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Some Context: Over the past year, I have built relationships with 2 of the professors at my university. In this case, I was referred to Professor X by Professor Y. The professors work in two related fields (physics) and are friends.

I worked with Professor X on some of my research a few months ago and it went well. Professor X is allowing me to help him with his lab research over the summer and I am honored to do so. Of course, it would not be an every day thing and we will be working out a schedule.

Consequently, I spoke with Professor Y about a summer spot before starting my research with Professor X. Nothing was formalized here and I haven't spoken to Professor Y since beginning my research. However, I am very interested in helping Professor Y in her lab this summer.

My Question: Would it be seen as poor taste to ask Professor Y about helping in her lab this summer? In my email I would explain that I would also be working with her colleague.

I don't want to jeapordize my position or my relationship with either one of them, so, would it be considered "double-dipping" to help with both of them? If it is, would this have any adverse effects?

One option would be to ask Professor X if he would be alright with this. I am not sure about this option because again I don't want to put our relationship on weird terms.

This is undergraduate level, in the UK.

  • How much time would you spend in each lab if you worked in both simultaneously? How does that compare to the amount of time you would spend in just Professor X's lab alone if you did not work with Professor Y? – Bryan Krause Apr 19 '19 at 15:04
  • @BryanKrause I have not worked out hours with Professor X yet, however, I will be talking with him about that this upcoming week. – abek788888 Apr 19 '19 at 17:39
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This shouldn't be a problem. The professors aren't your employers who demand 100% of your time - they might not even be paying you - so they are not likely to expect you to commit to their lab and their lab only (it'd also be unreasonable if they expect this). Meanwhile by working in two labs you're maximizing your exposure, which can only be a good thing for you.

The only serious consequence I can see from this arrangement would be that you might not be able to commit enough time to actually achieve something substantial. If you aren't going to get any real research done in both labs, you might as well commit to one lab only.

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In my opinion, you are overthinking this. As long as you are clear with both professors and work out a schedule that works for everyone, it should be fine. I have seen many students that work in two or more labs either as an hourly job or just for the experience.

One thing I want to emphasize is that do not overcommit yourself. Nobody likes a person who fills up their plate too much that stuff starts to fall over. So make sure you have the time to do perform in both labs. Otherwise, commit to one lab and give your best to that one. However, if you can do both it will be good for you to develop skills in time management, collaboration, and communication.

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I think a lot depends on your position with Prof. X.

  • If this is really "research", then it should require essentially unlimited time -- the more time you put in, the further you will get. In this case, even asking about working with Prof. Y shows that you don't understand this. While this may seem harsh, the fact is that hiring undergraduates is usually less efficient than doing the work oneself, so it rarely makes sense to hire a student that is intentionally reducing their productivity even further by working in two labs. That said, you are an undergraduate, so you should be able to ask Prof. X about what's appropriate without consequences.
  • But this may not be really "research." You mention a "schedule" and that it won't be every day -- maybe this is more like an hourly labor position ("lab tech")? In this case, I see no reason why you couldn't tell Prof. X that you're looking for another position on your off-days...this would limit your freedom to accept additional work in Prof. X's group, should the opportunity arise...but maybe that's worth it to explore Prof. Y's group.

Edit: Leaving this up, despite the downvotes...while it would be nice if every undergraduate could work in dozens of groups before committing to a sub-field, the fact is that undergraduate research assistants take a lot of the supervisor's time and produce relatively little, so it just makes no sense for the supervisor to hire undergraduate research assistants that are intentionally dividing their limited time among multiple groups. As I said, the situation is completely different for "lab tech" type positions.

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    even asking about working with Prof. Y shows that you are not terribly committed to this researchStrong downvote. This attitude is toxic and dangerous. People can actively and significantly contribute to a research project without committing 40 (or 120) hours a week. And at least in my own field, I would argue that it's more beneficial in the long run to work on more than one research project at once. – JeffE Apr 19 '19 at 13:29
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    @JeffE - Thanks for the comment, but I disagree. No one is saying that they need to work 40-120 hours per week. But hiring undergraduate students to help with research (not just 'lab tech' work) is usually a losing proposition because they start at such a low level and have so many time commitments (classes, etc.). If they are additionally splitting their efforts among multiple labs, it's just not worth the supervisor's time. And regardless of whether you disagree with the concern, many professors (possibly including Prof. X) will share it. – cag51 Apr 19 '19 at 14:39
  • What? No, working in one lab does not promise your entire intellectual capacity and time to that group. Presumably, the OP and Prof. X will reach an agreement over how many h/wk they will work together. What OP does with the rest of their time is no one's business. "Prof. X might offer you more hours, which you won't be in a position to take" This goes for many things, such as getting an external job. Since when does working 10 h/wk for someone mean you have to keep the other 30 free in case they offer you more? – Azor Ahai -- he him Apr 19 '19 at 17:14
  • @AzorAhai - I'm shocked this has proven so controversial. Yes, if I hired a lab tech or coder, then I don't care what they do "off the clock." But if I hired an undergraduate-level research assistant, I would expect them to give me as many hours as possible -- which is usually not very many, maybe 15 during the academic year and 30-40 over the summer. Otherwise it's just not worth my time. RE the part you quoted -- yes, I specifically said "giving up these speculative opportunities for the concrete opportunity...is maybe a good trade", I was just pointing out one potential downside. – cag51 Apr 19 '19 at 17:18
  • Then you should clarify your answer is assuming OP is planning on working full-time for Prof X. – Azor Ahai -- he him Apr 19 '19 at 17:20

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