I am doing a MS thesis in an engineering lab and I am fully funded by my advisor (tuition waiver plus stipend). We are a small lab and my professor is aiming for tenure. I am ahead of schedule and almost done with my thesis.I am good at programming and completed the project in 3 weeks (my professor thought it would take at least 3 months). Now, my professor is asking me to work on other things which involve developing apps for her other projects. I have protested by saying I am an GRA and I should only be concerned with my thesis project and my work in all other large projects in the lab should be at my discretion.

My advisor replied that I am pretty lucky to work for her since other professors have graduate students who work on 5 projects simultaneously (which of course is load of crap, I have other friends working in other labs who only work on their thesis). The other time I protested, my advisor said that since I am supposed to work 40 hours a week in lab, the project should be completed within 2 weeks easily. (These projects which my advisor wants me to do require some 80 hours of programming sometimes since I first need to learn the language and then write code for it). It's not that I don't want to develop apps, but I am more interested in writing journal papers for IEEE with deadlines in November, and I need all the time I can for that endeavor. I raised this issue but my advisor said that getting accepted in IEEE is remote, so I should concentrate on writing apps since there is a very good chance for her to get funded if I develop them.

I know that even if I refuse development, my advisor might throw a fit but my GRA will be intact because no advisor fires a student who is about to complete thesis. Also, I had asked my advisor if she would be interested in helping me with getting a PhD after thesis and she flatly said no. The advisor said I should probably go back to industry and work for 3-4 years and then decide on PhD. It seemed more like an excuse to make me get out of the lab. So it's pretty obvious there is no chance of a long-term relationship with my advisor.

I am trying to understand what are the other job responsibilities of an MS student doing thesis? There is no chance of working with my advisor after MS, so why should i work on her projects? I can very well try to get some journals papers published as it might help in getting a PhD admit elsewhere, or should I just develop her apps because I work in her lab?

Edit: There are 3 people in my lab now (2 MS students and one PhD student), but I am the only programmer.

  • 2
    As a practical matter: You will eventually need a strong recommendation letter from your current advisor. Her letter will likely have more impact on your PhD admission chances than an IEEE paper. Digging in your heels now may not be the most effective way of getting that letter.
    – JeffE
    Aug 22, 2013 at 3:34
  • hear hear! In addition, take the (paid) opportunity to go beyond your project, get a better letter of reference and possibly a publication in the deal.
    – user67075
    Jan 22, 2017 at 18:27

2 Answers 2


tl;dr Your adviser is not wrong. There are plenty of additional responsibilities and duties of maintaining a matured lab affiliation even as a MS student.

I think you went about it a wrong way. A little hill out of a molehill has been created.

Being a GRA in a lab does not mean that the buck stops with your thesis research. I am a member in a medium sized lab based in a ECE department. Typically, we have 4-6 graduate students, 1-2 post docs and a gaggle of undergraduate and masters students at most given times.

My Responsibilities:

  1. Thesis research. This is primary and takes up most of my time.

  2. Collaborative research with another graduate student. This is my secondary project and takes up a little bit of my time.

  3. Giving talks in the lab about our works in progress.

  4. Guest lecturing for my adviser in his courses when he is away.

  5. Mentoring REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) students when they come in summer.

  6. Mentoring undergraduate and masters students from my own university in their own and lab projects.

  7. Helping other lab members out with analysis - typically quantitative and some qualitative.

  8. Reviewing articles written by other lab members.

  9. Social engaging with lab members and lab visitors.

  10. Designing presentations for lab funding reports and reviewing said reports.

I am sure I have forgotten a few more "responsibilities" but I can assure you that my work does not begin and end with just my own thesis research. It sounds like a lot but I can assure you that it really isn't and the situation is quite typical for my university and department. I have an excellent work-life balance. Now, I am a PhD student but once upon a time, I was a MS student and I had similar responsibilities.

The situation you describe is not atypical. I have seen folks in labs (which develop apps as a stepping stone to doing research) spend a lot of time actually developing the app. You are right. It takes time. Being a member of the lab means contributing to projects which are not just your own. It is a team effort.

Your adviser has actually given you a sanity check in terms of getting a PhD admit and in terms of what other graduate students usually do. Getting a paper accepted in a prestigious IEEE transaction is quite a considerable effort and takes a long time. It seems to me that your adviser does not feel that your research will be accepted into such a venue. I also think you hit a nerve somewhere when you argued about quantum of hours and projects to be worked upon according to your GRA deal. It doesn't work like that. You are not a unionized worker.

Research takes as long as it takes.

  • What do you mean by "sanity check" in terms of getting a PHD admit?
    – james234
    Aug 21, 2013 at 22:47
  • 1
    Advisers generally give you hints about what they expect from a PhD student. We just had a REU student who was good, but not great in technical abilities. My adviser basically told him that if he brushes up on his technical abilities then he has a chance here. In order to brush up, he has to do something worthwhile like doing well in equivalent courses or appropriate work experience. It seems as if your adviser is telling you something similar.
    – Shion
    Aug 22, 2013 at 2:47
  • i will be honest with you, since there is no reason in obscuring facts. I am the only programmer in my lab and i do all the app development for my research and other 2 GRAs.And we get funding based on those apps.My adviser asked me to go to industry.When i pushed her more ,she asked me to find an professor who has "just started". Well , my adviser herself started in 2012. So this is pretty insincere coming from her.
    – james234
    Aug 22, 2013 at 2:52
  • 1
    @james234 your supervisor clearly valued you enough to ask you for your assistance, and no doubt input in the interviews. You refused - of course she is going to be disappointed! The other students stepping up are of course going to be in favour - for helping out on a weekend and for stepping up when you refused. It seems that your actions in this instance at least have cost you any chance of the PhD opportunity.
    – user7130
    Aug 22, 2013 at 7:22
  • 2
    @james234: Academia is not always slave labor. Not all advisors are created equal!
    – aeismail
    Aug 22, 2013 at 10:19

The way that I view my GRA position is that the university is paying your tuition and stipend. There is expectation is that you will provide labor that will contribute to their projects. It's a pretty good deal- you get an education with a mentor in exchange for work that hopefully you are interested in. I would expect them to think of you as an employee. At this stage, you work for someone and they tell you what they need and you do it. It takes time and effort to mentor you, make sure you contribute everything that you can while you are there.

  • My role as GRA is to do research and i will do research as long as it benefits me and since thesis is research , the Univ. will fund as long as i am doing thesis. Now ,i can either work for my advisor on her project or try to publish . Since i am enrolled full time ,i can only do one of them(develop apps or write journal papers) at a time.
    – james234
    Aug 22, 2013 at 2:38
  • Now if i am successful , both of them will benefit my advisor .An app will get her funding and a journal in IEEE will help her in getting tenure ,although writing an app is much easier. But for me, writing a journal paper is far more beneficial since it will help on my phd application. Now how is writing an app going to be beneficial? I am an GRA but at same time i am not a mindless worker willing to toil on anything that people will ask me to do.
    – james234
    Aug 22, 2013 at 2:42
  • @james234 your advisor's reference will also greatly influence your PhD chances as well.
    – user7130
    Aug 22, 2013 at 7:26

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