43

My thesis advisor expects me to 1) write the paper rebuttal and 2) finish any remaining experiments by coming in on the weekends, for free. I am now working full-time in industry, and no longer being paid by him. Is this ethical?

Part 2 of my question: I would be happy to do this if it had been my fault that we didn't submit my paper until the week I graduated. However, my history with this advisor has been:

  • 1 year before Jan graduation date: We agreed that in 1 year I could graduate given the finishing of certain key experiments. He also insisted that I be here for the rebuttal of the paper after its been submitted.
  • During this year, we agreed that I was on track for this.
  • 3 months before Jan graduation date: I brought up my Jan graduation again, and he protested saying it would take longer than I thought to write, submit, and wait for revisions to come back (different than being on track like we had agreed I was!) I of course was dissapointed that he didn't tell me this sooner, that I wasn't on track. I relented to a compromise where I graduate in March instead of Jan.
  • Dec: All of the key experiments had been completed and I insisted on submitting in Jan or by the end of jan so that I could still be here for the rebuttal (3 months to write, submit, and get reviews back). He agreed that would be enough time.
  • Jan: He now wanted me to do several more, additional experiments for the paper. I tried, but the experiments were not going well. I kept trying to mention that the paper needed to be submitted. He relented, and we ended up submitting at the end of March.

Now, he doesnt even have the time to give me feedback on a draft of the rebuttal until after I put everything together (meaning I may be wasting my time on things that he will ultimately throw out or veto)

Therefore, I feel he has fanagled things so that he can get the most value out of me without regard for me as a person, and that includes this new period of being asked to do work with no mention of pay. Is this unethical and should I ask him to pay me for my work on the rebuttal?

  • 9
    What are the consequences if you just refuse to do anything else? – Buffy May 10 at 19:11
  • 20
    There may be another interpretation of the sequence of events: Your advisor allowed you to graduate before the completion of a major project. If true, I think it changes the nature of this question quite a bit. – ssquidd May 11 at 1:41
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 May 12 at 4:12

10 Answers 10

101

You are thinking about this like an industry employee (which you are, so that's a reasonable stance).

Your advisor is thinking about this like an academic (which they are, so that's a reasonable stance).

Some perspectives:

Academic work is personal work and community work

You don't work for someone in academia as much as you work with someone. It seems like you are feeling a lot of conflict with your advisor right now, but I'd step back a bit and think about whose research this is. Certainly at some level your work benefits your advisor, but isn't it your own work, too? Do you not want to see your results published?

Is your advisor making decisions about suggesting further experiments that pushed your timeline beyond what you hoped because they are getting free work out of you, or are these steps to make the paper better and importantly to make it publishable (see below)?

In academia, it is normal to work on projects from a previous position; in industry it is not

Almost every academic will, at any time they move positions (including graduating as an undergraduate/graduate student, between temporary positions like post docs, and when getting hired as a professor and any moves afterwards) have some unfinished business at their previous place of work.

It's not reasonable to expect every research project to fall neatly into the academic calendar, conveniently finishing right at the conclusion, especially given the unplanned timelines surrounding peer review. Therefore, people tend to spend part of their time in their new position finishing up things from their past one, while being paid only by the new institution.

This gets "paid forward" in the future when the same happens during the next transition. A frequently asked question here at Academia.SE is some version of "which institution/affiliation should I list on this paper, new or old?" because of how often this happens.

Unpublished work is worthless to you and the academic community

Maybe your work is in a thesis in some draft form already, but all of the work you've done that isn't published is doing nothing for you or for academia. Maybe you're fine with that, because you aren't an academic anymore, but ultimately whatever funding agency funded your research and the university you worked for did so because they wanted you to produce published results, not just to give you the PhD title. If you think there is value in the work you've done, then that should be an incentive to get it into a form that can be shared.

On the other hand, you may decide that publishing is not actually of any benefit to you. If you don't feel intrinsic worth in the project, and if you don't plan any return to academia, then probably one more published paper won't mean anything tangible for your CV.

Given these differing perspectives...

