Blog confidential

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Inappropriate attention from a supervisor

February 11, 2010

I am a research student in my second year of a PhD bursary. I've become increasingly anxious about my supervisor, a professor in the department in which I am primarily based. He is well known in his field and about a decade from retirement.

I know the relationship with a doctoral supervisor can be intense, challenging and unequal, but things are getting bizarre. He sits too close to me during our meetings. On the most recent occasion, I simply stood up and moved my chair back. He made a joke about it and then immediately encroached on my space again, saying: "Goodness, I'm not contagious!"

He keeps telling me that I'm "going to do great things" and says "stick with me, I'll help you all I can but you have to play ball". It's not what he says but the way he says it. I've also been given some lecturing and project development work, thanks to him. He has started phoning me at home about minor issues to do with the work. He now wants to meet me for a meal on Valentine's Day at a very expensive restaurant as "a treat for all your good work".

The word among other students is that my supervisor has had many "relationships" with doctoral students. The culture of the department seems rather adolescent - all sorts of rumours about who is shagging whom, flirtations and crushes. Do these people ever grow up? As 14 February approaches, I'm feeling increasingly anxious. I want to affirm that this is a professional relationship, that I have a great deal to learn from him but that I really don't want his amorous attention. There are probably many students in similar situations. Some are silenced, some are manipulated, while others welcome the "attention" of eminent professors.

I've formed an alliance with a doctoral student from another university. She is equally anxious about her situation: her professor attempted to kiss her last week. When she looked aghast, all he did was say in mock horror: "Where did that come from?"

There are few guidelines on conduct in this area, which seems to me intentionally underdeveloped. I think it's pointless going to the union. I'm having sleepless nights. My professor sent me a web link today for the restaurant. I need a way out.

There is an untold story about the area you describe. Sexual harassment and concerns about power and its abuses cause massive anxiety in the work environment. In university life it is a problem because of the power issues and the isolation many individuals feel. It is a common concern, and will remain so until there are national and local structures to tackle it.

You have done well to develop contacts with someone in a similar position, but the most immediate concern is what to do. Your supervisor is acting outrageously and you need to conjure up a reason to cancel the meal.

If you are unable to discuss matters directly with him, you may need to build up a case. Try to get him to contact you via email, although shrewd creeps such as him rarely commit to the written word in explicit detail. If your union and human resources department prove ineffective, you may have to record the calls he makes to you. It's dire, but guidelines in this area are not universal and this man needs a wake-up call.

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