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I am 21/M, and I am about to start my PhD at a R-1 university in the US in two weeks (if it matters, it's a southeastern state.) A month ago, I started talking to a 19/F on an online chat platform - she is also joining the same university this year, as an undergrad freshman. We have become pretty good friends over the past month, and we plan to hangout in person & keep in touch in the future. To clarify, I am not a TA for any of her classes, and there is no power dynamic involved. Since I am an international student, I do not know much about the culture associated with social interactions in the US, especially in a university setting. I have been stressed about whether it is "okay" to continue and maintain such a friendship over the next few years of graduate school.

  • How are grad-undergrad friendships & relationships viewed by other students (grad or undergrad) at the university? Are they common, or not so much? I understand that there are no legal and ethical issues in my case.

  • Are there any problems that I could potentially run into, and things that I should keep in mind? I fear that I am worrying too much, and I don't want to push a good friend away.

I know that there have been a few similar posts on this site before - but I'm trying to seek US-specific advice for my particular situation (i.e., small age gap, but different phases of life in academia). Thank you!

Edit: The subject areas are different - I am a Math PhD and she intends to pursue Civil Engineering.

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    Clarify if the subject areas/departments are the same or different. Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 9:07
  • "I am not a TA for any of her classes" Is it possible you will be a TA for one of her classes ?
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 9:11
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    In my (European) experience, nobody cares (why should other students find this strange?) i would defintely find it more strange if you would "hide" a good friend.
    – user111388
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 9:12
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    @Nobody In all likelihood - I do not think so. If that situation is to arise in the future, I am certain I could request the instructor/department/TA coordinator to switch my class with another. Right?
    – purple-sky
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 9:14
  • You know, engineers take math classes. Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 12:33

3 Answers 3

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Caution: European perspective here.

  1. Other students will (most likely) not care - it will be not stranger than if your friend was, say, a carpenter. (Why should it?)

Is it common? In my experience, in your age, yes - people tend to befriend people with similar age and similar background. (And with your age, it is very likely that those people are students.)

  1. Potential problems: Apart from the problem that you should inform people before you ever were to have "power" over your friend (eg as a TA) or friends of your friend, I can only see the problem that you might have information about the university which you should not devulge (even if your friend asks). Something like "there is an exploit in our IT system". But, I think, this goes without saying.

Otherwise: I am pretty convinced that a good friendship is worth more than some problem one might have with this friendship because of university-reasons (and I could not think of any problem) :)

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  • Thanks for your answer. I hope to see US-specific perspectives, also. It seems clear that there is no issue with a friendship - but I must clarify, is there a potential issue with a relationship, if things come to that (or should I actively not entertain any such developments)? I believe the same reasoning goes through and there should not be any problems.
    – purple-sky
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 10:07
  • I agree with you that I see no potential (academic) issue with a relationship. Obviously, again no supervison (or only with agreement of competent people)
    – user111388
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 11:19
  • FWIW, I've heard that there are some companies in the US which forbid relationships between any employees (which seems absolutely out of place to me). Maybe there is a university somewhere with absolutely strange rules?
    – user111388
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 11:22
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Reading between the lines and reading some of the OP's comments, I will answer this question with the understanding that there is the potential for a romantic relationship here.

My answer is no: at any "secular American university" (by which I mean one without an explicit religious component that informs the culture -- e.g. BYU) I see neither any legal nor ethical problem with an older / more senior adult member of an academic institution pursuing either a friendship or a romantic relationship with a younger / less senior adult member of that same institution if (i) the two members lie in different departments and (ii) it can be ensured that neither member will serve as an instructor or even an official mentor for the other. I am not claiming that these two conditions are necessary as well as sufficient, but I will say that in the absence of either one of them it becomes much less clear that this is a good practice.

In fact, graduate students dating undergraduate students from different departments is quite common at most universities I've known. (Graduate students dating undergraduates from the same department is also common, but I think that in America in 2023 we look at this quite differently than we did a generation or two ago.) Moreover you are only two years older, which is slightly under the average age gap for a heterosexual couple in the United States. This is an age gap that many undergraduates dating undergraduates will experience.

I did want to comment on one thing you said:

To clarify, I am not a TA for any of her classes, and there is no power dynamic involved.

(Good that you are not a TA for any of her classes: please keep it that way.) I encourage you to take a more subtle and expansive view of power dynamics, both in academia and in relationships. This woman presumably has no experience whatsoever with higher education. You on the other hand presumably have an undergraduate degree and did well enough as an undergraduate to get admitted to a PhD program. Therefore you have vastly more academic experience than she does. We are discussing the possibility of you being her TA because you have enough (or almost enough; not all first year PhD students in math teach) knowledge and experience to teach some of the courses she is taking. If we are being honest about it, the fact that you are (even two years) older and have vastly more academic experience is part of the dynamic of your friendship. Again, that is not necessarily a problem -- who said that we need to have friendships, or any kind of relationships -- with people that are equal to us in every way? No one has said that (yet: there are some trends pushing us in that direction). This is just something for you to be mindful of.

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The most small-c conservative or pessimistic answer is "This may vary from university to university, or possibly department to department," but in general it should not be an issue.

As others have noted, this can be a problem farther on down the line if your responsibilities change so that you do have authority or influence over this person. In an ideal world, this would be handled by common sense moral actions like informing your supervisor of the situation as it arises.

However, academic regulations are not written on the assumption of common sense, but on past failures of common sense and/or morality. Hence, the variability from place to place.

The agonizingly correct thing to do would be to hunt down the regulations at your new institution and department. If they are insufficiently clear, ask for guidance.

I say this not because I expect you to have a problem. I don't. When I was a PhD candidate in a US R1, there were plenty of PhD candidates dating MS candidates or undergrads in the same department. I say this mainly because you are worried about it, and this will help you cross the T's, dot the i's, and-- perish the thought-- if you're at a statistical outlier of a university, at least you will know and will be able to ask for local advice (probably from your advisor.)

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