I work as an assistant at a university in Australia. I joined the team consisting of my current advisor and his two PhD students. The other group members are men and they have a co-worker-like relationship with him. At first it was good, my advisor was very helpful (I have worked there about ten months and I published two papers with him, both in journals with a high impact factor). But when we started to get to know each other better, it unfortunately changed. I am a young woman and am afraid that he wants me to become romantically involved with him.

I try to keep this relationship work-only, as it’s the most healthy way, in my opinion, but sometimes my advisor seems to think differently. Here are some of the things that have made me think my advisor wants a romantic relationship with me:

  • He comes to my room very often with no research-related reason and wants to talk, talk, talk about everything but work.
  • Once, when I was busy working, he came to my room and asked if he could take a photo of me. I felt ashamed and did know what to say and then finally, he took the photo.
  • Sometimes I think he is mad at me that I want to keep this relationship work-only, and then does not answer my emails about our research.
  • He is very careful with all this, says those things only when we're together. A while ago I heard that his PhD student suggested to him that he spends too much time with me. He laughed and said it's not his business, and that we are working hard on some novel research method.

My advisor has powerful connections here at the university and I'm afraid no one is able to do anything about it. I’m only interested in having a professional relationship with him. However, I’m afraid that if I don’t agree to be his “very close friend,” he will try to kick me out of the university.

I can not move to a different city because of some family issues and can not change my advisor since he is the only person at the university who works on the research I’m interested in. What can I do?

  • 41
    You should know that although women are often the target of this sort of thing, men completely understand this I feel a "tightness in my chest" from reading your account which is why I wouldn't do that (among other reasons). The discomfort of the situation is very obvious. The advisor is lacking in basic empathy, never mind ethics: he is unaware in how his behaviors affect others. That is the source of the difficulty, because it raises the implicit question: can he even be made properly aware.
    – Kaz
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 22:31
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    From your title I initially reacted "oh, if only I'd had that problem", but alas, yours is not the good kind of friendliness. This sounds rather unprofessional.
    – Ryan Reich
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:25
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    @venny: ah, the old "no means maybe" routine, or even the "looking really uncomfortable and not responding to my inappropriate advances that I've cleverly made plausibly-deniable so that if you straight say 'no' I can pretend you're imagining the whole thing and if you don't I can proceed as if you're potentially interested, means maybe" routine. I'm not saying people don't think this, but it's still a delusion. Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:30
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    This is a horrible story. His behavior is completely inappropriate, especially knowing the strong hierarchical component to it. I truly hope you will find a way out of this.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:34
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    There should be a tag <creepy men in academia>. Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 18:43

15 Answers 15


I don't know if a meeting at which you "set the agenda" would be particularly helpful at this stage. It might make him feel "attacked", put him on the defensive, and he may retaliate against you in response. (I'm not suggesting that he would try to get you kicked out of the university or the department; there are many, many other small and large ways an advisor can make things difficult for a student. You already suggested that when he's mad at you, he deliberately ignores you emails, for example.)

I strongly disagree with the advice to flaunt a (real or fake) relationship, to let your advisor know you're unavailable. I've seen people try this, and in my experience, when applied to someone who does not respect boundaries, the outcome is often that then he starts asking you a whole lot of very uncomfortable questions about your boyfriend and the relationship.

Also, he's probably doing this because he enjoys it (flirting, the chase, whatever), not because he wants an actual committed relationship. So I'm not convinced that he would be dissuaded by your unavailability.

Instead, I suggest you start using a variation on the following phrase to respond when he does something that makes you uncomfortable:

I don't want this. This makes me really uncomfortable.

As in,

I don't want you to take my photo. Please don't ask again, it makes me really uncomfortable.


I don't want to talk about my personal life with you. It makes me really uncomfortable.


And, if he persists in whatever is making you uncomfortable,

I need to go (get a cup of coffee/make a phone call/talk to another student before he leaves for the day/make some photocopies/etc.)

then remove yourself from the situation.

I recommend practicing saying these words on your own, until they feel natural. This will help you feel less flustered when a situation comes up.

I also concur with StrongBad's suggestion:

I would suggest the OP writes down every time she tells the advisor he made her feel uncomfortable. She should also keep track of times he makes her feel uncomfortable in which she was uncomfortable telling him he made her feel uncomfortable.

and I would add, also make a note of who else (if anyone) was there at the time.

This will help in two ways:

  • You'll be able to tell if the situation is getting better or worse with time.
  • If you do need to escalate at some point, you'll have some documentation.
  • 27
    I think this is the best approach, but I also think at some point the OP needs to stop telling the advisor that he makes her feel uncomfortable and escalate things. At this point documentation would be really helpful. So to add to your answer, I would suggest the OP writes down every time she tells the advisor he made her feel uncomfortable. She should also keep track of times he makes her feel uncomfortable in which she was uncomfortable telling him he made her feel uncomfortable.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 8:53
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    @StrongBad good suggestion! And I added, also note who else was there (i.e. potential witness)
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 9:00
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    If pushed further to explain why you are uncomfortable, you can say that it is for personal reasons that you do not wish to discuss. And recenter to what it matters research. "Let's keep our discussions to the research. Talking about personal issue makes me uncomfortable (for personal reasons I do not wish /cannot discuss. We are excellent collaborators and produce wonderful research. Speaking of wish, what do you think about the last experiments?" "Please do not take picture of me. It makes me uncomfortable for the reasons I cannot discuss...." Hopefully only the the first sentence is enough.
    – afaust
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 14:47
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    I agree with being direct. But if the issue is to be not taken as "attacking" or singling out the advisor, it may be better to stick to "general" statements: "I prefer not to talk about my personal life in the workplace." or "Unless it is for an official website, I prefer not having photos taken in the office." and if there is question "Why?" then "Splitting work and personal life makes me happy and productive.". Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 12:06
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    I guess this is really the best solution. The first solution is "too" German! 1 hour direct meeting!!! hahaha I couldn't stop laughing when I read the meeting thing!!!
    – Jack Twain
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 19:42

Preliminaries: You are in a tough spot and I don't think that any course of action is ideal or without risk. If you can accept this "messiness" and commit to a reasonable course of action, you'll probably come out OK. It's also important to understand that you can't control or determine his reactions, and you can't be responsible for his feelings, as long as you act responsibly and ethically.

