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I graduated with a biology PhD last year. My supervisor named X was pretty hands-off (which was great) and most of my project, from conceptualization to data analysis, was done by me generally without much input from X partly because it wasn't X's area of expertise. I now have a full-time job doing math. X insists I meet with X to discuss how to turn a manuscript (rejected last year as I was writing my thesis because it required significant revisions and additional experiments) into publishable form for resubmission for grant money purposes, and then work on that on my own time.

So I was just wondering whether I have any obligation, professional/moral/official/other, to comply with X's request (other than my personal responsibility to publish stuff I've done and not waste time/resources I've used), because X is not going to be paying me to spend my free time working on this manuscript and this manuscript isn't going to help me with my career.

Approximate time to get this into publishable form is: 2-3 months working weekends by me to do additional analysis from existing data, and 6-12 months for additional experiments done by a person in X's lab who will require training from me.

To clarify,

  1. My new job is not in academia, but I do regularly write academic math/stats papers as a part of my job.
  2. I am thoroughly disillusioned with academia and never intend to return.
  3. The intent is to publish a paper that X can cite in grant proposals to show productivity etc.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jun 21 at 4:23
  • Can you clarify what you mean by "resubmission for grant money purposes"? I took that to mean "resubmission as a journal article, because the supervisor has a grant that won't pay out (or won't pay out as much) unless the research gets published", but per the commenters below, some have interpreted it as "resubmission as a grant application, in the hopes of being awarded a grant". Those are obviously very different situations. – ruakh Jun 24 at 21:45

12 Answers 12

57

I think it's reasonable for X to ask, but you have no obligation to say "yes". In particular, 2-3 months of weekends is a lot of time to work for free. I think that if you choose, it would be reasonable for you to politely say that this is too much, and that he needs to get somebody else to do that analysis. If this is work that you have already done a lot of, you should still be an author on the resulting paper.

If your new job is with a university, then it is worth asking your new supervisor if you can spend some time on it. They may be happy that they can get a paper with their affiliation for only a couple of weeks of work. If your new job is a commercial one, this is much less likely to help.

  • 6
    I agree with this answer but, for perspective, I don’t think that 2–3 months of weekends is a lot to get a paper ship-shape. It’s pretty average, or even on the low end. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 18 at 10:58
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    @KonradRudolph but it's a lot of time when working full time. People need breaks. – Emilie Jun 18 at 12:18
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    @Emilie Oh, I don’t disagree. In fact, I’ve been though this (for considerably longer than 3 months), and it’s excruciating. My point is that the time frame is far from unreasonable, and it’s not an unreasonable (or unusual) thing for the PI to ask. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 18 at 13:37
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    @KonradRudolph Well, that was my first sentence. Although thinking about it, I should perhaps have said "common" rather than "reasonable". 2-3 months of weekends is 16-24 days, or ~2-5 weeks of normal full-time work. IMHO there's no "reasonable" world in which people do a month's work for free, although certainly many ECRs do do this. – Flyto Jun 18 at 14:34
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    I am of the opinion that even if you can spare the time to work weekends on the paper, you should not. Academia needs to be reminded that we do not all work for free. I still have professors I worked with 4 years ago contacting me asking for free work. I would bill consulting clients US$100 or more an hour, but they expect me to work for free so that they can put more papers on their CV? I'd rather not. – Vladhagen Jun 18 at 20:20
17

You owe your advisor respect at this point but not specific work products. But rather than think of it as an obligation, I'm curious that you don't think of it as an opportunity. Especially if the advisor is well established and can do some things to help advance your career. In most fields collaborative work is highly regarded and you would do well, I suspect, to be drawn into his or her circle of collaboration.

You say the paper won't help advance your career, which I have a bit of trouble understanding. But that would be the only reason, IMO, to decline.

Most of us don't require specific compensation to do a bit of science, though being employed is definitely a good thing. But if it truly is outside your career goals/path, it is fine to decline, though with respect.

