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An undergrad who's worked with me for just over a year (for course credit or for pay, depending on his preference in any given semester) presented a poster on his work with me at an event hosted by my lab. Afterwards, the student told me that he spoke to Professor B at the poster session, and Professor B suggested a project that he'd like the student to work on with him.

He had a meeting with Professor B to talk about the specifics, after which Professor B emailed me and asked whether I would recommend the student. I indicated in my response that the student is very capable and I would rather not lose him, to which Professor B responded, "He's planning on working with me for course credit next semester."

Was Professor B's behavior in this case OK?

More generally,

Under what conditions is it OK to hire another lab's student?

By "OK," I mean "not considered inappropriate behavior by the professor."

Hiring another lab's student is of course a continuum:

  • On the one hand: Student from Professor A's lab appears in Professor B's office, says "I've heard about your research and would really like to work with you." Professor B says, "Sure, I'd like that a lot."
  • On the other hand: Professor B attends event (open house, workshop, etc.) hosted by Professor A, where Professor A's student gives a talk about his ongoing research with Professor A. Professor B chats with the student after the talk, then says "You should work with me next semester."

Is either or both of these considered OK/not OK?

Does the type of student (PhD, MS, undergrad, high school student doing summer research) make a difference to your answer?

Do the terms of the student's position in either lab (earning course credit, getting paid, just getting supervision) make a difference?

Does it matter how long the student has been working with Professor A?

Should Professor B ask how Professor A feels about it before offering Professor A's student a job?


This is not an active, ongoing situation - I am not looking for advice on how to respond to Professor B, or whether I should say something to the student. (The student chose to continue his work with my lab and not to work with Professor B.) I just want to know whether Professor B's behavior was appropriate.

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In fact all these things make a difference. –  Suresh Feb 27 at 6:55
    
@Suresh I added the specific example that I'm really unsure about, but I would appreciate an answer that addresses those "things" as well –  ff524 Feb 27 at 7:20
    
Having been a grad student with options to work under different professors, I would like to champion the student's right to make his own decision based on what is best for his own interests/career. At the same time, I would also agree that basic and professional courtesy would dictate that both of them discuss the idea with you, especially if there is any vested or ongoing commitment on the students part past the end of the semester. –  brichins Feb 27 at 18:58
    
@brichins Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree completely that the student did nothing wrong - my question is only about the professor's behavior. –  ff524 Feb 27 at 19:00

2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Consider the following scenario:

I've been working with a professor for a year now, and at one of his events, I presented a poster. Another professor came up to me and started talking, and it turned out that this professor had a very interesting project related to my interests. I'm applying to grad schools in a year, and if I can get two recommendations from faculty it will really help my application. Should I work with this professor or not ?

Students have agency too. There's a lot of context and background missing in your description that Koldito alludes to. But in general students should be free to make their own decisions about their research activities and honor existing commitments that they've agreed to.

Personally, if I were Professor B, I might suggest that the student talk to you first before deciding, but it's also possible that B did that, and the student indicated that no continuing commitment existed. If I were advising the student, I'd also suggest they clear things up with you first. I might also suggest that depending on the level of interest in the project they have with you, they give you the right of first refusal.

But this exact situation has happened to me with students (twice). They worked with me for a while, and then found a topic that made more sense to them with another professor. I wished I could have convinced them to stay, but they did well with their advisors and I was on both their committees, with no hard feelings at all.

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I entirely agree with your point about the student's agency - at the time I told him that he should definitely go work with B if he is more interested in B's project, and I gave him a good recommendation to B. But from what he told me, I believe B approached him first knowing he works with me, and I'm not sure whether that's OK to do (on B's part) –  ff524 Feb 27 at 8:13
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It definitely doesn't help maintain a collegial work environment if you feel that you have to hide your students from your colleagues, and I'd feel miffed as well. In the short term, maybe it's best to talk with B about this. In the long term, all you can do is be a good advisor and assume that people who who actually want to work with you will stay with you. –  Suresh Feb 27 at 8:16
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+1 To me, the various gentleman's agreements between professors regarding who is allowed to offer what to whom often have an unpleasant touch of cartelization to them. See, when Prof. A states that he will not "steal" a student from Prof. B, what he is also saying is that the student is not allowed to choose anymore whether he would rather want to work with A or B. It has been decided for him by the agreement between A and B. –  xLeitix Feb 27 at 8:26
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@xLeitix I don't think that necessarily follows. An understanding (gentlemanly or ladylike, you pick :)) between faculty not to poach each other's students become cartel-like only if students are actively discouraged from switching. I see it more as an application of the Golden Rule. –  Suresh Feb 27 at 9:07
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@ff524 In principle I see no moral problem with doing all your recruiting at B's research open house. I am not sure how practical it will be to do your recruiting at a place where people almost by definition will already have a research job, though. Let me make clear: I understand that "don't steal from each other" agreements totally make sense for the professors. However, if applied all too extremely, they can be quite disadvantageous for the student. –  xLeitix Feb 27 at 14:08

In this particular case, there are two factors to consider.

  1. Prior to Prof. B's offer, had Student expressed an interest (or committed) to remain in your lab next semester?
  2. Prior to Prof. B's offer, had you (or anybody in your team) already invested time and effort in the specific research that Student would be doing?

If the answer to both of these questions is "no", then Prof. B is totally entitled to try and get Student into his team. We'd be talking about a student whose connection to your lab finishes, as far as anybody is concerned, at the end of this semester. So why shouldn't other people try to hire him? On the other hand, if you had already prepared this semester with this student in mind, and/or he had already committed to staying with you, things are different. Prof. B would effectively be disrupting part of your lab's work, and you should let him know that he would be. You should also tell Student that it is not good behavior to suddenly abandon a project after committing to it. If he really wants to leave you under these circumstances, it should be because Prof. B can offer him something you can't (for example, if my brightest MSc student told me "I have been accepted to this super prestigious PhD program, under the supervision of Prof. Superstar, so I'm leaving at the end of the semester", I'd be annoyed, but I'd let him go for his own benefit).

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The answer to both is yes, but how would Professor B know that? He didn't ask me before offering my student a job. –  ff524 Feb 27 at 8:05
    
True, he couldn't have known, that's why you have to tell him now. If he insists, don't relent easily, because that will weaken your position in the department. –  Koldito Feb 27 at 8:22

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