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Undergrad going to apply for graduate school. I recently came back from a trip where I got some goodies - I thought it would be nice to give some of my favorite professors gifts. However, I am now concerned there might be some ethical issues at hand here. I will definitely ask them for LORs and it is unlikely they will refuse. However, will giving them the gift before requesting a LOR prevent them from being able to say yes to writing a letter? Also, is it just wrong to do such a thing - it might be considered close to bribery (but then again I am not deliberately stating that I want a better LOR nor am I giving them the gifts because I want such a thing).

Giving them the gift after having requested the letter is not an option as this goodie does have an expiration date. I am not sure how to proceed. (The goodie is less than $13)

  • At my university, professors are forbidden (by state ethics guidelines) to accept gifts from students, full stop. There is no exception for gifts of minimal value. I cannot accept even a postage stamp from a student without violating university policy. – JeffE Sep 29 '19 at 14:49
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Your first sentence tells us that you are still a student in the institution where these professors teach. If you are currently in classes with any of these professors, or there is any possibility that you will be in their classes in the future, do not offer a gift, either prior to a request for an LOR or as a thank-you for having written one.

Giving anything of value to someone who will assign a grade is almost certain to make the professor uncomfortable and, although very unlikely, could cause the professor a great deal of difficulty.

Finally, consider that writing letters of recommendation is part of a professor's job. You shouldn't think of doing anything that will seem like compensation for a professor having done the professor's job.

The things I value most from students for whom I've written LORs are notes telling me that they've been admitted and thanking me for my part in making that happen. A particularly nice one was written on a postcard depicting the former student's new university.

Keep the goodies or share them with fellow students. Send the professors a nice note after you've graduated and been admitted to graduate school.

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    I've had a number of lovely little gifts from students and never felt uncomfortable. I've written recommendations for these students, and also for students who didn't give gifts: I never once thought to connect the two in my mind. If the gifts are small, thoughtful, and inexpensive, I don't see the harm. – GrotesqueSI Sep 27 '19 at 21:00
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    @GrotesqueSI Good; I'm happy that works for you. In the general case, however, there are two potential sources of harm. The first is the possible appearance of a conflict of interest, even when no actual conflict exists.The other is possible difficulty with the institution's regulations regarding gratuities. – Bob Brown Sep 27 '19 at 22:30
  • Fair enough, though I haven't encountered a US or UK University that had a complete ban (just my experience). Further, as a student, I always gave gifts to my advisors and supervisors for holidays etc. as well as the admin staff. When I was an admin, I nearly cried when two students gave me a bottle of wine to thank me for some help I gave them: that they noticed the work I did for them felt so amazing I still think kindly about them. – GrotesqueSI Sep 28 '19 at 8:26
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    @GrotesqueSI and Bob: Whatever your personal stance on the issue is, just check the rules of the university; many of them explicitly state what you must do when you receive a gift, so if you stick to it you won't get into trouble. – user21820 Sep 28 '19 at 11:47
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    I haven't encountered a US or UK University that had a complete ban — The University of Illinois (in the US) has a complete ban on faculty accepting gifts from students. – JeffE Sep 29 '19 at 14:51
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That really depends on the university’s code of conduct. Most universities place a limit on the cash value that gifts to professors can have. In some cases the limit is “any positive value”. In my university it’s 50$ I believe. In any case, if the gift is something cultural from your home country that could be ok. But, check with HR if you’re unsure, or it’ll be awkward for everyone.

As a professor I think my reaction to this would really depend on our relationship (like if you’re a random student in a 200 student class vs a student in a 10 person seminar), and the time between asking for the reference and giving the gift. You don’t want it to appear as if you’re giving the present expecting something in return. So don’t give the present and then immediately ask for the reference. Even if it’s not your intent, it may come off as bribe-y.

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  • Similar question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/132809/… – Spark Sep 27 '19 at 9:35
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    +1 for "something cultural from your home country". These are often inexpensive tokens but they are valued by the recipient as remembrances of the student. – Buffy Sep 27 '19 at 12:00
  • @Buffy totally agree! I think they are lovely things to keep around the office. Also tasty treats from abroad are always fun, particularly if they can be shared with other faculty members or students. – GrotesqueSI Sep 27 '19 at 21:02
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Don't put your prof in an ethical conundrum. In general, but especially in today's edge-sharp atmosphere of scrutiny, it is not good to even leave anything close to the impression than improper dealings are taking place.

It does not matter that you do not intend it as such, but that it can be construed as such (by people with an overdeveloped imagination or with malign intentions).

It is true that most schools now have a "trifle" threshold below which gifts can be accepted (though some schools require documentation for each attempted or completed gifting, depending on whether the value exceeded the acceptable threshold). Nonetheless, to some people, the cleanest and most unambiguous solution is simply refusing gifts outright (a postcard with a nice text - if that is somehow warranted through your interactions with the prof - is fine).

All of this is independent of your request of an LOR - but the latter makes the point much more acutely relevant.

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Goodies are great. I am sure if they are happy to write a recommendation letter, a goodie would be a nice gesture. If they refuse, I am sure they will suggest others to help you out and I am sure you have plan B ready and wouldn't be resentful over a $13 gift.

The cost and the rarity of the gift is significant though, just for completeness sake (which doesn't apply to your case), many institutions have mandatory conflict of interest declaration and gift policies now. Some places have a solid dollar value in a calendar year that would trigger a mandatory reporting. I have heard one place having an estimated monetary $250 in total of gifts a year (hard to guess when it is a gift I know, but has to be done). For some people a $500 to $1000 might be a "goodie" and nothing so a dollar value is important. Would be interesting to check out the policy at your university/institution.

Good luck with your LOR. I hope it goes well.

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Best practice is to save the gift for after the professor writes the letter of recommendation. That way it's 100% clear that it is a thank-you gift.

Also, let them know the results of your simulations. Very few students do, in my experience.

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  • A potential problem with gifting after the fact is that people may still allege that the professor wrote the letter under the assumption that the letter would earn them a gift in return. – user45266 Sep 28 '19 at 1:46
  • I've never heard of that happening in 20+ years of teaching. The gift should be inexpensive in any case (home-made jam or cookies are most common in my experience). – Ellen Spertus Sep 30 '19 at 20:29

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