Back to Blog
Boundaries have been loosely defined as the rules for how individuals interact in any given relationship, which may be overt or covert (Smith & Fitzpatrick, 1995). Graduate school just happens to be a petri dish for professional boundaries issues to cultivate. As graduate students, many of us have high expectations, we frequently find ourselves pulled in multiple directions with projects and daily tasks, and we tend to be achievement oriented. While this post will focus on the student-professor/advisory relationship, boundaries issues can arise among peers, colleagues, as well as family and friends outside of our programs. Boundaries among professors and advisors are particularly prone to problems due to the inherent power differential, process of mentoring and dependency behaviors (Plaut, 1993). Professional boundaries can be further categorized into several areas of relationship, including: access/availability, breadth of responsibility, and dual relationships (Lord Nelson, Summers, & Turnbull, 2004). The purpose of this article is to discuss forms of boundary violations and ways to prevent and remediate boundaries. It is my hope that readers will be able to relate to these experiences, and find ways to self-advocate and take preventative action.
Boundaries among professors and advisors are particularly prone to problems due to the inherent power differential, process of mentoring and dependency behaviors (Plaut, 1993).
During the first few years of graduate school, I was paired with an advisor that was notorious for maintaining porous boundaries with her students. Combined with my own personality traits of being a “people pleaser” (more realistically, a push-over at times), along with being generally anxious and “Type A,” I was unaware of the habits that were forming early on. When I started realizing I had fallen into the trap of giving over my agency, I made excuses for both myself and my advisor to justify these behaviors for the grander cause (e.g., “Even though I’m at my capacity for hourly requirements, I need to finish cleaning this data set because the grant depends on it.”) and martyred myself (e.g., “I’m unhappy, but I’ll feel better about myself if I make these sacrifices.”). This came at the cost of my own physical and psychosocial well-being. Along the way, I have gathered a toolbox of sorts for determining red flags for boundaries infractions. The following contains both objective and subjective signs that boundaries may need some adjustments:
When I started realizing I had fallen into the trap of giving over my agency, I made excuses for both myself and my advisor to justify these behaviors for the grander cause...
If any of these warning signs apply to a current relationship, there is hope! Although boundaries are ideally set in the beginning stages of the relationship, it is never too late to make healthy changes. The following is a list of suggestions for establishing appropriate boundaries:
Barnett, J. E. (2008). Mentoring, boundaries, and multiple relationships: Opportunities and challenges. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 16, 3-16.
Cokely, Raven. (2017, May 22). Creating healthy boundaries [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://thegradspark.com/blog/creating-boundaries-graduate-school/
Hewitt, A., & Forte, A. (2006). Crossing boundaries: Identity management and student/faculty relationships on the Facebook. Poster presented at CSCW, Banff, Alberta, 1-2.
Lord Nelson, L. G., Summers, J. A., & Turnbull, A. P. (2004). Boundaries in family—professional relationships: Implications for special education. Remedial and Special Education, 25, 153-165.
Neff, Rachel. (2015, March 12). Lines in the sand and boundaries: surviving graduate school [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://phdtalk.blogspot.com/2015/03/lines-in-sand-and-boundaries-surviving.html
Plaut, S. M. (1993). Boundary issues in teacher-student relationships. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 19, 210-219.
Smith, D., & Fitzpatrick, M. (1995). Patient-therapist boundary issues: An integrative review of theory and research. Professional psychology: research and practice, 26, 499.