supervisor, and are not trained (I assume) to provide therapy. You can do (and, it appears, have) more harm than good by taking in a role which you are not trained to do. The best thing you can do in this situation is direct the student who is properly trained and equipped to help them.

bigkidsdidit Wed 05-Oct-16 21:19:31

I'm quite shocked by clubbing with / 'grinding' in front of your student. This is your job! I know we're academics and it's all terribly informal but there is a line. I have drinks in the pub after vivas / at Christmas with my students but that's it - there are professional boundaries to keep in place.

I don't think he's behaved well either and I think you ought to speak to someone about him and ask for advice. And take a step back - you are his boss, not his counsellor. Refer him to student support if he's still in need of that.

LordRothermereBlackshirtCunt Wed 05-Oct-16 22:00:17

Sorry, just read my post back and it's nonsensical (trying to cook, MN and drink wine at the same time). I meant that the best thing you can do in this situation is direct the student to someone in support services who is trained to offer appropriate support. This may not be one of those situations, but there are scenarios when trying to take on this kind of thing when you're not trained to do so can have dangerous consequences.

user1474361571 Thu 06-Oct-16 09:13:36

Agree that you should not discuss this online but talk with appropriate people in your department.

In my university your behaviour would be a serious disciplinary offence - the student would be transferred to another supervisor and you would be disciplined, probably prevented from having other students for a while.

Bountybarsyuk Thu 06-Oct-16 10:00:27

I replied on your other thread in AIBU. I think all the advice to divert him to student support/counselling/check his other sources of support are excellent.

I am not shocked by the clubbing and him coming along, how could you prevent someone going to the same conference as you, and then going out on a night out, from attending? He's 28, not a young undergraduate, and has the same opportunities/right to attend disciplinary events important for his career as anyone else, including informal socializing as part of a group. If you had taken him out alone, or invited him yourself, that would have been daft but that's not what you did, from what I read.

I also can't think why this would be a disciplinary offense, unless he lied. That's the main danger, that he perceives what occurred differently and then reports you for harassment.

PhD students are older, they are not young under-graduates just starting out. Many of the male academics I know met their wives when the wives were PhD students, I can think of four off the top of my head, including the head of college. Presumably at some point, something 'inappropriate' happened, as they married and had children as a result! In surveys, most people report meeting their spouses or partners in the workplace, I don't see why at 28 and 30 this would be scandalous, as long as the conflict of interest was addressed and you stopped being his supervisor if a relationship developed.

The biggest danger is not what you have done (as reported here), it's misinterpretation or an accusation of sexual harassment where it is your word when drunk against his work when drunk. So much easier to avoid the whole thing, take it back on a very professional footing (open door when supervising, involve a second supervisor/supervisory team), and avoid him at conferences like the plague.

user1474361571 Thu 06-Oct-16 10:20:30

If any personal relationship develops between an academic and their PhD student, then the PhD student should be transferred asap to another supervisor. The academic should act quickly to avoid possible professional misconduct.

It was of course very different in the past but it is certainly not acceptable these days to write reports about progress, recommendation letters for academic jobs etc when you are involved in a personal relationship with the PhD candidate. OP has not been in a romantic relationship with the student, but she seems to have been across the boundary of where normal professional relations would be.

The OP could of course not stop the PhD student from following her to the club but it was her choice to drink, dirty dance etc in front of somebody with whom she should maintain professional relations. It may well be the norm in her field but it would be unacceptable in other fields so not something she should want advertised around her university. As I said above, the snap reaction from my own university to this story would be disciplinary action if the story passed to management.

Many UK universities are becoming more and more careful about PhD students due to fears of QAA and of litigation. There are lots of paper trails of progress reports, care taken about having truly independent examiners at vivas and so on. Within this climate, personal relations with PhD students simply have to be much more professional than they were in the past.

Bountybarsyuk Thu 06-Oct-16 10:32:10

User I kind of get where you are coming from, in that I would expect the supervisor to report any type of relationship and cease then supervising the students...but what about 'not drinking' with PhD students? Ever? We have a lively and active and very democratic post-grad culture and one of the things that is great about it is the post-grads are effectively allowed to be academics in their own right, albeit in training, so that means attending conferences, all talks in the department, have seminars with senior/leading figures in the field. This often then is followed by a meal or lunch or drinks in a local bar, and socializing with well-known academics is part of what is offered to them. Do you think this is wrong in some way, given everyone is over 21?! Socializing with work colleagues does not seem to me inherently wrong, there are gendered aspects of it which are annoying (so women often being excluded due to caring responsibilities), but these are adults, not undergraduates who may be more vulnerable due to age.

At what point can you take them out for lunch? After the viva? When they have left?

