36

I am about to finish my PhD. I am moving cities when I'm finished to start a new job. I've told my supervisor and he asked whether my apartment becomes free then. He is currently looking for a second small apartment, because he lives in another city and commutes frequently.

I said yes and he asked whether I could forward his details to my landlord. I did so and my landlord decided that he can move in when I am moving out, which he is almost certainly doing now. I am probably also going to sell him my kitchen that I built into the apartment - via a contract of course.

My question now is: could all of this be considered problematic, since he is the one grading my thesis (plus a second reviewer)? I've asked two legal practitioners I know the same question. Both of them said that it is not a problem as long as I do not sell him the kitchen for an excessively low amount or anything that could be interpreted the wrong way. I might be overly cautious, but I really do not want to do anything wrong. I also asked my supervisor the same question and he said that he does not think it is an issue, as it is not affecting my PhD thesis/grading in any way and has nothing to do with our student/supervisor relationship. (Both of these conversations were done via Email, so I have proof that I was cautious about it.. just in case.)

12
  • 10
    Is this in Germany? (I'm guessing so because "selling a kitchen" is less common elsewhere.) That might be relevant to the answer because there are slight differences in the role of the supervisor depending on the country.
    – mhwombat
    Apr 22 at 23:04
  • 29
    Your PhD supervisor is assumed to be an biased advocate on your side already. This is why others are involved in the process. Apr 23 at 7:02
  • 3
    Wait, why would your supervisor grade your thesis? Almost everywhere in the world thesis and defense viva require an external examiner and another internal examiner. Your supervisor should not have direct inputs. Apr 23 at 16:45
  • 3
    @MobiusPizza My PhD thesis in the US was graded by my supervisor + an internal + an external examiner. Same system as used in Germany. The supervisor should definitely not be the only person doing the grading but I think they are part of the group of people doing it in large parts of the world.
    – quarague
    Apr 24 at 6:33
  • 4
    @Beska: in Germany for instance, it's quite common to rent a flat without a kitchen and put in your own kitchen - appliances, countertops, cabinets, the works. When you move out, you can either rip out the kitchen and take it with you, or sell it to your successor. Apr 24 at 15:26

8 Answers 8

80

As long as the sale price is within the commonly paid price range, I see no reason why you shouldn't go through with it.

That said, sunlight disinfects! In other words, potential conflicts of interest are best handled by making them public, rather than hoping that nobody ever finds out. One way to deal with it would be for the two of you to write an email to the department head outlining the sales arrangement you have to come to, including price and perhaps comparable prices, with a note saying that there is nothing for the department head to do other than take note that the transaction happened and that all sides have made efforts to ensure that they do not affect anyone's judgment.

The point of such an email is that if later anyone questions the motives of those involved, you can say "no, you're wrong; we did consider the ethical implications, came up with a plan to mitigate any potential conflict of interest, we documented our actions, and deposited the plan with someone who is not involved in the issue and can be considered a trusted source to verify that all of this happened just like we're saying".

1
22

Academia does not have special rules governing the sale of a kitchen to one's advisor. However, the general class of situations in which a professor stands to profit financially from private business dealings with their student are common enough that they are covered by institutional policies. For example, at my own university, if a professor wants to privately employ their PhD student (e.g. at the professor's start-up company), this needs to be reported and judged to be kosher by our institutional conflict of interests committee. While it is understood that such private/non-academic business can be perfectly legitimate and beneficial to all parties, there is also a concern for abuse of the professor's authority, exploitation of the student, and distortion of the professor's incentives to conduct their academic supervision ethically. Therefore, depending on the details of the situation, in some cases oversight mechanisms will be set up to ensure that the PhD student is not being exploited and that academic standards are not compromised.

Your situation with the kitchen falls conceptually in the same class of situations. Whether there is a real concern for a material conflict of interest arising depends on the details of the situation: the monetary value of the transaction, and how easy it is to assess whether that value is fair, and possibly other details. Also, policies and norms vary a lot from place to place.

If you want to make sure everything you're doing is above board, I suggest that you ask the appropriate person at your department or institution - someone impartial other than your advisor. The department chair would be a good place to start, or, if your university has a conflict of interests committee (as mine does) with a listed contact, you can send them an email. Given the nature of the situation and the fact that there isn't an epidemic of corrupt kitchen-buying PhD advisors, I expect you would be allowed to proceed, possibly after being given some reasonable guidance on how to agree on a sale price. But if the idea is shot down, you will still have your answer, and it will be coming from an authoritative source.

4
  • 20
    "Academia does not have special rules governing the sale of a kitchen to one's advisor." [Citation needed] (I did laugh though.) Apr 22 at 19:47
  • 1
    This is very interesting! At a PhD student, I don't remember any "institutional conflict of interests committee" at all, nor do we have one at my current institution. I wonder if it also applies to financial things between tenure track professors and more senior professors. Apr 22 at 20:06
  • 7
    @DavidA.Craven if you find a counterexample I'll retract the claim. 🤔
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 22 at 22:43
  • 3
    @DavidWhite it’s very possible your current and/or former university have such a committee. It’s not something you would likely know about - I only found out about the one at my university when I was invited to serve on it. And yes, this type of committee oversees lots of different types of COIs, involving faculty, their grants, companies they found or consult for that commercialize their research, etc.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 23 at 1:48
8

First of all, congrats on the PhD and the new job!