Call a meeting, set the agenda

First, I suggest that you schedule a meeting with him to discuss your working relationship. If it were me, I'd speak plainly and directly, without any tone or implication of blame or distress. I suggest that you make these two points:

  1. "I just want to confirm that our relationship is about work only. I am completely focused on my research career, and that is the basis for our relationship. I'm not here for friendship or anything else."

  2. "I'd like to make changes in specific behavior patterns. In these requests, I may be different than other PhD students, but I'm clear about what I need and what I'm comfortable with." Then list the behaviors you'd like to see changed (e.g. no "pop-in" meetings with non-work discussions).

Having a successful meeting

Schedule this meeting. Don't improvise. Don't combine it with any other meeting or topic. Allow for enough time (an hour is sufficient, though you may only need 5 minutes. By scheduling an hour, you are avoiding time pressure for everyone involved) without pressure to complete sooner or worries about starting on time. Plan what you are going to say ahead of time, and even rehearse it, by yourself or with a friend. If you think it's necessary, have an ally with you at the meeting -- a woman friend, anyone you respect in any role in the University, or even someone from the outside. Just say, "This may be a difficult conversation, and having X here to support us gives me more confidence."

Also, if you can imagine that you are asking for something innocuous -- e.g. changing the seating arrangement at a seminar, adding vegetarian options at a department meeting, etc. -- it will help you and it will help him immensely.

You don't need to ask him how he feels about you, to discuss the past or what he was or was not thinking or intending at the past, or any of that. You also don't need to explain how you feel (even though it would be justified). Talking about your feelings in this setting is almost never effective to change behavior.

You don't need to ask him if he's "OK" with your requests, or what he might want as an alternative. There are no alternatives. What he wants beyond your requests is irrelevant.

Also, if he brings up any other subject, no matter how related or how reasonable, you say: "I'm not here to discuss that."

If you haven't picked up on this already: you need to be the dominant person in this interaction. Not flamboyantly or even demonstrably. Just set the agenda, run the conversation, and lead to the conclusion.

Yes, you will be nervous. Yes, you might feel uncomfortable. Yes, you might be seeking his approval and affirmation during this meeting. Let go of all of that. All that matters is that you have this conversation -- short, to-the-point, and direct -- and get to the conclusion you are aiming for.

Finally, if he wants to talk about his needs or experience in the relationship, do that in a separate meeting. Be firm.

Be prepared to set boundaries

Regardless how the meeting goes, it's likely that he'll continue some or all of the behaviors, if only out of habit or faint hope. For each setting and behavior, be prepared to set a boundary -- saying 'no', disengaging, leaving the room, reminding him that you are not 'OK' with this, or what ever you believe will be effective. Not to put him down, but imagine that you are training a dog to not bark or to not jump on visitors. It's just behavioral conditioning.

If you do all this in a way that doesn't publicly embarrass him or privately make him "the Bad Guy", it's unlikely that he will kick you out of the department or university. There's a chance that he might do something bad toward you (many women have experienced negative consequences in similar circumstances), but the odds are lower by taking this path.

Many of the other answers and comments have expressed the view that this direct approach is "incredibly risky" or "likely to backfire" and have suggested more subtle or indirect approaches, including being as "nice" as possible during the process to avoid negative reactions.

My answer reflects my personal and professional values and also my work history (many decades in high tech industry). I'm not naive about power or politics in university departments or research labs.

I believe that it's very valuable and proper for less powerful people to stand up to people in power on issues such as morality, ethics, and even suggestions on fixing problems in the organization (e.g. workload imbalance). 'Standing up" helps the organization as a whole and can be part of a culture change in the organization.

Any professional relationship like this merits a one hour face-to-face meeting if the meeting is about improving the working relationship. Just because the topic might be uncomfortable to one or both doesn't change that. (Such a meeting need not be a "trial" or "attack" as some people have described it.)

One problem I have with indirect/subtle approaches in this setting is that they do not adequately empower OP, implying that she needs to be deferential to her adviser in this matter. I believe that, in the matter of relationship integrity, no one has to be deferential to anyone else. We all have the right (and duty) to stand up for ourselves.

Last, I don't assume that the adviser is a harasser or that he is doing anything that he considers inappropriate. It all may be very innocent and even well-intentioned on his part. If he is well-intentioned, then he'll probably receive these direct communications positively, shift his behavior, and all will be well.

