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The graduate teaching assistant I'm interested in taught one of my introductory courses. She needed research assistants, so I decided to join her lab. From all this we became very close. Ever since the end of that semester, we talk nonstop. It's been more than a year since I was in her class, but I am still an undergraduate. I am also applying to essentially the same graduate program she is in. We are not working with each other right now, but it is extremely likely we will work together again.

Would it be inappropriate to pursue this? The people in her lab know me. Would this make her look bad?

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Since you are not working under her supervision right now, then assuming you are both adults, you are in the clear ethically, legally, and university policy-wise.

The only real caveats are that if you end up involved in a romantic relationship with her, she will not be able to write you a letter of recommendation, and will not be able to assume a supervisory role over you in the future. However, academia has plenty of dating and married couples working in the same department and sometimes on the same project. There are well-established norms for dealing with such situations, and no one thinks this is anything to get worked up about.

Good luck!

Edit: as I somewhat feared would happen, people are volunteering unsolicited advice about whether it’s a smart idea to enter a relationship with someone you may end up sharing a workplace with in some hypothetical future, based on further hypotheticals about what would happen if you end up splitting up or whatnot. Since I respect you as a fully autonomous adult capable of making your own decisions, I have restricted my answer to things you actually asked about and that are in the scope of the sort of advice this site is designed to offer. I would advise others to do the same. There’s nothing inappropriate about a romantic relationship in your situation. It may be a good idea or a bad one, wise or unwise based on numerous factors as with any question about whether two people are a good match for each other. But that’s not what you asked about, and has no connection to academia.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 May 14 at 1:44
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Would it be inappropriate to pursue this?

No. It is appropriate IMHO. It is also reasonable that we develop feelings and form personal relationships with people which life brings us into prolonged contact with.

If she has some official capacity in the lab, and you two do hit it off, you might need to mention the situation to the lab's ranking researchers; and that's still just fine.

But - don't use your lab / professional spaces as a stage for propositioning her about a relationship. Ask her to have chat in private, or somewhere out in the open etc., to talk about how you feel (or to ask her out on a date etc.)

Also, bear in mind she might only interested in you as a friend and a colleague, not as a romantic partner. And then it will be you who may feel somewhat awkward.

The people in her lab know me. Would this make her look bad?

Being in a relationship with you - no. But being the focus of romantic attention while doing her job might be embarrassing for her (or for others), hence my advice above.

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    Pro tip: don't start out with "I have all these feelings for you and x and y and z". Aim very very small: "Hey, would be interested in going out on a date? No? Cool, catch you on Monday". – Steve Bennett May 12 at 23:53
  • @SteveBennett: See edit. – einpoklum May 13 at 7:08
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    Also, bear in mind she might only interested in you as a friend and a colleague, not as a romantic partner. And then it will be you who may feel somewhat awkward. Workplaces have always been venues for people to meet and form romantic attachments - if everyone worried about feeling awkward, people would be routinely very lonely. And very rare. – Spratty May 14 at 10:51
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We are not working with each other right now, but it is extremely likely we will work together again.

Really, this isn't the problem with the scenario, the problem is if she is currently in a position of power of you. Actually, you'll be much better off when you graduate. As a comment points out, this might mean you don't work in the lab anymore. If you don't work in the lab at all, nothing applies and you're both adults.

It sounds like the TAship is no longer a problem, either.

You haven't tagged a country, but most places don't outright ban grad student-undergrad relationships, the rules exist to protect you in this scenario.

If you enter a formal relationship, make sure you (she) tells her PI so everything is aboveboard, even if you don't work with her, just in the the same lab.

Would this make her look bad?

Bad enough for her to get in trouble or shunned? No. It's possible she might encounter some light (inoffensive) teasing.

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    "Is it somewhat looked down on for a grad student to date an undergrad? A little, I won't lie to you." - how does that actually work? Do (most) people only date students at the very same stage of education as themselves? Otherwise, one partner finishing their undergrad studies before the other does must be an utterly common occurrence that virtually every long-term student couple goes through. – O. R. Mapper May 12 at 6:12
  • @O.R.Mapper I don't know about you, but the average age to start my grad program is probably around 24 or 25. That means that the gap between a random grad student and a random undergrad could be big enough to be teased out in the real world. Anyway I don't want to spend too much ink on such a minor issue. – Azor Ahai -him- May 12 at 13:06
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    @AzorAhai-him-: Maybe I don't quite understand what is meant by "teased out" here, but at the age of 24 or 25, I don't see anything unusual with a difference of +/- 2 years. But even so, why assume a gap at all? It even seems totally normal to me that two students are at the same age, but one becomes a grad student a year earlier than the other. – O. R. Mapper May 12 at 13:33
  • @O.R.Mapper Oops, I meant "teased about." – Azor Ahai -him- May 12 at 13:34
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    Re: your last paragraph: I encourage you not to underestimate the hostility and devaluing that women can experience for doing the exact same things that might result in men encountering light teasing. – Greg Martin May 12 at 19:53
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Here's three things you should spend some time thinking about:

