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I’m a PhD student and I keep fantasising about my supervisor. What should I do?

He’s not even incredibly good-looking, but I just find how his mind works irresistible

Dear Roe,
I’m a female PhD student entering my second year of research, and I have a problem. I’m completely obsessed with one of my supervisors. He’s unbelievably brilliant, just mind-blowingly smart, and he’s also charming and funny and is so inspiring. He’s not even incredibly good-looking, but I just find everything about how his mind works irresistible, and I keep fantasising about being with him.

I’ve tried to invite out him to a few things, not explicitly as a date, but in a “That concert/exhibition looks really interesting, I’d love to go – do you like that band/that artist?” kind of way. He’s never said yes, but he always acts enthusiastic to see me, and I’m wondering if he’s even allowed to socialise with me?

I’ve tried to find out the university’s official policy on relationships between supervisors and PhD students and couldn’t – I gather it’s frowned upon but I’m not sure it’s explicitly forbidden.

The whole situation is driving me crazy and I don’t know if I should just ask him if he’s interested or try get a new supervisor – which would be hard and complicated as my field of research is very specific. Help!


Stop harassing your supervisor, immediately. Yes, I said harassing. Trust me, your attempts at asking him out are not subtle – because people in the throes of an obsessive crush never are. Repeatedly asking out a person who has never expressed any romantic or sexual interest in you is harassing them – and you’re doing it to someone in their workplace, where they have to frequently interact with you.

You’re also jeopardising your own research and degree by creating an uncomfortable environment with a person who may be uniquely qualified to help you, whose expertise and guidance is a great asset that you risk losing by pursuing your feelings in this way.

And look, I empathise with your crush. It’s easy to become attracted to authority figures, especially those in positions of education or mentorship where they are not only giving you attention, but treating you and your ideas with respect and excitement. Meeting someone who shares a passion of yours, who can open your mind to new ideas, who believes in your talent and encourages you to create work that you are proud of – these are beautiful experiences.

His response – politely refusing your date requests, remaining enthused about your work, keeping your relationship professional – is the right thing to do

So of course it’s easy to confuse these kinds of relationships; easy to mistake an intellectual or creative connection with a romantic or sexual attraction. Because what is romantic love but being inspired by someone, and watching them be inspired by you?

But there is a difference. Your supervisor is not interested in you romantically or sexually and has given you no reason to think otherwise. He acts enthusiastic to see you because he is your supervisor. It’s literally his job to be invested in your work together. And even if he were interested in you – which, again, he is not – acting on that attraction would be risking his professional reputation and career, and would be jeopardising your research and career path.

Acting on this hypothetical attraction would be an act of utter selfishness, and so either way, his current behaviour – politely refusing your date requests, remaining enthused about your work, keeping your relationship professional – is the right thing to do. Meet him there. Meet him with that level of respect and professionalism.

Something that may help you get some control over your feelings for your supervisor is to harness them constructively, and use them to fuel your work. There’s a power in having admiration for someone you work for or with; that admiration can inspire you to remain engaged and excited, to push yourself and keep impressing, to find energy and pleasure in work that otherwise could be draining.

Finding your professional and educational relationships pleasurable isn’t a bad thing – on the contrary, many educators are aware of this power, and use it to fuel their passion for teaching.

Feminist critic Regina Barreca wrote in her 1997 book, The Erotics of Instruction, "Often we translate our desire into the love of a subject, or the text, or the way the light hits a four o'clock window in a November classroom."

Academic and critic Shoshana Felman has also written about how the teacher-student dynamic can productively harness the emotional energy that this relationship can create, writing that "teaching, like love, becomes a performance of promising, an act of commitment, and indeed engages desire and pleasure". And academic Jose Esteban Munoz has written about the commitment and love that teaching requires – the dedication that teaching takes, and the pleasure that can be enjoyed from a fulfilling, educational relationship.

You're probably surrounded by smart, interesting people. It's time to do some fieldwork and explore the possibility of other crush-worthy people on campus

Try to focus on and appreciate these elements of your relationship with your supervisor – how your mutual respect and commitment to working together intellectually inspires and motivates you. By acknowledging these feelings and directing them constructively, you may find that your sexual desire for him begins to wane, as your feelings don’t all accumulate in the ‘Sexy Forbidden Love’ cavern of your brain.

And why not use this newfound knowledge about yourself – the knowledge that you deeply appreciate intellectual curiosity, mutual respect and creative inspiration – to help you find a more suitable romantic interest? As a PhD student, you’re probably surrounded by smart, interesting people. It’s time to do some fieldwork and explore the possibility of other crush-worthy people on campus. Just make sure your data collection focuses on appropriate research participants this time.