  • 11
    This seems like excellent advice to me. Also, see if you have a women's centre on campus. If so, they may have additional advice about the process to follow in case you need to make a formal complaint later.
    – mhwombat
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 22:00
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    @Neo -- I don't believe your suggestion -- "...give him a hint" -- will work. He hasn't picked up on her hints so far. I'd bet he won't pick up on any further hints. Besides, the direct approach I'm suggesting is very compatible with "caring about his feelings". Regardless of his yearnings, it's in his best interest to not violate her boundaries and to have a mutually successful work relationship. Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 8:05
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    @Alexandros: I don't like your suggestion that the OP have her boyfriend (if she has one) pick her up to demonstrate her 'unavailability'. The fact that she is not interested in anything more than a professional relationship with her supervisor should be sufficient. Demonstrating 'unavailability' in this way reinforces the culture of a woman only being off-limits if she is already 'taken' by another man. There's a nice webcomic about this, but I can't find it right now, so this article will have to do.
    – Tara B
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 11:05
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    @TaraB The boyfriend or a family member picking the OP from the lab, signifies two major things, besides unavailability: a) That the problem is known to more people outside the OP and her supervisor b) That if things get ugly, the supervisor has to worry not only for the OP's reaction but her support system's (family, boyfriends) reaction, as well. Both of those reasons are strong enough for both "love-sick" supervisors to full-fledged sexual harassers to reconsider in fear of retaliation, either in form of legal action or getting their ass kicked in a back alley (which I don't suggest)
    – Alexandros
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 11:54
  • 9
    I also find the "asses kicked" part of your answer troubling. For all we know, the OP is a proficient martial artist and entirely capable of kicking her advisor's ass. Is that in any way a reasonable or helpful option? If not, why is it better to hint at this threat on the part of some auxiliary male figure? (In't it worse?) On a personal note, not once in my life have I thought "Boy, I would really like to date this woman. Too bad I can't act on it because I think Mr. X might kick my ass." Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 18:15

Whatever you do, please ignore the advice given by some people here to demonstrate your 'unavailability' to your advisor by talking about having a boyfriend, or having your boyfriend or some male friend come and pick you up from work.

You don't need any 'excuse' to be uninterested in having anything more than a professional relationship with your advisor, and to imply that the main reason you are uninterested is because you have a boyfriend might suggest that you would be open to the idea of a romantic relationship with him if you were 'available'.

On the whole, I agree with most of ff524's answer, although I personally would be very uncomfortable with telling someone that they were making me feel uncomfortable, so I would be unlikely to use the suggested phrase. What I would do is simply say 'No' to requests such as taking a photo of you. You don't need to give any justification for denying an odd request.

You may need to address the issue directly with your advisor, just because it's going to keep making you feel uncomfortable, and most likely have a negative effect on your working relationship. I don't know the best way to go about this, but your university probably has some kind of counselling service that could help.

  • 4
    While it is important to minimize the discomfort in the the already uncomfortable situation, I think it is best to say something beyond just "no" to make it clear that the behaviour is both unwanted and unacceptable.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 11:38
  • 11
    From the fact that the OP's advisor did in fact end up taking a photo of her due to her not knowing what to say, I think that a simple 'No' would be a big step in the right direction.
    – Tara B
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 11:46
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    I think if it happened to me, my response to the photo request would actually be 'What for?'.
    – Tara B
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 11:48
  • 10
    I strongly agree with your first paragraph. Signalling unavailability by calling attention to your partner is a good strategy in many social contexts: most (not all) people would stop romantic pursuit for this reason without feeling personally rejected. However, in a professional situation, "I'm here to work" is by far the better response: not only for the OP but for other professional women. Whether the OP has another romantic relationship is information best left out of a workplace situation that has gotten too familiar. Pretending that she does is alarmingly unfeminist behavior. Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 15:47
  • 5
    @PeteL.Clark: I overall agree very much with your comment, except that I'm not sure that I agree that calling attention to one's partner is ever a good strategy to avoid romantic pursuit. Since most of the time the person being 'pursued' probably wouldn't be interested anyway, the existence of a partner is kind of a red herring. I don't actually see the problem with feeling personally rejected (for a romantic relationship). Not all pairs of people are suited to becoming couples, and that's just the way it is.
    – Tara B
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 20:52

I think a lot of advice that people are giving is unwise. While I am sure they wish to be helpful, I am not sure they are qualified. I have been active in the women in technology community for 25 years, which does not give me all of the answers but does make me more aware of what can go wrong than some of the other respondents may be.

  1. You need a support group of women in your field. In computer science, there is a great email list, Systers, whose members frequently solicit and give advice based on experience, not just theories. Find something like this in your field. Ask someone to post anonymously for you, since it would be unwise to let your identity be known.
  2. Second, as others have said, document everything.
  3. Find out if your school has an ombudsperson, graduate women advisor, equal opportunity officer, or the Australian equivalent. (I'm American.) Such people can often give useful advice.
  4. Try to build ties with other graduate students and faculty in your department. You may need allies. The other faculty will know your advisor's history and how best to deal with him. Tenured faculty will be more able to help than untenured or adjunct faculty. While female faculty are your natural allies, don't overlook male faculty, especially ones with large numbers of female students who have not had problems with him.

  5. I do not recommend confrontation. Backing someone into a corner is dangerous; allowing someone to save face is safer. I think it's fine to ask why if he asks to take your photograph, but I wouldn't sit him down and demand that he stop treating you inappropriately. Prepare remarks that you can say if needed, such as:

    • "I'd prefer that the office door be open." (If asked why, say because you'd feel more comfortable.)
    • "The women's center advises female students not to socialize with their advisor without other students present, since someone might get the wrong idea."
  • 7
    So many +1s. Alas, I can only give one.
    – JeffE
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 19:23
  • 3
    I do not recommend confrontation. Backing someone into a corner is dangerous; allowing someone to save face is safer exactly
    – UmNyobe
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 16:29

I am not convinced that he wants a romantic relationship with you. Rather he is boosting his ego by flirting with you and actually enjoys flirting with you.

Your response need to be adequate to the situation. You should respond to amateurism by professionalism

I think calling a general meeting of an hour to set things straight can backfire, because it will sound like a trial to almost anybody. And in a trial, the defendant defends itself.

Rather, you need to cool him down over an extended period of time. Try not to over-think.

He comes to my room very often with no research-related reason and wants to talk, talk, talk about everything but work.