I don't think there is any fixed answer. Should you do work for a past advisor without compensation? No. Should you collaborate with people you've worked with in the past to share your research with the broader academic community? Probably yes.

Ultimately it's up to you to define where those boundaries are. Personally, I would think it to be irresponsible to fail to follow up on basic authorship duties like responding to reviewer comments, editing manuscripts for submission, etc. These activities shouldn't replace paid employment, but they can be completed in a few free hours during a transition period. Coming in on several weekends to run experiments sounds like a bit much - maybe there is a compromise solution where you can train a new student to run those experiments, add them as a coauthor to the paper, and continue helping with the manuscript(s)?

| improve this answer | |
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 May 12 at 21:44
23

My thesis advisor expects me to 1) write the paper rebuttal and 2) finish any remaining experiments by coming in on the weekends, for free. I am now working full-time in industry, and no longer being paid by him. Is this ethical?

Generally, it's OK to have unrealistic expectations, and it's also OK to say no to unreasonable expectations. An ethical issue might arise if there's a power imbalance, and you would face repercussions from disappointing his expectations. Therefore, the ethical assessment of the situation mostly depends on the power balance between you and your advisor:

  • A particularly problematic situation would be if he still has the option to defer your graduation in some way, for example, if the PhD defense was still in the future. In this case, his expectation would be a power abuse (even more so if he hinted at the possibility of deferring your graduation).

  • A particularly unproblematic situation would be if your graduation is complete and you have made clear to him that you don't plan to ever come back to academia. In this case, there is no power abuse, as he doesn't have any leverage.

  • If he doesn't have any immediate leverage now, but might have some in the future (e.g. if you return to academia and need his recommendation letter), his expectation is a bit problematic.

should I ask him to pay me for my work on the rebuttal?

That would surely be okay, but be aware that this would transform your relationship into a business relationship. If you plan to approach him in the future for non-business issues (like writing a recommendation letter), there might be some consequences for that.

| improve this answer | |
17

I'll answer the second question first

My thesis advisor expects me to ... finish any remaining experiments by coming in on the weekends, for free. I am now working full-time in industry, and no longer being paid by him. Is this ethical?

Yes, this is obviously unethical and you should not do it. If he wanted an hour for you to show someone else how to do something, I'd consider it as a favor but running entire experiments is not cool.

As for your first question:

My thesis advisor expects me to ... write the paper rebuttal ... for free.

If you are in a similar field in industry, I think it would generally be expected to follow up on papers in submission as an active scientist. You can of course say no, but realize that means the paper probably won't happen. A paper rebuttal isn't quite the same as being asked to write a whole paper.

Regarding your comments, ethically, he cannot remove you as an author without your consent. The journal would want to see your permission before the author list being changed. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do against a bad actor who retracts, and resubmits somewhere else without your name.

| improve this answer | |
  • 24
    Hard for me to see it as unethical. Working on a paper of which you are an author isn't "working for someone else." It is working for yourself. – Buffy May 10 at 23:46
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Leaving this one as representative of the discussion. – cag51 May 12 at 4:08
  • 11
    I am tempted to downvote just for the word "obviously" here. Nothing about this is obvious, it's in fact a supremely murky subject. – xLeitix May 12 at 9:15
15

I think one thing that is missing from this conversation is whether the supervisor is able to pay or not. As much as I hate it when students that have worked for me continue to work on a paper after they run out of funding, there it is often that or no paper.

I have never had money lying around in the lab to choose to hire someone at will. Any staff money I have will be tied to a grant and anyone paid that money will be expected to work on that grant - not (or not only) whatever project is remaining from their last grant. I mean, I currently have piles of cash for experimental materials sitting around that I can't spend because the university is closed down, and researchers about to run out of funding. But I'm not allowed to spend the spare experimental money to cover the researchers, because thats not how grant money works (not in the UK at least).

Secondly, if I do have money, are you the most deserving of it? While I might think your project is the most interesting, or the one that would be most beneficial for my career even, am I going to give the money to someone who has secured a position somewhere else, and is being paid, or to someone who hasn't submitted their thesis, or hasn't secured a job? I'd feel a whole lot worst asking someone who has no current income to do work (even if that work is primarily to benefit them) than someone who has paid employment.

