Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is it okay to have a relationship in the lab?

When I say relationship I’m not talking about your average mentor-mentee relationship here, but I’m talking about intimate-living together-type of relationships. Let me start by saying that I met Dr. BrownEyes in the lab where we both did our PhD work, so maybe you would think that I would answer this question with ‘YES’, but I don’t. Because at that same university there was more than one PI that had a relationship with his grad student and I surely think that that is not okay.

There are three types of relationships between people in the lab, with in my opinion various stages of acceptability.

First, let’s talk about two people at the same ‘level’ (so two grad students, two technicians or two post-docs) having a relationship. As I said before, I’ve been there, because Dr. BrownEyes and I started dating when we met in our PhD lab. I think this is okay, as long as it doesn’t bother other people. We made sure not to be annoyingly close in the lab, and we also made sure not to be talking about work too much when we were at home. Luckily, our graduate advisor worked on a whole bunch of different topics, so we had different daily advisors, and we made sure to both go our own way by moving on to post-doc positions in different labs and work on different topics. Even though I think it is okay to have a relationship with someone from the same ‘level’, I wouldn’t necessarily advice it to other people. In my current lab, a rotation student had a relationship with a grad student, and I actually advised him to go to a different lab, because I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to spend the next 4-5 years in the same lab as your significant other. (He didn’t follow that advice though, so now they are both working in our lab).

The second option is when a PI has a relationship with one of the people in his or her lab. This is what happened in my PhD University; the PI started dating his graduate student, and to make matters even worse, she stuck around and to this day still works in his lab as an associate professor (the system in Europe is different, and one full professor will head a lab with multiple assistant/associate professors). Yes, it is weird that this is even allowed and it happens more than once at that university. I think this is just wrong on many levels, because even if the PI will not favor his significant other, people will think that that happens, and that the significant other did not get her position because of merit.

The third option is when two PIs have a relationship and run both of their labs together or have one lab together. Even though Dr. BrownEyes and I like to talk about work every now and then, and ask each other’s opinions about ideas, papers and grants, I cannot imagine running a lab together on a daily basis (running a household together sometimes already stretches our ability to not become too annoyed by the other person). However, there are examples of people who successfully run a lab together, and during my Master’s I’ve worked in one of those labs. I think this is okay, although when 2 people that live together argue during labmeeting, it does make the rest of the lab feel like kids in the back seat when their parents are having an argument…

So what do you think: is it okay to have a relationship in the lab?


  1. DrugMonkey commented on twitter yesterday saying that it is unacceptable in any case to have a relationship in the lab.

  2. Any PI who has a relationship with anyone in their lab is a grade A narcissistic asshole. I would go further and say that any PI who has a relationship with any grad student in the program, is being negligent of their role in the graduate program. Even in the "best" scenario when things don't end poorly for everyone involved, there are a bunch of conflicts, both real and imagined.

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  4. Sure its easy to condemn that, but I know many people who have dated within the lab (Grad with grad, Postdoc with grad, postdoc with postdoc, PI with Postdoc, PI with grad) and ended up marrying said other person and have been married for a long time. I would never stop two people from having a relationship for "political reasons". I mean these are two consenting adults! Of course when theres a power differential then folks have to be careful to separate personal from professional issues, which is difficult. But nowhere does it say it can't be done. And it is silly to make blanket statements like those of DM and PlS.

  5. I have been an outside observer to relationships in the lab (always peers, never subordinates). My impression is that the lines between personal and professional issues are NEVER clear. It's hard to avoid making friends and developing feelings towards people that you spend so much time around, but in every case that I have encountered, there was a negative aspect to the research and moral of the groups surrounding the romance.

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