  1. Delay. You are in the middle of something important, and he needs to know that. Just tell him that you need to round up with what you are currently doing and that you are willing to go full gossip at the coffee break.
  2. Set boundaries. You haven't said what he is talking about. It is mostly about you? Then when it cross boundary you just say it is personal. Don't break under any "Oh come on" pressure tactic.
  3. Be a good listener. It may surprise you, but you also have the power to direct the conversation to a subject of your liking. By listening well to what he said you can go deeper in a harmless topic, one which doesn't make you feel uncomfortable.
  4. Stop the break when your mug is empty, excuse yourself and go back to work. It is important that all this chitchat happens far from your desk. Desk = work, coffee machine = small talk of at most x minutes.
  5. Invite other staff to the break talk. Don't do it systematically, but sometimes drop by someone's else desk and invite him\her too. It will obviously annoy the shit out of your advisor. Note: At least this works for me. That's where he will show his true color. Either he will invite you offsite, an invite that you can decline, or tell you not to invite other people. That's all you need to hit the ethic institution at your university.

Once, when I was busy working, he came to my room and asked if he could take a photo of me. I felt ashamed and did know that to say and finally, he took the photo.

I am sure the first thing which came to your mind was "Why?". You should probably tell what's in your mind.

Why do you need a photo? It is for the lab website, or a publication? Can we do that at the break or later? Thanks

Sometimes I think he is mad at me that I want to keep this relationship work-only, and then does not answer my emails about our research.

Again we don't have much information about the context. But I will advise you to read How To Win Friends And Influence People. Don't get turned off by the title. It is not a guide to become a manipulative asshole.

Remember that there is politics at the lab and the office. The other lab members are gradually building resentment towards you for your "preferential treatment". You need to take this in account as well.

  • 10
    This is spot on. You just gradually reduce his interest by making your own lack of interest clear, subtly and gently over a period of a few weeks: he'll quite soon get the message. It's not a workplace-specific thing, it's just basic social behaviour. I'm not sure why some other answerers are recommending some pretty draconian measures as if this were some form of sexual assault. It's not. It's a person being friendly to another person. If the other person doesn't want that then they should steer the relationship in another direction. Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 0:46
  • 1
    +1 because some of these unavailability suggesting tactics are very good.
    – 299792458
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 7:49
  • 4
    @LightnessRacesinOrbit it is a workplace thing because he is her advisor. He's not a fellow student, but holds real power over her. As such, he should err on the side of caution. Taking a photo crosses the line imo. Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 21:47
  • 1
    @TemplateRex: Many people hold real power over many other people, in and out of the workplace. None of that changes the best way to deal with the situation, at least not in the first instance. Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 21:57
  • 3
    +1 for turning every interaction into a professional one - though it sounds like this advisor doesn't respond well to subtlety... When he comes for a chat, something less ambiguous might work like "Sorry, I can't talk right now, but if you tell me what the agenda is for this meeting, I can put something in the diary?". Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 13:29

First, if this advisor has any stalker-like tendencies (insufficient information here to determine that conclusively, but my hackles have been raised by several things in the original question), bringing up another romantic relationship, real or ruse, will NOT make this person leave you alone and resume a more professional relationship. I know this goes against all the tropes of feminist empowerment, but you need to be prepared to lose this job and your "career" in order to protect your personal safety. No career is worth sacrificing that. Only the young and foolish live with such absolutes in their mind that their career will be permanently destroyed by one individual within an academic ivory tower or cloistered business community. Those who are hardworking and talented can generally find a new path to success. I know this from personal experience.

With that said, I agree that you need to clear the air in a manner like MrMeritology and Tara B have suggested: openly discuss the matter in a non-threatening but direct manner, and meet any further incursions beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone with firm, unambiguous answers of "No". I also believe ANY discussion of this matter with the advisor needs to be documented, and not just via written memos. If this person is merely socially inept or a garden-variety amateur stalker, a paper trail may be enough to damn him if he should mount a personal attack, as such people aren't often very good liars. If he is vindictive/manipulative in his daily dealings with people, you may be dealing with a person with sociopathic tendencies, and they are usually VERY convincing liars. I recommend the use of recording media, audio and/or video. People can play off the written word as being exaggerated, misinterpreted, or lacking context, but recordings which include inflection and tone (audio) and/or body language (video) are much harder to shrug off. I know that some may raise concerns about privacy and wiretapping laws, but unless you need to escalate and share such recordings with the appropriate authority, such concerns are trivial, in my opinion.

As I have gathered from the question, the advisor only engages in this behavior when he is alone with you, so no witnesses and we are left with a he said/she said situation. In such situations, a recording device becomes as close to an objective witness as you can get. If you take the route of recording the uncomfortable encounters or meetings to discuss this issue, make sure to get as clean a recording as possible, never share with this person that you have made or are making such recordings (though please keep a close friend or family member in the loop about this situation), and ONLY use such recordings with the AUTHORITIES (Academic, Civil, Criminal) as a last resort, to ensure your personal safety and to protect yourself from liability should he try to retaliate.

Finally, I cannot overemphasize enough: if any tactic you take does not work after a few weeks/months, you need to reexamine the importance of this particular career path versus your personal emotional well-being and safety and determine which is more important. That may not be what you want to hear, and I hope I am over-reacting to the situation, but what you are describing has a fifty-fifty chance of being more than a harmless flirtation by a socially-inept academic. The only way to figure that one out is to take the bull by the horns and politely confront the advisor and his behavior, as has been suggested by others.