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    If you have moved outside of academia, there is no value at all in another paper. – Bernhard Jun 18 at 7:28
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    Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is a good idea, even if working more would "advance your career" – Jasper Jun 18 at 10:53
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    @Bernhard Maybe if that move is absolutely permanent, but even then I’m not convinced. It’s certainly true that papers count (much) less in industry than academia but they’re not altogether worthless. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 18 at 10:57
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    And who knows what the future holds. Don't assume it is exactly like the present. – Buffy Jun 18 at 10:58
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    "If you have moved outside of academia, there is no value at all in another paper." You never know. I'm writing a paper at age 50 that may help land a job. – Swiss Frank Jun 18 at 17:56
12

No, there is no such obligation. You met your requirements for the PhD, got the PhD, and moved on with your life. It is unreasonable and unethical for your advisor to "insist" that you continue to do unpaid work. You should tell him to pound sand.

As the other answerers say, it would be nice if you were willing to continue your research and get the additional publication. But that does not (correctly) answer the question of whether you have an obligation to do so. Even when you have a good experience in grad school, it is sometimes necessary to focus on new challenges rather than revisiting old ones.

Note, I am basing this partly on your statement that you would need to do major revisions and new experiments -- a substantial amount of work. If your advisor had asked for a more reasonable contribution, like helping to spin up your replacement, I would think it would be reasonable for you to comply (though whether you have an "obligation" to is another matter).

  • There are (moral) obligations - but not remotely close to what X is requesting/demanding. – einpoklum Jun 19 at 20:56
  • Moral obligations might include handing over data or source materials that you accidentally failed to return, e.g. an editable version of a draft paper that never got published, or a spreadsheet containing results of experiments. And if you're asked to come back and give a seminar to new people on the project about the work that you did, then the decent thing would be to accept the invitation. But there's certainly no moral obligation to do new writing or research. – Michael Kay Jun 20 at 9:49
10

Yes, I think you do have some obligations, not so much to your supervisor but to science itself, although 2-3 months working all weekend sounds like a bit much.

When you do academic research, you don't just publish the work for "grant money purposes" - you publish work because you are advancing science in some way, even if it is a small/incremental step.

Basically, even though you got a PhD in part through this work, it doesn't count yet from the perspective of science. You haven't advanced anything. It's basically worthless in the current form. Part of getting a PhD is producing something novel for academic knowledge, and although you've put this work into a thesis you can't expect anyone outside your committee to read the thesis.

If you have advanced the work to the point that it was submitted, I do think you should put some effort towards getting it to the next step. If the time asked is more than you can give up, I would at a minimum discuss with X what you can do to get it to where it can be handed off. That might include helping point someone to resources (including your own code, data, etc, as well as literature you've collected on the topic), or being available to answer occasional questions from a new person in the lab (especially procedural things that you may not have documented as well as you should have the first time around). It isn't clear to me that X even expects you to do all the work you are saying would be expected, it seems like you haven't discussed it yet.

It's reasonable to set limits, but I do not think academic work is the same as industry work in that once you've left the company everything is their problem. Surely if you were abused in some way or had a bad working experience in the lab, you would be justified in walking away completely, but it sounds like you had a reasonably good experience and it let to you getting a job you want.

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    Thanks for the perspective. It seems like I, rather than my supervisor, should dictate the terms of this (timelines etc.) – elborrador Jun 17 at 22:14
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    @user109949 Yes I think it's certainly reasonable for you to dictate those timelines. For example, "I've just started a new job and am still unpacking in a new city, can we talk about this in about 2 months?" would be very reasonable. "I'd like to help out but I can really only give a couple hours per week at most, and it would be best if that time is towards helping someone else continue the project" would be very reasonable. I think "No sorry I'm not in your lab being paid by you anymore" would not be as reasonable (again, given this is academic work). – Bryan Krause Jun 17 at 22:18
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    Dissertations are frequently published and read, so it's inaccurate to say they haven't done anything worthwhile. – curiousdannii Jun 18 at 6:25
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    Agreed with @curiousdannii . It's not like OP torched their notebook and all records on your way out. Anyone inclined is free to read through their notes and continue where they left off. If it was so important it has to be published, surely it will benefit other research. If it won't benefit it, then it's not that close to publication as to demand volunteer work from OP. – Trusly Jun 18 at 6:49
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    @BryanKrause Completely disagree. The OP has made it very clear that the only reason the supervisor is interested is for "grant money purposes". The supervisor has all the original data and the original manuscript. The supervisor clearly thinks they can get free labour from the OP. If the OP accepts, they are either allowing the supervisor to skimp on work they should be doing, or taking work from another postgrad who would be paid to do it. Neither case is morally justifiable. If the OP finds updating their manuscript intellectually enjoyable as a hobby, then fine. Otherwise just no. – Graham Jun 18 at 10:41
4

