Assume that one has a skill (assume, programming) and is one of the very few in the department to have it. The other students need a bit of this skill for their projects and you help out when you can.

Where do you set the limit for how much effort/time you spend on helping others this way?


  • You get insight into other students' work.
  • It's a welcome break from our own research
  • Maybe earns you a second/third author for setting up the experiment
  • Networking !


  • Effort/Time spent
  • You don't necessarily improve your skills (For instance, coding in Python for someone else doesn't augment my Python skills by much. What I do might be really routine)
  • You tend to have a soft commitment towards that project. For instance, if I start working on it as a favour, it doesn't really come off well if I leave 'em midway.

EDIT: I do enjoy the work so long as it is at least a little challenging. I often get really n00bish questions and that is when I start reconsidering my stance on helping people.

  • another pro I would add (similar to your first): you can learn a lot of new and fun things about sub-fields you are not familiar with. Jul 7, 2012 at 23:43

4 Answers 4


You forget one consideration: do you enjoy using that skill? To take your own example, I enjoy programming, and even though I might not learn or get anything technical from it, I enjoy solving someone's else problem with some lines of code :) Of course, one should be careful of the time spent and the reward you can get from it, but doing something you enjoy is very different than doing something you can, but don't particularly enjoy doing.

For instance, I can probably install a server and manage a website (with a CMS) for someone, but I don't enjoy it, so I would be very explicit about the benefit (I do that for you if you do that for me). But I could do some cool coding on my free time.

On a completely different aspect, it also depends if you intend to stay in academia: it's a very small world, and the person you're doing a favor to today might be the one sitting on your tenure committee in 20 years (if you work in the same department and all stay in academia, it's quite likely that your paths will cross again at some point in the future).

  • 3
    +1 for "small world". I'm routinely surprised by how often I keep running into the same people (both at conferences, and as I branch out into new areas of research).
    – Dan C
    Jul 7, 2012 at 4:07

It depends :)

I would invest effort proportionally to the potential benefit for me (in terms of number/quality of publications) as well as the fun I would have doing it. Where the limit lies depends only on you and I can't really give you any advice on it. You should also consider other factors, such as how your own research is progressing. If you have an important deadline coming up, you shouldn't be doing something unrelated, even if it might lead to a good publication or be a lot of fun.

In any case, you should be very upfront about the level of commitment. Leaving them hanging half way is IMHO a bad idea. Not only in terms of you not being able to participate in any successes after that, but also in terms of letting someone down who asked you to help them. If you don't particularly like the project or don't want to invest any effort in it, tell them.

That said, I've been involved with a few such projects and always found it very rewarding.


Usually when I help other students I put a large time investment making sure that they are capable of caring on the rest of the project without my help. I see my job is to help them get the ball rolling while maintaining the illusion that I'm the local "expert". An analogy would be dressing yourself up as a consultant rather than a mercenary.

Coding is a particularly good example of this. While you can just code away and have it do the job, claim victory, and get endless praise and thanks, I think that its worth writing quality well commented code so that your peer can take it and do their own thing mostly without your help. At the sacrifice of a lot of initial effort, you get some valuable practice time with teaching and writing interesting projects and they won't feel totally abandoned when you have to do something else.

An additional plus is that you can establish yourself at a person only to inquire when there is a worthwhile need for you skill and that should filter out the "hey dude, can you code this up real quick".


One idea: If you could ask the student if it's okay to record your sessions helping them (sort of like what Salman Khan did with Khan Academy), and then maybe save your sessions, then maybe you can then re-run those sessions for later students (so that you won't have to repeat yourself as much, and so that you can always show yourself when you're explaining the concept at your best). That way, you can do that and spend your time giving more personalized instruction to who-ever you're helping.

  • I'm not sure I see the benefit here. I think it's relatively rare for different people to ask for precisely the same help. For example, most people asking for programming help aren't as interested in learning to program themselves (where Khan-Academy-style videos might help) as in having someone else write their specific program.
    – JeffE
    Jul 8, 2012 at 22:35
  • Hmm - those are good points. The OP did mention that he gets a lot of n00bish questions, so I think those are the questions that are most likely to cause fatigue, and also possibly the questions with answers that are most likely to be reusable. Jul 9, 2012 at 1:07

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