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I know it has been asked several times on here whether giving a professor a gift is appropriate or not. The general consensus seems to be that it is unethical to both give and receive the gift [1] [2] [3]. However, I have a bit of a nuance that I would like to inquire about.

This past fall semester I requested to meet with a professor who I both enjoyed and respected and ask them for advice about the graduate admissions process.

I asked, out of curiosity, if letter writers minded submitting ~8 letters or if the work would bother them. They answered (roughly), "No. We enjoy helping students. If you want to be nice, you can get them a starbucks gift card or something after they've submitted the letters."

At the time I had no intention of asking this professor for a letter of recommendation. However, it ended up that they were one of my 3 letter writers. I want to write each of my letter writers a thank you note, but now I am faced with the predicament of whether to follow their advice or not.

I have been thinking of reasons for either getting or not getting the gift.

Reasons to get gift:

  • I will never have this professor again for classes, so there would not be any thoughts of favoritism.
  • Buying a $10 gift card would not be a significant financial burden on me.
  • I would be going along with their advice.

Reasons to not get gift:

  • There is a slight chance I may ask this professor for another letter, so giving them something of monetary value could call into question any future letters they write for me.
  • It could still be seen in a negative light given some stigma around giving faculty gifts as a student.

I understand I am probably overthinking this. I would like to show my gratitude to this professor in an ethical and professional manner without burning any bridges in my young career at the same time. Should I still refrain from giving gifts to professors? If so, should I address their previous suggestion, or just ignore it?

  • How can "Do not get gift" -> "... I may ask this professor for another letter, which could present some ethical issues." ? – jDAQ Jan 20 at 15:27
  • @jDAQ I meant that as a reason for not getting the gift. If I gave them something of monetary value, then it might bring any future letters they write me into question. I can edit for clarity. – Dando18 Jan 20 at 15:29
  • Ok, I see what you mean. But I hardly think any researcher/professor could be bribed into writing a superb LoR by a $10 gift card. You might be overthinking it, since they have suggested it, get them the card (if you want to, they mentioned that is being nice and not mandatory). If they happen to refuse/look uncomfortable, briefly mention they were the ones who suggested it, apologize and move on. – jDAQ Jan 20 at 15:37
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You are probably overthinking it. I guess the intent of the professor's comment was really, "It isn't necessary, but at the outer limits, something of inconsequential monetary value".

Would you consider giving a gift to the professor in other circumstances, not related to academia? If not, then it isn't needed here. Express thanks in an email or with a greeting card (again, the outside limits).

There is one sort of gift, however, that is appreciated in some circumstances. If the student comes from a different country, especially one with a different culture, then a small token from that place might be treasured. Something that might be picked up at a tourist kiosk, say. I've accepted and retained a few of these. They have almost no monetary value, but represent a connection that the student values. I can see one of them, now, from where I sit.

I once went out for lunch with a bunch of students from a foreign land. They wanted to buy my lunch. I thought it more appropriate that I pay for their lunch. But sometimes you have to accept something because the gift is heartfelt and it would be insulting to refuse it. That isn't the case as you describe it.

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  • Thanks! I had assumed I was overthinking this, but it felt strange to me to go against the advice. If I choose not to get the gift, should I address their previous suggestion or just ignore it? – Dando18 Jan 20 at 15:47
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    There is no need to address it. Saying "thanks" is enough. – Buffy Jan 20 at 15:52
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Why not consider something nice, but with no monetary value, such as a handwritten message on a carefully selected card?

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  • That's what I was planning on doing anyways. I just wasn't sure if I should add the gift card or not. – Dando18 Jan 20 at 16:05

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