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As a grad student (or postdoc), past taking classes, is it ok to get a thank you gift for a professor who :

  • has helped you with something (e.g. introduced you to someone for a collaboration or wrote you a recommendation letter for an application, or offered life-saving help with revisions for a paper without becoming a co-author)
  • is not directly involved in any official evaluation (i.e. is not your advisor, is not on your committee, and you do not and will not have any classes with them)

But

  1. is in the same institution (and your "neighboring" department, e.g. say Physics and Math).
  2. might, in principle, still collaborate with you on a project in the future (but nothing is planned or discussed and there is no reason to believe such a collaboration is particularly likely to happen)
  3. might still recommend you for other opportunities (e.g. internships, collaborations, or fellowships) in the future
  4. you might still be a TA for in the future

Which of the above (if any) would be a reason for such a thank you gift NOT to be ok.

I am not asking what is in agreement with the rules and policies of specific institutions, but rather:

  • What is the right, ethical, and fair thing to do in general, in such settings?
  • What is the etiquette (in the US, or wherever you know the etiquette for)?
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  • 1
    When that gift is an EV Jaguar, and that professor is me. ;)
    – Alexis
    Mar 31, 2023 at 16:55

11 Answers 11

25

is not directly involved in any official evaluation

This is important - not good to give gifts that could appear in any sense to be a bribe or request for special treatment. It's extremely awkward for the person receiving.

What is the right, ethical, and fair thing to do in general, in such settings?

In the US, there is no ethical obligation to give gifts. People who help you out likely feel it is part of both their job and broader role in academia to help the next generation of academics. For help with a paper that is short of authorship, you could ask them if they are okay with you including them in the Acknowledgements section.

What is the etiquette (in the US)?

I'd say the etiquette is generally against gift giving to superiors in the US, at least in the Midwest where I am. Gifts may come from an advisor to a student to celebrate events, like a PhD student's graduation.

The best thank you gifts are the things that don't really have a monetary value: a note or card with some words that express your appreciation goes further than any material gift would, and can feel a lot more special than an email. I keep a stack of any such cards I've received (though these have always been from people who I spent months or years working with, not for brief help).

If you must give a gift, think things like small treats (candy, cookies, donuts, that sort of thing). I'd say no more than $10 worth, and if relevant I'd give it as a gift to the professor and their lab. But, for the examples you gave, I'd stick to just a note. For people who write you rec letters, it's nice to follow up later with your plans (e.g., a position you've accepted).

Giving something more or any gift that seems to be a hardship to you will likely feel very awkward to the recipient. If you're unsure, it's fine to give nothing but a "thank you".

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    One of my favorite "gifts" I received (as a grad student, not a faculty member) was a handcrafted card from an undergrad that volunteered for me that I then helped get other paid research positions. Cards are also nice because they don't take up space and add additional clutter to my life. I also once received a gift card as a TA, but even though the student was from a different department and only auditing the course (no grade involved), I still felt uncomfortable with the monetary aspect. The handwritten note that came with it was lovely, though, and meant far more to me than the gift card.
    – anjama
    Mar 30, 2023 at 12:53
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    @anjama Yeah, I'd stay away from gift cards given to a superior: too much like cash given for a task that isn't meant to be paid for, which can feel uncomfortable or even rude. As a thank-you from professor to a TA at end of semester is fine, though, or for a departing undergrad lab worker. I've had students from other countries bring back a small treat from home when they visit, that can be an appreciated cultural exchange.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 30, 2023 at 13:26
  • 1
    The university likely has a policy that would require the professor to turn down a gift worth more than a very small value, probably $10. And if it's actually money or a money equivalent like a gift card, they may be prohibited from accepting it no matter how small the value.
    – Darryl
    Mar 30, 2023 at 23:07
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In Germany, any gift over 25€ (currently around 27$) in a professional setting given to an employee (which a university professor falls under) is considered inappropriate and there are even laws in place that say so. And even gifts under 25€ should be reported to a supervisor (although this is rarely practiced). The reasoning behind this is to prevent bribery and corruption.

Even though you mean well, giving a gift to a superior always has a sour note, as others who do not know everything who might observe you giving a gift might think the professor helped you in some (not completely fair and legal) way. And since this is not something that students regularly do, there is also the chance the gift-receiver might even get the idea that the gift is meant to convey some (unwanted or unintended) romantic undertone.

In the end, it is the job of a professor to teach and support students. Tell them that you really appreciated their help--often a good and sincere compliment will have more effect on a person than a small gift. And if you really feel like you need to give them something physical, a card is probably the best way to go.

13

In the UK this would be more or less similar to advice for the US. A card or note would be very much appreciated. Doubly so if you take the time to pick out a particularly nice or relevant card. This would all that is ever necessary, and is probably going beyond what is expected

Gifts are sometimes given from juniors to superiors as long as there is no possibly of it being interpreted as a bribe (this would usually be the case for a grad student, as such students are only ever really assessed by their internal examiner). It is not unheard of, but by no means required, to give your supervisor a gift on leaving, most commonly a bottle of liquor, or small item from your home culture (if you are not from the same country). But that is for a relationship that will have lasted years.

