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Is there a potential problem when an academic supervises a Ph.D. student in a very specific area in which someone close to them is also active and working (and supervising Ph.D. students who are publishing in that area) at a different institution? What if the two students are producing very similar work, at the same time? Is it right that my alarm bells are ringing?

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    I don't see a conflict of interest at all, nor do I see why it is important for him (genderless) to mention that his spouse was also in the field.
    – Compass
    Nov 5 '14 at 16:22
  • Thanks. What about if the other supervisor's student has produced work that is very similar to that of "our" student? Nov 5 '14 at 16:37
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    I think you can safely turn off your alarm bells.
    – xLeitix
    Nov 5 '14 at 16:49
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/21006/10643
    – Cape Code
    Nov 5 '14 at 16:55
  • Thanks, both. Yes, I did see that question, and figured that it described a sufficiently different situation in order to justify posting. Nov 5 '14 at 16:57
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I can think of multiple sane reasons not to publicly state romantic or marital involvement with a fellow researcher. There surely is no obligation to do otherwise.

Now, in the situation you described in your comments, you mention the possibility that one adviser is leaking unpublished results of her/his students to her/his spouse's students without the consent of the person who did the work. This is indeed problematic, regardless of their marital status.

If you are worried about this situation, discuss confidentiality with your adviser, make sure you are on the same line and consider sealing an informal agreement of non-disclosure with her/him if deemed necessary. This can be independent of the spouse situation.

One potential conflict of interest is if both were acting as reviewers for papers or grants submitted by each other, or if they were members of the hiring committee that evaluated each other's application. Since married couples have a reciprocal interest in their spouse's employment and wealth, there would be a quite probable conflict of interest.

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It's not considered a conflict of interest for an advisor to personally work in a field similar to his/her students' - it's expected.

It's also not a conflict of interest for an advisor to have friends working in a field similar to his/her students' - it's likely.

Similarly, it's not a conflict of interest for an advisor to have a spouse, child, or immediate family member working in a field similar to his/her students'.

The exception to the above would be if the advisor actually does something that harms his/her student in order to favor him/herself, a friend, or a family member.

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  • Thank you. Of course, supervisors are expected to work in the same area as their student, and to have friends working in the same area. The specific question centres on the fact that there are two students, at different institutions, who are working on very similar topics, and who are being supervised by a married couple who have, until now, disclosed nothing of the arrangement (they have different surnames, which helps). Your final bullet point is, I think, crucial, in terms of how supposedly confidential insights might be shared between students (even inadvertently, or in good faith). Nov 5 '14 at 16:49
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    @GeneMachine I don't see why it's any different from, say, two close friends at different institutions with students working on very similar topics. Which happens all the time.
    – ff524
    Nov 5 '14 at 16:50
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    @GeneMachine "I would not necessarily share insights from my student's work with my friends (pre-publication)" - that is unethical behavior (assuming it's against the student's wishes) regardless of your relationship with your friend - it would also be unethical for you to share these insights with a stranger. The conflict of interest is a red herring.
    – ff524
    Nov 5 '14 at 16:53
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    I think your assumptions might be a little optimistic. But thank you for the detailed discussion. Nov 5 '14 at 17:04
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    @GeneMachine: Who someone is married to -- or dating, living with.... -- is their own business. It is not the business of their colleagues and they do not have any professional obligation to divulge this information. You sound like you're insinuating that information about your student's work was passed from your colleague to his spouse and used by one of her students. If so, that's problematic, but not because of anything about spouses or "conflicts of interest". I would suggest taking that language out of the question entirely. Nov 5 '14 at 17:06

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