Your formal obligations end the moment you receive your degree. Even if they did not end, they would be unenforceable.

Of course you likely also have a personal relationship with your advisor. So there are potentially informal obligations. The following stand out to me:

  • If you promised before graduating that you would do it, going back on your word now would not be very nice.
  • If you did not promise anything, but there was an implicit understanding that they will be relying on you, it would also not be very nice to let them down.

It is up to you to judge these things for yourself. We cannot do it for you because we know neither you, nor the advisor, nor the work. But ask yourself: How difficult would it be to move forward with this without your help? If the answer is "impossible", and if not being able to write the paper would seriously harm the lab, then perhaps you might feel an obligation.

IMO the correct way to handle these situations is:

Sure! I'd love to help with this paper for $X/hr and I estimate Y billable hours.

But academics balk at such things, so a more tactful option is to simply say that unfortunately your current job leaves you no time at all to work on it, sorry.

3

I am of the opinion that you have absolutely zero obligation to continue to work on any further work with X unless you want to. Who cares about "science."

My PhD advisor wanted to enter into a collaboration such as this. He was entirely absent for much of my dissertation (including failing to show up to my final defense). Once I was in a full time position, all of the sudden my advisor realized that he hadn't published in two years. Trying to be nice (and for the sake of "science") I agreed to continue collaborating with him.

Three years later, after doing several thousands of $US work for him (new experiments, new manuscripts, meetings, etc.), I still have exactly....zero publications with my advisor. It was just one excuse after another as to why he isn't able to publish the manuscript. I have now essentially ended any talks of publishing with him.

Some faculty members have become accustomed to getting free work out of graduate students (and former students) because they have leverage over degree requirements, funding, letters of recommendation, etc. I would say that unless you are really dedicated to this Professor X, you should suggest that your contributions be rather minimal.

  • "Who cares about science?" - don't be so jaded. The fact that your advisor was exploitative does not mean that science doesn't matter. Also, you should have gone to your graduate employee union, and possibly to whoever's in charge of graduate programs in your department. You might have gotten your advisor to change his ways, or at least created some back-pressure against this custom. It's not just the leverage - it's also that we don't stand up for ourselves. – einpoklum Jun 19 at 21:00
3

I wouldn't make a drama about it, but just say "I'm too busy". You don't have to explain, justify, etc. Just literally (and not how millenials use that word) write that. If he wants to cavitate, let him. But leave the monkey on his back, not yours.

An alternate approach is to try to modify the claims in the paper (lower them) and publish what you have. This is often possible even in decent (perhaps lower ranked) journals. But only do it if it works for you.

Had somewhat analogous, but not completely, experience with a paper, post grad. (More an issue of differences on authorship, claims, etc.) And after a year of "nothing", advisor was very amenable to doing what I chose. We just published the paper how I wanted it, exactly. He ended up happy for getting part of a loaf versus nothing. (And it is not uncommon for profs to get nothing when people leave. It's just an aspect of their business model of not doing the work themselves or having true paid employees. So I don't cry for them.) I was out of academia and the prof was just some guy. Not someone to affect me with this silly geneology (he ain't my dad) or letters of rec or any of that kerflurry. Plus, he had already gotten huge return on any financial investment in me from previous publications, so I sure didn't feel any psychic debt...more the opposite. But I actually wanted mildy to get what I had done, printed. So at least it helped the field and was one more little byline, from which I get a childish pleasure.

