During the past years of my PhD program in biology, my advisor has developed a habit of lending my service to other labs/groups for potential collaborating opportunities. In addition to helping fellow students in the lab with their projects, I've helped a handful of other labs/groups with various data analysis and statistical testing tasks that were totally unrelated to my PhD project; I rarely got anything in return other than practicing my relevant skills.

There is a lab in our department that I helped with data analysis in June. I've submitted my PhD thesis in August. This lab now came back to my advisor asking for a further work involving testing the correlation between the expressions of 200ish genes and different phenotype in 20ish RNA-seq datasets. My advisor has handed the job to me again.

It is not a small task to me, and since the submission of my PhD thesis my scholarship has stopped so I have to work to pay the bills. Also, I feel unappreciated because the other lab doesn't even know I am the person doing the job, and they will probably list my advisor as a co-author should there be a paper.

I'd like to know if I should turn down the request, even if it will potentially result in my advisor rejecting a recommendation letter? My advisor once jokingly mentioned that they are holding their recommendation letters hostage so I have to continue working for them (for free). I've done tons of unrelated and unpaid works for them and this project feels like the last straw.

  • 17
    "My advisor once jokingly mentioned that they are holding their recommendation letters hostage" -- that's unethical behavior. Even joking about it is highly unethical regardless of whether you mean it, since (as in your case) those listening may take it as a real threat. – David Ketcheson Oct 11 at 7:54
  • 11
    Get yourself listed as a co-author on any paper produced from your work. That might be the best you can hope for and might also be reasonable to them. – Buffy Oct 11 at 11:57
  • In some circumstances you can dodge out of these obligations by saying you just got hired part-time for a very lucrative position and will be getting promoted to full-time as soon as your degree clears. You would need to play off questions about your new job by saying you signed an NDA (in particular, do NOT claim to be working at a specific company). Obviously this only works if you are a good liar, and are reclusive enough that the advisor couldn't easily fact-check your vague claims. And you don't want the lie to snowball into a sitcom episode... – user45623 Oct 12 at 6:50
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Just to clarify, when you say "holding their recommendation letters hostage", do you mean that that other group would refuse to provide you a recommendation letter, or that your advisor would refuse to write you one, if you didn't do the required work?

My first advice would be to talk to your advisor, especially since your scholarship has run its course. No reasonable person would insist under the circumstances, but you should also consider that there might a misunderstanding, e.g. that your advisor feels that you benefit from such an arrangement, so an honest conversation might clear everything up. However, if the latter part of my question is the case, that goes beyond unethical and I wouldn't be surprised if your problems wouldn't matter to a person like this.

There are a few options you have. First, is to unconditionally refuse to do the assigned work and take the consequences, whatever they might be. Second, to conditionally refuse to work, i.e. you won't do it unless they compensate you for it (pay, authorship, etc.). Third, to suck it up, as you are about to graduate soon and hopefully leave that institution, it might be worth considering that this is the last time you have to do something like that.

Now, what worries me the most is the possibility that your graduation could be sidelined or delayed in order to force you to work more for them (you didn't comment whether or not that was a possibility). If that is the case, all the other options are rather useless and in comes the fourth option, that I deliberately avoided above as being the most destructive: escalate the whole thing to the higher-ups (the department level, the university level, maybe even an attorney) and hope that in some future your case will be resolved.

Based on the question, I can't gauge the scope of the corruption, i.e. is only the advisor corrupted, does the other group know that you are essentially forced to work for them, for free, does the department condone such behavior? That and the location your based at, should help you define the impact of the fourth option.

Bottom line, my advice is: get out of there as soon as you can. Make a cost-benefit analysis of your next actions. Ask yourself questions like: What would it take just to graduate? What would it take to graduate and ensure reasonable recommendations? Can I afford it (and here I don't mean just the financial part, but also the price in time, mental health, opportunities, etc.)?

  • 4
    Thanks so much for your answer. To answer your questions: 1) It is my advisor who will probably refuse to provide me with a recommendation letter if I decline the job; 2) There is no misunderstanding: my advisor doesn't give me the job believing I will benefit from it. The job falls into the area of my expertise; no other members in the lab including my advisor is able to get the job done; 3) Other labs will probably list my advisor as a co-author, without caring who actually did the job in our lab; 4) My institution is in Australia where a viva or defense is not required for PhD students. – Well_uneducated Oct 11 at 8:14
  • @Well_uneducated Thanks for the clarification. So, as I see it, you already graduated by submitting your thesis. If that is the case, what is keeping you there? Do you want to stick around for the LoR? If so, your advisor might hold that forever over your head. – user3209815 Oct 11 at 11:25
  • 2
    My thesis needs to be examined by examiners and I’ve been waiting for the outcome. I don’t go to school now, my advisor is expecting me work remotely for him. Anyway I’ve decided to tell my advisor that they can either pay me or list me as one of the co-authors. Thank you for your suggestions! – Well_uneducated Oct 11 at 11:43
  • 6
    There is absolutely no way your adviser should be asking you to do this without a pre-existing case-iron guarantee from the other group that YOU will be listed as a co-author on any paper. You should simply refuse to do anything without this. As a bioinformatician, who sees this sort of thing happening all the time, it makes me SO mad. – Ian Sudbery Oct 11 at 12:55

Very politely notify them your scholarship and RA position (or whatever it is called that requires you to do work in return for money) has ended, and offer a consulting rate to continue. Make sure there's an agreed-upon number of hours for each task, so they aren't thinking they can give you one hour of work at a time, when the emails alone take longer than that. Research in most fields doesn't happen unless there is a fountain of money behind it, so this is not as beyond the pale as it may seem from your perspective. Just be careful to make clear it is simply the economic situation of the real world (which apparently they forgot they live in) that is the issue, not that you are making these demands to be unhelpful and make them go away.

If they can't pay you, then you can offer to help someone else take over the work, for example by giving them a list of steps and answering their questions via email.

Or you can offer to help in exchange for co-authorship, but then make sure you get into the loop so it is clear to all that they are violating journal terms by not including you as a co-author. If they are dependent on your analysis for their paper at this point, they may put in a position where you are compelled by professionalism to help them finish, but of course this needs to be out in the open with a promise of at least co-authorship in return.

Everyone with valuable skills has to deal with this kind of thing. People will push until you push back. The overwhelming majority aren't necessarily as cutthroat as the occasional bad joke might imply; they just convinced themselves your time is near-worthless while theirs is precious. Clarify to them this is not the case anymore.

  • Thank you for your advice. I totally agree with your comment especially the last paragraph. Instead of simply rejecting the task, I will offer my help in exchange of a fee or co-authorship. – Well_uneducated Oct 12 at 4:11

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.