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If this occurs, is this normal? It seems like work necessary for an administrator. Moreover, there is nothing to learn from doing so. It just seems like a lot of work towards something that is not a phd-student/postdoc's job.

The work on grants are slightly related to with the work I am involved in, but not directly. For example, requesting to write reports closing out existing grants.

Just curious on community thoughts here.

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  • 67
    "Moreover, there is nothing to learn from doing so." You might be surprised... Jun 23, 2023 at 20:24
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    Unfortunately, you'll likely share my unhappiness with how much administrative paper-shuffling, reports, and standing-at-a-copier are involved in being a professor. Jun 24, 2023 at 3:57
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    I think this question needs more context: how much? are you involved in the projects? Does he give you feedback? etc
    – Mayou36
    Jun 24, 2023 at 11:31
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    @ajl123 you might be surprised at how much of a working academic's day is "just administrative work" :-/ The pertinent question here, I think, is whether you are being asked to help out with the paperwork of a project you are involved with - or whether it's nothing to do with you and you are just being used as cheap labour.
    – Flyto
    Jun 25, 2023 at 8:22
  • Completely fair and normal. Be a good team player, and people will like having you on their team. Jun 26, 2023 at 19:28

8 Answers 8

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"It is part of the business." "It commonly happens." "You will get experience". But you asked if it was fair. So, although many supervisors and principle investigators here are saying yes it is fair, I would say it really depends...

Unfortunately, the priorities of the supervisor do not necessarily intersect or coincide with your interests or priorities. The more important question is: Should such administrative work have your priority at this moment?

  • How will it affect you planning, other tasks, and responsibilities?

  • Did the supervisor tell you in advance that this was going to be part of the job?

  • Are you pursuing to the goal of staying in academia and writing grants later?

  • Do you want to stay longer in that research group, do they even offer you to stay longer?

  • Will you be involved in a feedback loop of the proposal to learn, or are you just used as a workhorse?

  • On the other hand, what would be the consequences of saying no? (if it is even possible to say no)

Yes you will learn from writing a grant proposal, but it also takes time and energy. It would be rational to allocate your limited resources wisely. And for that, you need to consider your particular situation and the possible consequences, the choices, and priorities you have.

Because gaining experience in writing grant proposals for others will not necessarily be a wise choice if you are at the end of a temporary contract trying to finish your PhD or project. I have seen people in the final phase of their PhD thesis writing, who were going to be ditched, from further funding, still getting additional teaching and research assignments in their last months without getting tangible perspectives on an extension. Others got so many additional duties that they voluntary prefered to finish their PhD on social/unemployment funding, or during the evenings and weekends during a new job, because it would give them more time to do so than in their academic job. Some finished successfully, but a considerable fraction did not submit and did not obtain their PhD. Some had to take strategic holidays during the last months of their university contract, just to get enough time to finish their thesis, some were even not allowed to take their holidays. These experiences at horror supervisors were hopefully exceptional from a global perspective, but not from a local perspective. Unfortunately, these things do happen. Is it professional abuse, or is it normal, or both?

Saying no to such additional tasks is a difficult topic to speak about. Because it is very common that supervisors and principle investigators are asking for extra work, without offering corresponding extensions, or additional resources. Maybe the supervisors were once treated the same, maybe they got used to treating others like that. And hey they are your supervisor, at least in Germany they have a big finger deciding in when you can submit and the grading of the thesis, if you get another extension, and possibly they are paying you now. So how much freedom do you really have to say no? Are the consequences of saying no worse, than the work that you could avoid by saying no? If it is unjust, To who in the organization, could you report the situation, ask for counsel, or escalate the situation, without the risk of unfavorable consequences?

Maybe sometimes saying no at work, becomes dangerously similar as saying no in another MeToo type of situations, in which it is often about the power balance and distribution. One of the issues is that in many European universities there is no feedback mechanism or leverage to deal with such "gray area" behavior of Professors.

