As a professor, are you permitted to prohibit Ph.D. students from joining your research group if you know they have a boy/girlfriend, are married, don't come in on weekends, who don't stay late, etc...?

The professor does not intend to make them work on stuff related to his/her research outside of normal working hours. Rather, the supervisor would like their students to be driven enough to study/read publications and books about topics outside their particular research program during those times.

That way, supposedly, by the time they graduate, they will be very well rounded, and also develop their own research programs in meaningful ways.

Since I observe this behavior with a certain professor I know at a US university, I was wondering if that professor is liable for legal charges, which I could bring up to the dean.

One way I hear about how he "weeds" out the normal people is by telling them how much work it takes to succeed, and gives examples of previous "successful" students, and what their lifestyles were. I suppose he says something like: "this is how much you know from being an undergrad, this is how much you need to know to succeed in this field, here is a humongous list of topics you should know before you can competently do research with me, come back to me when you're ready." But I don't think that's all he does.... I think he intimidates prospective advisees with his demeanor, and so this fact along with his reputation leads to him select students who work day and night everyday.

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    You're asking whether something is legal or not. Which jurisdiction are you talking about? Oct 9, 2016 at 10:53
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    @QuantumDot: so, does this professor let candidates know what they're getting into? Have them sign a contract that they will remain celibate or something? Or does he/she just squeeze them like lemons, to the point that nothing past their PhD work can fit into their life? What happens when a previously-single student becomes involved with somebody? While still questionable, there is a marked difference between being unreasonably demanding and specifically requiring that a candidate has no other commitments.
    – thkala
    Oct 9, 2016 at 18:34
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    The question in the title is completely different to the question in the body of your question. Your title asks whether it is legal to discriminate based on things like relationship status. The body talks about whether it is reasonable for a professor to have more substantial expectations around workload than other professors. Oct 10, 2016 at 2:09
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    This is a rant disguised as a question Oct 10, 2016 at 3:38
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    No matter how the question is phrased, the answer is still no, you cannot discriminate based on marital or other protected status in the US and elsewhere. But there's also no question that the question itself has gone through a LOT of rephrasing since it was first asked. Oct 10, 2016 at 17:26

7 Answers 7


A disclaimer: I'm not an attorney. My opinion is my own but I'll give you my sources.

Here in the US only, universities are probably not prohibited from considering otherwise protected status in admissions, c.f., Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which upheld racial preferences in admissions.

But under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, once the question becomes one of employment (e.g., they work for you and get paid a stipend) you cannot discriminate based on any of the factors you cite. You should also carefully avoid asking questions that suggest you're even thinking about it, c.f., "Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination Questions And Answers" and "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Marital Status or Number of Children" on the EEOC site.

Added: I agree with Anonymous. Even if you think you can get away with it, perhaps because it's not illegal in your country, I also think it would still be wrong.

Added: If you are the victim of unlawful discrimination in the workplace, HR is not your friend. A priori, their objective is to make sure discrimination complaints don't happen. But after the fact, their objective is to circle the wagons and make sure a complaint dies without the institution having to pay a settlement or admit that any wrongdoing has ever happened. A great outcome for HR is that you just quit and the problem goes away. From your latest performance reviews and interviews with your co-workers, it's clear you were unhappy and have been for months and it's been showing up in your work. So you quit. Poof! Problem solved. Separately, they'll figure out what to do with the others involved. If you think you may be a victim of unlawful discrimination, you should go first to your own attorney for competent legal advice, not HR.

  • This is very helpful. But if the professor is not directly hiring the graduate student, but rather the student is already hired by the university because they are on teaching assistantship/fellowship; it seems to me that these laws are not applicable, and that the professor can choose to deny a student with a family life regardless of ethical issues. Have I understood you correctly?
    – QuantumDot
    Oct 9, 2016 at 0:39
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    Don't go there. Please do not attempt to split that hair here in the US unless you're prepared to be fired if caught. And even if you are, still don't do it. If you're picking the individual and you know they're paid, you may not consider any protected status. Period. It's no different than if a manager anywhere tried arguing, the company pays this person, not me, therefore, I'm not their employer. You are and you will be held responsible. Oct 9, 2016 at 1:22
  • I didn't read through it all, but your linked court case doesn't seem to support the assertion that racial preferences are being upheld any more than in employment. This seems to be about affirmative action, which is lawful discrimination in most of the U.S. The dissenting opinion seems to center around whether the university in question did enough to prove this is lawful discrimination. According to wikipedia, some states have banned affirmative action in college admissions, so that might be relevant.
    – MichaelS
    Oct 10, 2016 at 7:31
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    – ff524
    Oct 10, 2016 at 7:44

Whether or not this is prohibited depends on where you live. In the United States, almost certainly yes (+1 to Nicole Hamilton for her answer).

