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I will be in a PhD program in Germany in which the first year of the program consists of only studying courses under several different professors.

Some people suggested me that I should give gift to the professors with whom I had interview with at the beginning of my PhD. Should I do it? Would it be misunderstood as bribing?

  • 41
    You could give a few snacks from your home country to the group (it is not uncommen that there is a joint coffee break). – lalala Jun 3 at 14:19
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    lalala's suggestion is nice because it's polite and warm, but doesn't give the impression of giving a gift to one person on whom one will be dependent. – Mars Jun 3 at 16:20
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    @cbeleites Berlin very rightly put a limit on gifts of 5 and 10 EUR, but if you'll throw in an airport, they'll accept ;-) – Captain Emacs Jun 3 at 20:40
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    @CaptainEmacs: they wouldn't know one if they saw one... – cbeleites supports Monica Jun 3 at 20:41
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    Leaving aside legalities, that feels out of place to say at least. Do a decent work as a PhD student; that's the best they can hope for . – Konrad Jun 4 at 7:21

12 Answers 12

50

(Answer from Germany)

Don't do this. Even small personal gifts in this situation are unusual here and may indeed create a "fishy" taste.

German professors are public officials and public servants (so also other employees at university) are subject to strict anti-corruption rules.
If you get an employment contract as PhD student, you'll also have to sign these rules among tons of other paperwork.

  • As soon as there is a relation to their office (e.g. the professor being one of your examiners for some exam such as your PhD defense), any kind of gift is a big no-no.
    And not only before the marks are given, this is still true afterwards (even after prof retires!).
    This makes a gift at the beginning of your PhD at the very least awkward. Not as bad as directly before the defense, but still...

  • For other occasions, where the general opinion is that they are harmless small gifts are OK (e.g. in Hessen < 20 €, but e.g. Berlin < 5 or 10 €).
    Think along the lines of being allowed to have some of the coffee, cookies or sandwiches another institute/company paid for during the project meeting. Or someone offering a ride to the train station. Or pens, paper and/or a coffee mug at a trade fair.

  • If it is or looks more valuable, the receiver has to announce this gift to their boss or to anti-corruption administration who then decide what to do with it.
    This of course creates burocratic hassle, so isn't appreciated. But this is how a professor can solve the conflict and save the face of a foreign student who's from a country where it is customary to give (even a valuable) gift to the professor which is clearly outside all accepable limits in Germany - but it would also hurt the student to refuse that gift.
    Still, I'm happy you asked and thus can avoid putting the professor in such an awkward situation.

  • The workgroup collecting money for a birthday gift of the professor is OK, as that's considered a private gift in no way related to their job.


What to do instead

  • In contrast, it is not only perfectly fine and polite but in some places even weakly expected that you bring e.g. some sweets from your home country for the whole group (if feasible). Or bake a cake, bring some ice cream or the like.
    (Same btw. for your birthday)

  • It is also fine if, after you successfully defended your PhD, you throw a party for your group and also include your professor in the invitations.

  • 2
    besides anti-corruption, seems need to report to the HR and tax authority to pay tax for the gift. – Shuangistan Jun 4 at 11:45
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    +1 for reference to germany and suggestions on what to to instead, especially mentioning the "Einstand" which in a lot of companys/work groups is unofficially postulated. – GittingGud Jun 4 at 13:15
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    @Shuangistan: I'm not aware of reporting to HR (unless the anti-corruption office is part of HR). Tax: that has entirely independent limits (and they are independent of public service vs. everyone else). But in general, yes, gifts can be subject to income tax or gift tax. – cbeleites supports Monica Jun 4 at 14:10
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    My dad is a retired physics professor. A few of his former students sent him gifts after they finished their PhDs. Especially if they were from another part of the world, a small sculpture or something from from shop in e.g. Dubai for one student made a nice gift. Nothing too expensive, just something you can keep on a shelf. – Peter Cordes Jun 6 at 1:13
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    @GittingGud: if it's clearly private, it's always fine, e.g. the group collecting for a birthday present. As for the beer, it is far less usual here to throw rounds compared to, say, UK or IRL: if a group goes to the pub, usually everyone pays what they had. It has been known that someone who won a poster prize would throw a round or bring something for the group. But even that is not expected (as opposed to Einstand, Ausstand and birthday: then it's your turn to bring cake or icecream). – cbeleites supports Monica Jun 6 at 19:41
117

I would prefer not get a gift from someone that is dependent on me. I don't want to end up in a situation of perceived (by the person receiving the gift, giving the gift, or by an outsider) bribery. I realize that in many cases it is an innocent show of appreciation, but just saying (or writing) "thank you" will achieve the same goal without the risk of it being perceived the wrong way.

