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We know that family can have a lot of impact on academic direction of a student, but is it appropriate for a student to have a supervisor/advisor who is also a family member? For example, a dad might supervise their son. What would make this more or less appropriate? What conditions might be required to make this appropriate?

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    conflict of interest? – Drecate Aug 12 '15 at 0:00
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    Sure, I know examples. What is the question? – Greg Aug 12 '15 at 0:53
  • There is a case of an electrical engineering professor who was at University of Washington (he is now a "Professor in Residence" at UC Berkeley) who co-authored several papers with a younger student of his with the same last name. Their last name is not very common, and I've always assumed they were related (father/daughter), but I do not know for sure. – Mad Jack Aug 12 '15 at 1:29
  • I'd think there would be plenty of ways to go around such issues, e.g. get another member of staff as supervisor. – o4tlulz Aug 12 '15 at 3:35
  • I've edited the question to focus on the implicit question. I.e., when and whether it is appropriate. The question of whether there has ever been a case of familial supervision is not especially relevant as the obvious answer is yes, there has been a case. – Jeromy Anglim Aug 12 '15 at 5:28
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Counterexamples notwithstanding, the practice certainly raises all sorts of questions about conflicts of interest: is the adviser providing unbiased advice, is the adviser unbiased in their assessment of the academic proficiency of the candidate, is the advisee independent to choose their research direction, etc.

In cases like this, nobody looks good -- people wonder about the judgment of the adviser, they wonder about the actual quality of the candidate if papers are jointly written, and they wonder about what's going on in the department to let such things happen. As a consequence, people and departments are generally well advised not to let this happen, simply because the perception of a conflict of interest is oftentimes just as bad as the actuality of something improper happening.

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    +1 for the important point none of the rest of us made about perception being as bad as reality. – jakebeal Aug 12 '15 at 17:55
  • My current funding agency has explicit rules against this kind of stuff.. – Fábio Dias Oct 11 '15 at 14:39
18

I'm sure that such cases might happen (and frequently do for earlier education, like elementary school), but they should not happen at the graduate student level.

All of the usual concerns of nepotism and coercion apply, just as for any other professional relationship. Moreover, at the graduate level, there are so many different options available and an emphasis placed on intellectual "cross-fertilization" that means most institutions strongly prefer to send their students elsewhere for future positions. I cannot then see how a graduate student supervised by their own parent would be anything but a rather dubious relationship at multiple levels.

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    I'm pretty sure I know a father who had his son as a master's student. The son went elsewhere for his PhD. – Bill Barth Aug 12 '15 at 1:34
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    I was specifically told I would not be allowed to attend my father's class as a grad student at the Master's program I went to. I'm sure there's less of a conflict with advising, but still, the thought of a dadvisor bending the rules a bit more is a bit concerning, so I wouldn't recommend it. – Compass Aug 12 '15 at 19:21
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    @compass +1 for "dadvisor". That's great. – Federico Poloni Aug 12 '15 at 19:56
9

Yes, I happen to know a researcher in country A supervising his own wife's PhD :)

They are both from country B, and come from the same city. He was her lecturer during her undergraduate in that city. He then moved to country A, and they had been dating before she started her PhD in his institution.

After they had got married, she changed to another supervisor. During her PhD, she published 8 papers: her husband was the first author in 7 of them, and the second author in the 8th (in which she was the first author). The new supervisor only co-authored 3 papers. So I guess, he continued to mentor her even after she had changed supervisor.

She graduated last year, and seems to have a good job in industry, according to her Linkedin profile. He is now director of research in his institution, having published more than 100 papers. Their baby is also nearly one year old now.

A is one of the most developed countries in Europe. B is also in Europe, but not in the level of A.

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  • Yes, I know one which did not even change the supervisor after the marriage. – Vladimir F Aug 12 '15 at 11:30
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    Why did you mask the countries with A and B? It's possible that this is completely cultural, and knowing those countries would be of value to your answer. You didn't mention any last names, so I don't think there's any need to mask the countries. – Chris Cirefice Aug 12 '15 at 14:36
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    @ChrisCirefice I don't think this is cultural, I don't know any other similar cases. I listed two separated countries to let you know that they are from the same hometown, and have known each other for a very long time. If I reveal the countries, people may guess his name. I don't think there are many researchers from country B who are working at A, and have published more than 100 papers. – qsp Aug 12 '15 at 15:04
7

Fact just for fun:

Actually, this question reminds me the story of the Curie family.

Irène Joliot-Curie, a Nobel laureate, supervised both of her children, who are also notable scientists.

Irène herself was supervised by Paul Langevin, grandfather-in-law of her daughter, former lover of her mother, and former Phd student of her father. What a complicated relationship.

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6

I can see why some might raise an eyebrow at this arrangement – from both perspectives. Other students might wonder if the thesis student is getting preferential treatment. Other faculty might wonder if the advisor is applying the same standards of rigor.

I think this might be avoided if the parent (or other relative) offered to serve on the committee, but not take on the role of primary advisor. If my daughter was in graduate school and asked me to be her advisor, that's probably what I would recommend: "I'll be on your committee, but you'll have to find someone else to be your main advisor."

That said, people are citing counterexamples; evidently, the practice is not universally verboten. So long as the research is quality reseach that withstands any scrutiny, I suppose it can be made to work. However, if the student is coasting along with research of marginal quality, this has potential to backfire.

Back to the hypothetical between me and my daughter: if I were to agree to such an arrangement, I'd want to be very sure she could do some outstanding research independently, to ward off any conflict-of-interest allegations.

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0

If someone's dad is the best in the field they like, and they were accepted by the department to the graduate program, what's the problem?

Could it lead to abuse? Sure. But why shouldn't this person be with the best? Matter of fact, this person probably knows more about the field than any other student, having being brought up in a certain environment.

Just to amuse readers: There's a book in optics written by: "Pedrotti, Pedrotti, and Pedrotti".

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  • I get the sentiment, but the world we live in is far from being a perfect world. I know a graduate student who published several engineering physics papers with his father, but it's hard to take the graduate student's role seriously on any of the papers since it's not at all clear that he actually did any sizeable amount of work on the project. For all anyone knows, he got his name on the paper simply out of nepotism. Later on in life, collaboration is perfectly acceptable, but a student-advisor relationship should be strictly professional. – Cameron Williams Aug 12 '15 at 20:22
  • Perhaps making a (much) more extreme statement will help to identify the flaws: "Why shouldn't you marry your mother if she is the most attractive woman in the world?" – Pete L. Clark Aug 13 '15 at 0:33
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    @PeteL.Clark. There's a good reason not to marry your mother: it is abomination to nature. We're biologically wired to be naturally repelled by it, as the offspring are not viable. That's not to say that some folks with Freudian problems haven't done it, but rather that it is abhorrent. In the case of a good, hard working student, working with someone who's the best will result in good papers. That's not to say it's the normal outcome, but that it's unfair to the exceptionals to be limited by fear of nepotism. I call for safeguards instead. – user1512321 Aug 15 '15 at 22:35

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