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I work in a collaborative scientific research group at a public university in the US. Specifically, my lab has two graduate students: myself and another who is expected to graduate shortly.

I'm told that once the "senior" graduate student stops working in the lab (to start writing dissertation) the remaining graduate student (myself, in this case) is expected to finish off the more senior graduate students' data-taking (whether it be for a month or a semester, has not been made clear). The more senior graduate student would be the first author on the paper resulting from this data.

I have been assured that the current senior graduate student did his fair share of data taking for the graduate student who preceded him. I would like to talk to my advisor about this, but I have serious doubts about whether she would care about my opinion on this matter. In fact, I feel like by bringing it up I could only make things worse.

Although this is the "lab culture", it seems unfair to me. Has anyone had success confronting their advisor about this sort of thing without being too hostile?

UPDATE: I should mention that I spent the first 2.5 years of my research time supporting his (the previous grad students) project full time. It is not until after he is gone (and 1-5 months more of me supporting his project) until I can even begin my project. This is the primary concern: I will have spent over half of my graduate career supporting his project full time, meanwhile my advisor says she thinks I can graduate in five years--- that leaves between 2 to 2.5 years to complete my own project. I will have spent more time on his proj than my own

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    Can you elaborate on what makes it seem unfair? This style of research isn't common in mathematics, so I have no direct experience with it. However, it doesn't sound crazy for the sort of lab in which students are assigned projects. You would be making a modest contribution to the senior student's project (compared with their years of work), for which you would be recognized with non-first authorship, and you would also be broadening your own experience. This could be implemented in problematic ways, but it doesn't seem necessarily bad. Am I missing something? (Is there more context?) – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 18 '14 at 2:21
  • @AnonymousMathematician Maybe you should make this an answer. Barring more info, this is pretty much what I would say, too. – xLeitix Aug 18 '14 at 5:51
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    It seems that your question is about having to work on another students' project, not about getting first authorship on the paper. – ff524 Aug 18 '14 at 14:37
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    But it's not that you think you should be first author on this paper - you just don't want to work on it anymore. If that's so, you should edit the title and tags, since this isn't really a question of authorship after all. – ff524 Aug 18 '14 at 16:46
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    Do you by any chance have a contract that limits the number of hours per week that graduate students can work on duties given by the advisor? – mhwombat Aug 20 '14 at 12:09
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Has anyone had success confronting their advisor about this sort of thing without being too hostile?

Fundamentally, I wouldn't view it as a confrontation. If someone is doing something unethical or abusive, then confronting them could be appropriate, but it's not clear that that's the case here. Instead, I'd approach it from the perspective that you'd like to learn what your advisor expects, his/her reasoning and motivation, and how much flexibility there is. Right now, you are unsure whether the amount of work required would be a month or a semester. That's a very reasonable thing to seek clarification for, and there are plenty of other natural questions. For example, how should you deal with any interruption to your primary work? Is there flexibility if you're at a particularly crucial or delicate point in your current project? Will your advisor help make sure it doesn't derail your work or delay your graduation? You could also ask about the motivation. If doing this doesn't seem valuable to you, instead of starting with complaints about that you could ask about structuring things to ensure you got valuable skills or experience out of it.

If you take this perspective, I don't think it will come across as hostile. You're just asking reasonable questions about what's involved and how it can be handled smoothly and productively. I hope the answers will be reassuring.

Of course this may be fruitless: your advisor could be a control freak or jerk who won't respond well to friendly questions. However, if that's the case you've got worse problems than just this issue. I certainly wouldn't start with the assumption that a confrontation is the first step.

It's also worth carefully thinking through why this arrangement seems unfair. As a mathematician, I have no experience with this style of research, but it doesn't sound unreasonable for the sort of lab in which students are assigned projects. You would be broadening your research experience, and your contributions would be recognized with authorship (but not first authorship since the senior student would have contributed much more to this paper, the same way you'll be first author on the paper that comes out of your main project). This sounds potentially worthwhile, so you need to articulate more clearly what's wrong with the particular situation you face.

If this is far outside the norms of your field, then I hope you'll be able to convince your advisor to do things differently. Otherwise, I'd just accept that you and your advisor don't agree about everything and, within the overall constraint of how the lab is run, focus on fine-tuning things to fit you better.

In fact, I feel like by bringing it up I could only make things worse.

This is the part that bothers me the most. Maybe you are just worrying too much, but it suggests something's wrong. Perhaps with how you tend to bring things up, perhaps with how your advisor responds to reasonable concerns, perhaps with your overall relationship with your advisor. Whatever the cause is, this is something worth trying to understand and fix.


In response to the "update" on the original question": I don't know enough about your research area to say how unusual or inappropriate that is, but it does sound worrisome. Do you have a mentor other than your advisor to discuss this with? That could be helpful for determining whether it's a major career danger or just a frustrating but manageable situation.

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