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I am an undergraduate student research assistant in the US and have been working with my PI for less than a year. Recently my PI asked me to help her in hiring other student research assistants. Not only did I think it was strange that I was being asked to hire fellow undergraduates, but she also asked for my help in hiring graduate students. To make matters more confusing, she had a meeting with myself and other coworkers where they danced around outright telling me I had to do it, but also gave me no other tasks to do- quid pro quo if you will. They also spent plenty of time telling me that they had talked to others in the office- other higher ups- that it was ok for undergraduates to do hiring.

However they then proceeded to tell me that in order for me to help we have to use non .edu emails, non work emails. They eventually gave me the resumes using a usb drive. I coalesced in agreeing to do this because although it was sketchy how they were going about this, I didn't see the harm. Just silly university regulations that were hampering progress. I realize I should've told them no from the beginning, but we were reaching deadlines in other areas and we are short staffed, and although its not my fault that my PI has had numerous people join and quit before and after I joined, I gave in to their pressure to help as deadlines approached. The deadlines passed and I helped with the initial screening, but now they again asked for more help in vetting the candidates further. I politely told them no.

I suppose there is an ethical question here of, is this ok? Should an undergraduate be hiring other undergraduate or graduate students to do work on research grants? Will I be in trouble for going along with this? Why did my PI make this seem wrong to do, and actively encourage dodgy behavior? And if its wrong, is it wrong at the university, state, or federal level?

Thanks

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  • I don't think it's wrong in principle. It may depend on what you were asked to do. I don't see anything wrong with for example checking whether certain formal criteria are fulfilled in an application/CV. Feb 8, 2023 at 0:46
  • I agree in principle. But that does not explain the dodgy behavior and advocacy of it.
    – user167682
    Feb 8, 2023 at 1:10
  • Methinks the … well, you know the rest. On the other hand you’re quite eloquent on your grievance, cheers! 🙂 Feb 8, 2023 at 4:18
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    What exactly are you being asked to do? Interview then? Screen resumes? Make the final decision? Not sure what “vet them further” means…
    – cag51
    Feb 8, 2023 at 4:28
  • @cag51 more or less everything except the interview and final yes. I have background in an area they don't and are hiring for. Nonetheless, if its all ok then why the insistence on leaving no trail?
    – user167682
    Feb 8, 2023 at 16:06

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There is a different perspective one can have: Your PI has a high opinion of your ability to judge, and of your perspective of the project. So they thought it was useful to get your perspective on candidates. They may also have thought that it would be a nice idea to give you the possibility to grow leadership and managerial skills by seeing how the hiring process works from the inside.

Good leaders do both: They lift others up whenever they see the opportunity to let them grow in their roles.


How come I think of this? When I was an undergraduate and then graduate student, as well as later in my career, I have been very fortunate to have had mentors who roped me into things that were clearly above my pay grade, but that allowed me to see how "science is done in practice". I helped write and edit proposals, and I helped prepare for external reviews of multi-million-dollars-a-year institutes.

None of that was necessary. Nor was I probably of great help. These people saw something in me that made them want to support me in my career, and I have been extremely grateful ever since. I have made sure I pay that back by doing the same for students and younger colleagues under my tutelage since then. Asking a promising student to help with something like hiring is something that I might be thinking of as well.

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    All true, but the non-official email thing is strange. Feb 8, 2023 at 4:32
  • Yes Wolfgang I am grateful they think I would be able to be at least of some help, but Azor has hit on the key point.
    – user167682
    Feb 8, 2023 at 16:01
  • @Judge That may be unusual, but personal information such as application documents can generally not be sent by email for privacy reasons, but must be stored on secure servers or memory sticks. So I understand the need to not use university email; I might have chosen a different way of dealing with regulations than to use personal email addresses, but I understand the underlying reason. Feb 8, 2023 at 18:17

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