I don't make proper friends with my PhDs because I find it easier emotionally and in every way to keep things separate, but I don't see PhD students as an inherently vulnerable group, they are adults in training for a career, and I don't know why they are in need of special protection (I mean above what the law requires in terms of consent, not being sexually harassed).

user1474361571 Thu 06-Oct-16 10:52:48

Personal relations are always going to be a grey area.

A group from a department going for lunch or dinner together is fine. An academic having a one-on-one dinner with a PhD student might well be OK, but it might cross into a grey area if, for example, the dinner is at the academic's house and there is some sexual interest from one side or other.

Clubbing (with dirty dancing) and heavy drinking together crosses the line. The OP is not describing a group having a drink or two together at a bar but something well beyond that.

Bountybarsyuk Thu 06-Oct-16 11:08:52

But, given the OP didn't invite him, and given it was a group of colleagues all going out at a conference, all adults, what could she possibly be accused of (apart from something actually false)? She's free to dirty dance with her old friends if she feels like it.

I agree it could be open to misinterpretation, and that's the main danger. For that reason and that reason alone, I'd curb the drinking/clubbing if he's around. I don't get why she would be discliplined though, she can't actually prevent 28 year olds going out with a group of friends/colleagues at a conference, nor would it be reasonable to do so? He has an obligation not to sexually harass her just as much as she has towards him, he is the one that has done something 'wrong' in this scenario, and her main aim is to stop him harassing her, which in and of itself should be what any HR department should be concerned with, unless you think women should never socialise or drink with their colleagues in case one of them makes a pass at them?

OP, you said at one point, you'd been kind to him. Just stop being kind. You aren't his friend, you aren't his therapist, you are there to help him get the best academic result possible for his PhD. Being a bit stand-offish and very professionally focused will help the boundaries reset.

GameOldBirdz Thu 06-Oct-16 11:18:27

Hi everyone

Sorry for radio silence on this last night- I had friends over and had a really busy morning.

I really appreciate all the comments though the comments about disciplinary action are a bit terrifying!

The issue really is where the 'line' is and I guess in this situation I haven't known where the line was until it was crossed IYSWIM.

I've arranged a meeting with our PhD studies director for tomorrow morning and then I have the supervision right after. I'll come back and update tomorrow.

I'm sorry for posting this in Chat and on here but yesterday I was really frantic. I'll carry on this thread here in Academics Corner and ask for the Chat thread to be deleted.

user1474361571 Thu 06-Oct-16 11:40:59

BTW I should say that (as an academic myself) it certainly wouldn't be me who would be pushing for disciplinary action - I can see how the story evolved and see that the OP always had good intentions.

However our senior management would react differently if they got to hear the story. (I know of a case with some similarities where the student was moved and the supervisor was formally disciplined - student had made pass at supervisor but supervisor was considered to have set up the environment in which it happened by forming personal relations with student.)

bigkidsdidit Thu 06-Oct-16 12:23:55

Bounty if it were me, I'd have gone somewhere else with my old friend to dance. Had drinks as a group, then goodnight to them and the grinding can happen in private!

And I know lots of lecturers marry PhD students - but not their own. That happened in the past but shouldn't now. In our place the student would be sent to a different supervisor.

OneFootinFront Thu 06-Oct-16 13:11:32

I don't think you've done anything wrong, although the cumulative effect seems to have placed you both in a difficult position. So yes, you may need to
Do I mention that I feel things have become murky and that we need to reset some boundaries?

But as others have said, you need to let someone else in the Department know. Preferably the Director of Graduate Studies. You could also make a call to your student counselling service & debrief. Again, if you are open, and say that, in trying to help him, you feel that maybe he needs more & different help than you can give.

But you acted well, in a human & well-intentioned way. Look, good teaching & learning is a charged situation - sometimes students and/or staff mistake the stimulation of exciting ideas as an erotic stimulation. We don't have a very capacious vocabulary to talk about excitement & stimulation in an exchange between people in other than sexual terms. Which is a huge pity (Jane Gallop on the erotics of teaching is good, although she had numerous affairs with students).

It's going to be a tricky balance between supporting him, but not allowing yourself to be victim-blamed. You did nothing wrong. A less scrupulous supervisor would have taken advantage, and a less responsible supervisor would not have acted on his distress.

The PhD/supervisor is a close relationship - I'm still in touch with my PhD supervisors, and dedicated my first big book (not the book of my thesis) to them. But your student needs a gentle reminder that the closeness is professional - which can be emotional etc, but it has boundaries.

Is there a second supervisor or mentor involved? He needs to see them, or you could have a joint meeting with both supervisors, or you, the student & a graduate studies tutor/director if you have one.

If he were a home student, I'd be wondering a period of intercalation - heartbreak is real & could set him off course. A few weeks' break might be a very good thing for him. But you or he should talk to the Graduate Studies Director.