  • 2
    +1 for this sentence: Only the young and foolish live with such absolutes in their mind that their career will be permanently destroyed by one individual within an academic ivory tower or cloistered business community. I have been through this situation when my career was ruined and I have re-established it.
    – cartina
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 5:42
  • I feel that you should add some phrasing about finding out if it's legal to make a recording without the other person's knowledge. In the US, the legality of doing this varies from state to state. According to this link it sounds like it's ok in Australia as long as you are one of the participants in the conversation (this is the law in Texas as well, for example) austlii.edu.au/au/legis/qld/consol_act/iopa1971222/s43.html but I still think it might be best for her--or anyone else in this situation, wherever they happen to live--to find out from someone familiar with local law.
    – msouth
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 16:00

I'd like to add a few varied points, and I assume that although not explicitly stated in the answer, the OP gave the usual more-and-less subtle hints but they did not work.

The basic idea is to first arrive at a point that allows a calm decision how to go on, and that also allows you to get in the emotional/mental state of freedom that allows you to tackle the problem e.g. by the meeting @MrMeritology suggests.

  • One very practical step that may help to avoid/reduce the stressful situations: Can you move into another office where more people work (or have some fellow student move into your office) and thus basically limit the possibilities for him to catch you alone?
    On the one hand, others already suggested that this would mean witnesses. On the other hand, it may make him behave.

  • I fully agree with the say lots of plain "no"s advise by @ff24. I'd go for the shortest and plainest "No" And guess follow up questions ("Why?") would best be answered by "That's none of your business." - possibly re-enforcing "The answer is no, and that has to be enough".
    I think super-clear boundaries are required here.

  • Maybe you can excercise/train these situations with some friends?

  • Somehow I think it likely that the problem cannot be solved with less drastic measures than the meeting (+ paper/electronic trail) MrMeritology suggests. I guess it would be good to prepare yourseld emotionally for that.

  • You state that for personal reasons you cannot move away. However, there may be other points where you can gain independence in the sense that you are less vulnerable to the attacks you fear, and more on equal terms for the totally sensible demand you have.

    • E.g., if you are financially dependent on a work contract in his lab, it may be good to put together some savings that will make you independent (in that they'd allow you to bridge the time till you find something else to earn your living) either have a second job, or speak with your family about support in case of need, or do some superhard saving, or have someone trustworthy who'd give you a job immediately in case of need.
    • Get yourself connected with colleagues (from your as well as from other groups).
      • Is the PhD student who spoke about him spending too much time with you trustworthy so you can talk to him about the problems? - this may be a valuable ally.
      • Colleagues who know you (e.g. know that you are not starting rumours to discredit the supervisor without any base for that but that instead you are harrassed) are most valuable: in the example, they are your best insurance against him starting rumours about you.
      • Also they can help you with the emotional stress you're subject to.
      • Knowing the local conditions, they may come up with solutions/help we cannot think of.
      • And last but not least, being connected with other groups may also open other plan Bs, i.e. changing your research area in case you arrive at the conclusion that the situation is emotionally/personally unbearable and changing to another topic is the lesser evil (I'd actually suggest that there may be other interesting research topics).
    • Get emotionally as independent as possible. Maybe family/friends can help you to get there. If you are religiously affiliated, such help may also be available as pastoral/spiritual care (obviously depending on denomination and personal relationship), or you can look for a professional coach.
      This is not a nice-to-have, but a basic requirement for the actions suggested: you'll need it to say NO, for the meeting, it is what allows your self-esteem to survive in the future if you decide to leave the lab, but also if you decide to stay.
  • +1 for suggesting moving to a more public or shared office--not a solution, but may make things easier.
    – mkennedy
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 18:07

On top of @MrMeritology's answer and its comments, I suggest you to draft a plan B just in case nothing gets better after the meeting. Since he's powerful connections, a formal complaint will just land you in a more difficult spot. Such a complaint may not make him to feel sorry about what he's done. Instead, he may desert you afterwards and leave you with no academic career and with no job.

Plan B: Get Out of the lab

If you choose to work at the same university, you may consider switching fields and advisor altogether. (I know it's almost impossible, but it's worth considering.)

If your field of study can lead you to a non-academic career in the same city, make some meaningful connections. The people you know may be happy to help you to land a job in the industry. The jobs in the industry may not be related directly to your academic studies or research work, but some transferable skills may not highly desirable in the industry.

  • 9
    Just to clarify, is the Plan B you are suggesting to get out of the lab without reporting him? Because I would think if things were so bad that she decided to leave, she should absolutely report him.
    – Tara B
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 15:43
  • 1
    That's correct. Reporting him will not make OP's life better. OP may be miserable after reporting him instead. (I was once a victim of harassment at university.)
    – user8661
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 4:02
  • 3
    Why reporting? He didn't do anything which would require reporting. It's not illegal to be interested in someone, especially if that someone never said clearly "no". It would only be worthy of reporting if he was overly pushy, aggressive, and especially if he didn't alter his behavior after being asked to.
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 17:23

Asking to take your photo is truly creepy. I would consider talking to the person or office at your university responsible for sexual harassment charges. Typically universities have a very clear process for dealing with such situations, and it may be that he has done this before. You can discuss with their office how to proceed. They might have some good ideas, and they typically won't act in a way that you are uncomfortable with, if you are worried about repercussions.

Also, I wanted to echo other people's discomfort with the "call a meeting" proposal. This strikes me as incredibly risky. I think it's better to get the appropriate office on your side.

Edit: A couple more ideas: 1) invite someone from HR to give a presentation on workplace ethics (including sexual harassment) to the lab. [Somewhat risky as it might embarrass him in front of the rest of the lab. Perhaps it can be arranged for it to seem like coincidence, not having been arranged by you.] 2) if there a campus pamphlet about this issue, you could leave it in his mailbox, perhaps with appropriate passages highlighted.