For other situations, if you felt a card wasn't enough, I'd stick to something small, probably consumable, with a value of less than, say £10. Cookies or pastry from a nice patisserie. Perhaps a bottle of wine.

If your professional circle is sociable enough your might offer to buy them a pint or a coffee the next time you are in a pub or coffee shop at the same time. Buy someone a pint is definitely part of British culture. But make sure it is just one - it is not the done thing for a student to get drunk with faculty these days. And don't be offended if they say no.

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  • Buy someone a pint is definitely part of British culture . . . Hmmm. It certainly was a part of UK culture. I'm not so sure today. Certainly I'm not so sure that those professors imbibing together really want to do so or just feel that they should fall in with the rest. Might be wise to secretly survey the professor's personal culture before making this - otherwise quite common - gesture.
    – Trunk
    Mar 31, 2023 at 13:56
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    @trunk It's still very much part of wider British culture. Could be that it's no longer such a big part of all academic cultures, although it is part of the culture in my department. Obviously there are caveats. I wouldn't offer a practicing Muslim or Mormon a pint. Buying coffee is at least as popular as beer these days. And I did say "depending on how social sociable the circle is". Never the less, as noted below 'I owe you a pint is such a standard expression, it may not even mean a post will be bought, but is similar to 'I owe you one'. Mar 31, 2023 at 14:14
  • @Trunk If one waits until "the next time you are in a pub or coffee shop at the same time" as this post suggests, that seems to qualify as sufficient secret survey that the professor's personal culture has taken them to a pub or coffee shop. I don't think anyone needs to study further whether they, an adult, actually want to be in that place they are in, and it's a simple and common matter to turn down the request. All that is important is not being offended by that "no", as the gift is more in the offer than the actual pint, which this answer has also already covered.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:19
  • @Ian Sudbury Your last point sadly amuses. My own point - to be more explicit - is that since the 70s academics have been increasingly health conscious about what they eat and drink: they really are aware of its effects on the quality of their perception and thinking as well as on their digestive system.
    – Trunk
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:29
  • @Bryan Krause I did not imply a detailed stakeout on the receiving professor. Simply some external observations on their relaxation modalities prior to offering such a gift: it might not be their thing and they might find rejection awkward. But yes I accept that in the final analysis the exchange of things of interest is something that often occurs between professors and their PhDs - often when there is no supervisory relationship. I did so myself in relation to recordings of an Irish tenor for a professor who was very interested (but not academically so) in that person.
    – Trunk
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:33
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Which of the above (if any) would be a reason for such a thank you gift NOT to be ok

It's inappropriate when the gift is excessive in comparison to the help. In the UK, "I owe you a pint" is the typical reaction to being helped in some minor way, even if you aren't actually likely to meet them in the pub. But that gives you an idea of an appropriate price tag for any thank you gift.

A small box of chocolates would be similarly appropriate, or a bunch of flowers, or buy them a coffee. A larger box of chocolates or a bottle of wine starts to look excessive for minor help, although it might be appropriate for "livesaving help" on a review. A bottle of really good wine or spirits is almost certainly excessive.

By the way, you may be noticing a trend here. In the UK, this kind of thank-you present is normally food, drink or flowers. Even if they don't personally eat/drink/arrange them, the gesture is appreciated, and those things can always be passed on to someone else if they don't like it themselves. Anything more solid/permanent is a no-no though. If it's good then it's too expensive to be appropriate, and if it's not good then it's not a worthwhile gift anyway. Food, drink and flowers fill that gap nicely - not too expensive, not too permanent.

5

In my experience, a right gift at the right time makes people happy. Also, knowing how to gift properly is a great life skill. This is not restricted to academic environments but to life in general.

Just don't overdo it. Try to put yourself in their shoes: if some acquaintance shows up with a nice card and a box of chocolates, would you be happy? I guess so. If they show up with a dodgy envelope full of money, would you accept it? Most probably, not.

Then of course there are countless nuisances, which are part of the art of living. I used to interchange bottles of wine with my PhD advisors, who both come from cultures which accept alcohol (France and UK). This has always been really nice and enjoyable. But of course I avoided alcohol gifts to practicing Muslims, preferring, for example, fine olive oil. Also, avoid any gift that can be misinterpreted; for example, it is generally a great idea to offer flowers, but be sure they will not be mistaken for an unwanted romantic pass. Choose another kind of plant: a succulent worked great for me in several occasions.

All of this is basic common sense, more than academic etiquette.

3

It can be considered inappropriate to give a gift. A card with a nicely worded thank you and how they have helped you is gratefully received. Teaching academics can use these sorts of things for promotions and appraisals so you're giving them something useful in return.

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As a former part-time lecturer in QUT's MBA School, my view on this is that it is very rarely appropriate. If you did decide to give a gift, it should be something appropriate to the circumstance - like a subscription to a journal that the person is likely to be interested in.