My own personal belief is that what the professor proposed is wrong, whether or not it is illegal where you work. It also demonstrates an misunderstanding of how people's relationships affect their work ethic. It has not been my personal observation that single people outwork those in relationships on average. Indeed, I know people (both men and women) who are not only married but also actively raising young children, and who work incredibly hard in their discipline.

One may choose to take only those students who demonstrate talent, hard work, and/or drive. I recommend that professors do their best to judge these traits directly, rather than by how they conduct their personal lives.

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    I wonder if the professor has a boy/girlfriend, is married, doesn't come in on weekends, …?
    – clueless
    Oct 9, 2016 at 20:49
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    +1. There is no reason whatsoever that any employer, regardless of field, should discriminate based on non-work factors, e.g. personal relationships. This wouldn't fly in industry, why should it be acceptable in academia? Plain and simple, it's not! Oct 9, 2016 at 21:14

As others have pointed out, we cannot comment on the legality of such discrimination without knowing the location. However, even if it is legal, it seems like a terrible idea. Much of the following has been covered in the comments, but I just want to summarise what I see as some major false premises stated or implied in your question:

Single people have more "free time" available than those in relationships

Being single does not exclude someone from having other hobbies and interests, or from spending time on the dating scene. And indeed, it may mean that certain day-to-day tasks are more time consuming as there isn't someone else to help do the cooking, cleaning, etc. etc.

Single people are more "driven" in their work

I don't get where this comes from. I guess it's true in a few cases that some people are single because they are obsessed by their work and don't have time for relationships, but this is by no means universal. Also, someone in a relationship might be driven by the feeling that they need to support their partner/kids. Importantly, relationships can provide emotional support and stability that, if lacking, might in some cases lead to a loss of motivation.

Spending more time working is inherently more productive

I think this has been fairly well debunked. Rest and variety is very important to remaining productive.

Being in a relationship makes one a less well-rounded person

?? Why would this be the case?

Accepting a student who is currently single will ensure that they remain relationship-free for the next 4 or more years.

Is the student going to be dropped if they start dating someone 6 months into their studies?

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    "Being in a relationship makes one a less well-rounded person" "?? Why would this be the case?" That would be the case because the asker believes that "well-rounded" means the exact opposite of what it actually means. Oct 9, 2016 at 11:11
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    Re productivity, I'd just note that I regularly come up to solutions to problems while I'm out hiking, biking, skiing, &c, after spending hours or days trying to figure them out in front of the computer.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 9, 2016 at 17:28
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    Try working a knowledge worker for 65 hours a week and observe how productivity becomes negative on average after significantly less then that.
    – Magisch
    Oct 10, 2016 at 9:59
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    @Kik I'm certainly not trying to say that there aren't single people who are highly productive. I don't doubt your experiences, but equally others have mentioned their own experiences of married team members being very strong. The point is that people vary, and judging their ability and productivity by whether or not they are in a relationship is just not effective. Oct 10, 2016 at 19:37

You don't mention a jurisdiction, so I get to choose.

What you're suggesting would be illegal in Germany. In Germany, PhD students are employees. First, it is illegal in the EU to select employees based on anything other than whether they possess the skills necessary to do the job. Second, it is illegal under the EU working time directive to make somebody work more than 40 hours per week as part of their ordinary duties.

Even if it's legal in other jurisdictions, it's dumb still. The people who cope best with difficult situations are the ones who have a good support network outside work. The best possible support network is a partner. Time off is important. Relaxation is important. Your proposal is to hire only the most fragile students who will be worst able to cope (or the students who can be made most fragile and worst able to cope).

That way, supposedly, by the time they graduate, they will be very well rounded

No, by the time they graduate, they will be exclusively focused on academic research in whatever specific subfield of whatever field of whatever subject they did their PhD in. They will be lonely and have no interests outside the lab/office. That is the exact opposite of "well rounded".

