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All posts here on the "graduation gift" subject are about a gift from the PhD candidate to the professor (after the graduation of course). What about a gift for the student from the professor?

My student just graduated, and he really is an exquisite person, he worked more than he probably should have (extra hours, weekends) without me asking, and even with me saying he should not work that much. He was very nice with all the other lab members. I don't know if he will get me something and honestly I don't care. I would like to get him something, for sure a handwritten note to thank him. But I was also thinking to buy him a present, such as a bottle of wine from my country.

I am an Assistant Professor in the USA, but I was not born here. Do you think it will be appropriate to buy and attach a gift to the hand-written note?

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    When I was a PhD student in Ireland it was common to organize a present for those leaving the group, including graduating PhD students. The supervisor would usually contribute extra. Another tradition was to go to the pub after the defense, and the successful student would be bought pints by everyone present (I remember having pints lined up waiting for me to drink them after my defense). So what you propose is not only fine, it's even customary in some parts of the world). – Miguel Nov 8 '20 at 7:18
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    "I don't know if you will give me something and honestly I don't care" Do you mean you don't know if he will give you something? – T.J. Crowder Nov 8 '20 at 12:33
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    In Germany, I'd say it is more or less a tradition to liberally hand out book prizes to graduating pupils and students who stick out in any positive way. And everybody who completes writing and defending a dissertation is such a stickout. – Karl Nov 8 '20 at 20:08
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    @Karl: Probably field-dependent; I never saw anything like that in computer science in Germany. The only "gift" I am aware of is the self-crafted doctoral hat with personal stuff by one's department colleagues (which they may have spent significant time and non-negligible cost on). – O. R. Mapper Nov 9 '20 at 8:04
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    Great idea! If you do it for one, do it for all of your students. Otherwise just gifting something occasionally and selectively can be divisive if you gave a group of PhDs. You want their good will as alumni as well. – Andy Clifton Nov 9 '20 at 8:08
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I don't see any problem with this. Something from your own country would be appropriate, as would a book that is important in your field. Even a tourist souvenir from your country as something to remember you.

But not too expensive or elaborate.

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Many U.S. schools (especially state ones) actually have written policies on gifts. Look for it on your school's intranet, or ask HR if you can't find it. They vary: I know at least one state school where any gifts, even a cup of coffee from a professor to a former student, are forbidden. Some schools have a cap on monetary value, like $100. You're unlikely to get into trouble if you violate a gift policy, but it's good to know what yours is.

If a gift is not forbidden, then it's allowed. A bottle of wine is fine (if you know that the student drinks alcohol). Something longer-lasting, like a book, a vase, or a figurine , with your autograph or an engraving, would probably create... a longer-lasting memory. Your student certainly sounds like he deserves something sentimental to remember you by.

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    ... or an engraved writing instrument, like a good pen... – ZeroTheHero Nov 8 '20 at 6:19
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    Give him something that he probably wouldn't think to buy and will probably keep as an ornament: a slide rule. – Mark Morgan Lloyd Nov 8 '20 at 12:08
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    A fancy fountain pen can cost a few hundred US dollars and could be a great gift (albeir pricey) for someone who likes those (few do). Yiu know your student and what he likes. A mounted trilobite fossil maybe? A group photo of your lab members, signed by everyone in it would be hard not to like. – Dimitri Vulis Nov 8 '20 at 12:41
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    I'm lost: Why would a school forbid a present to a leaving student? What are they afraid of? ;-)) – Karl Nov 8 '20 at 20:11
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    @DimitriVulis That policy, as many others do, makes clear it is potentially problematic to give a gift to someone having a supervisory relationship over you. Whether intended or not, such a gift could be potentially seen as a sort of bribe, even if it would be silly to interpret it as such. I don't read anything in there that would prevent someone to give their graduating student a gift. – Bryan Krause Nov 9 '20 at 2:58
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A bottle of wine is an excellent gift. You can pick up a decent wine for 30 dollars and attach a nice hand written note to it.

Of course you also tell a short story about the wine when making the gift, I myself e.g. picked up a box of very expensive wine in Italy once. I gifted a bottle on two very special occasions.

Regardless of what the more nerdy SE community says "a book, a vase, or a figurine" might not be perceived by less nerdy people very well. Action figures are usually reserved for children, and especially making a figurine of yourself (Superhero Prof. Millemila?) would entertain the entire university. That's just ridiculous.

Lasting gifts can be great, but are more expensive, I myself made good experiences with a mont blanc fountain pen, a good German or Swiss watch, a leather wallet, a handmade razor, a shaving foam brush, handmade cocktail glasses, and a fancy lighter. Staying to the classics might seem old-fashioned, but people like this really.

Giving out mediocre but lasting gifts is arguably worse than a bad one time use gift: A bad wine will lead to a bad evening at most, a unwanted book might stick around much longer in the dusty corner of the receiver's office.

I would be cautious with these expensive gifts in your setting though. A bottle of wine in the medium price range on the contrary is a common gift in business settings, and you don't need to worry about it being inappropriate at all.

Make sure to remember that the "thank you" card is probably the biggest gift you can make anyways. Especially if you express, that you are always happy to help your former student in the future. Use a nice fountain pen and thick paper. Use a suitable format, e.g. A5.

