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Our institute has an open position for a student research assistant where it is hard to find qualified applicants. Currently, I'm supervising a very good student who is in the final weeks of writing down his bachelor's thesis. He has experience with the requirements of the position and I would love to have him as an assistant.

The position would start after he finishes his degree.

However, I'm worried that if I were to offer him the position now, it would put him under undue pressure to accept, since his thesis will also partly be graded by me. Is this a problem?

Edit: Thanks for all your thoughtful input and answers! The thesis will be submitted in about a month, my part of grading it will finish a week after. While the professor could veto a application, I am effectively solely responsible for deciding who to hire as research assistant.

  • Do you know if your student wants to stay in Academia or wants to go to industry after he gets his bachelors degree? – scaaahu Aug 24 '15 at 13:53
  • I don't know, but I strongly suspect he will continue with a master's degree at the same university. – user54114 Aug 24 '15 at 13:59
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    I would say it is a problem, for the reason you cited. There is a clear conflict of interest and the resulting extra pressure. It seems an ethical approach would be to wait until the student is free and clear, then offer the job. You may, however, want to say something vague such as "there are some opportunities around that may be worth for us to discuss once you graduate." But not more than that - so he might feel a little better about his future prospects (e.g. having a potential 'backup' in store), while at the same time not feeling pressured into anything specific. – A.S Aug 24 '15 at 14:37
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    If you are so worried about the potential ethical issues, and the position wouldn't start until after anyways, why not just wait until he completes the thesis? – Reinstate Monica Aug 24 '15 at 14:42
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    If it's unethical to offer him the job because you're grading the paper, then what about not offering him the job because you're grading the paper? Seems like both are bad. I suppose you could tell him about the role, and also tell him that it won't affect his grade but if he feels pressured to apply for it then he should apply and then withdraw once you've issued the grade. Terrible outcome for you, but insulates him from any perceived presssure ;-) – Steve Jessop Aug 24 '15 at 19:01
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It is perfectly ethical to inform a student that you are currently supervising about open positions, especially if the student is about to complete the thesis and is a good fit to the position.

It is of course not ethical to let the student's action upon this information affect the grading of the thesis. That's for you to take care of, and I guess you were already aware of that.

If you have any concerns about putting pressure onto the student, an alternative way would be to have someone else inform the student about the open position. You write that you supervise the student's thesis, but your institute has the open position.

If that means that someone other than you is directly responsible for the open position, than just ask that person to contact the student about the position. That will probably make the student feel less guilty with respect to you if he or she doesn't apply for the position.

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    I came to say exactly this. As a student, I would have welcomed being told about this opportunities, and having time to prepare for it (accommodation, alternative plans, etc.). – Davidmh Aug 24 '15 at 15:45
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    As a student I've been in a similar position. My supervisor informed me that there would be opportunities... that way I knew I had a back up and a job lined up so I wouldn't look elsewhere. The supervisor could also mention the position and encourage the student to "apply" that way the student may feel less pressure. – GISKid Aug 24 '15 at 17:25
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I have been in a different situation (on the student side) but it has some similarities. Maybe this helps you.

I was writing my MA thesis and had already been accepted to start my PhD. My assigned MA thesis supervisor and I did not get on at all, and my request to change supervisors was denied by the department. I asked my future-PhD supervisor to supervise me, unofficially, on my MA thesis, and he agreed. He told me there was a chance that he would be asked to grade my paper, and that I should think about whether this would be a problem for me, especially because in case of a negative outcome, I would then have to work with him for four years.

He ended up having to grade the paper he supervised. He told his colleague that he had supervised me to ensure there would be no ambiguity about my mark that I received (of course, it was marked by an external marker as well). I spoke to him about my mark and respected his decision. Was I happy about the mark? It was all right. But he had been honest with me from the very beginning and offered me alternatives in case the situation occurred, and thus I had zero bad feelings or any ambiguity afterwards. The PhD supervision that followed was, if anything, strengthened by the honest interchange.

I would suggest to speak to your student openly about that accepting or declining the position would in no way affect the mark, and that you are aware of a potential dilemma. Perhaps the student won't be able to accept, and feels like they let you down, affecting the mark- I personally think you have to make a call about the students personality and how openly you can speak to him or her.