Good luck - you will doubt yourself, others will criticise you, but you did nothing out of anything but professional care & concern.

And I WARN my PhD students that conferences are my holidays I am THAT sad and I'm not necessarily going to be in supervisor mode if they are there as well, and indeed I may not even talk to them, if I'm busy catching up with far-flung colleagues and friends. Of course, I DO talk to them, and generally try to have a quick chat to them about networking (pointing out people they should talk to) and of course, going to their papers.

OneFootinFront Thu 06-Oct-16 13:15:35

I don't make proper friends with my PhDs because I find it easier emotionally and in every way to keep things separate, but I don't see PhD students as an inherently vulnerable group, they are adults in training for a career, and I don't know why they are in need of special protection (I mean above what the law requires in terms of consent, not being sexually harassed).


And the PhD student is old enough & experienced enough in academic terms to realise the boundaries. He's not wholly responsible, but he's not wholly without responsibility in this situation.

GameOldBirdz Thu 06-Oct-16 13:20:37

There was a second supervisor involved but he's completely useless. Technically he's still down as second supervisor but neither me nor the student want him to be involved in the project. I don't want to bring him back into the project at all.

Bountybarsyuk Thu 06-Oct-16 14:45:07

Game then you need to formally let go of the second supervisor and find another one, preferably a mentor too. It doesn't mean endless joint meetings, but it does mean they have other avenues of professional advice and personal support if needs be. Explain to the Director of Studies that this is important, it's also ridiculous having a second that is never seen and you are all actively avoiding.

Bountybarsyuk Thu 06-Oct-16 14:49:00

And, to ask for that, I wouldn't say 'I got totally slaughtered, started dirty dancing, and my student made a pass at me and wouldn't take no for answer' I'd say that this particular student needs additional support because of life circumstances, you don't want them to drop out (thereby alarming the Director you may lose/have to replace research council funding) and they need a second supervisor who they get on well with/and a mentor as a matter of urgency. Hopefully his sense of embarrassment will also limit any fallout.

GameOldBirdz Thu 06-Oct-16 15:02:49

Bounty That's great advice about how to phrase it to the Director of PG Studies, thank you. I'm seeing him in the morning.

Second supervision is a real issue at our institution- massive amounts of inconsistency in how much/little support they give. This particular bloke is well known for offering little support, rocking up at completely inappropriate moments during the PhD to give incomprehensible and self-serving advice and taking PhD students to pieces over novelty/contribution unnecessarily.

The best is when he offered to help a student with her data analysis so she sent her data over to him; he buggered off around the world presenting it as his own then tried to submit a paper with the student as second author.

He also doesn't particularly trust young female academics. He's happy to sleep with them but doesn't trust them to work with.

He was assigned to this particular PhD project because the workload table needed adjusting and it was an easy way to do that. I said it was ok on the understanding he's not actually ever involved.

OneFootinFront Thu 06-Oct-16 15:36:47

Good luck, OP - I hope you're not beating yourself up.

And if there are senior men in your Department exercising the sort of illegitimate masculine privilege of your student's 2nd supervisor, no wonder your student got the wrong idea. But that's not down to you - that's down to male academics.

In my Department, 2nd supervisors drop in about every 6 months, but we have a fairly formal structure of what's required of them. I ask my colleagues to read a near to final draft, as I worry about being too close to the thesis (not the student!) by the time of final draft. They get a 20% share of the workload over 3 to 4 years so I don't think that's too much to ask.

Bounty's advice is brilliant.

GameOldBirdz Fri 07-Oct-16 10:40:09

Just an update from me.

I had a meeting with Director of PG Studies first thing.

I told him I was concerned about the students wellbeing after personal issues, that he might be an increased risk of drop-out and that I think he'd developed an attachment to me which might be seen as inappropriate. "A school boy crush, you mean?" says PG Director. "I think so, yes", says I.

I told him everything that had happened (didn't say I was grinding with an old friend, just that we went out dancing).

He was great, very understanding and supportive and asked me what I wanted to do about it. That was actually a really good question because I hadn't quite worked that out- I'd just assumed things would happen to me (another supervisor involved, student gets moved on, we have a formal meeting) without me really having too much of a say.

I told him I felt I could deal with it by resetting some boundaries but I wanted to make him aware of the situation. I told him that should I need additional support with this (e.g. another supervisor, a more formal meeting) then I would appreciate that support being available quickly and sensitively. He agreed and reassured me that the department would be behind me fully.

The student's coming into see me this afternoon for supervision. It was meant to be this morning but he emailed last night to reschedule because of housing issues (he's had on-going problems with housing).
I'm still nervous about the meeting but feeling better now I've off-loaded a little.

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