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2nd year PhD student going into 3rd and final year in September, in the UK.

My PhD supervisor is a brilliant researcher, and for the most part I enjoy working with her. I do have a second supervisor but she is essentially useless.

My project is pretty hectic, I enjoy working on different components at once. That said, I have a defined research question and thesis chapters.

However, recently my supervisor has tasked me with helping on lab work for a project which needs to be completed for a grant application. This project has nothing to do with my PhD (other than I will be using the same method). It involves about 10-12 hours of hands on time per week. This is a significant amount of time out of my work which is intense enough without this. I mean I would frequently work from 7-7 on it alone.

I have been told I can only be paid for the weekend work (which consists of about 1 hour of the weekly 10), but this to me seems dodgy. The work has nothing to do with my PhD and is directly impacting my ability to get stuff done.

The fact is I'm scared of saying any of this to my supervisor, as at the end of the day I am planning to do a post with her and I feel like if you present as inflexible it could hurt me down the line. However I do feel a bit taken advantage of, and at the end of the day considering that doing this work for a few months is only prolonging my thesis submission.

Just wondering if anyone else has experienced anything similar or has any advice?

  • What about asking academic rep (if this is something you are willing to accept)? maybe you can ask to be a named Co-investigator on the grant. An academic CV would generally have not only your job and papers, but also how much money you have been able to secure. If you are interested in continuing in academia, a name on a successful research grant can give you a nice boost. – Ander Biguri Jul 16 at 14:31
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Although there may be a number of people here who are quick to claim that no PhD advisor would ever take advantage of the cheap and free labor that PhD students can be coerced into (by means of using degree and thesis requirements as a figurative cudgel), I think that it is somewhat common that PhD advisors make use of such free labor. This should not be.

This being said, there are a few things to consider:

  1. The grant application you are assisting in might be a direct means of funding your future research. That is the "pay off" for you. Nothing happens in academia for free. Make sure that you are being compensated, but also keep in mind that not all compensation is directly and immediately monetary.
  2. A few months of weekend work is sometimes part of "paying your dues" in academia and can open up further opportunities for you. (Such as a future post-doc with this professor).
  3. Address your concerns as to timeline with your supervisor. If she dismisses your thoughts entirely, you may want to consider if this is really a professor you want to do a post-doc with.
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    I agree with the end of your first paragraph, and I think our answers are effectively the same, but I'd warn that although "there may be a number of people here who are quick to claim that no PhD advisor would ever take advantage of the cheap and free labor" there are just as many who are quick to propose that students should act completely selfishly at all times to protect themselves from being abused, when no such abuse is taking place. – Bryan Krause Jul 15 at 22:21
  • @BryanKrause I tend to believe that students need to become more aggressive in asserting themselves when it comes to advisors overstepping their bounds. It seems to be a common ailment on academia.SE: "My advisor is taking advantage of me." A much less common issue I hear of is graduate students who are being asked to do reasonable things and think them to be unreasonable abuse. At least at my university, I see a much higher percentage of the former type of abuse taking place. The leverage models clearly favor the advisor heavily. They have much better avenues for rectifying abuses. – Vladhagen Jul 15 at 23:02
  • Perhaps, but much like with "internet advice" for couples, usually the difference between a crowd-sourced and more professional opinion is "break up now!" versus "have you told your partner this bothers you?" Being assertive need not mean being aggressive, and the advisor/student relationship need not follow an adversarial or zero-sum model. – Bryan Krause Jul 15 at 23:18
  • And then this question shows up: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/133404/… which is a situation where I'd want to make exactly the opposite point that I made here. :) – Bryan Krause Jul 16 at 1:29
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For my field (biological sciences), this doesn't sound like a lot of extra unacceptable non-PhD work. It might be different for yours. In a collaborative field, typically not every project you work on will be part of your thesis, and not all of the work in your thesis will be solely yours.

Since you rely on other people's work, including other current and past students, you should expect your work to also help other current and future students, as well as the lab as a whole (i.e., your PI).

That said, it is perfectly acceptable to have a conversation with your supervisor if work is preventing you from making suitable progress on your own thesis. This sort of conversation should be part of your regular meetings with a supervisor: your goals for progress on your thesis and checkpoints towards those goals.

It sounds like these other tasks might be somewhat temporary, so try to set a plan with your supervisor that keeps you on track to get back to finishing your primary work. However, I would suggest you go into that conversation with a collaborative mindset, treating both this task and your thesis as shared goals between you and your supervisor: that is, your supervisor will (or should) want you to complete your thesis on time as well, so you can work with her to achieve that shared goal, as well as what should be a shared goal of completing the work for this grant.

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Academics usually have a written set of duties to their students under university rules. This falls short of a fiduciary duty to the student, but it usually entails duties to facilitate the progression of their candidature. It is perfectly acceptable for a PhD student to work on other research outside their PhD topic from time to time, but the supervisor should not assign work to the student that is at odds with progression of the candidature or advancement of their academic progress. In view of this, the work that your supervisors ask you to perform should generally fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Research, administration, and other work that is related to your PhD candidature;

  2. Coursework or other learning activities that are properly connected to your PhD candidature;

  3. So long as it does not hinder your ability to progress your candidature, research work that you have voluntarily accepted and which is unpaid, but gives you some valuable academic benefit (e.g., co-authorship of publications, your name as a researcher on successful grants, etc.);

  4. So long as it does not hinder your ability to progress your candidature, research work that you have voluntarily accepted and which is paid (and even then you should get appropriate credit for your contribution).

From what you have described, a small amount of the work that you are doing is paid, but most of it is unpaid. Your supervisor should only be asking you to do this work if they judge that it will give you some academic benefit (albeit one that might not line up with your PhD research topic) and they judge that it will not hamper your progression in your PhD candidature. If you have concerns about this, you should raise these with your supervisor, and ask for an explanation of how this activity will advance your academic development, and how you can balance it with your PhD research.

Depending on what has been arranged, you should get some academic benefit from this work, due to being listed as an applicant on an academic grant, or as a co-author of publications. If this is not the case, you should not be doing the work. Since you are undertaking lab work for a grant application, you should ultimately get credit for this, through co-authorship on publications that use your lab work, and possibly also being listed as a co-applicant (or at least given an acknowledgement) in the grant application. You should make sure to negotiate this up-front --- have a talk with your supervisor about expectations for co-authorship, etc., to see what credit you will be given for your contribution to this research. Assuming you are given appropriate credit for your work, it might be a valuable addition to your accomplishments during your candidature.

In any case, in the first instance, I would suggest you raise all these concerns with your supervisor. Make sure to have a discussion about what credit you will get for your work, in terms of co-authorship of papers (authorship order, etc.), and whether you will be listed as one of the applicants on the grant application. You should also discuss timelines for your PhD candidature, and make sure your supervisor is giving you time to progress your actual topic. If you are unsatisfied with your supervisor's plans and responses on these issues, raise the matter with the relevant graduate-student co-ordinator and ask for a second opinion. Also note that, if you are not getting appropriate academic credit for this work, and it conflicts with your PhD research, it should not be assigned to you.

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Maybe see the extra lab work as relevant experience and developing your skills? You can use that relevant experience in your CV and future job applications.

The major issue is the impact on your mental health and your social life. You are already in your final year, so you should be scouting for future jobs and opportunities now.

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