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I have been co-supervised by my primary supervisor's wife. Suffice to say that this has been problematic where both have different research interests. Each asks me to do different jobs and they often bring their home fights to work. My primary supervisor is always submissive to her will whenever she is around. Though he supports me in every decision I do and my research behind her back. It is been a nightmare and was wondering if there are some written rules that such scenario is a conflict of interest.

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I did not bring her in. Before admission I had sole communication with my primary supervisor and I was surprised in the admission letter that he forced his wife as a supervisor without me knowing. It turned out he does that to all phd students. –  The Byzantine May 15 at 19:19
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To me a conflict of interest is when personal interests are at stake when reporting research results (e.g. wife owns the company that manufacture the products that husband's paper say are superior to the competition). The situation you describe sounds more like lousy management and poor respect from both towards you. In other words, it affects you, badly, but not the outcome of your research. –  Jigg May 15 at 19:20
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he forced his wife as a supervisor without me knowingWalk away. It should be utterly impossible for someone to become your (co-)advisor without your explicit consent. –  JeffE May 15 at 21:04
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@JeffE: if only it were always that easy or simple...Even assuming the situation warrants it, the power imbalance between faculty and grad students can make it dangerous not to approach the problem more diplomatically. –  Nick Stauner May 15 at 23:51
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Of course you're not stuck. You can find another advisor, possibly with the help of the department chair or (if they're not total sleazeballs) your current advisor. You can apply to another graduate program; people change schools all the time for all sorts of reasons. Will the change be easy? No, of course not. Is there any guarantee of success? No, of course not. Can you do it anyway! Sure. –  JeffE May 16 at 2:46

4 Answers 4

Your supervisors are problematic in several ways, from what you describe:

  • Pushing their own research interests over what's most beneficial to you
  • Exposing you to unpleasant interpersonal issues between themselves that affect your working environment
  • Not coordinating and communicating effectively with each other to co-supervise you

However, none of these things are necessarily the result of them being married. The same issues can arise (and I have seen them) with unrelated co-supervisors who do not get along.

In general, co-supervision by a married couple is not universally disallowed. (In my university it is allowed, and there is a husband-wife pair in my department that successfully co-supervises PhD students on occasion.)

Some universities do recognize this as a conflict of interest. This from the University of Western Australia (emphasis mine):

Supervision must be free of actual or perceived conflicts of interest. Supervision by, or co-supervision with, close relatives or those in close personal relationships is generally not appropriate. All such cases must be declared at the time that supervisors are nominated. In cases where approval is given on academic grounds for supervision by, or co-supervision with, close relatives or those in close personal relationships, additional supervisors who are free of an actual or perceived conflict of interest must be appointed.

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I would read your quoted paragraph as forbidding the supervisor to be a close relative of the student, not as forbidding two co-supervisors to be related to each other. So you can't have your supervisor be your mom, or your girlfriend. –  Nate Eldredge May 15 at 19:14
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@Nate it does say "co-supervision with" not "by" (it separately specifies "supervision by") –  ff524 May 15 at 19:14
    
The UWA guidelines are confusing, because "co-supervisor" seems to be a term of art: my reading of this web page is that you can have two supervisors (one principal and one coordinating) without either one being a co-supervisor as defined in paragraphs 6 and 7. All in all, it's not clear to me whether paragraph 12 is intended to rule out no, some, or all cases in which a married couple supervises students together. –  Anonymous Mathematician May 16 at 4:02
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@AnonymousMathematician Here is their supervisor nomination form which requires certification that "There are at least two supervisors from UWA, and the supervisors have no conflict of interest with applicant or other supervisors" - hard to interpret any other way. –  ff524 May 16 at 18:54
    
That settles it. –  Anonymous Mathematician May 16 at 21:35

I am not aware of any written rules regarding this situation.

In our department (and other affiliated departments), there are quite a few professors who are married to each other. In most cases, I have seen that such situations tend to turn out exceedingly well. However, there are, as your situation goes, many times when this can go wrong.

The best advice under these circumstances is to treat their home fights as none of your business. Stay out of it, develop your own research agenda and pursue it independent of such pettiness.

If all else fails, Don't walk ! Run !

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Your situation is certainly very bad, but a conflict of interest in the context of academic research is when personal interests are at stake when reporting research results (e.g. wife owns the company that manufactures the products that husband's paper say are superior to the competition).

I found this definition of a CoI on various universities websites:

A conflict of interest is a situation in which financial or other personal considerations have the potential to compromise or bias professional judgment and objectivity

The situation you describe is better described as lousy management, little respect from both supervisors towards you, and a blatant lack of professionalism from their part. However, it affects you, it certainly affects their productivity, but it's not per se a CoI. It's not like if one was reviewing the papers of the other, or was in the board that attributes funding to the wife/husband's project, etc.

My advice would be, whatever action you intend to take to get yourself out of this nightmare, not to refer to the problem as a conflict of interest. CoIs are a lot more serious than poor management and you will risk triggering the wrong type of investigation, ultimately deserving your cause.

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Conflict of interest does not exclusively apply to reporting of research results. For example, a parent acting as PhD supervisor to their child is universally considered a conflict of interest, although this does not necessarily affect reporting of research results. –  ff524 May 16 at 18:23

If any conflict between a student and one of the supervisors comes up, married supervisors have a strong incentive to support each other, rather than looking out for the best interests of the students. For example, they may pressure the student to include both supervisors as authors on all publications. It's even tougher for a student to stand up to two people in positions of authority than one.

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In a conflict between co-advisors and the student, all faculty have a strong incentive to support each other. What is the professional difference between co-advisors that have been writing papers together for 20 years and a married couple? Your argument seems just about as effective against any two professionally close faculty being coadvisors. Applying it only to married couples concerns me as potentially discriminatory. –  Pete L. Clark Jun 4 at 1:46

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