In any case, I would NOT doing anything requiring new analysis, coding, experiments, etc. The furthest extent of work would be writing.

3

Academic work that you are not specifically paid for, but which will help you get recognition in the field, is normal if you are in academia, because recognition in the field is a major currency for an academic. Your advisor may just not be realizing that what they are asking literally makes no sense for you.

Tell your advisor to find a bright undergrad or maybe a master's degree candidate, bring them up to speed, and you will help them in an advisory capacity only. If the advisor wants unpaid work, they should find someone that will want to do it in order to get their name on a publication.

The benefit to you here is that it keeps you from burning this bridge. (Personal note, I also left academia after a graduate degree, very disillusioned, but many years later I've realized that, basically, all institutions have deep issues counter to their core missions, and I would consider returning. This could happen to you, even though you can't imagine it right now. Also, you never know when a former contact can come in handy in a future job search, etc. If you can avoid burning this bridge with a reasonable amount of effort, consider it.)

2

No, not for the amount of effort they're asking. I've been asked occasionally by my old boss to do some things, but generally an hour's worth of getting some old software updated after a package update broke it, or review a paper or two. In both those scenarios, it's in my benefit to do so as I built the software and I get credited for reviewing.

If I'm getting asked to contribute to a grant proposal that won't benefit me or my employer the answer is no, especially the amount of effort being asked here - unless of course you pay me out of hours (and as a phd student I did get £200 for adding a specific section to a grant I wasn't named on or would benefit from if it succeeded.)

1

While you have no direct obligation to X keep in mind that networking is very important in academia. X is moving more to the position of a collègue in your life. Publishing may not help you directly now but it is taken into account whenever someone is assessing your potential. You are at the beginning of your career. It would seem to be worthwhile to talk to X and reach an arrangement satisfactory to both of you.

0

While you have no obligation to do that, I still suggest that you consider helping your supervisor here a little bit but not to the full extent he/she is asking for due to fairness.

Your supervisor financed your PhD studies (right?) and there is the implicit cultural academic norm to "pay this back", i.e., to help the future generation of PhD students to get funding. Normally, this happens due to grant writing during the PhD studies, while in your case, the request happened afterwards.

At the same time, you advisor cannot give your former paper to someone else to finish it and publish the work without you, because you had a substantial intellectual contribution. By the usual authorship conventions, every author needs to approve the final version of the paper and at the same time have some intellectual share in the overall work. So you advisor can't publish this without you at all.

So you not helping him at all would mean that the paper cannot be published, which may hurt the next generation of PhD students. At the same time, since you left academia, it is unreasonable for X to assume that you will quit your personal life for a few months to write the paper.

I personally think that you should give reasonable effort to satisfy the academic cultural norm and think about whether you can make ends meet anyway. One option would be (1) to not meet in person with X but rather have a quicker Skype chat, (2) to only offer occasional advising to the person in X's lab to finish the work, and (3) to offer one pass over the paper when the paper is written and to implicitly "sign it off". This sounds like it reduces your workload by 90% while still not blocking the publication of the paper. It does load off a lot of work to the person in X's lab, who will get a paper out of it, though.

0

I agree absolutely with the comments that you do not have any obligation to assist X in the way he asks, especially if he does not propose to pay you. In fact, I would describe the request as unreasonable.

(If you find yourself in discussion with him, you might point out the X is getting paid for performing this work, as part of X's university salary. Why, you might ask, should you work for free?)

The only argument I can see in the other direction: if you ever need a letter of reference from X, it helps if X is happy with you. If you are confident that your current job is secure, and don't anticipate that you will need X's support to get a new job, then you could risk annoying X.

I would politely decline, citing the inflexible time demands of your new job and your current employer's expectations. "It would do neither of us any good, if I agreed to a commitment that I found myself unable to honor."

X sounds like a greedy, grasping, self-absorbed jerk. Academia is full of them. You are not obliged to continue to humor X's expectations for a one-sided, exploitative, abusive relationship, just because X wants it. Stay away from people like that. Life is way too short.

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