Academia Questions

How to deal with an advisor who wants a “friendlier” relationship with me than I do?


I work as an assistant at a university in Australia. I joined the team consisting of my current advisor and his two PhD students. The other group members are men and they have a co-worker-like relationship with him. At first it was good, my advisor was very helpful (I have worked there about ten months and I published two papers with him, both in journals with a high impact factor). But when we started to get to know each other better, it unfortunately changed. I am a young woman and am afraid that he wants me to become romantically involved with him.

I try to keep this relationship work-only, as it’s the most healthy way, in my opinion, but sometimes my advisor seems to think differently. Here are some of the things that have made me think my advisor wants a romantic relationship with me:

  • He comes to my room very often with no research-related reason and wants to talk, talk, talk about everything but work.
  • Once, when I was busy working, he came to my room and asked if he could take a photo of me. I felt ashamed and did know that to say and finally, he took the photo.
  • Sometimes I think he is mad at me that I want to keep this relationship work-only, and then does not answer my emails about our research.
  • He is very careful with all this, says those things only when we’re together. A while ago I heard that his PhD student suggested to him that he spends too much time with me. He laughed and said it’s not his business, and that we are working hard on some novel research method.

My advisor has powerful connections here at the university and I’m afraid no one is able to do anything about it. I’m only interested in having a professional relationship with him. However, I’m afraid that if I don’t agree to be his “very close friend,” he will try to kick me out of the university.

I can not move to a different city because of some family issues and can not change my advisor since he is the only person at the university who works on the research I’m interested in. What can I do?

justme

 

Answer

I don’t know if a meeting at which you “set the agenda” would be particularly helpful at this stage. It might make him feel “attacked”, put him on the defensive, and he may retaliate against you in response. (I’m not suggesting that he would try to get you kicked out of the university or the department; there are many, many other small and large ways an advisor can make things difficult for a student. You already suggested that when he’s mad at you, he deliberately ignores you emails, for example.)

I strongly disagree with the advice to flaunt a (real or fake) relationship, to let your advisor know you’re unavailable. I’ve seen people try this, and in my experience, when applied to someone who does not respect boundaries, the outcome is often that then he starts asking you a whole lot of very uncomfortable questions about your boyfriend and the relationship.

Also, he’s probably doing this because he enjoys it (flirting, the chase, whatever), not because he wants an actual committed relationship. So I’m not convinced that he would be dissuaded by your unavailability.

Instead, I suggest you start using a variation on the following phrase to respond when he does something that makes you uncomfortable:

I don’t want this. This makes me really uncomfortable.

As in,

I don’t want you to take my photo. Please don’t ask again, it makes me really uncomfortable.

or

I don’t want to talk about my personal life with you. It makes me really uncomfortable.

etc.

And, if he persists in whatever is making you uncomfortable,

I need to go (get a cup of coffee/make a phone call/talk to another student before he leaves for the day/make some photocopies/etc.)

then remove yourself from the situation.

I recommend practicing saying these words on your own, until they feel natural. This will help you feel less flustered when a situation comes up.

I also concur with StrongBad’s suggestion:

I would suggest the OP writes down every time she tells the advisor he made her feel uncomfortable. She should also keep track of times he makes her feel uncomfortable in which she was uncomfortable telling him he made her feel uncomfortable.

and I would add, also make a note of who else (if anyone) was there at the time.

This will help in two ways:

  • You’ll be able to tell if the situation is getting better or worse with time.
  • If you do need to escalate at some point, you’ll have some documentation.

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