As in many cases the supervisors (or other people with authority) that give their 'subordinates' the true freedom and possibility to say 'no', are relatively rare. Often the people and good supervisors, who do give the possibility to say no, are also the ones to which saying yes will be a great experience. In the other case, if you have no real choice you probably also have to say yes anyway.

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  • I don't care for this answer. A PhD is an education, and that includes things one may not be excited to do but has to learn. Surely by writing grants and reports you also learn things that are transferable to other tasks. In fact, that's what I hear most consistently from my former PhD students: That they appreciate learning more from me than just what was necessary to defend a PhD thesis. Jun 27, 2023 at 14:48
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    @WolfgangBangerth I hope your future students will read your "i don't care" comment here. I agree that A PhD is education, but why should education imply unconditional submission? It's well known that Professor jobs not only attract clever but also sometimes autocratic and dictatorial type of persons. Tasks are not reasonable by definition or without conditions, in particular under the given power dynamics. Maybe i emphasized the negative too much. Fortunately, there are also many supervisors that follow the golden rule: and supervise in a way how they would like to be supervised.
    – Hjan
    Jun 27, 2023 at 21:53
  • I didn't say that they should be rote jobs that have no connection to the grant they are paid for. But I do let them read and comment on various drafts of papers by others in my research group, as well as various drafts of grant proposals along with annual reports. I think that seeing the process by which they are constructed is useful for their education. As for reporting requirements for the grants they are paid from: Someone's got to do the work -- so let's do it together. I think your "unconditional submission" and "dictatorial" characterizations have nothing to do with my approach. Jun 28, 2023 at 1:26
  • Separately, I have always been vocal that I have a great deal of gratitude towards my mentors, in part because they have always involved me in these sorts of activities. There is a difference between "doing science" and "being a scientist". I have been fortunate that they taught me both of these. Jun 28, 2023 at 1:30
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    If the shoe does not fit don't wear it. also the winners of a Rat-race usually do not consider it a Rat-race. Education means effort, and yes also going beyond one's comfort zone, and also doing things one does not like, but voluntary. Between academic education and academic exploitation, there is a large grey area, and currently, it is not that clear where the boundary is. Maybe this is a good topic for a follow-up question.
    – Hjan
    Jun 28, 2023 at 9:28
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As a PI I ask students/postdocs to draft grant reports for projects that they are working on. Especially if they are the ones leading the project! And then I give them feedback on the draft, so they can learn how to fill out these reports once they have their own group.

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If you're paid from a grant, it is reasonable to expect you to also work on the less-glamorous side of grant management -- such as writing reports and collecting data about the work you did. That's just part of it. This is no different than the dentist filling in some paperwork about what they did for the records after seeing a patient; or a technician making notes about what they fixed when they came out to look at your broken airconditioner.

And, as @jerlich notes, this is also a learning and teaching opportunity.

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I wish I had had the opportunity to learn this properly by having one of my former PIs train me in this particular aspect of the job.

I do want to add that in my view there is a difference who to ask. A PhD student who has no interest in continuing in academia? Maybe not the best use of that person's time (and maybe not the best quality of the grant report given that this person may be less invested in doing this to the nines). But a postdoc? Definitely OK in terms of seniority and definitely worthwhile if this person wants to continue in academia. All this being said, I do think it also depends on the overall vibe that the PI gives of: Are they making this feel like "you do my admin" or like "this comes with the job and this a great learning experience and let me coach you in how to do this".

