I am a postdoc. One of the students in the class I am teaching has reached out about getting involved in research. I would be happy to work with them on a project. Are any ethical issues with this given that they are currently in my class?

Obviously, PhD students frequently take classes with their advisor, but I wonder if this is entirely analogous given that a PhD is fundamentally different from undergrad.

Edit: It seems some answers/comments bring up the distinction between me being a postdoc/professor. I'd be interested in expanding the discussion to include both, including potential differences between the situations.

4 Answers 4


I don't see a conflict here, though others may differ. The student isn't offering you something of value in return for special consideration in the course.

Undergraduate students wanting to do any sort of research with a faculty member will likely find themselves in such a position. Likewise any faculty wishing to guide student research. The concerns are separable.

But, to be extra safe, discuss this with someone who supervises you, perhaps the department head. You don't have a lot of independent authority as a postdoc so ask someone who does. You might even want to have someone with a permanent position to "look over your shoulder" in grading decisions. I doubt it is necessary, but might be useful.

  • 2
    There are likely ways to formalize a relationship. I suggest asking if such a student can sign up for an independent study or research assistant position under you. It's generally best to make sure a student's time provides them (formally) the CV elements they are likely looking for in graduate school & job applications. Nov 15, 2022 at 15:20
  • Taking on students must provide some benefit to their mentor, otherwise nobody would advise students. For instance, students provide labor towards the research projects they are working on, and these projects benefit the mentor. Nov 16, 2022 at 2:03

First, thumbs up for worrying about ethics.

One thing I can think is, does your position as instructor mean that the student doing research with you might be perceived as unfair? That is, could anybody (the student, other students, profs, etc.) believe that doing research with this student might influence the mark you gave the student? Up or down. Not sure if that is even a reasonable concern.

Another thing I can think is, since you are a post-doc, can you arrange that any research the student does with you gets credit with the university? That is, this would be something unofficial. So the student is not going to get course credit or credit for "extra work" or anything like that. If the student believes they will get some kind of extra credit, they could be misled into expending more time than is reasonable.

First make sure you understand the context in this regard. And then make sure the student understands it.

Also, make sure the student understands that you are a post-doc, not a prof. So, for example, a letter of reference from you carries the corresponding (probably smaller relative to a prof) weight.

Agree in advance if you will try to publish, assuming something interesting results. Agree in advance who will get their name on any journal article that gets published. And if it's a case where it isn't alphabetical, what order the names.

As another answer has suggested, chat with somebody who is already doing supervisory tasks.


I have seen lots of UG students doing research work with a professor they're taking a class with.

There's nothing inherently wrong with it.

  • The question is about a student working with a postdoc, not with a professor. Nov 15, 2022 at 19:38
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    Is this a distinction which matters? I had assume most of the potential ethical issues would be regarding power-imbalances which are present regardless of whether I am a postdoc or professor. Nov 16, 2022 at 1:56
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    That "lots of people do it" is not a very convincing justification for something being ethical. I can think of plenty of examples of widespread practices in academia which I would call unethical. Nov 16, 2022 at 2:07

I was in both situations (as a student doing work for/with a PhD candidate (an older guy who was working in the dept for eons and who wanted to finally get his PhD) and then I had a student volunteer to do similar work for/with me.

In both cases, the exam was waived with a top mark (thus no ethical issues over marking unfairly) with the rationale that this work requires way more preparation and knowledge than the course brings. It was OK'eyed by the Dean (but it was a formality)

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