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This question is the reverse of Dealing with a PhD student reneging on an agreement to appear in social media, in which the student had agreed during interviewing to participate in social media outreach but refused to do so when hired. The top answers in the linked question sided with the student.

Suppose I'm a prospective PhD student looking for potential supervisors. I'm attracted to one professor in particular for both academic (e.g. matching research interests) and non-academic reasons (e.g. solves my two-body problem). The only problem is, he wants me to make social media videos to boost the profile of his research group. I think this is unreasonable, since doing this isn't part of the requirements for a PhD. I know I'm unlikely to enjoy doing these things as well, and would rather concentrate on my PhD.

The professor wants me to confirm both verbally and in writing that I'm willing to make these promotional videos. It's likely that if I say no, he will decline to supervise me. Is it OK to say yes, and then try to get out of making the videos?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Dec 21 '18 at 4:43
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No, this is not okay.

If you lie your way into a position you are not suited for, you will almost certainly pay for it down the line.

That's a very general rule, and I think it applies here. If you say you are willing to do X while interviewing for a PhD position and, after getting the position, you refuse to do X, then you are going to have soured the relationship with your advisor. That is a very important relationship. If you say no in the interview and you don't get the position because of it, then it's probably for the best.

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    I don't think he is not suited for the position but rather that the professor wants him to do something unrelated to the phD. I do think its similar to a boss asking women in the interview "Are you planning to have children?" Many states allowe you to lie in this situation. – Haque Dec 19 '18 at 7:55
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    @Haque This is not at all the same thing. Your example is about discrimination, OP's example isn't. This is more like if you apply for a cleaning job and the employer asks you if you can also water the plants, and then refuse to do so because you unilaterally decide that watering the plants isn't the job of the cleaning personell. – xLeitix Dec 19 '18 at 8:42
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    @Haque Every person hiring "discriminates" in the technical sense of the term - they rather hire somebody qualified than somebody unqualified, or somebody who wants to do the required job rather than somebody unwilling to do so. Discrimination, as a legal concept, is a well-defined term, and is restricted to explicitly named cases / classes (such as discrimination based on gender, religion, and a few more things). Not willing to do work that you consider unrelated to the job profile is very clearly not a case of discrimination. – xLeitix Dec 19 '18 at 9:05
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    @Haque, asking whether a candidate would be ok taking up task A (which, btw, is legal to perform and thematically related to the position they applied for) is absolutely incomparable to asking people about whether they are planning children. Not sure how anybody could compare the two. – user91479 Dec 19 '18 at 12:32
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    Asking the question itself is not typically illegal — It is in my state. – JeffE Dec 20 '18 at 3:19
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Hard No.

This isn't only unethical, it's also a really bad idea in practice.

Unethical: Every PhD position I have ever heard of requires you to do things that aren't part of the requirements to get a PhD (teach, do project work, help your supervisor with reviews, and so on). This is why you get a stipend or salary. Your prospective supervisor communicates very clearly what they expect from this position. It is not your place to decide that you would rather interpret the position differently. You are of course free to disagree with the assessment that this is important or fruitful, but then you need to raise your concerns equally clearly and upfront. Lying about it isn't ethical.

Really bad idea: You have been around this forum for a while. You must have noticed how all the truly terrible PhD experiences that people have start with a student having, for one reason or another, a bad personal relationship with their supervisor. Your prospective supervisor clearly feels very strongly about these videos, and most people care about not being lied to their face. If you now provide, in writing nonetheless, that you will help with these videos and then refuse to do so, you are running a serious risk of fundamentally breaking your personal relationship to the supervisor before it even gets a chance to develop. A few videos are surely not worth this risk.

If you decide to take this position, I suggest doing so with the mindset that you will in fact work on these videos. You don't need to be excited about it, and nobody can force you to do the best job in the world on them. Further, there is always a chance that your supervisor changes their mind on the subject, but I strongly suggest you don't take the position now with the full intend to weasel out of this task.

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    @Allure Demanding videos (without prior agreement) is very different from requiring videos (with agreement). – user2768 Dec 19 '18 at 11:35
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    @Allure It's kind of entertaining that almost all top answers on controversial questions on this site slam the OP -- even when it's the exact reverse of a question where the same occurred! But that's not logically inconsistent. Everybody can be wrong. – knzhou Dec 19 '18 at 12:05
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    @Allure Both of these things can be true at the same time. I think it is (slightly) unreasonable to demand (rather than suggest, which I think is completely fine) that a PhD student maintains a social media presence, but that makes it ok (or a good idea) to ignore it if the supervisor insists on this point. – xLeitix Dec 19 '18 at 12:23
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    @Allure In other words, even if you, me, and everybody on academia.SE agrees that a specific demand or expectation is unreasonable it still does not give you the right to lie to their face about it (and, even more, it definitely does not make doing so a good idea). – xLeitix Dec 19 '18 at 12:25
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    Another example of the irrelevant tasks (which is fairly common) is the management of the research group's website! – Roboticist Dec 20 '18 at 18:17
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Compromise

