I'm a PhD student. A professor that I collaborate with (not from my university) asked me on two separate occasions to help with grants that were due in a week. In both cases I managed to squeeze out 20 hours to help him, and he paid me out of his own pocket (not using grant funds).

How can I tactfully ask the professor to bring requests to me earlier in the future? I guess one way is to simply decline future requests that I cannot handle. But I want to preserve goodwill when possible - I could quote him an insane hourly rate if he again approaches me at the last minute, but some people might view that as me taking advantage of the situation, even though it's not my fault that he approached me so late. (The rumor mill can always turn white into black.) The best solution, in my opinion, is to successfully persuade him to approach me early.

  • Would it help if he alerted you a couple of weeks earlier, saying for example, "Can you help me during the week of April 23?" Apr 23, 2018 at 1:35
  • Yes, that's precisely what I'm asking. Like if his grant is due on May 22, ask for help on April 22 (today).
    – wwl
    Apr 23, 2018 at 1:38
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    Sorry, I don't understand your answer to my clarifying question. If I were in your shoes, I would want a heads-up. That is, I would want some advance notice, so that I wouldn't have my own deadlines and this collaborator's sudden deadline all raining down on me at the same time. I would want the collaborator to look at his calendar and notice that he will need me to do a rush job starting April 23 (as an example). I'd want him to tell me that by April 16 (or preferably earlier), so that I'd have this rush job on my radar screen. However, for some people, that wouldn't be enough of ... Apr 23, 2018 at 1:43
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    ... a solution. They would want to receive the draft by April 16, so they could spread the work out over two weeks (that's also an example). Or, so they could put in more time, so as to feel more confident that the writing and editing (etc.) they are doing is solid work. Because reading and writing frantically is very stressful. So I'm asking which of those two changes is what you need. Apr 23, 2018 at 1:44
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    Wanting to preserve goodwill is commendable. However, if this has now happened not once, but twice, you may want to ask yourself how much this particular individual's goodwill is worth. You have reinforced this professor's lack of planning twice by saving his hide, and you get more of what you reward. Do not be surprised if he does not change. After all, it has worked for him twice now. Apr 23, 2018 at 11:24

2 Answers 2


Channeling JeffE, just ask him directly, as if he were human.

I was glad to be able to help with the grant proposal. But if something like this comes up again in the future, would it be possible for you to give me a few weeks of advance notice? That will help me arrange my schedule to make space for the work and avoid conflicts with my own teaching / research / dissertation / etc.

However, my guess is that prior to asking you, he thought that he could handle it all by himself and wouldn't need any help from you. He probably found at the last minute that he couldn't, and had to scramble to look for help from anyone who could give it. So if this is how he tends to operate, such a request may not help too much. But at least it will be a nudge in the right direction.

  • +1. Professors are human beings, treat accordingly.
    – Fomite
    Apr 23, 2018 at 21:35
  • Also: this is the kind of request that is probably better handled in person or on the phone, instead of by email.
    – aeismail
    Apr 23, 2018 at 23:27
  • @aeismail: I guess that's a matter of personal style, and maybe anything you already know about the recipient. Myself I wouldn't hesitate to do this over email. Apr 23, 2018 at 23:46

"I like helping you, but I've got a very busy schedule. It is hard for me to meet the time demands of a grant proposal on such short notice. If I get these last minute requests, I might not be able to make time to help you in the future. If you give me more warning, say a month or so, scheduling shouldn't be an issue."

1) Doesn't blame the professor

2) Makes it clear that only the timing is an issue

3) Puts the problem on you so it doesn't seem like you're blaming him

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