55

No way! It puts them in an uncomfortable position, even if they do not (and were not tempted to) accept it. They have the choice of (possibly) upsetting you, considering this a potential influencing attempt, even if not ultimately completed, in some places having to report it.

In our place, we have to report all gifts or gift attempts, and hand them to the institution if they exceed a certain (very small) value. In other words, it creates extra work and we don't even get to enjoy it.

Thank the professors that decided to take you on by doing a good job.

45

Oddly enough, the most appreciated gift from a student is probably just your thanks delivered personally. Even just a passing conversation in the hall way expressing your appreciation for their help will be remembered.

Students are often very appreciative of their professors, but often feel too embarrassed to actually say it. Of course, the prof will be embarrassed to hear it, but that is partly what makes it special.

We try hard, most of us, to help our students in every way we can. It is nice when that is noticed.

10

Giving a gift to someone in the department where you will be studying will be awkward and probably inappropriate. A thank you note or card would be more appropriate by far.

It makes more sense to give someone a gift when you are graduating and leaving the program. That expresses your appreciation more concretely while not having the appearance of trying to curry favor with a superior or repay some kind of inappropriate favor.

I also gave gifts to people who wrote me letters of recommendation, but they were very small gifts (like a chocolate bar with a thank you note).

  • If one remains in academia, one may remain dependent on your advisor for several years during a series of job searches for postdocs, visiting professor positions, and ultimately, hopefully, a tenure-track job. If there's a reason not to give gifts early, isn't there a reason not to give gifts when leaving the program as well? – Mars Jun 3 at 16:18
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    @Mars: indeed German law takes this view and emphasises that public servants (including professors) aren't allowed to accept any gifts related to their office. Neither before, nor after. Not even after they are retired. – cbeleites supports Monica Jun 3 at 18:41
  • I say stick with the folks who understand German law and customs. I live in the US, and the moment I graduated, my advisor became simply a co-author and peer. No one would blink an eye if I gave him a thank-you gift, though I didn't. – farnsy Jun 4 at 0:30
7

Write thank-you letters to those professors who interviewed you. Expressing your appreciation for their time is more than appropriate, but offering a gift at this early stage is not. Reserve gifts for mentors with whom you have established relationships and, even then, only for special occasions (perhaps holidays or the end of the academic year, for example). Otherwise, you’re creating a situation that can too easily be misconstrued as a conflict of interest.

6

As a PI (in France though) I would say that no, this is definitely not good idea for all the reasons mentioned in the other answers.

On the other hand, bringing something with a low economical value for the team - and not only for the professor, this is important - would certainly be appreciated. Like a box of chocolates or, as suggested in the comments some culinary specialty from your own country/region if it's different from the lab.

Again, the important point is that it is shared by the whole group.

We have a somehow similar habit in our lab (approx 50 people) : when someone goes on a conference or on holidays abroad he/she usually bring back a specialty to share for everyone. No one is forced to do so, but this is usually highly appreciated and almost everybody does it.

  • No one is forced to do so: but what if 99% of the guys do it? I guess at this level, people can afford to buy their own chocolates. The whole concept of offering a (bought) present is a tradition. And a tradition is just a habit (mostly produced by cultural evolution, and evolution is driven by irrational and selfish forces). The point is that, it's not because it's a tradition, and feels ok (or even good) that it's something good, and that we should continue to do. (Just an opinion though) – JinSnow Jun 4 at 17:08
  • @JinSnow We're not doing it because it's a tradition. Doing so would be indeed stupid. We're doing it because it's nice to give some attention to the other people around you, plus it triggers discussions ("oh you've been to Japan", "how do you say the name of this in Italian?" etc). Again the fact that it is bought is totally irrelevant. We could indeed buy our own chocolates and live in separate caves, but that's not how we feel human relationship should be. – Ratbert Jun 4 at 22:23
  • Buying stuff for other because it's nice to give some attention to the other people around you + how we feel human relationship should be = we need to give stuff to give attention. You don't seem to see the weight of your tradition/culture in things you do. Tradition aren't just the folkloric stuff, they are the kind of things we do automatically, like this. – JinSnow Jun 5 at 4:16
  • @JinSnow. We don't agree, and that's ok for me. But please stop using a condescendant tone: I know exactly what I'm doing and with the litlle info you have you're certainly not in a good position to judge how aware are other people of the origin and implications of their own acts. – Ratbert Jun 5 at 10:11
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    Ok, apologies accepted. I get your point anyway. – Ratbert Jun 5 at 10:23
4