You aren't interested in social media (albeit, you should perhaps give it a try) and you don't want to devote time to it, because it will detract from other activities, such as writing papers. But, social media is a formal requirement of supervision (in this instance). So, compromise:

Agree to participate in the production of social media videos, on the basis that you'll provide background material, be interviewed, etc., rather than the production aspects. Perhaps suggest that these aspects can be delegated to an undergraduate student (who could be paid), maybe a student in media.

Also, remember that dissemination is part of research, so perhaps also offer:

To keep an open mind and be willing to take a more active role in the future.

Thereby keeping your future options open.

Do not agree to something you won't do

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    I like this approach. Bite the bullet. However, since everything will be written, I think you can negotiate: Agree to do a certain amount of videos, or to do it only for a certain amount of time (six months, one year?). I think this would be completely reasonable and would benefit both parties. – user347489 Dec 21 '18 at 12:53
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This question is a classic loaded question. You obviously want to hear the answer that it is not okay for the student in the question you linked to to behave the way they did (and by extension that the supervisor who asked the question is right to be upset about it), so you have phrased the question in a way that makes that answer the only reasonable one. As a main example, you say:

I know I'm unlikely to enjoy doing these things as well, and would rather concentrate on my PhD.

This portrays the student as a spoiled and entitled student who only wants to do things they “enjoy” and think they can have the privilege of “concentrating” on their PhD. However, everybody agrees that PhD students sometimes need to do things they don’t enjoy, and that, unless they are self-funded, they may have to do things like teaching that prevent them from fully “concentrating” on their PhD. That is not at all what the debate in the question you linked to is about. I won’t rehash that whole debate, except to say that you completely ignore the significiant privacy issues (in fact you do not explain that the student will have to appear in a publicly available video with worldwide distribution), as well as the fact that it is the supervisor in that question who comes across as entitled and borderline-abusive in wanting to force their students to participate in activities that contribute nothing to their training or professional development in order to help the supervisor’s career.

In summary, this question is not at all the “reverse” of the question you linked to. It may be worth considering on its own merits, but I think it bears little connection to the situation described there. Also, while it’s possible that the student is behaving inappropriately, that would by no means imply that it is “okay” for the supervisor to act the way they do. Another way that your question is loaded is that it implicitly assumes the premise that the supervisor’s behavior is proper, whereas (as the voting on the question you linked to overwhelmingly suggests) it is not.

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    This is a very aposite comment, but not much of an answer. – henning Dec 19 '18 at 19:11
  • Again, I'm asking the reverse of the linked question. That's it. I wrote the question the way I envisaged the situation to be. If you think this one is badly written/loaded etc., edit the question, not criticize it. – Allure Dec 20 '18 at 12:01
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    @Allure That's fair enough. I've suggested an edit that adds context that I feel makes your question more balanced. Furthermore, I was in an abusive relationship during my undergraduate studies - I have a restraining order against my ex-boyfriend for stalking, but I am deeply terrified that if he finds out where I am, he may attempt to track me down. I do not wish to disclose this to my potential supervisor, but it is why I very carefully curate my social media so that only close friends and family have any access. – user101106 Dec 20 '18 at 17:10
  • @Allure Ahh well, This edit deviates from the original intent of the post. Even edits that must make drastic changes should strive to preserve the goals of the post's owner. It seems that if you want to redirect criticism of your loaded question, you'll need a new way to do it. – user101106 Dec 20 '18 at 17:43
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    @henning: It's a valid answer to what is a rhetorical tactic by .@Allure in another discussion, rather than a question. – einpoklum Dec 21 '18 at 6:46
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Yes. If there's one thing you learn about PI management in grad school, it's that 95% of them have the attention span of a chipmunk on methamphetamines. It's always best to just say yes to stuff (especially stuff unrelated to your work) and then only worry about it six months down the line if you're asked again and have to actually consider that it's a serious request which you are expected to fulfill. Then you are free to say no, explain why, and have the argument. Your prior agreement to an off-the-cuff request is not in any way binding (any more so than the PI's prior agreement to get around to reading your thesis proposal by Tuesday, which will never happen until the thing is actually due).

It's not just ethical, it's the established standard. I would expect all PIs to understand this, and I would severely judge any PI supervising students who did not.