In the end, is unetheical to demand someone do something unpaid? Yes. But is it unethical to say "If this paper is to be published, then x, y and z need doing and you are the only person who can do it, and I'd really like this to be published"? No. Suboptimal, but not neccessarily unethical. Being paid may not be an option so it may be: do the experiments, publish the work, or don't and don't publish the work. Or accept another author on the authorship list (in addition) who will do the experiments.

| improve this answer | |
  • 5
    +1, I second the post, especially with the implication that the OP may not be the top - or only - option to carry on working on the project. Especially with the PhD available. – user117109 May 11 at 23:04
8

This person is no longer your thesis advisor. He or she is now at most a collaborator, and this observation should be your starting point.

In addition, compensation is not only in the form of money: there could be compensation in terms of promotion or future career to you if you complete this work.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    It's a bit more tricky than that: Even though the thesis is completed, he will forever be her thesis advisor, which has some implications in academia. If OP plans to return to academia, his recommendation letter might be important. – lighthouse keeper May 12 at 10:28
  • @lighthousekeeper yes that's part of the "not-monetary" compensation. – ZeroTheHero May 13 at 19:17
5

It is not ethical to ask someone to work for free. Even accepting to work for free is ethically questionable, because other potential employees are also affected. It is very difficult to compete with someone who works for free, even on the quality of the work.

That said, this does not mean a request for compensation is advisable. In all likelihood, your request will not go down well and be denied. Moreover, it may not even be allowed under your current employment contract.

You don't mention whether you are employed as a researcher. If you are, then collaborating with your former adviser is simply part of your job - and you should arrange with your employer to do so during regular work times. You can motivate this to your employer on personal development grounds, but it is more likely to be successful if there is also a benefit to your employer.

If research is not part of your current job, you'll need to decide whether finishing this project is of any use to your career path - and whether it's worth spending your personal time on. That's not work, that's a hobby. If you're going down this route, you should clarify this with your former adviser in order to manage their expectations.

A final note to relate this answer to some of the others: don't be fooled by the notion that university professors work for free. University professors don't work for free, they are highly paid professionals who make money to do teaching and research. Collaborating with other academics on research projects is simply a part of their job. In general, professional researchers are not working for free when they are collaborating on research projects.

EDIT: Changed 'academics never work for free' to 'university professors don't work for free'. Turns out academic is an identity and not a profession, so of course some academics do work for free, and are damn proud of it! Three cheers for the independently wealthy! Make academia elitist again!

| improve this answer | |
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 May 14 at 15:55
4

What is ethical or not ethical is subjective.

What is legal or not legal is less subjective.

First, have you checked whether or not the contract to which you and your present employer in industry are legally bound, allows you to do outside work for free or for compensation?

Many (or most) full-time jobs do not allow you to work for others in return for money.
Some (or many) full-time jobs do not allow you to work for others even if its for free.

Here is the first paragraph, of the first article, on the first page, of my post-doc contract from a few years ago:

The situation is often much worse in industry, which can be a good thing and a bad thing:

  • If you want to get paid and your contract says you cannot do any other paid work, then perhaps this is a bad thing for you,
  • But here's the silver lining: the contract in my screenshot wouldn't allow me to do free work for someone else either, as I was "expected to devote the whole of my attention to the duties in my paid workplace". For me this came in as a handy excuse when I got asked to do things that I didn't want to do (but I understand it might not help you as much here).

Now let me try to answer your two questions, and give you some advice:

"Is it unethical to expect one's PhD students to work after graduation without compensation?"

As you may have noticed, different people have different opinions here. You may also be seeing more material here from the people saying it's unethical, since the people that think it's ethical are afraid to speak up. Or maybe they're not "afraid" to speak up, but they are reluctant to, because, for example, comments like these that get 18 upvotes:

enter image description here

I am not saying it's ethical, or not ethical, but I would advise you to take people's subjective opinions on this with a grain of salt, because it is not going to help you find a happy ending to this situation.

