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May a person whose job title isn't instructor of labs/instructor of PhD students/lab-assistant and who is working full-time (non-student) in a research university lab under a professor who recruits PhD students refuse to teach their boss's PhD students how to do lab work or ask for additional pay if they were to ask them to be a surrogate instructor?

If there's no pay, it's not part of the contract, there won't be any recognition, and for all they know the PhD student might lie to the professor that they know everything, didn't need to be taught, and knows more on how to do lab/bench-work than the expert who works there full time in the lab not as a student, takes credit for a protocol they did not invent, puts it into a PhD thesis without acknowledgement, etc.

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    It's hard to answer hypotheticals like this, and what's "allowed" probably comes down to contracts / policies. I suggest you think about what you actually want to know, and rephrase the question. Also, you might want to specify what part of the world you are in.
    – cag51
    Aug 11 at 4:07
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    "the PhD student might lie to the professor that they know everything", probably not, since you're also reporting what you've done, including teaching this PhD student, to the professor. Right?
    – justhalf
    Aug 11 at 10:57
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    If you happen to be in Germany (I don't know if your username means that) the public service contracts specify that the employer can give you other tasks compatible with your pay grade. I mean, at least the state of Bayern even forced researchers and PhD students to stop their research work and do contact tracing for covid when the state decided that the employees in the health authorities were not enough for the task...
    – wimi
    Aug 11 at 16:17
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    @JochenGlueck - I'm not sure about contact tracing, but we had huge numbers of volenteers to do covid related things at the university I work at in the UK - some of my dodgy code is still part of a testing lab's software stack.
    – lupe
    Aug 12 at 8:28
  • Other answers and comments here have discussed whether your contract specifies training, or more unspecific things like "relevant duties". Bottom line, though, is if they want you to spend time training students, and your contract says they can require you to, that will take away time from your actual lab tasks (assuming you don't work longer, which definitely should trigger higher payments). Do your bosses want that? You would have to ask them.
    – Arthur
    Aug 12 at 13:38

4 Answers 4

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Of course you can always refuse to do so, and legally you may or may not be in the clear (as Anonymous Physicist says, you would need to check your work contract carefully, and particularly check if there is wording related to "other duties" if it does not mention training explicitly).

However, refusing to train others and/or refusing to cooperate with others on grounds of your job not being an "instructor" is a seriously career limiting move, pretty much independently of where you work. In a scientific lab this may even more be the case, since many labs do have a fairly clear expectation that providing practical training to research students is, in fact, a key element of permanent research staff's job.

My impression is that there are deeper issues that you should try to resolve instead. Is the lab hiring students with too little practical knowledge, so that training consumes too much of your work time? Would you expect more acknowledgement for your own contributions to the student's research? Do you feel underpaid for what you do in practice? It's probably more constructive and practical to focus on these questions rather than straight-out stopping to help others in the lab.


As an aside, my answer would be different if this was about teaching formal classes or providing undergraduate courses. These are very different activities which you can and should indeed refuse to do unless your contract explicitly covers undergraduate teaching. However, helping research students (who are after all your colleagues in the lab) one-on-one is, at least in my mind, a very different story.

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  • I'll give you an example. The university hires me because they need me to create some software. In the UK, with the amounts of money that universities can pay, I'd have to work extremely cheap and do them a huge favour. In that situation, if you try to make me do things that I don't want to do, and you convince me to leave and go back to making proper money, that "career limiting" move is yours.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 11 at 11:56
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    @gnasher729 That's neither here nor there. If you don't like your job or perceive it as severely underpaid you can always leave and get a different job. That doesn't change that if you want to remain and progress at the university refusing to do something that many people would consider a natural part of the job isn't going to help you.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 11 at 12:13
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    @gnasher729 That said, I don't disagree with you - staff engineers, and generally all non-faculty staff, tend to get underpaid at universities, to the extent that it is hard to find and keep good people. But that doesn't change the answer to the question.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 11 at 12:15
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it's not part of the contract

You can legally refuse to do anything that is not required by a contract or the law. Be careful, as some contracts require unspecified "other duties" or permit termination for "no reason."

Depending on your contract and local law, you "may" refuse, but you should not. Teaching useful skills is the right thing to do; that includes teaching the skill of honesty and the skill of giving credit where it is due.

You should certainly be paid for your teaching efforts.

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    Almost all contracts to work in an academic lab I've ever seen have some specific clause that can be interpreted as helping others in the lab, and i've NEVER seen a job description that doesn't include "and all other reasonable requests for your line manager". Aug 11 at 9:53
  • Minor quibble with the last paragraph: why should the OP be paid extra for doing that? They're being paid a salary already. If their boss wants them to spend some of the hours that they would be working anyway training people instead of doing lab work, I don't see why the OP is entitled to more money based purely on that. Aug 12 at 4:16
  • @EJoshuaS-StandwithUkraine If they prefer not to do something that's outside of their job description, but would be willing to do it with a pay rise, then it's better for everyone - and more honest - if they say "yes, but only if you pay me more" instead of just saying "no". Having such a preference is not a matter of entitlement, although they may also actually be entitled to a pay rise if they take on new duties that they could be paid more to do elsewhere - the employer isn't entitled to hire someone to do easy work on a low salary, and then give them harder work and no raise.
    – kaya3
    Aug 12 at 10:01
  • Still, the OP said in their question "If there's no pay..." There literally is pay: their salary. Aug 12 at 12:52
  • You can also legally refuse to do something that's in your contract, giving you employer the ability to legally fire you. This seems like more than a legal issue Aug 13 at 16:41
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This will depend a little bit on your contract and/or whether you live in a jurisdiction with at-will employment. If you do live in such a jurisdiction and your contract doesn't say otherwise, you would be perfectly free to refuse to do that and they would be perfectly free to fire you for your refusal.

That being said, whether you're technically required to or not, refusing to do this is a very fast way to alienate your boss and co-workers. No one like people who refuse requests that they perceive as reasonable because "it's not my job."

My job title has nothing to do with teaching, but it's generally expected that I'll conduct training and knowledge transfer as required, and that I'll make myself available to answer questions from other staff members.

Also, unless you're being asked to work unpaid overtime, you're paid the same way either way.

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Who does that person refuse to? If the person responsible for your employment asks you to do something, you will very likely do it. (In this case, there would be an exception if teaching those PhD students required some official qualification that isn't there, or if someone asks you to teach people how to interact with 110kVolt power lines, or if the person has been sexually harassed by the PhD student and similar).

If a PhD student asks for help, they are not in any position to give you orders unless orders have come earlier from a different place. Especially if you don't have the time because you have another job to do, and if their behaviour is such that you don't do it because you are nice.

If the PhD student lies about what they have been shown, or what they have been taught, or not, that PhD student very likely is putting themselves into a totally untenable situation.

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