  1. Does your university or your lab have any relevant policies? In this case there's probably no relevant policy, but if there is that could immediately answer your question.
  2. Does your current relationship have a strong mentor/mentee flavor? Would you say that you look up to her? Is she someone you turn to for professional advice? This kind of unequal dynamic can be really dangerous for forming a healthy romantic relationship. Furthermore, you may end up regretting losing a mentor.
  3. Is pursuing her romantically likely to be awkward for her or make her feel uncomfortable in her workplace? Do you have any reason to think she's interested romantically in you and not just interested in serving as a professional mentor and friend? Can you bring this up outside the workplace in a low-stakes way where it's easy for her to turn you down? Are you going to be able to immediately drop it and not make things weird? Making a pass at someone at their workplace is a big no-no, whether they're a colleague or service workers. People deserve to feel safe and comfortable at their workplace.
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  • Your second and third points, although perfectly valid, don't seem related to the actual question or the subject of this site. I mean, it's decent advice to give a friend, but doesn't seem relevant to whether there is any legal or ethical issue involving the university. – terdon May 13 at 16:48
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    I think they do speak to ethics: it's unethical to date your mentees and it's unethical to create a hostile work environment, and questions 2 and 3 get at whether either of those things might happen (or might not). I'll admit that there's probably not much special to academia here, similar issues would come up with coworkers in other jobs (though undergraduate students are a bit of an unusual case that don't have a great analogue at other workplaces). I think this question would be on-topic at academia or workplace. – Noah Snyder May 13 at 19:18
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Generally, dating inside the same institution is fraught with problems, especially if between levels. It always was that way, do not subscribe to the illusion that somehow things were better once, just because there were fewer regulations (which were introduced for a reason).

It's certainly not impossible, and there are good examples for that, but there are all kinds of problems that can emerge and it carries a clearly elevated risk.

Even if the institutional code is lax about that (which is unlikely, they become more stringent lately in view of changing societal norms), when something goes wrong and emotions go haywire, it can maximally escalate, to the detriment of both parties. In earlier times, the risk used to be concentrated on the more junior party, today, the more senior person is equally exposed.

Both of you, before you partner up, should be acutely aware of this. Especially if you both apply for the same grad program, there is significant potential that things could go wrong (competition, different rate of progress, authorship disputes, etc.). It might be good to stay away from working together until it's clear that you really get along even in times of crisis.

Proceed at your own (and your potential partner's) peril.

With sensitive issues comes the need for careful handling.

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I recommend that you keep your professional and romantic relationships separate. Even if it is not ethically required, it is a good way to keep your work from taking over your personal life (or the opposite).

It seems that, as there is currently no actual working relationship, you have no ethical problems with starting a romantic relationship. But expect that you might need to choose between the two later, either for practical, ethical, or policy reasons. Read your university's policies.

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  • Agree. And might not do any harm for you to frankly discuss the looming situation with the TA too. The problem isn't just university policy - it's the age-old problem of the works relationship, be it marital, romantic, blood-relation or just friendship. Others in the work group will not tolerate third-party tackling when they make a fair challenge on one of the two people who are close. Put yourself in their shoes. Every time you challenge A fairly on a work-related thing, B comes running around answering for them or giving you a bad vibe. – Trunk May 14 at 14:13
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This is so sweet! Before you proceed, do you know anything about her status, like maybe she has a significant somebody or obligations that would hinder the process? Other than that, don't fantasise too much about the outcome, keep it lite. Wait for her to be alone or make an appointment and invite her to go for a coffee. And then, just be a gentleman, don't jump ahead. Work situations are not ideal and you may feel socialy inept, don't worry. Give it a go and handle it with respect.

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  • I had assumed that since the two of them talk a lot, the OP already knows sufficiently enough about her personal life to know whether she is involved with someone or not. Therefore I presume she is not. I wish OP the best and hope it works out. – C26 May 13 at 10:42
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As a general rule, it doesn't often work well when adults enter into a relationship and one has power over the other. In this case, she has power over you. If I were you I would wait to act until the application process is over. Once you are also a graduate student (if you are accepted into the same program in the same place), then you may or may not want to pursue a relationship with her. But there is always the chance that your attraction to her is in part because of her power over you. The only way to know is to wait until you have more equal status and see how you feel.

One respondent above asked what country you are in. A different way to phrase this might be to ask what cultures each of you grew up in. This is important, as power dynamics in relationships are different in different cultures.