A close friend who is a professor often has Ph.D. students from Korea and China, who give small gifts--food items from their home countries, for example. (We both work in the U.S.; I am also a professor, although in a different field.) I don't think I've heard of American or European students doing this sort of thing. My intuitions agree with other answers that warn against physical gifts. However, based on my friend's experience, my guess is that little gifts for professors are common, and considered appropriate, in Korea and China. If so, then the correct answer may depend on what's appropriate in the country in which you'll be studying--Germany, in your case. Perhaps other people can specifically respond for that case. (My sense is that the academic system in Germany is different from that in many other European countries, so it's possible that the culture is different, too. It could be that there is a different answer that's appropriate for Germany rather than, say the U.K., France, or the Netherlands.)

4

Just thank now, no gift, as most of the other answers say. I'll add "thank later" too. The best gifts I've gotten from students come years after I taught them, when they remember something I helped them with and they write to say so.

3

I've never seen a case of this being done, and I think this is generally a bad idea. The professor hasn't yet really done anything for you to be thankful for and there's a real risk of it being perceived as apple-polishing (bribery would be too strong a word). As a general rule, starting a relationship with a gift makes things awkward without any substantial benefit to anybody.

If you are inclined to give something physical to your new boss, I would suggest you follow @lalala's suggestion and `a few snacks from your home country to the group' or bring some sort of souvenir that connects with your background (e.g., if you were involved in a student association and they had great T-shirts, you could bring one). A reasonable litmus test would be: Would you be comfortable gifting the same thing to your peers?

Also, feel free to give them a gift after you finish your degree. The dynamic is very different then: They stop having any real power over you and they have had a major impact on your life.

1

As a former professor (USA) (now a full time research scientist) let me add to the chorus: NO GIFTS, EVER.

Gifts to a superior are a propitiation; I would not only refuse gifts from a student but report the attempt to my department chair, so I wouldn't be compromised by not reporting an offer of a bribe in the future. I would probably have to rescind my offer to advise you, and let you find somebody else.

Your urge to give a gift is called propitiation and it should be quashed; it IS a bribe to gain favor, not thanks. If I selected you, it was not to do you a favor, but because I thought with my management you could make a contribution to our field. If I didn't think that, I would spend my time on someone else, or on my own research.

Saying thanks is enough. Don't offer to buy me lunch, don't offer me tickets to something, don't try to use money or anything else of value to establish a personal relationship with me. It is possible we WILL become friends by the time you are ready to defend. I became (and remained) friends with my advisor. If that is going to happen it will be a result of shared cultural interests without any gifts being exchanged.

-2

Yes!

I recommend gifts such as your attention, ideas of your own and questions...lots of questions. No physical gifts though, those aren't necessary.

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    The point of writing part of your response in bold and large font at the start of your answer usually suggests that it is the most important part and that the rest can be skipped without distorting its meaning. What you're doing here is the opposite. – sgf Jun 4 at 12:45
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    I think this is a misleading post; due to the headline. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 4 at 13:39
  • @Amadeus Or misleading due to your perception of what a 'gift' is. Anyone who teaches will tell you they much prefer to be gifted with the things I've suggested rather than anything physical. The point of this answer is to provide a frame change - realise that yes, you can still give them something but it isn't something you can throw money at. – Lio Elbammalf Jun 4 at 14:02
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    @LioElbammalf You are answering the question from the OP that I believe is clearly considering a purchased gift, and asking if he should do that. You say YES! and then in the small print qualify that to mean "No physical gifts". I find that misleading, to answer the OP's question "Yes" to be clever when you really mean "No". – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 4 at 14:08
  • Or misleading due to your perception of what a 'gift' is. – In particular in the context of the question, there is a clear convention on the meaning of the word gift. This has nothing to do what the reader actually regards as gratifying, etc. – Wrzlprmft Jun 6 at 13:00

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