I really want you to walk out of this happy, so I hope that you consider taking my next piece of advice, which is to spend less energy thinking about whether or not its ethical, and to think about what you can do about the situation if in your mind it is unethical. The fact that you consider it to be unethical, is important enough for me. So he is "unethical", what shall we do? This is what I suggest (after you've checked your contract with the current employer and assuming you're not restricted):

  • Carefully read the brilliant answer of Bryan Krause. Consider doing the "work" not for money but for the reasons Bryan gave.
  • If you still don't want to, consider walking away from this without authorship (your PhD will surely be available online and citeable on Google Scholar, and you are a solo author on it).
  • If you don't want to sacrifice authorship on the paper and you want money for doing the work---- it's not really "work" ---- If you want money for the effort your more senior and more experienced adviser feels is needed for this paper to get published, you can try to ask him, then:
  • Read Ian Sudbury's answer to help manage your expectations.
  • If you still want to get paid, after a genuine kind-hearted professor like Ian, who comes here to give advice for free all the time, has spelled out the "professor perspective", you can consider to very gently and un-aggressively ask to get paid for the work. You will not likely be paid much, and you are likely to burn a bridge, something that you have said you do not want to do.
  • If you have reached all the way here, and find that you won't get paid, yet you want this paper to be published, we enter the legal and semi-legal realm:
    • Are there any laws, or rules, to which he is bound, obligating one co-author to pay another co-author for the effort they put into getting a paper published? Should you have to pay him for the work he's doing to help you publish this after he's already finished his duty to supervise you until degree completion (I agree this might not apply here, but it's interesting to at least think about)?
    • He is bound to the rules of the university, but universities will almost never side with you in situations like this, nor will they enforce their own rules if its not convenient for them to.
    • For the paper to get published, he is bound to the rules of the journal, but journals also may not enforce their own rules if its not convenient for them to, and the last sentence of Azor Ahai's answer sums up what will probably happen here.
    • So, since powerful organizations like universities and journals often have no concept of ethics, you may have to consider a legal perspective. I live in Ontario, Canada and we have small-claims courts, municipal courts, provincial courts, federal courts, and maybe 100 tribunals such as the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (covering the Employment Standards Act) and the Labour Arbitrations Tribunals, among others. I'm listing these in case the place where you live might have analogous courts/tribunals. Some of these will have jurisdiction over different legislation than others, and some will adhere to different instances of case law (previous decisions that count in some but not all courts/tribunals). I wish I could help you further with this, but by far a better place is here.

Should graduates ask for compensation for work?

There is nothing you should or should not do, and human behavior is far too vast for us to accurately predict what will happen if you ask, so I am going to take a conservative approach and say that in general, you are better off not asking for compensation in academia. It is given to you without question, in the instances when it is absolutely necessary (for example if your country requires all PhD students to have a stipend), and otherwise it is given only by the more generous half of the academic population.


Finally, I do want to apologize that this is happening to you. I empathize with you and sympathize with you. I will reveal that my (subjective) opinion is that your supervisor may have been unethical. A perspective I hope you do not miss, is that of Buffy. Their comments are being shut down, but there is actually a lot of truth to them. However, while Buffy is right that you should "count your blessings" such as the fact that this supervisor at least allowed you to get your PhD rather than using it as a dangling carrot to get you to do years of more work (I've seen it happen), a perspective I haven't seen here yet is that he allowed you to finish your PhD faster so that he would not be obliged to pay you for the work he knew he was going to later almost force you to do.

The world is not just, and you and me can continue trying to make it better, but for now, at least let me say: Congratulations on finishing your PhD and immediately getting your job in industry!!! It is rare, and you are amazing.

| improve this answer | |
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 May 13 at 1:00
3

A fine point is that you have submitted your thesis. A completed PhD thesis counts as published academic work, although different than a journal article. More importantly, it is publicly available for access and use to anyone interested without you being in a position to check or prevent it. Anyone can do it with just a citation and do not need to contact you or ask you to contribute to a project.