1

My experience. Graduate students from China and Korea want to give gifts. Presumably, it is the custom where they come from. As noted in other answers, this should be discouraged when they are in the US. If there is an "orientation" for incoming students, it should tell them that no gifts are expected.

Let me second one of the suggestions already made: Send them a note thanking them. That would be more meaningful to them than a box of chocolates, by far.

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  • 是的。 红包是不允许的。!!!
    – Trunk
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:02
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according to me the best time to give a thank you gift to your teacher or adviser is when they are teachings are got helpful to you such a few if you were a coder and you build it some good app that worked well you must thank you professor who told you how to code

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  • Could you try improving your grammar here a bit? As it stands the answer's rather hard to parse.
    – user137975
    Apr 1, 2023 at 7:51
  • i can't because i am on voice control mode only and the voice recognizer is kind of bad
    – rushil
    Apr 1, 2023 at 10:47
0

The main issue is avoiding causing, or causing the appearance of, abuse of authority, or even of engaging in behavior that is not easily distinguished from such. That is, ethics rules are based on avoiding such situations, even if as a result of the rules, people are prohibited from doing something that, in the particular situation, is acceptable; ethics boards don't want to be trying to decide whether special exceptions apply to each case. Clear rules such that everyone knows when they've stepped over the line take precedence over bending over backwards to be narrowly tailored.

Another important principle is the lack of dual roles. If someone is your professor, then they shouldn't also be your dating partner, employer, employee, therapist, family member, etc. (the last one might be allowed in small colleges, but if there's enough professors teaching a course that you can take it from someone unrelated to you, you should). This principle is somewhat subordinate to the first one, in that the idea is that their interests in one role might provide an incentive to abuse their position in the other role.

So for the example of writing a letter of recommendation, there is the issue of abusing authority. While a LOR may not be an official evaluation, it is an evaluation, and it can be a very important one. It certainly would be unethical to give a LOR solely because of an expectation of payment, or refuse to give one to students who don't pay. Even if LOR are not part of the official duties, it is something they're being asked to do because of their position (and if you don't have any classes with them, why are they writing a LOR?) Introduction to a colleague also is an implicit recommendation, so professors should avoid any situation that could give the impression that they are being motivated by personal gain.

As far as helping with revisions, that's less of an issue. Technically, if you're giving a gift, then effectively you're paying them for their labor, which makes them your employee. Besides the question of whether they might be uncomfortable with this implication (depending on their cultural norms, they might even take offense at it), at some point this would raise ethics issues as a dual-role matter.

If you are going to give a gift, it helps for it to not have much monetary value, especially not much resale value. The less it looks like "payment", the better.

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Speaking from an ethics perspective, it would depend heavily on whether the gift would create a conflict of interest, because that's what an ethics panel would use to determine if there had been an ethics violation.

In the case raised here, a conflict of interest would be determined based on two factors. Firstly did the professor have reason to expect a gift in return for their assistance, and secondly on whether the professor was rendering a service that was in conflict with their professional position or which might influence their judgement.

For example, could the gift be determined as payment for services rendered, and could the gift unduly influence a professional decision such as the awarding of grades or access to facilities. Either at this time or in the future.

I personally would not render a violation on someone who gave a relatively generic box of chocolate to a professor at the end of the semester for proof reading a first draft of a paper if the professor had no influence on the actual receipt or grading of that paper, but I would if the gift were a $100 gift certificate because that might effect the judgement of the professor if they were ever in a position to grade something produced by the student at some time in the future.

Check whatever written guidance is provided by your institute under ethics and\or bribery. If you are still in doubt after reading the guidance then consider whether the professor might fell awkward at a personal level receiving a gift.

As a rule of thumb, keep it affordable, keep it generic. Seats at a sold out concert that were really hard to get are a hard pass, convenience store chocolates of flowers are usually acceptable.

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  • "for proof reading a first draft of a paper if the professor had no influence on the actual receipt or grading of that paper" - OP is certainly talking about academic papers, as they refer to co-authorship, not papers written for a course assignment.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:20
  • @Bryan Krause, Yes, but you'd need to raise that with them specifically as I'm not involved in this particular issue beyond posting an answer on this website. I have no real world connections to it. If you have a problem you may be best served by approaching them or their institution directly. I'm not able to assist with either. Mar 31, 2023 at 15:29
  • "Firstly did the professor have reason to expect a gift in return for their assistance" Ethics rules aren't based on proving that in a particular case, someone's behavior was affected by a gift, they are based on whether the gift can, or even can be perceived as affecting the behavior. If I were a dean of a school, and I found out that one of the professors had accepted a $100k car in exchange for giving a glowing recommendation, that professor would be fired, regardless of whether they had "expected" the car. Apr 1, 2023 at 1:20
  • @Acccumulation, I cannot speak for your particular institution, but presumption of wrongdoing based on perception of wrongdoing shouldn't be what an ethics committee is for, that's standards and practices. If you accept federal funding you may also need to verify whether you can operate on a presumptive system at all. Apr 1, 2023 at 8:21

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