You also have not made clear what your gender is (presumably because you are male). All of the other respondents seem to assume that you are male (presumably because they are male). So if you are not male, you may want to specify that for us. If you are male, do not assume that dating you—or even being asked on a date by you—will be an uncomplicated situation for her. Most female graduate students in the sciences have to negotiate a fair amount of misogyny and male privilege and she might see your advances as yet another inconvenience in a professional field full of inconveniences. Dating you might also make her look unprofessional in the eyes of her peers. If you do care about her, you will work hard to understand these things, and choose your actions with not only you and your feelings but also her and her career in mind.

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I'm 20, so I might be too young to answer this. But yeah, there are few things you might want to consider:

  1. Is it really a deep feeling, or is it just attraction?
  2. Does it matter to you and her, what others think of you two?
  3. How will this impact your future, and her future?
  4. Most importantly, what's her take on this?

If you know the answers to these, then I guess other factors such as peer thoughts, gender, age gaps, country, culture etc. disappear, since all of them can be tackles in some way or the other if both of you are looking forward to it.

Hope this helps, and Good Luck :)

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I'm a guy, and speaking for myself I can imagine heaven much more easily than hell, and that is a problem because I choose what I imagine to be the best option, but my "best" is biased by my dangerously positive brain. By that I mean that I can easily envision all the ways I might be happy, but it takes intentionality to consider those futures that could turn my life into a living dumpster fire.

I find it useful to ask "what are the ways this can turn into a dumpster fire".

These are some (non-exhaustive) examples of my consideration of "dumpster fire" outcomes:

You approach it like a (dumb) guy and she reports it as hostile work environment, so you are ejected from the program, get a reputation that is public enough to destroy your career prospects, and you have to flip burgers for the rest of your life.

or

It works well for a bit, you get romantic first, but then you act like a (dumb) guy and she reports it as sexual harassment, so you are ejected from the program, get a reputation that is public enough to destroy your career prospects, and you have to flip burgers for the rest of your life AND she can pursue suing both you and the university in civil court.

or

It works well for a bit, you get romantic, and she gets pregnant, and then you act like a (dumb) guy and she reports it as sexual harassment, so you are ejected from the program, get a reputation that is public enough to destroy your career prospects, and you have to flip burgers for the rest of your life AND she can pursue suing both you and the university in civil court AND you are paying child support for the rest of your life and bring that into any future relationship. Or she has to drop out of the program.

This is just a two-body problem analysis. You can think through more two-body dumpster fires.

Let's add a third body, which could be any one of:

  • Her advisor
  • Her rival
  • A rival to her advisor who wants to attack the advisor using you and/or her as a weapon
  • Another student at your level who also has interest

How can they put gasoline on any of the above?

Someone could falsely report your relationship as professional conflict of interest where you get an unfair advantage. or where Where she gets an unfair advantage.

How can a lawyer turn this from a dumpster fire into a flaming sewage hell-storm?

If you have met and talked with any reasonably smart lawyer-ish people, this question itself should scare the holy carp out of you... they can destroy you forever in ways you can't possibly begin to imagine.

If, and only if, you can navigate a few of these "potential hells" then you can also insert your presumed "heaven" with the possible outcomes.

UPDATE: So how do you mitigate it?

There is plenty of advice in stuff up there that seems judgy or paranoid but actually engages some of these forms of risk.

  • To make sure it is not a favoritism/pressure make sure there is no organizational power that can be contrived in an argument (or court) to show one is in executive authority over the other.
  • To keep it from being a hostile work environment, take baby steps, and work on being aware of both how she reacts and how other folks in the lab react.
  • To keep from being sued, be extra specially careful not to go anywhere near anything romantic until there is some strong and consistent-over-time trend toward acceptance and enough concrete evidence (not hearsay) to let you defend yourself in a court of law or even worse a brief university hearing in front of political sharks who would gut you for an ounce of push toward their next advancement.
  • If it does get intimate, make sure you have both talked about and
    agreed upon the method of "protection" ahead of time, so that pregnancy does not become a disruption.
  • Show enough consistent (and possibly expensive in terms of time or work) pursuit so that it is both widely obvious and any contenders can elect to join battle or forfeit in order to reduce human-level contenders.
  • At some point, chat with a lawyer about liability and such. There might be free lawyers on campus that need volunteer work and could help you make sure you are not setting yourself on fire.

“Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world.” — Miracle Max, The princess bride

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  • Sounds a bit paranoid, to be honest. But also an amusing list of worst case scenarios. – henning May 14 at 19:38
  • @henning--reinstateMonica - thanks for the edit. I'm much more software, much less human communication. – EngrStudent May 14 at 19:54