You do not depend financially on your supervisor or your institution and finalising a paper is down to your good will. You are not supposed to work unpaid, and if you do so it must be your own free choice and/or because you wish to achieve something for your own benefit. Your commitment ended formally with the completion of your PhD. Getting paid or not is not a universal yardstick for personal, or even professional, interactions though.

Simply put, it boils down to whether you want an academic publication or not, and as compensation I don't see you being able to wring more than an hourly paid contract under the most favourable conditions. I doubt such a demand would be seen favourably or as the best practical solution from the point of view of the department.

| improve this answer | |
2

The truth is that most individual pieces of research are done "for free", in the sense that there really aren't any immediate consequences if that particular piece doesn't get done. Most professors would probably still keep their job and get paid pretty much the same if they published half as many papers as they actually do. The same is true for graduate students and postdocs in terms of their current job, though if they want future academic jobs they'll need papers.

In this case, if you did the work, you would publish a paper. If you didn't do the work, either there is no paper, or maybe your advisor, if they thought the research was important, would try to write up the research without you and publish it themselves. (I think it's reasonable to say that, if you abandon the work, you give up authorship rights.) If you don't care about the research and the authorship on a paper, there is no reason for you to work on it. But, in that case, I don't really understand why you bothered to finish your PhD in the first place. Why didn't you get a full time job and quit your PhD two years ago?

| improve this answer | |
  • 12
    I think it's reasonable to say that, if you abandon the work, you give up authorship rights. Hmm, no I wouldn't agree, at least in my field (actually went through that recently), without explicit permission. If they were an author before, nothing should change, unless the new experiments (done without OP) so drastically change the scope of the experiment a whole new paper is written. – Azor Ahai -- he him May 10 at 21:13
  • @AzorAhai: It certainly does depend on when abandonment happens. I'm in a field where there are no experiments and writing the paper is a substantial part of the work. – Alexander Woo May 10 at 23:07
  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question. – Anonymous Physicist May 11 at 7:23
  • 7
    wrt. abandoning work: Not putting in more work for free doesn't undo any intellectual contributions done so far, so OP will need to be coauthor wherever their intellectual contribution warrants it - when that contribution happened does not matter. Where I am, a coauthor cannot unreasonably hinder/oppose publication, but that's a very different question from not putting in more work. – cbeleites unhappy with SX May 11 at 10:27
  • @AzorAhai: I am positive that abandoing work should not without explicit permission give up author rights. What one should be aware of, however, especially with unreasonable advisors, is that it gives up author rights just because the advisor is pissed off because of you not letting him exploit you anymore. So I think it's fair to consider that abandoing would give up author righrs (and be happy if the advisor does the right thing after all). This is very sad, but a reality in our world I think. – user111388 May 11 at 21:28
-2

Regarding your question about payment and ethics: I don't see ethics involved. And as you just started in industry, you are not facing poverty or a long stretch of time without any payment. Finishing a paper after starting an industry job is not unheard of. You get your name on the publication.

My advice: Try to finish the paper with as little work as possible. Try to deny doing any additional experiments. These can be done by another scientist and they can write another paper based on further experiments. The rationale is, that you don't waste your work, but you limit the amount of additional work.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    The fact that somebody does earn money does not imply it is ethical to expect other work from them. I guess after graduation their family and friends would be more than happy to spend some time with them on the weekends. – user111388 May 12 at 9:52
  • 2
    It's not unethical to ask someone to do favor or finish a work for free, if the answer can be "no" without any bad consequences. – usr1234567 May 12 at 10:04
  • True. But I think your sentence about the money is a red herring -- it has nothing to do with the problem at hand if they earn money or not. (And it is not clear whether there are no bad consequences.) – user111388 May 12 at 10:06
  • 2
    Also, if you are in power (as here), you should absolutely make it explicitly clear that one can say no. Many weaker minds may fear to say no or work all nights and weekends because they believe they have to do it because this person used to be their supervisor. (Especially in East Asian culturey!) – user111388 May 12 at 10:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.