  • It's funny because it's true. (But not right. (But still funny.)) – henning Dec 19 '18 at 20:47
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    It's not really intended to be funny. It's kinda unreasonable to take a student and demand that they be exempt from this cultural standard which has persisted at least as long as I've been in academia, and probably dates back to Socrates. You know that the PI isn't putting any special effort in to be rock solid about meeting their promises, because that would make them a unicorn (and I don't believe in unicorns). – user101106 Dec 19 '18 at 20:51
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    From the original post: The professor wants me to confirm both verbally and in writing that I'm willing, if he cared enough to put it in writing, the professor is not likely to forget or change his mind about doing the videos. It makes no sense to take the position knowing that you have an uncomfortable conflict in store in 6 months - and one you can't win since you've already agreed in writing to do it. Sort it out now, not later when it's too late to change your mind if you really aren't willing to do the videos. – Johnny Dec 21 '18 at 3:22
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    Yeah, if there's one thing in academia that's an ironclad, irrevocable commitment, it's putting something into an email? I'll agree that the student shouldn't work with this PI, but it's mostly because the PI comes off as a crazy assistant professor and kind of a loser - not a combination that screams career-enhancer for a PhD student. There's absolutely no ethical problem here (for the student) though. – user101106 Dec 21 '18 at 15:18
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Ethically its borderline if its okay to say yes and then TRY to get out of it, but you'd have to be prepared to face the possibility that you can't change their mind and in that case you'd (ethically) have to do the videos.

More honest would be to make your misgivings clear to the professor, and hope you can find a compromise. Is there any reason why you can't do the videos, other than you think its a waste of time you wouldn't enjoy? Perhaps you have problems with anxiety or public speaking that would make it difficult for you from a mental health perspective. If you have a good reason, discuss it with the professor.

To echo what @xLeitix there is much more to a PhD than just doing your research and writing your thesis, and you are not in a position to judge what the "requirements for a PhD" are, almost all PhD requirements say something about "demonstrating good scholarship" or acting in a way that "becomes a scholar", with the interpretation of that often left to the adviser or committee. For example, no where in the requirements for a PhD does it explicitly say that work must be well documented, data open access and code version controlled, but that is absolutely a requirement for working in my lab. Many people see public outreach as an integral part of what it means to be a good scholar. In fact out reach work is a condition of many grants, perhaps even one that might fund the PhD position you are discussing.

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From an ethics standpoint, yes (but with caveats).

You have the premise: The professor is asking me something unrelated to the work in order to give me the position.

If this is the case, surely it is ethical to answer with yes as it will not impact the job. I knew a superstar professor who firmly believed that scientists should never have relationships - in his interviews, he always asked "Do you want to marry at some point?" The whole faculty, of course, advised prospective students to answer with "no". This question is, in my opinion, not different then your question.

However, there are two things to consider:

(1) Probably you don't know if making videos is relevant to the position. This is very likely! So you cannot assume your premise and therefore, you would deceive the professor (in another answer, your unwillingness to make videos is described as "you are not suited for the position). In this case, a lie would be unethical.

(2) You would damage your relationship with the professor when they find out. This is very, very dangerous -- in Academia, you really need good connections, recommendation letters to survive. So from an interpersonal standpoint, it would not be okay to lie. (For example, the superstar professor I mentioned before terminated his student's position immediately after for some bizarre reason he found out that the student was dating someone.)

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    I am sort of ambivalent about this answer. I agree that given the premise your answer isn't wrong, but the premise is so flawed that the answer is also not particularly helpful. Your "no marriage" example seems not very related to the actual situation that OP is in, and I don't like how this answer suggests that this two example is somehow the same. – xLeitix Dec 19 '18 at 8:59
  • @xleitix: I do see your point and I probably will take out this example today. However, I do not think that is premise is flawed in all cases. For many groups in my departement which I know I could safely say that making videos is completely unrelated to a PhD and I would tell friends who apply in my departement so. – Haque Dec 19 '18 at 9:03
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    If fear your argument completely rests on the flawed example; if you take it out, the argument breaks down. What remains are the caveats. – henning Dec 19 '18 at 19:01
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    The "no relationship" example is terrible because it's a clear violation of any university's ethical values, a clear case of negative discrimination, and should actually, if the real reason, end up in termination of the Professor's tenure, however good he may be, exactly as if he fired someone after finding out they were Jewish. From an ethics standpoint, it's also not true. The Professor is asking something he considers related to the job. If the OP does not think the Professor is correct, he's welcome to get another supervisor with different requirements. Lying is unethical here. – Kheldar Dec 21 '18 at 9:07
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    As to "how would videos be related to the PhD", there could be several good reasons. The most important, in my opinion, is funding. If you remember than in many universities, and for many projects, funding isn't government provided, it could well be that videos help increase the value or attraction of the research project to potential granters. It also could be that social media outreach itself is part of the research. – Kheldar Dec 21 '18 at 9:11

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