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The issue you describe might be interpreted into the situation, but the situation is also not unusual - student research assistants are often acquired based on their previous work, and the process of considering a student for such a position often starts before the previous work is done.

I think, however, that the concerns are mostly unfounded. To clarify things, you can tell the student explicitly that there will be no effect on the mark, but even without such a statement, the student should be able to decide freely.

In future offers the student might receive, there will rarely be a clean transition time. For instance, when asked to switch to a different position within the same company at a future job, the decision will usually overlap with time spent in a previous position. Reasonable or not, one might expect to be treated worse in the current position if one declines the offer. That can rarely be avoided, and as such, the student should learn rather earlier than later to make decisions based on the object of the decision, not based on the theoretically possible repercussions for the current task.

With that said, I find the concern comparably unlikely, compared to the inverse. Working as a student research assistant is not a "favour" from either side, or anything that is (or might feel like it is) based on somewhat fuzzy criteria. If anything, as a student, I would be concerned whether my performance in the thesis will influence the final decision on whether or not I can get the student research assistant position.

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I don't see how this is any different from the situation in industry where a member of a work group applied for an different internal position in the same group, and a regular (e.g. annual) performance assessment was scheduled to take place at around the same time.

As a manager (which is what you are in this situation, regardless of differently named academic job titles), you need to be able to construct your own "Chinese walls" between two events which should not interact with each other, but both of which involve you.

If you can't trust yourself to be fair and objective, I suppose you could delegate some of grading activity to someone else, but I think any need to do that is your problem, not the student's.

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    I think it is fairly easy to separate both events, but the student may feel otherwise. And that is the problem the OP is concerned about, he may feel forced to take the job; plus, he may not have the professional maturity, or the confidence in it, to see when their manager is being honest and professional. – Davidmh Aug 24 '15 at 18:40
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If I were you, I would say there is an open position you feel he would be well suited to, and you would be happy to have him take said position, but either suggest you discuss details at a later date, or if you are concerned he will make other arrangements in the meantime, make him the offer, but make it clear you do not want a response until after you have done marking his work.

You never know, he may want to work alongside you as much as you do with him. Equally it is possible he does not want to work alongside you.

If another person offers him the job, it has to be somewhat veiled - if another member of staff says Dr. X is looking for an assistant, this will have much the same impact as if you said it, I suspect. At least if you explain everything, he is fully aware. Hypothetically, say he absolutely loved working with you, but not so keen on other staff members. Or vice versa. Its more of an issue if he accepts a position, and finds out at a later date he is working with his worst nightmare.

Not to mention I wouldn't take it as a great confidence boost if a person I worked with often had a job opportunity they desperately needed to fill, and never mentioned it to me, yet another member of staff told me I was an ideal candidate. It kind of implies you think him unsuitable?

Give him all the infomation, but refuse to hear a response until grading is done - then he cannot say 'I did badly because I refused Dr. X', if he fluffs his thesis.

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You should not personally inform the student about the position, because no matter what you say, this is a strong implication to the student that you want him/her to apply.

If I were you, I would send an email to all the students in the department, in your group (I'm pretty sure your university has such a mailing list), to inform about the position. That student will apply if he/she is interested. You may find equally competitive applicants.

  • "I'm pretty sure your university has such a mailing list" - whether or not such a list exists depends a lot on the administrative aspects of being a "student in the department"; I wouldn't be so sure of its existence. If there is such a list, it is of course worth a try. – O. R. Mapper Aug 25 '15 at 17:22
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It depends on what kind of advisor you are and how you phrase it. The biggest compliment my MS advisor gave me was "I think we work really well together, and this grant has enough for you to do a PhD, would you stay?". Because our relationship is strong, I felt very comfortable telling him that I wanted to do a PhD, but that I also wanted to move on to another department. He understood that it is a healthy part of research to want to work with many different people, and accordingly, you should convey that to your student. You could offer your student the job by saying,

"I think you are a very good researcher, and we have an open position for someone like yourself. It would be wonderful if you were to stay after you have completed your degree. This could be a great opportunity for you. Though I understand that you might want to work for another lab to get more experience, feel no obligation to accept this job just because I am your current research advisor."

Also make sure that the student knows he/she can accept the offer AFTER the thesis has been graded.

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