  • I highly doubt that attempting to make something like this seem like coincidence is going to work out in this situation. Especially if he only has the one female advisee--I think he's going to figure out who was responsible.
    – msouth
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 0:03
  • I deleted the "sneaky" comment and rephrased--I wasn't meaning to imply it was dishonest, just lazy shorthand for the concept of hiding responsibility for the presentation/highlighted document. My only concern is for the OP's safety, I didn't mean to imply you were suggesting something nefarious, just that it involved hiding information and I didn't think that the information in question would stay hidden in this situation. Hopefully no hard feelings!
    – msouth
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 0:23
  • 1
    @msouth: Okay, well I withdraw my objection. I definitely agree with your comment that this is risky. There is no easy solution.
    – Jim Conant
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 11:30

I think there are five possible ways of dealing with this situation. I think each has been addressed in separate answers, but no answer contrasts between the different approaches. It seems you could (1) contact the person or department responsible for dealing with claims of sexual harassment, (2) have a conversation with the supervisor about his past behaviour, (3) mention to the supervisor whenever he makes you feel uncomfortable in the future, (4) change your behaviour in a way that makes him harass you less, (5) ignore it.

1. Contact the person or department responsible for dealing with claims of sexual harassment

While I think this is the best way to deal with sexual harassment, it puts considerable burden on the victim and puts the victim at further risk of harassment and retribution. The reason I think this is the best way to deal with harassment, is that if the university does not know about the harassment, they cannot change anything. The more harassment cases the university has to deal with, the more likely they will require supervisors to behave properly and provide support mechanisms to victims. The problem with this approach is universities tend to try and protect themselves and not their employees and students. If you do not have any documentation or evidence of the harassment it becomes a case of he-said/she-said and the university may initially ignore your claims and force you to sue the university.

2. Have a conversation with the supervisor about his past behaviour

I see no advantage of this course of action, despite the answer being highly voted. It is in essence alerting the supervisor to his behaviour and drawing a "line in the sand". If he doesn't change his behaviour, then you have to escalate to reporting him to his superiors. If he cross the line and you do not report him, and as I mentioned reporting him puts you at risk, he will have effectively called your bluff and may feel even more empowered to harass you. The best case scenario for this approach is that he didn't realize you felt harassed and the conversation makes him change his behaviour. I think this, however, can be achieved with approach 3.

3. Mention to the supervisor whenever he makes you feel uncomfortable in the future

By telling the supervisor whenever he makes you feel harassed/uncomfortable that his behaviour is inappropriate, this alerts him to change his behaviour. I would suggest to also email him afterwards to make it clear that you are documenting his behaviour. If he is unaware that his behaviour is unacceptable, then you will have accomplished the same thing as approach 2. If he continues to misbehave, you will be collecting evidence for if/when you decide to take approach 1. Most importantly, by not drawing the line in the sand, it will never appear that you are backing down.

4. Change your behaviour in a way that makes him harass you less

I don't particularly like this approach as it puts all the burden on the victim. If he is harassing you because of the clothes you wear, the company you keep, or your beliefs, changing them may make him stop harassing you. While this is the most non-confrontational approach, and puts you at the least risk of retaliation, it requires the an unreasonable sacrifice by the victim. If you are willing to make that sacrifice, the approach can work.

5. Ignore it

This again is a solution, but requires the victim to make an unreasonable sacrifice.


Firstly, I want to say how sorry I am that you're dealing with this. This behavior is absolutely inappropriate, and it's hard for me to believe that your adviser doesn't already know that he's crossing the lines.

There's plenty of advice here about whether you should take a formal or informal approach, and I'm not really going to weigh in on that. Instead, before you do anything, what I would do is check to see whether your university has an official Ombudsman's Office. This should be an office whose sole purpose is to advocate for the rights of students and workers and to investigate complaints.

I think it's worth discussing, confidentially, with someone in that office before you make any attempts to discuss this with the professor. Tell them your situation, and ask for their advice. That way, you've got a clear record of engagement with the school if things really do hit the fan.

Good luck :)


I really think @espertus 's answer should be the top voted. In addition to what she says, I would say this:

Consult with a lawyer (at least an initial consultation). I'm not sure I would trust whatever your institution provides to you as a student (free onsite legal counsel or whatever), because they might be under pressure to encourage people to not make waves (although that question might be worth researching in parallel).

Research law firms in your area. See if there are any that have particular expertise or experience in academia. Don't think about the price--you're just going to ask them if they will give you a free consultation to find out whether you need representation and what you should be doing in case you do.

Find out:

  1. What specific behavior crosses a legal line
  2. What kind of documentation constitutes legal proof of those lines having been crossed.

Perhaps you could find out similar things about the university's ethics code without making a formal complaint. Just ask what behavior, exactly, crosses the line, and what documentation is required to prove that this behavior has taken place. You can say you "know someone" who is in a difficult situation and scared of retaliation (you don't have to tell them that you are the person).

You do not have to initiate legal proceedings or lodge a formal complaint or anything--I just think you need to, as soon as possible, start collecting the kind of documentation that a lawyer has told you will carry weight in court, just in case it ever comes to that.

I am guessing from this discussion that you are an attractive, intelligent woman in a technical field. That is going to generate (sometimes intense) interest in you from many men in your field. I'm not saying this as anything other than an observed fact--a reality that you need to be aware of. These men are going to be all over the spectrum--really a two dimensional "spectrum", where you have an axis of social awkwardness where people sincerely don't know that what they are doing constitutes an inappropriate advance (yes, some of us really are that clueless), and an axis of just plain evil where there are some people that deliberately use their positions of power to take advantage of people.

In addition to the fact that people will be attracted to you, some will be threatened by you because you're a woman with rival superpowers that they associate with their manhood (pathetically sad, I know, but true). Some will be neither attracted nor threatened themselves, but jealous of the attention paid to you by those who are attracted.

