I have noticed that the relationship that I have with my professors seems somewhat more personal than teachers in high school, especially when working on research teams and other projects when we spend more time working collaboratively outside of the class room. Is it appropriate to add my professor to my FaceBook, etc?
--Walking the Line
Dear Walking the Line,
This is a personal decision that will depend on multiple factors. First, are other students “friends” with this professor on Facebook? It is often wise to take a cue from senior students, as they may have specific insights into this quandary.
You may be somewhat acquainted with your professor, but they may have strong beliefs about the duties and obligations of graduate students that you are not yet aware. Asking your colleagues may open your eyes to some of the dangers inherent in making these connections with faculty. For instance, a faculty member may be under the impression that students should be working around the clock to be successful graduate students (because that is what they did as students). If this faculty member is your friend on Facebook and sees that you actually enjoy your Saturdays, they might assume that you do not have enough to work on, and will work to remedy that “problem”. Asking colleagues who have known faculty for longer can help you to avoid such pitfalls.
Second, are you sure that you want to know the often intimate details of a faculty member’s life, and vice versa? Seeing pictures of a faculty member after giving birth, or knowing that a faculty member is now aware that your significant other cheated on you, can lead to some very awkward moments. However, if both of you are relatively conservative in your use of social media, and both maintain relatively professional pages, this may not be a problem. Of course, just like being “friends” with your grandmother or in-laws on Facebook, there are certain things that you will no longer be able to post about yourself (e.g., strong political or religious beliefs, pictures of drinking/partying).
Third, what is the basis of your relationship? If the professor is single and of the opposite sex, I would strongly warn against becoming friends on a social networking site. This is regardless of your intentions, whether they are romantic or plutonic. This decision is almost necessary, as professors are typically friends with other professors, who may be inclined to make judgments or assumptions about the nature of your relationship. These assumptions can lead to dangerous accusations and the loss of reputations, respect, or even jobs! However, if you are of the same sex and you are not concerned that being “friends” will cause issues with other faculty members, this may not be a problem.
Lastly, how does the professor feel about this type of informal relationship outside of school? If you are adamant about being friends with a professor on Facebook, it may be best to give them the option by suggesting that they befriend you on the website. In this way, the professor can choose what he/she thinks is best given the situation. If they do not reach out, you will know that they did not think it was a good idea. However, if they do, it is likely acceptable to accept the friend request.
My overall recommendation is to avoid making contact with faculty, professors, and advisors on social networking sites until you have completed your degree. Once you are no longer in the program and are at an equivalent professional level as the professor, it may be acceptable to be friends online, especially if you are moving to another university and would like to maintain professional contact with the faculty member.
As usual, every situation is unique, and you must do what feels right to you, but I do hope you consider the points I have made here. Good luck!
--René Paulson, PhD