This is a very interesting question and one I probably would never have thought about. In math (and probably most fields) the purpose of a PhD is to train a new collaborator. The PhD thesis usually stands on its own two feet, and rarely is it a close decision at all whether it passes or not.

You could ask the same question for a postdoc (or tenure track professor) and a more senior professor in the department. You could even ask the same question for two senior professors since they might vote on each others' full professor cases. In practice, none of these potential conflicts of interest lead to actual issues, because everyone in sight is a professional and knows not to let their personal attachments affect their professional judgments.

The point is: you should start to think of yourself now more as a professional and less as a student. Your advisor is bound by professional ethics, and that prohibits them from taking things into consideration that they shouldn't when evaluating your thesis (or writing you letters of recommendation for that matter), like whether or not you gave them a nice bottle of wine once, or whether you declined their invitation to play tennis together, etc. I suppose, from the point of view of external optics, it's probably wise to sell the kitchen stuff at fair market value, so that 20 years from now some Congressional committee doesn't try to claim you bribed your way to a PhD. But, among academics, nothing seems problematic here at all.

2
  • 2
    Your advisor is bound by professional ethics. That's true but not very relevant. We don't allow advisors to do all sorts of things pertaining to their PhD students (or former students), e.g., referee their grant proposal, or accept valuable gifts from the student, or in some cases conduct certain types of private business with the student (see my answer), because of the understanding that sometimes even people who are bound by professional ethics can act inappropriately.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 22 at 17:27
  • 3
    Side note: some countries have actual grades for PhD theses (beyond pass/fail)
    – PBee
    Apr 22 at 21:09
1

There is a mild potential for conflict of interest here, e.g. if the professor gives an easier ride to the student because the latter facilitated a smooth transition to a lease on an apartment. Also there is a measure of moral hazard to the student in as much as they can seek to exploit the professor's anxiety to secure a suitable pied à terre near their job and put him under a compliment to them.

Considering the relative frequency with which this kind of thing can happen with large institutional employers (universities, hospitals, government departments, etc) whose new employees seek to settle themselves quickly, it surprises me that a bureau doesn't exist at your university to facilitate this and similar issues (e.g. advice on local schools, housemaid services, childcare, special needs advice, etc) for employees.

If such a bureau existed, it would be in the interest of both arriving and departing staff that soon to be vacated houses/apartments close to the place of employment be made known to existing/new employees seeking a new place. The bureau could also act as an impartial middleman in relation to rents, viewings, purchase of fittings and so on. That way, no conflict of interest arises.

1

I would raise it with your ethics committee so that's it's formally logged and they'll be able to give you accurate, independent advice. I would definitely make sure to err on the side of extra extra cautious, this is not the time to have something so stupid bite you in the arse 😂

0

Echoing what others have said: your incentives are already aligned with your supervisor, s/he already wants you to be awarded a PhD. That is a career benefit to them as well. The other panel members (i.e., opponents) are the ones where a conflict might arise.

Secondly, since you've already got a post-doc, your must be doing something right! In my experience, getting an academic job is a better signal of success than passing a PhD defense, which is usually a forgone conclusion in cases where you've got a (academic) job lined up.

It might even be the case your the advisor is trying to help you out by making it easier to move and get started on your career. In any case, good luck!

2
  • 1
    I am not convinced. Bribes can be payed after the favor is done, i.e., after the PhD student left. A politician is ethically disregarded when he leaves office and starts a job by a company that might have benefited from his earlier position of power.
    – usr1234567
    Apr 23 at 13:43
  • 1
    @usr1234567 Who's bribing whom here? OP describes a mutually beneficial situation in the question.
    – gerrit
    Apr 24 at 7:12
0

In the traditional system the supervisor only decides when the thesis is ready to submit for examination, it is not in the student's interest to have it submitted prematurely, then the independent examiners (one from the university, one external) determine if the thesis has passed or needs further revision.

2
  • 1
    Systems of examination for PhDs are much more variable than this answer suggests. Specifically if the asker is in Germany (which selling the kitchen perhaps suggests) the system doesn't work like this. Apr 24 at 8:22
  • The German system has other peculiarities, for example it is not a good idea to use the prefix 'Dr' unless your foreign PhD documentation has been submitted for equivalence evaluation to the central office for foreign education
    – jrrk
    Apr 24 at 15:31
0

Consider yourself lucky, you must be a very likeable person. And, congradulstions on your Ph.D. However, concerns are self manufactured. A good sign, because this shows you do not have serious problems in your life, thus you are sweating the small stuff. I cannot overstate how lucky you are. Refardless of what glorious modifications you did to the kitchen, legally and if you look at the small print, on your lease, the improvements could be viewed as damage to the property. Smart as you are, you obviously got the okay to do the improvement from the nanagemdnt or property owner. But all this could be problematic, relative to “leaving the premise” as you found it. Hence your supervisor is not only happy with your progress, but he is taking a load of your plate. Kiss him or her on your graduation day. Good luck!

1
  • Obviously renting an apartment with no kitchen furnishings whatsoever is common in some cultures/countries while not in others. If living in a culture where you rent out an apartment missing a kitchen -- so you just have bare pipes sticking out of the walls ready to plumb in a sink -- I am sure that the small and big print on the lease provisions for tenants furnishing their kitchens, without asking for special permission from nanagemdnt. However, kissing your advisor of your graduation day (or any other day) could be considered problematic in many cultures
    – penelope
    Apr 25 at 16:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .