Valentine’s day is here and love is in the air. Although one might feel isolated from the rest of the world being stuck in the lab all day, researchers are people too, and people develop feelings for each other.
Romantic relationship in lab can take many forms between mentors, postdocs, grad students, lab techs and undergrads. Some relationships are thought of as taboo, while others can be beneficial both at work and at home.
When we think of “taboo” of relationships in the lab, usually what comes to mind is one that’s between a mentor and a student. It certainly does happen and sometimes they work out beautifully.
A relationship between a mentor and a student does not have to have a large age gap. A very successful researcher on the fast track starts grad school at 22, get a PhD at 26, do three years of postdoc and could land a professor position before they are 30 years old. On the other hand, there are those who spend 6 or even 8 years getting a PhD. Many times, the mentor or principle investigator is not the oldest person in the lab.
The main issue of dating in the lab comes from conflicts of interest. Lab politics can be complicated enough as it is without bringing romance into the picture. For example, a mentor’s decision on who gets the most promising project, who gets credit for the most exciting results, and who gets first author on publications may be influenced by personal feelings. But is it possible to be objective when making such decisions?
Many decisions involving conflicts of interest is not only about giving someone preferential treatment because they are better liked; it’s also about expectations. Say you are a mentor who doesn’t give their significant other the more promising research project, would there be resentment and disappointment that affect the relationship or would the person understand you are making an objective decision for the good of the whole lab? For any romantic relationship to succeed in the work place, not just between mentor and mentee, it is important to work out expectations early on to avoid the stress of disappointments.
With clear expectations, romantic relationships in lab can actually be good in many ways. For one, it is common for researchers to spend late nights and weekends in the lab. For you to spend these long hours with someone you love, who understands the project that you are dedicating your life to can be a very positive force. Instead of being stressed about work-life balance, being supportive partners both at work and at home can make life easier. As long as it’s done fairly, the collaboration and sharing of responsibilities, workloads, and ideas are beneficial to both parties.