What To Do When Your Professor Wants to Be Besties

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Last updated on June 14th, 2018 by our Product Team

This may seem like a weird topic, but it happens more often than grad students might think: professors who get… a little too close.

Graduate school is an unnatural environment, and you might find that some of your own habits and actions surprise you. You might date someone completely atypical or befriend someone who has a lot of growing up to do. Grad school can be an educational pressure cooker, where a small group of students work intimately for a couple of years under the direction of a few professors or advisers; it makes sense that some relationships become a little intense.

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Some professors shield students from their personal lives entirely, with no mention of a partner, spouse or children. Others are just more open people in every aspect of their lives. Some professors use many examples from their personal experiences when trying to convey a topic or theory. This is still totally fine, and generally, personal experiences help solidify information.

Here’s when you should draw the line: if you feel like a professor or adviser is leaning on you for support at any time–for any reason–create some space between the two of you. People in these roles should have their own solid support system of family, friends and faculty, so they shouldn’t need to burden you with their problems. If you feel like the professor or adviser’s stress is stressing you out, be direct. Say something like, “My workload is taking most of my mental space right now and I don’t really have too much spare room right now. But I hope you work this out.” These situations can be tricky, especially if the over-sharer is someone who decides your grades, internship placements and in some cases, whether you graduate.

We shouldn’t need to say this, but don’t date a professor. Just don’t. If you feel like a professor or adviser is interested–and you know what we’re talking about here–simply say that you’re not in a place to foster that kind of relationship. While you are both consenting adults, this kind of romantic relationship crosses a lot of ethical lines. A relationship with a student will look bad for a professor, and a relationship with a professor will look bad for you. Fellow students may wonder if your brilliant work is your own, or whether you were given a break because of your recent date(s). If there’s a mutual romantic feeling that you both just can’t extinguish, wait until after graduation.

In some cases, professors and advisers become very good friends. But this maturation of a friendship usually happens after graduation, once you’ve flown the classroom coop. These relationships can be quite fulfilling because, after all, you have similar interests and career aspirations. If you feel like there’s a professor with whom you really hit it off during graduate school, let the friendship evolve. Don’t force the relationship (it can be creepy), and several years later, you could have a fun, trusted bud.

It is unlikely, but if a professor or adviser continually makes unwanted romantic or sexual advances toward you, this needs to be addressed. You deserve to be comfortable and treated equally in the classroom and sexual harassment like this should not be tolerated. Talk to a trusted colleague or mentor about the issue or go to your school's designated Title IX administrator. It's always good to know the resources you can turn to if this does occur.

The bottom line, though: professors and advisers should remain in professional roles while you’re a student. It’s the least complicated relationship for you, the student, during a stressful period of your education.

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