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    Speaking about gift ideas, once, I 3D printed the actual object of study and gifted it to an important collaborator as a token of gratitude. – Oleg Lobachev Nov 10 '20 at 12:57
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    I think one can safely assume that a graduating doctoral student will not find a book "too nerdy." – Matt Nov 10 '20 at 15:38
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    Before giving a bottle of wine, make sure the student drinks. – Mark Foskey Nov 11 '20 at 3:10
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One of the problems with gifts is that one does not want have liability of insinuation. Giving my Japanese students a gift, which has a cultural weight of something in return, is very different from giving one to an American student. There is not a clear answer to this question.

Having said that, I've settled on giving my students the books that they used for the dissertation. I've found that all of my students have a few "go to" books, and I'll often buy them their own copies, and write my well wishes in the front cover. This generally violates a whole bunch unspoken of HR policies as there seems to be some unspoken rule about less than 20 dollars in the USA and it's generally about 300 dollars all-in. The student just worked exceedingly hard for at least 5 years for me with basically a pittance of a stipend. I see it as the least that I can do. I see a bottle of wine as a nice personal gesture and I would stand by the decision even if the HR department freaks out.

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    There is a USG policy that limits the value of gifts government employees can accept to $20. (That's not the only restriction, but the intent seems to be that you don't have to get weird about someone lending you a pen). That may be where the broader cultural phenomenon came from. – fectin Nov 9 '20 at 15:59
  • @fectin like any other large bureaucracy, HR knows the value but never could point out the actual form :) – b degnan Nov 9 '20 at 16:51
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As others have also pointed out, I don't see a problem with it unless there is a policy at your university, however, many ideas are very subjective, as for example if he doesn't use pens that much, he might not use this one at all, and actually make him feel guilty, or, if he doesn't like physical books, etc...

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Yes, a gift should be ok and I think that the gift should be tailor made for the recipient. I think it would be hard for any of us to say what kind of gift to get your student.

That being said, does your student like wine? Do they prefer a specific brand, vintage, or type (e.g., Cab, Merlot, Pinot, etc.)? Are they open to trying a wine from your country? You can put out subtle feelers by bringing it up in conversation.

But, a point of caution that I would like to echo from other respondents, and that is to make sure the gift itself is not too austentatious. It needs to be narrowly focused to what they like because it shows thoughtful consideration. Handing out a bunch of money probably wouldn't be the best idea nor would gifting them a Ferrari.

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Yes, it is appropriate in the U.S. to buy and attach a gift to a hand-written note thanking the student. I am aware of this happening in the United States, and it was much appreciated by the student. In fact, the gift was a University hoodie and some University-branded coffee mugs, and although the student has long since left the United States, they still enjoy these objects today.

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tl;dr: Back pay for overtime work.

My student just graduated, and he really is an exquisite person, he worked more than he probably should have (extra hours, weekends) without me asking

What you're describing is the common situation in US academia where Ph.D. candidates - junior researchers - work more than a full-time position without any overtime pay. In most US universities they are not even recognized as employees! (but this may be changing). The base pay is also typically rather poor in the US, if I recall correctly. Also, surprisingly, many kinds of employees are not eligible for overtime pay even by law... how terrible!

Having said that, if the Ph.D.'s salary/stipend had come out of:

  • your personal research budget - your gift should be pay for the extra time he worked beyond a 40-hour work week. Seeing how you supposedly suggested he not work those hours, I suppose it might be fair to just pay the base hourly rate, not the 1.5x rate the law provides form.

  • a departmental/university budget - Offer to cover the legal expenses for a lawsuit in which he gets to sue the university for overtime pay owed to him.

(If he refuses to sue, get him some chocolate or personal-size confection or something, I don't know.)


For readers other than OP: I didn't just make a point for a single professor to get a different perspective on his former Ph.D. candidate. I call upon you, personally - if you are a junior researcher (Ph.D. candidate or otherwise), to try and form a union. And if you're senior faculty, and unionized - to become active in your union and try to get it to expand and admit junior researchers.

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    I agree that academia is exploiting doctoral students financially. But it's just quixotic to think that a professor just pays a few thousand dollars overtime without having a legal obligation to do so. And honestly its also the students fault, they fail to unionize and put any pressure on the universities. While this is not just a problem limited to PhD students (almost all workers since the 1970s with few exceptions have weak or no unions) it really baffles me that the academic elite of tomorrow is not organizing. – user117200 Nov 10 '20 at 18:07
  • @TheoreticalMinimum: See added postscript to the answer. – einpoklum Nov 10 '20 at 19:18
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    Is this for real or an ideal world? I mean, would you really advise that a prof should advise their student to sue their university and to pay out of their own pocket for any legal expenses? – user111388 Nov 10 '20 at 19:20
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    While I sympathize with you apathy for "unjust" payment its a bad answer to OPs question. The suggestions are ridiculous. – user117200 Nov 10 '20 at 20:11
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    @TheoreticalMinimum: We'll agree to disagree. It is what OP should do in my opinion - at least in the case of him being the source of funding. – einpoklum Nov 10 '20 at 20:21

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