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    Great answer: "you do my admin" really feels the worst. It is so disrespectful and counterproductive to use PhDs or PostDocs for doing admin work. I've experienced that myself, I can only confirm with what ajl123 wrote: There is really nothing at all to learn from, nothing! You can't put in your CV and, much worse, people begin to label you as a low performer. I know what I'm talking about. However, drafting a grant proposal under the mentorship of your supervisor can be a great experience that I'd have loved to have during my PhD. My core take-away: Never be altruistic, nowhere!
    – mfg
    Jun 25, 2023 at 6:44
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    @Mario Never be altruistic nowhere is not exactly the vibe or take away I was going for as I think we need more not less of that in academia, but that's another story.
    – BioBrains
    Jun 25, 2023 at 10:36
  • I know what you mean. My statement was a little too strong. I've service-worked a lot for others in my life. And if there is one take-away or one thing that I've learned in all these years: There is no lasting reward for helping others in a business world. This is particularly true for academia. I know this sounds quite negative, but I don't think it helps us if we collectively ignore the dark side of the academic realm. I'm planning to write a book about this sometime. But this discussion is perhaps going off-topic now. Thx for a good question and good answers.
    – mfg
    Jun 25, 2023 at 20:34
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    I mean, if the student is paid from the grant, it is more like “you do your own admin,” right?
    – Dawn
    Jun 26, 2023 at 18:04
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Even if you are not directly funded from the grant do not refuse. Your work will help both you and your PI. You should also ask him to let you help with the grant preparation. You'll make a positive impression and you will learn how to do the disgusting part of the PI's work from someone who is already reasonably good at it. Learning grant writing alone, by trial and error can cost you a lot of time and rob you of many early career opportunities.

Getting a research grant is a lot harder than it used to be 10 or 20 years ago. Governments are trying to move money in critical areas, so the funding for science is a lot less than it used to be. In my country, the chance of getting a grant is less than 5%, and if you account for corruption and geniuses (real ones) is less than 1%.

The reason I think you should get involved with grant writing and the silly paperwork attached to it, is that you'll have the training and understanding how grants work before most of the PhDs in your cohort. When you and 10 others will apply for the same chunk of money, your grant writing/managing experience is likely to make the difference.

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If you want to make a career as a researcher you will need to attract funding. Your PI is giving you an opportunity to learn the necessary skills.

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It really depends on the specifics of the "administrative work" you are being asked to do. For example and as others have mentioned, it would be reasonable for your PI to ask you to write a report about a grant that benefits you, even if the benefits are not direct. Examples of indirect benefits are access to materials and equipment product of said grant. On your question, you mention having to log in to the grant admin website and enter information. That's a reasonable request. Making photocopies or scanning documents are just part of the administrative BS we all have to do every day.

I once worked under a PI whose lab tech quit, and he refused to hire a replacement. So he decided to make me an unpaid technician, on top of my graduate student duties: I had to take training on using the university purchasing system and manage all procurement of materials for everybody in the lab, including other postdocs and other grad students. I then was asked to oversee the lab, manage equipment use and repairs, etc. i.e. everything that the old tech used to do. At first I thought of it as unfair, but then I realized that it came with a lot of benefits. With the extra work came the power to order whatever materials I needed for my research. Because he allowed me the freedom to experiment (and spend) I developed alternate protocols that saved the lab tens of thousands of dollars. And I got a lot of research and publications out.

I also once once worked with a PI that was down right exploitative of anybody who depended on him for anything. His grad students had to do everything for him: teach his lectures, write his exams, grade everything, even post final grades for his classes. He had grad students managing his lab and he never walked by the lab. At one point he even moved overseas for an extended period and left his students to fend for themselves. He took on an MS student on a student visa and made her the de facto secretary, and provided zero training until she quit. It was all justified under the "this is a good learning experience for you" excuse, but it was never.

I hope to have made the point that to the question "is it common to have grad student to admin work?", the answer is really that it depends. Having direct access to how the grant reporting system works has a lot of upsides. Unless you are only being asked to fetch coffee and make photocopies, as unpaid exploitation of grad students go, this is mild at worst and at best a good training opportunity.

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I helped my professor in a project, and learnt how it is different from a paper publication. It was a great learning experience although he didn't appoint me in his lab or any in the University. But I got a better position where I was also asked to write the lab project.

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