I have a part-time outside job in addition to being a full-time professor. I'm struggling with performing an analysis that I believe a graduate student would be able to help me with. I suspect the student would be happy to do so, both because of having a nice demeanour and also they enjoy interesting problems and are also applying to PhD programs, so being able to state that they helped me with my research would be to their benefit. I'm not able to easily get my outside employer to hire them as a consultant. Would it be ethical for me to ask for their help with this problem? If I did, should I offer to pay them out of my own pocket (outside salary)? Should I insist on doing so? I'm thinking it would take a few hours. FWIW, I'm not their official advisor, although my colleagues and I share that role in practice.

FWIW, one of the two outside organizations involved in this project is a non-profit, for which some people volunteer the time. (I'm being paid by a for-profit company to do work with a non-profit organization they support.)


After posting the question but before getting any replies, I emailed the student, asking them if they wanted to help, including a link to this question and cc'ing the director of the graduate program and the Provost, as a check on myself.

I just figured out the technical problem I was struggling with, so I no longer need help, and this question is moot. I'll leave this question up, in case it's useful to future readers.


Before anything else, you need to be certain about the legal ground on which you stand:

  1. Is the external work that you are doing bound by any sort of non-disclosure agreement or other agreement to which your interactions with the student would be subject?
  2. Do the university's terms of employment for the student state anything that whether a student can work externally and under what conditions?

If it's clear from both sides, then if the student will be doing a non-trivial amount of consulting work, they should get paid just like you are getting paid. Almost certainly, they should get paid by the company you are paid by, and not by you (unless you are doing your own work as an LLC or some such entity). A good litmus test is: would I be doing this work for free? Clearly, you aren't.

If it were five minutes of work, that might be different. But if it's complex enough that you are struggling with it, it's likely to take hours, maybe many hours, and could impact your students progress in classes or other research projects. In that case, pay is clearly deserved.

  • +1 for mentioning the legal aspect of the "offer" as well. – Alexandros Oct 18 '14 at 12:53

I may sound a little strict about this, but when a guy does partly the job you are paid to do, he should get paid for it. Period. It does not matter if he is a graduate student or he thinks he must owe you a favour in exchange for a future reference letter. Slavery has been abolished (at least in civilized countries). You must pay him for his effort's worth. Where this money comes from (your pocket or your outside employer) is for you to decide.

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    Thank you. I think it does matter that he is a graduate student. People on StackOverflow often help people with their paid work without charge, and programmers work on open source projects without pay. What seems significant to me is that there could be the perception of my misusing my power as a professor. – Ellen Spertus Oct 17 '14 at 18:43
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    @espertus People work for free on open source projects but no one else there is getting paid. So, open source projects is really a bad analogy, when you are actually being paid to perform this task. – Alexandros Oct 17 '14 at 18:46
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    If the student is willing to do it for free, then sure. However, you are, at least ethically, obligated to inform him that he can be paid for his work, seeing as it's not related to his studies, nor the university. – Compass Oct 17 '14 at 18:53
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    @Compass. I know 100% you mean good, but how is that different than the professor suggesting his graduate student to clean up his house or take his dog out? And saying something like "You should probably get paid for it but if you want to do it for free that is fine with me too" along with "Do not worry. You will still get a brilliant reference letter from me" – Alexandros Oct 17 '14 at 18:58
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    @espertus: There is a huge difference between your situation and that of SO. SO is a community: questions are not addressed to a specific person and there is no time constraint. A question is asked and people from the community answer when they're willing to do so, when they have the time, mood, etc. If noone answers, there's no responsibility from the community. In your case, you're asking for a specific task directly to a specific person, and this task should be probably accomplished within a certain amount of time. And the person will probably have to take responsibility for the result. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 18 '14 at 12:00

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