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I'm attending the thesis defense of one of my undergrad mentors this week. I owe almost everything about where I am today to him. I want to get him a gift, but I'm not sure what. He owns his own business, so a gift card seems pointless when he won't be short of money. I have never seen him eat or drink anything, EVER, so I'm not sure what kind of candy or food would be appropriate. He's a guy, so flowers are out.

We did have a shared love of a certain book series, but I already got him one of those for a Christmas gift and I feel like it might be weird to get another one again.

His thesis is something pretty abstract—even the name of the project has no real-world analogue. So a "cute" gift related to his thesis would be tough to come up with.

Also I'm a girl, if that matters, and I don't want to give him anything that would be creepy/weird/over-the-top with the gender difference taken into account.

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    Something for his office? Many researchers never take the time to decorate their offices; if he's one of those, it probably wouldn't be imposing to give him a nice picture or set of bookends or something. I've always wanted a cactus on my window sill, but never taken the time to go shopping for one :-) – cag51 May 6 at 17:50
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    I have received several ties from students over the years... – Solar Mike May 6 at 19:27
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    A bottle of whiskey to celebrate his defense ! – YYY May 6 at 22:19
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    *reads last sentence of question* *looks at username* Clever girl. – Ian Kemp May 7 at 11:40
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    Why are flowers out? – user2768 May 7 at 12:20
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A short (1-2 paragraph) hand written note on a card or postcard would be an appropriate gift.

I have mentored about a dozen undergraduates and I still have the thank you notes they sent to me on my pin board in my office. The notes are nice reminders about the impact I had on the students.

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    +1. I have a desk drawer full of these notes. I dig them out and read a few when I get grumpy with my job. – Randall May 7 at 1:56
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    All right, I will do this. I didn't know if it would be weird to write a note like that given the gender difference. I'm very socially awkward lol. Anyway I'll probably do that and get a cactus or something for his desk. I actually make cards pretty well so that could also be a nice touch. – ribs2spare May 7 at 14:09
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    @ribs2spare I've gotten notes like this from undergraduates and graduate students of both genders and definitely never found it weird (nor suggestive of anything but professional appreciation of mentorship); if anything, the notes from other men are more unusual only because in my experience women have been more thoughtful about this sort of thing. Certainly nothing weird about writing a note for you to worry about. – Bryan Krause May 7 at 16:17
  • One thing I would consider adding is perhaps a digital version of the same or similar note that they could add to their CV, as an indicator of their experience mentoring. – Gavin May 8 at 6:29
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    @Randall I'm glad I'm not the only one with a "smile file" – corsiKa May 9 at 15:11
64

Actually, the thing that would be most appreciated - and valued - is a hand written letter on nice stationery giving congratulations and thanking him for his help in your own work.

Short, professional, sincere.

He will save it forever.

5

It is fairly typical for a student to give a thank you gift to their mentor when finishing. These gifts cause minor issues:

Is it ethical to accept small gifts from students?

Is it appropriate to buy a "thank you" gift for a PhD supervisor?

but you are not talking about a thank you gift, but rather more of a congratulations gift (e.g., like a wedding or baby gift). These are also awkward and the general advice is a group gift

Advisor's wife is having a baby, should we be getting him something?

Advisor getting married, should grad students chip in for gift?

Thinking about this in light of you having given a Christmas gift

Is it appropriate to give university lecturers Christmas cards?

makes me think this is all very weird. I would not want a congratulatory gift (especially one of any monetary value) from an individual student. If he is a mentor of a number of students, or works in a lab with other doctoral students, maybe you can take part in a group gift/card. I would avoid doing anything as an individual. This becomes especially true if you have not graduated yet.

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    It seems to me from the question that this was a former advisor of the student ("one of my undergrad mentors" and "I owe what I am today to him"). So while the OP is still obviously an academic junior, it seems that she is attending the defence as a (hm, what's the correct way to express this) friendly professional connection, i.e. former student keeping in touch professionally and showing support to his work by attending. So I don't actually think any of the cases you mention cover the situation from the question, at least according to my interpretation of the question. – penelope May 7 at 13:03
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    Yes penelope, you hit the nail on the head with this. That's exactly the situation I was trying to describe. – ribs2spare May 7 at 20:11
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    It's not the metored person who's graduating, but rather the mentor; and there is no relation of authority between them AFAICT. So I don't believe your links apply. Agree with @penelope – einpoklum May 8 at 8:17
5

This is culturally dependent. You should follow local cultural norms.

