So your student is becoming overweight: does this negatively impact your research group in some way? Should an advisor care?

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    How can being overweight have any impact on a research group? And what about overweight advisors? As an advisor, the only concern I might have is about the health of my advisees. – Massimo Ortolano May 23 '15 at 11:35
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    I think the flippant answers to this question are really disrespectful and inappropriate. People, especially women, are often judged on their weight, and I think this is a legitimate concern that should not be so lightly dismissed. – jakebeal May 23 '15 at 14:10
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    I disagree with closing this as "primarily opinion based". It's not asking for opinions on overweight students: it's asking whether advisors in general have opinions on overweight students. – David Richerby May 23 '15 at 21:55
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    @DavidRicherby so basically the question is asking for opinions whether advisors have opinions on overweight students. And in my opinion this is opinion based. – Salvador Dali May 24 '15 at 1:02
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    I think it would help the quality of the question and the answers, if you name some reasons why an advise should be concerned. Do you think it is a sign of depression or poor health condition? Or something else? – Greg May 24 '15 at 15:02

Becoming overweight is not an issue per se. Major physical changes, however, are often a sign of an major ongoing mental or physical health event. Rapid weight gain, for example, is often associated with depression or thyroid problems, both of which can have a major impact on the student's ability to learn and work. As such, I would definitely be concerned if a student was visibly gaining a large amount of weight---not because of attractiveness or disapproval of weight, but because of what else it might indicate.

I would find it highly inappropriate, however, to bring this up with the student by saying something like "I've noticed you've gained a lot of weight" because there are also a lot of more benign reasons somebody might gain weight, including recovering from mental or physical health problems that would also be none of my business.

I would, however, notice it as a possible red flag, and start to keep a more careful eye out for other signs of distress, which might legitimately trigger a conversation about, for example, mental health.

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    I actually laughed pretty hard at the statement "I've noticed you've gained a lot of weight"... – Mehrdad May 24 '15 at 9:49
  • The impact on the student's ability to learn and work notwithstanding, becoming overweight is a health problem which affects multiple other aspects of the student's life. If the environment in a research group is affecting students' health it is definitely something the PI should be concerned about, regardless of whether this affects their performance within the group. – E.P. May 24 '15 at 21:17
  • I would add that it depends on the general way how the supervisor approaches people around him. We have a professor here who is quite caring about other people. It wouldn't be surprising to me if she cared a lot about someone gaining weight quickly. – yo' Aug 10 '15 at 9:03
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    "Major physical changes, however, are often a sign of an major ongoing mental or physical health event" <-- exactly what I thought when I read the question, and PhD students are particularly prone to depression, +1. I've seen this before. But: "I would find it highly inappropriate, however, to bring this up with the student by saying something like, I've noticed you've gained a lot of weight" <- I disagree about this being inappropriate, doing something about the situation necessarily involves bringing it up (in context, of course). Seeing that you're in the USA, might be a cultural difference – Szabolcs Aug 12 '15 at 8:28

The supervisor should supervise students about their research work and not judge students based on their appearance or their private life. It would not have any impact on my research group.


It would help to know what motivates the question, to make sure I'm getting at what you are trying to find out, but here goes:

The advisors I have known would wait for the student to bring up a health situation before talking about it.

They would consider the overweight in conjunction with other aspects of the student's well-being. Being overweight by itself wouldn't be a concern. If it were accompanied by symptoms of pre-diabetes, heart disease, OCD, depression, etc., then the advisor would be concerned about the big picture (including, but not limited to, the weight problem).

The concern would be about the student, not about the group.

The gender of the student would be irrelevant.

This is my assessment, regarding the advisors I have personally known.

  • I just cannot agree with the conclusion that the gender of the student is irrelevant here. Women derive so much more of their self-esteem from how they look than men. I would feel awful if I commented on a female's weight to her face. It could really crush her. I just don't think I could do that to someone. – clustro Aug 12 '15 at 14:23
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    @clustro - So, does this mean you would be more likely to comment if a male student puts on excess weight? – aparente001 Aug 17 '15 at 1:51
  • Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the individual male student. I would probably be more likely to comment on less-touchy behaviors though that are likely to lead to weight gain, before the probably actually occurs. I would be like "Hey Joe, I noticed you're staying up here late at night and eating McDonald's all the time at 4 AM. You don't have to do that to yourself. Come in and go home at reasonable times. Cook yourself a real dinner and real lunch. Get some regular exercise. You'll see your research output increase more than what you are doing now." – clustro Aug 17 '15 at 13:28
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    @clustro - Weight gain can be caused by many different things. – aparente001 Aug 17 '15 at 13:46
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    Also please note that your statement "women derive so much more of their self-esteem from how they look than men" might be true in a statistical sense, but it doesn't mean that every woman does. – aparente001 Aug 17 '15 at 13:47

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