Advisor/Student Relationship

Mutual respect, honesty, and fairness are critical in any collaborative scientific efforts involving two or more people but perhaps no place is it more important than in the student-teacher relationship. Recognizing the uniqueness and importance of this relationship, many professional organizations even discuss it in their creeds. For example, the American Chemical Society’s Chemist’s Code of Conduct states:

“Associates. Chemists should treat associates with respect, regardless of the level of their formal education, encourage them, learn with them, share ideas honestly, and give credit for their contributions.”

In part this is due to the status and power differentials in the relationship. Clear communication on both sides of the advising relationship is key to minimizing difficulties – advisors and their students often are from different cultures, generations, and family backgrounds. Significant problems don’t arise very often but when they do, they are often graphic and extreme. Examples of abuses of the faculty-student relationship might include advisors asking students to do personal work such as baby-sitting, mowing lawns or raking leaves, photocopying exams, etc. (exploitation) or advisors imposing unwanted emotional or physical demands on students in the form of unwanted physical contact (e.g., touching), sexual or racial jokes, sexual comments about your body or physical appearance, social or sexual requests, etc. (sexual harassment)

Harassment and Exploitation

Harassment, exploitation and sexual harassment are unethical and illegal. If you are not sure but are concerned that you may have been exploited, physically or sexually harassed by a faculty member, supervisor or other personnel at your workplace, it is important to seek help as you may experience severe emotions and serious physical problems if you attempt to ignore the situation. It is also important to speak with someone as others may also unwittingly become victims as well if the harassment or exploitation goes unreported. If you believe that you have been the victim of exploitation or sexual harassment, you should bring the matter as soon as possible after the alleged incident to the attention of the sexual harassment officer at your workplace. The harassment officer will listen, respecting your privacy and confidentiality, help you sort out your thoughts, inform you concerning the available options if you want to resolve the situation, and can act as a third-party intervenor, if you wish, with the alleged harasser. They are also in the best position to protect you, if you feel it is needed, against retaliation and/or reprisals and can assist you in obtaining any psychological, medical or religious help you may need in order to deal with the situation.

Less extreme problems are more commonplace and often arise from differences in personal style, for example, some advisors may be moody, mean, thoughtless, and simply unpleasant people to work for. Differences can also arise due to differences in expectations including work schedule (duration of employment, hours per week, etc.), nature of the project, specific research tasks and outcomes, the form of payment, project evaluation criteria, or assignment of credit. Consequently, it is a wise idea to craft a research learning contract detailing your expectations and requirements for the relationship at the outset of your research project. This can go a long way to circumventing misunderstandings and problems on both sides of the working relationship.


  • Be scrupulous in your dealings with others. You will never regret it.
  • Keep your relationship with your advisor professional. Romantic and/or sexual relationships between teachers and students, even when consensual, are problematic at best.
  • Always try to identify shared values when trying to deal with conflict.
  • Be selective in waging any battles. Fighting whether physically or figuratively takes time and energy from you. Recognize that it may be a losing battle as there are some things you may not be able to change – affecting institutional change is one of them and getting other people to change their behavior is another. The effort you expend fighting may simply exhaust you unnecessarily, diverting your focus from the things you could be doing that are positive. Be sure you count the cost.
  • Life isn’t always fair. Move on. Don’t try to get revenge. Such efforts often backfire and may cost you more than they will the other person – personally, emotionally, and/or professionally.