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I have a long and very good relationship with a previous professor of mine. I took two of his/her courses in college, got A+'s in both, and spent hours chatting with him/her on various academic topics even outside the scope of those classes. In addition, he/she has written me two letters of recommendation, both of which have served me very well in my career, and functioned as a reference for several jobs I've applied for (and for all of which I was given an offer).

This professor recently again agreed to function as a reference for a job application, and in our email exchanged asked me if I could recommend any resources for him/her to use when making a new website. I provided said resources, and also offered to make the site for him/her if they wished (I have several years of experience as a full stack web developer and would be able to make them a high quality site in a relatively short amount of time).

My question is this: did I put this professor in an awkward situation by offering to make the website for him/her? I understand that writing letters of recommendation and serving as a reference is an expected part of a professor's job, and I am worried that by offering my services free of charge, I may be putting the professor in a potentially questionable ethical position (i.e. making it look like writing me a letter of rec was a quid pro quo). Of course, the reality is that I'm just happy to help someone whom I greatly respect and consider a friend, but I'm worried that it may not be perceived as such.

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    I can only answer for myself. Had you made this offer to me, I would have been grateful and certainly not put off. I would have found a bit of money to pay you -- probably not what you could garner on the open market, but something -- and I would have gratefully taken you up on your offer. We all draw on our friends and associates for the skills that they have and we do not. You've simply given your professor this opportunity. – Corvus Oct 22 '15 at 3:58
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This may vary greatly from person to person, but I, at least, would feel it was inappropriate to accept such a favor from somebody who I had written a recommendation for (unless it would already have been appropriate between us otherwise).

Personally, I feel that writing letters of recommendation for good people is not a favor, but a responsibility, a duty, and a privilege. It is a responsibility and a duty because it is one of those little pieces of service that is vital to supporting the scientific endeavor and maintaining its quality. It is a privilege because my opinions get to help shape the future of the field, and by supporting people who I believe in, I get to help make it the environment that I wish it to be.

In short: gratitude from a recommendee is appropriate. Quid pro quo is not. I would not hold it against somebody who offered a favor in return, but I would politely decline.

As I said, however, opinions on where the boundaries lie vary. For example, I would not have requested information about web resources in the same email, as the professor did for you. I personally think that is a faux pas (but, as noted, I'm pretty hard-line in my opinions here). Thus, in responding, I don't think that you committed an error, though I would find the whole interchange a bit dubious myself.

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    (+1) I have always considered writing letters to be a part of a professor's job. In some cases it is explicitly one, whereas in others it is implicit--promotion decisions can hinge in part on the performance of students associated with you, for example. Which is not to say a professor is required to write a letter whenever asked, but certainly is to say that the person asking should not feel like they are asking for some exceptional and unusual service that they must return in kind. A respectful and short thank you statement is all that should be expected in return. – zibadawa timmy Oct 23 '15 at 4:32
  • Thank you for your insights. I agree that it really does boil down to a case by case basis; both in terms of the beliefs of the professor, as in your case, and in terms of the prior relationship between student and professor. In my case, I have known this professor for years, and I think enough time has passed where our relationship is slightly more casual than the standard professor | student paradigm. I will keep your advice in mind for future instances though. – 01010110011001 Oct 23 '15 at 5:33
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If there's any awkwardness, it's because the two topics were mixed in one email thread.

If you yourself see the website as a separate matter from the LOR, and if you are pretty confident the professor does too, then you'll be fine.

In short, if you're making the website as an expression of your appreciation of the teaching the person did for you, then you're fine.

  • Thank you for your answer, but I don't see how making the site in appreciation for the professor's teaching would be circumstantially different than making it in appreciation for the letters of recommendation (though again, I didn't offer to make it as an appreciation for either, but rather as a favor to a longtime colleague and friend). – 01010110011001 Oct 23 '15 at 5:30
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    As a favor to a longtime colleague and friend is a wonderful reason. // A letter of recommendation is something that must be freely given, with no quid pro quo, otherwise there's something dirty feeling about it. – aparente001 Oct 24 '15 at 4:50
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Yes, it's faux pas if you're a current student. Once you've left the program, you could offer the services.

I don't know if you've put the professor in a particularly difficult situation. The professor should know the departmental restrictions and he/she is probably used to turning down friendly offers from unassuming students. Worst case scenario for you is that he or she graciously declines.

I agree with previous poster that you shouldn't look at letter writing as a favor from your professors. It's part of their job to write letters (be those good or bad ones).

I've had close relationships with professors, and while I also agree that he/she probably should have sent this in a separate email (big university brother is always watching), it's understandable that tacked it on at the end. Don't fret about it too much. I'd send a follow-up email with external sources, and then maybe follow up after you've left the university if you really want to pursue helping the prof with his or her site.

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