Subject to consulting with a network of women (I'm referring again to espertus ' advice) to see if anything I suggest below makes sense or matches their experience, it seems to me that you need to make sure that you recognize a few facts:

  1. Your working relationship has already been damaged. It's not that you're worried you might damage the relationship. Your advisor's actions have damaged it. You are looking to mitigate that damage. It is not possible to avoid it. The reason I'm saying this is that you might be afraid to take any action lest you "break something". I don't think you will make good decisions if you have "fear of messing up the relationship" topmost in your mind. You have a messed up relationship now, you are trying to salvage what you can of it without making it worse.
  2. You need to be your own best defender and advocate. You are in school to learn. It is unfortunate that you are also having to learn this. But you are likely to need it in situations after school (again, check with knowledgeable tech women before believing me, but I believe women in tech widely experience this). Right now, start learning how you intelligently defend yourself in apparently impossible situations where someone else has all the power. Note how espertus balances the fact that you have an absolute right not to be victimized with the fact that anything you do that looks like an attack to your advisor could be dangerous to you. That does highlight how difficult your situation is, but if this were an easy situation, you'd already have figured it out.
  3. Because of point 1 and some of point 2, you need to manage your own expectations. You are probably not going to find a magical solution that simply lets you get everything you should be able to (professionally given academic guidance) from your advisor and nothing you shouldn't (unwanted advances). Quit even thinking about there being a perfect way out and figure out what makes the most sense for you in your situation.
  4. Even though it is not your fault, and you should not be the one that has to change your behavior to accommodate his bad behavior, I think you have to look at ways to manipulate space and time in such a way that your advisor simply has fewer opportunities to do the bad things he is doing. Change either the hours that you are there or the place where you work. This is not optimal, but the combination of his position of power and bad actions have created a sub optimal situation that you need some kind of practical response to. Consider whether there might be a way to arrange your schedule or workspace to make it really hard for him to "casually drop by".

  5. Lastly, I'm really, really hesitant to suggest this, but it seems possible to me that your co-advisees, if you know they can be trusted, could be natural allies.

    A while ago I heard that his PhD student suggested to him that he spends too much time with me. He laughed and said it's not his business, and that we are working hard on some novel research method.

    Do you know this student? Were they possibly trying to helpfully intervene on your behalf or were they jealous of the time?

    Although you are natural competitors for your advisor's time, you are also natural allies in that it's best for all of you if the advisor is as professional as possible.

    Are you working on similar enough things that it would make sense for you to have a study group of some sort with the other advisees? I'm guessing that it's an every-man-for-himself-trying-to-outshine-the-others kind of environment, but if it's not, developing a closer working relationship with them might give you allies in this other battle. And, unlike the "get a fake boyfriend" suggestion, having a good relationship with these people actually makes real sense since they are in your field and people you could gain advantage from being able to network with later.

I wish I had better suggestions. Possibly if you look for solutions that emphasize only the things you both agree on. You both want your academic work to be successful. So, if you need to make excuses not to spend time in pointless (to you) chit-chat, make every excuse be about your work. "I don't want to be rude [note: this is true! It would be so much easier if he wasn't making you do this], but I need to get back to working on the miniaturized earthworm defibrillator test results [also true! You do need to get to work on those! And, theoretically, something he agrees you should be doing.]."

Another strategy in the same vein--if he is forcing you to have conversations, you work to force the conversation back to work. He has decided he is going to be in your space. You decide that you are going to use that to your advantage by picking his brains about your project. Have a list of questions ready at all times, on your phone or in your desk or on a whiteboard. "That reminds me, I wanted to ask you about X."

Maybe time tracking software could be of use. There is stuff out there that lets you click something saying you're working on task 1, then if you switch to task 2, you select that task and it starts tracking your time as applying to that (people like lawyers or freelancers will use these to know who to bill for what amount of time when they have multiple projects going). Have actual tasks that apply to your project, and an array of non-project stuff: "at gym", "eating", "water cooler talk". Don't even mention it, just start tracking all your time like that and looking at the results. Once you have a good body of data from a couple of weeks, you can set goals of reducing your "water cooler talk" time--strictly because you want to increase your productivity--and then use that as a way to say you need to get back to work or you will miss your target [again--a real target, that is really about your project. No pretense to maintain, simply an effort to get more work done].

Let me re-emphasize the fact that you should not have to do this. I am not suggesting that bad things are happening because you aren't being assertive enough. It is not your fault that he is making you come up with these strategies. But I think it will be best for you, in both the short term as as a precedent that you set for yourself for the future, that you always assert whatever control you can, even when the power structure in a relationship is highly asymmetrical.


My condolences for a very unpleasant and difficult situation. A few extra hints that may add to what has been already said and they are comparatively low risk.

  1. body language, attitude and physical interactions matter. Their effect may even be more powerful than any words that would be exchanged. So, for instance, if someone gets too friendly, position chairs and tables in a way that makes it difficult for him to come too close. Sometimes, if people are (perhaps culturally, but also for other reasons) coming too close for comfort, there is a way of jutting out the leg in an oblique fashion to generate some distance (you have to practice that so it doesn't look like an invitation). There are implied rules of entering someone else's space, and if we create an additional cost (in terms of cognitive steps) to invade this space, it creates a subliminal discouragement to do so.