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    "In Germany, PhD students are employees." All of them? I do not think so.
    – quid
    Oct 9, 2016 at 17:48
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    @quid: Interestingly, the "status of being a PhD student" is not necessarily formally defined in the first place. It can in fact be as informal as a spoken agreement between the professor and the student. At least in some fields, this usually goes along with an employement, so in those cases, the employment in one of those positions is the one formal status that best coincides with being a PhD student. But, as you say, it's field-dependent and not absolute. Oct 9, 2016 at 21:30
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    @O.R.Mapper My point is that I feel the answer is misleading in that it suggests that in Germany one has to be an employee (of a university, a professor or alike) to work on thesis/get a doctorate, which is just not the case for all I know. In many countries (of the EU and elsewhere) many a doctoral student will be an employee of a university or a similar institution. To single out Germany as "[i]n Germany, PhD students are employees" is (thus) misleading. Indeed, as you explain instead in Germany the system of writing a doctoral thesis can still be pretty informal and open.
    – quid
    Oct 9, 2016 at 22:02
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    @David Richerby, I am sorry, but you got the perectly wrong feeling about a phd student in germany. Since they are students, and not employees, they can work as much as they want, and the professor can of course put enough pressure on a phd student to do 60 hours or even more. While some (not all) phd students are indeed employed, most of them only inhibit part time jobs in the university, and often these work hours are filled with administrative stuff or teaching.
    – Dux
    Oct 10, 2016 at 6:36
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    I doubt that "it is illegal in the EU to select employees based on anything other than whether they possess the skills necessary to do the job". What about willingness to do that job, or history of failing to perform assigned tasks? Surely I could choose not to hire someone who tells me he won't do what he's told in the workplace, yes?
    – Charles
    Oct 10, 2016 at 7:02

A lot of these answers interpreted your question as "is it legal?" or "is it ethical?" or "is it beneficial to the PI/lab?".

However, let's get real here, you actually asked "is it permitted?", which is to say does it actually happen, and is it allowed to happen by the top most levels of authority in the hiring process. And the answer is a resounding 'yes'.

Of course, it goes without saying I think it's totally disgraceful, counter-productive, and most likely illegal, however, it is permitted and there's very little anyone can do about it. We had an applicant recently who was overtly gay. On paper he was fantastic, all the students who interviewed him thought he was one of the best choices out of all the applicants. Unfortunately he was not allowed to continue his PhD after the 3 month trial period, because none of the PIs wanted him. My PI said it was an awkward situation because "you never know what you're going to get from a CV. They might be a good fit for the lab, or they might be, you know, loud, draw attention to themselves, and unprofessional."

This particular guy wasn't unprofessional. If anything he was better dressed and far more respectful and tolerant than I am. What my PI was saying of course was that in the very conservative atmosphere of a research institute, his attitude really stood out, and no one running a lab wanted to take a risk on him. I appreciate i'm likely to get a lot of down votes for pointing out this hypocrisy even though I am myself against it, however ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Why do we have interviews in the first place if all the relevant information can be gained from e-mails and a CV?

  2. Why are photos required on applicant CVs?

  3. Why are people given trial periods? Surely if you don't meet your contractual obligations then you get fired. What are you assessing during the trial period that would be bad but not break contract?

And finally, ask yourself this - are there some personality types that are, genuinely, disadvantageous to hire?

Personally I think questions of ethics should be banned on academia.stackexchange because it inevitably results in the hypocrisy of "No it doesn't happen because that would be unethical!", but then you do a PhD and you see unethical situations all the time. Unethical situations that will never improve if we all insist it isn't happening.

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    – eykanal
    Oct 11, 2016 at 15:50

I can't talk strictly about the legality, but I will tell you I have seen that and much worse. I would say in my experience it is very unlikely anything would happen to the professor unless it is very brazen behavior. Universities are highly opaque and protective and will absolutely go to the mat to defend professors (example).

Grad students occupy a strange place between education and employment. Although often paid, grad students are not considered full employees by many universities (often euphemisms like "apprentice personnel" are used). Although NLRB recently ruled that grad students are employees in some sense and therefore can unionize, it is probably a legal gray area as to whether grad students are employees for other purposes. Thus rules like non-discrimination, minimum wage, wrongful termination etc may or may not apply to grad student workers and universities can very effectively navigate this ambiguity.


Morally, it is not permitted in my view. I would not permit, nor allow, it to happen in my university or institute. This community seems not to permit it (again, morally, and judging by the other answers).

Also, who comes in on weekends anyway (Unless you have occasionaly time-critical lab experiments I mean)?

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