When I was in Sweden, the PhD candidate would, after their successful PhD defence, organise a party, with typically between 30 and 50 people invited, such as family and friends from the office and outside. If they were supervising a few undergraduate students, they would probably invite them. At such parties, it was entirely common that people would bring gifts, which would all be placed on a table. If such a party exists and you are invited, by all means bring a small gift, similar to what you would bring if invited to a birthday party. I received food, books, souvenirs, and a few joke presents.

However, if such a party does not exist or you are not invited, and such gifts are unusual in your location, then it may be more appropriate to stick with a card such as suggested in other answers.

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    If I had any grasp or intuition for "local cultural norms" I probably wouldn't be here... – ribs2spare May 7 at 20:12
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    @ribs2spare Then you may need to ask someone within your institute, as this can be very locally dependent. – gerrit May 7 at 22:28
2

Ask him for advice about buying wine. If you actually get advice, use it to select a nice bottle for him. If demurs about the wine advice, make a gift to the university in his name. They'll send a nice card and won't mention the amount.

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    Sure the OP can choose a better card than the university will... They will probably send someone who has never even met the academic concerned... – Solar Mike May 6 at 19:05
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    Possibly. Generally, the Office of Development, or whatever the fundraisers are called, has a supply of cards with something evocative of the University itself... bell tower, old library, etc. – Bob Brown May 6 at 20:02
2

One gift that is often really appreciated is a nice pen. Not a cheap one, but a fancy one, in a nice box. In some cultures it is the habit to not buy it yourself, but to wait until someone offers it to you. You can get them from 50-200USD.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7b/Fountain_pen_writing_%28literacy%29.jpg/1200px-Fountain_pen_writing_%28literacy%29.jpg

2

I agree that it's culturally dependent, but in many cultures, you could bring sweets or something else that's edible, for after the thesis defense. I would personally consider chocolate from a higher-quality brand. It's not something of great value, but it's not something you'd just by at the corner kiosk; it is associated with some level of affection, but - unless you buy a heart-shaped box - it won't be construed as romantic. Most people (in my experience) like it, but at the same time it's acceptable not to open and have it right away if they don't want to.

As for a thank-you letter - that may be appropriate in general, but I don't see how that relates to that mentor's thesis defense in particular. Perhaps a congratulatory card which also has a couple of thank-you lines would go well with the chocolate though.

PS - Chocolate is also kind of a generic gift. It might well be better to get something which would be specifically appreciated by your mentor. But this answer is intended for other readers as well...

0

A nice matted and (optionally) framed photo of the city/town in which the university is located (e.g. from a local photographer) might be a nice gift, especially if it has an iconic skyline or downtown. This is even if the mentor doesn't plan to continue in the same city, because he still spent a number of years there and it had an impact on his life. It's also a nice relatively neutral item that can help decorate a future office.

In addition, +1 to Richard Erickson's answer about a thank-you/congrats card with a paragraph or few from you.

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Contact the school and find out the dimensions of the diploma. Then purchase a frame and matting so that he can hang it nicely in his office.

This is totally appropriate and specific to the occasion.

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    No, please, no. A lot of people would never hang their diplomas anywhere (e.g. I threw my diplomas in some long forgotten cabinet...) – Massimo Ortolano May 7 at 14:44
  • @MassimoOrtolano Well, I got my high school diploma framed after a successful doctoral dissertation defense. Sadly, diploma and frame are in a closet. – Bob Brown May 7 at 16:01
  • @cag51 Your reading of the question is not the same as mine. If I understand it correctly, the present is for the OP's former mentor, and this mentor is just now defending his thesis (presumably his Ph.D. thesis). In particular, the mentor is not a professor (yet). – Andreas Blass May 7 at 19:32
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    ohhh, yes, you are right. Thanks for pointing that out. – cag51 May 7 at 19:40
  • In this case, I would just be concerned about whether he already has plans to have it framed, or wants it framed a certain way. – cag51 May 7 at 19:41

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