  2. Interact blandly and boringly. Some women may have an extraordinarily radiating aura that many men cannot withstand - I have known women like that, and they kept complaining about inappropriate advances by men which I am fully convinced were not invited by them (i.e. were not frivolously provoked); in one of the cases, I also happened to know one of the guys who complained about her and how she would toy with men (which was patently untrue - it was a fundamental misunderstanding on the side of the guy). If you would work in show business, you would, of course, capitalise on such a charisma. But, alas, you are a scientist, so it doesn't do you any good. But since that means that it is not your capital, either, you can play yourself down, be boring, wear boring clothes, forgo any adornment. Keep these for your free time. Note that I am not implying at all that you are inappropriately dressed or behave inappropriately, but by being deliberately uninteresting and bland you may counteract your over-effective charisma (if that is behind it).

  3. In company with your supervisor, discuss and talk without enthusiasm, just blandly and neutrally, but competently (after all, you want to keep your scientific reputation).

  4. When you are asked to be photographed, you can request that you do not wish your photo to be taken, because in today's time there is no way to control where the photo circulates. You may make the point that you do not furthermore wish to add another datapoint to existing face recognition algorithms (assuming you do not have a spate of photos on Facebook or elsewhere already). Or else, you say that you do not like yourself on photographs and do not like photos to be taken from you except for special family functions (or whatever plausible exception holds for you).

  5. Note that in the supervisor, there are many aspects that may play a role in parallel - the feeling of superiority, but also the belief that he may ultimately win you over against your resistance; unfortunately, it is not infrequent that man-women interactions operate exactly like that and for many men genuine disinterest/reluctance is not easily discernible from a purely tactical hold-off. Since any open declaration of disinterest from your side in the present case will force his hand and may put him into the corner (which is the reason that you should also follow the earlier advice on building alliances), turning yourself from a desirable to a bland personality with an unattractive appearance (only outwardly and temporarily, until you are through) may make him lose interest which is more effective and less damaging than trying to actively hold him off. I know cases where this has worked. If he should remark why you do not wear nice clothes anymore etc. you just say that in your current phase you have far too much to do to care about them.

  6. Will adapting your personality ruin your quality of life? Yes, it will, but only temporarily and, given the constraints you have, it might give you a reasonable chance of getting through it with limited damage without compromising too much on the other constraints of yours. You need, for this, to be prepared for a long-haul, as this routine will take time to establish.


It is a terrible situation.

My first suggestion is change your supervisor. You don't need to explain why. Find someone in the department whose research is interesting to you (yes, it might not be as interesting as what you work in right now but I am sure there is something that is interesting). Start attending their group meetings. I don't think it worths the mental energy to sustain a long term professional relationship with your current advisor.

My second suggestion would be to find a senior female faculty member in your department that you can trust and discuss the problem with her.


All the answers are fine. However all of them are related to the answerer’s personality and I assume the questioner can't replicate that exact personalities or some answers suggest to do something that the questioner doesn't want to perform like, skipping, changing field or research.

From my point of view, this question is a common among most employed women. However as per my experience, if you take any step to get confront the advisor by discussing about this problem directory would make him mad. Also even if you follow the professional protocol to follow this issue, the situation would cost even your career as you said. However the end result is based on person to person.

There could be lot of ways to solve this. However in here I'm suggesting an one method to neutrally stabilize the situation. however this method is framed with some criteria.

Tips to neutrally stabilize the situation:

  • What if an annoying car seller tries to sell a car and calls you all the day? Without complain to any law authorities or whatever, the easiest thing that you could do is to show him what you currently own and you don't prefer a new one.

  • If you got a partner or just a boy friend, this can be solved very easily. Or if you are currently not up to any relationship just ask some help from a close male friend. (For now lets call this guy as your partner)

  • Safest play would be to show up some basic personal stuff over your social media, FB, instagram in very neutral manner. Like the dinner's you both gone out, etc.

  • Or ask your partner to take a visit at university, or you could introduce him to the advisor.

  • When the advisor is around, Ask your partner to pick-up you after work.

  • Also if you could show up a photo of your partner's or of your both on your working desk, noticeable wallet or on pendant would be another good idea.

  • When the advisor is talking about non-work related personal stuff, you could respond to those topics like , "as my boy friend says like this, like that" He will indirectly know that you value your personal stuff.

  • Let him know that you are not your own and there are people around you to support, protect.

My suggestion is to continue work with him as usual and eventually you could indirectly let him know that if he's up to a such a relationship, that you are not available and you are occupied.

Also he will eventually know that he doesn't have any chance and retreat without any hate. However this depends on the person's personality. Expect the good side.

Good Luck!

  • 10
    In my experience, the most common outcome of the technique you propose, when applied to someone like this advisor who does not respect boundaries, is that then he starts asking you a whole lot of very uncomfortable questions about your boyfriend and the relationship.
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 7:58
  • 1
    @ff524 I tend to agree that this is not the most desirable technique, the involved individual might probably in the "best case" just leave it at asking uncomfortable questions, I find it likely that he'll assume a more stalkative attitude and in the worst case become even vindictive Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 8:13
  • 17
    Terrible advice. Using 'I already have a boyfriend' as if it's the reason one is not interested in a romantic relationship with someone can make it sound as if one might potentially be interested if the current relationship were to cease to exist.
    – Tara B
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 11:11
  • 6
    @inckka: I don't think you can tell whether or not my answer is useless to the OP. Sometimes people have difficulty saying no because they think they need to justify their refusal. So if that happens to be the OP's case, then maybe realising that a simple 'No' is perfectly acceptable might help. My recommendation not to follow the 'I have a boyfriend' advice given by you and others is not grounded in any religious philosophy, I simply believe that it is an unhelpful way of dealing with the situation and perpetuates the idea that women are 'available' unless already 'taken' by a man.
    – Tara B
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 13:03
  • 5
    I think your phrasing "you are not your own" is very telling. I am my own and will always be, though I've been married over 30 years. I can say no to any invitation on my own strength, and not because I am someone else's property who's not authorized to accept that invitation. Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 19:12

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