Setting I am a graduate student in a quant/informatics group (size = 2 people: my advisor and I) housed within a larger academic group that do wet laboratory/bench research. I have my own project independent of those in the larger bench research group.

Problem We often get requests from the bench researchers for some data analysis. My advisor has been passing all these ad hoc requests to me and I do duly comply.

Anticipated consequence If the current pace of requests continues, I think that my PhD project will suffer.

What actions should I take and why?

  • Is your advisor aware of how much you are spending on this?
    – Davidmh
    Mar 10 '16 at 10:09
  • No I guess that's why step 1 in D.Salo's answer is important
    – Kaleb
    Mar 10 '16 at 10:11
  • 1
    Also, the policy in my group is that we give a couple of meetings of advise "for free". If they need more than that, we start talking about authorship, or other compensations.
    – Davidmh
    Mar 10 '16 at 10:11
  • Authorship isn't a problem, it's actually kind of a given. We're embedded within this larger research group (is that uncommon?) but authorship isn't going to be good enough if my phd goes down the drain...
    – Kaleb
    Mar 10 '16 at 10:13
  • One remark to your situation and to the accepted answer. In my experience it was not uncommon for "junior" students (i.e. first few months of project) to be thrown at any work that comes their way. The idea was, that they're still learning, and should not turn down any opportunity to do something and learn more. Of course, these assignments were somehow related to the work, the student was doing, but s/he was in no position to say "no, this isn't my project" until s/he gained the know-how to work more or less independently. (cont'd)
    – LLlAMnYP
    Mar 10 '16 at 19:01

Step 1: Gather data. For an appropriate period of time, keep a record of who asks for what task and how long each task takes to do. If you have comparable control data from before the requests started flooding in, track progress on your own project also, so that you can demonstrate the damage to your own work.

Step 2: Bring the problem to your advisor. Show your advisor the data. Explain what you need in terms of time: X amount of time for your own work per Y work period. Ask your advisor how best to make that happen (do bring ideas if you have them, but be open to things you haven't thought of).

Step 3: With your advisor's support, bring the problem to the rest of the research group. You should do this with proposed solution(s) in hand (one common Organization Hack is to bring two or three possible solutions, any of which would content you, in order to limit the apparent options to wins for you).

Derailment is possible here, especially if your advisor is unsympathetic, but a calm and data-driven approach is likeliest to achieve your aim.

  • I would say you should switch the first two steps. Take this up with your advisor before you start spending time gathering data which may not even be needed (for all we know, the advisor may already have part of the relevant data, or may not have realized that it was affecting the project, so he may simply agree to send less work that way in the future). Mar 10 '16 at 19:44

Learn to say no.

Also, you should talk to your advisor about this. He should want you to succeed and may not know the effects these tasks are having on you. Perhaps he doesn't know how much time the work is taking you or since you always say yes, he thinks you don't have enough work to do. Communication is key!


Impose resource limits

If there is an understanding that it is good to do certain tasks, it doesn't mean that it's good to spend all your time on them so that it hurts your other duties. Make up a reasonable limit (and possibly agree on it with your supervisor) on what is the upper ceiling of hours per week to devote to such requests so that you still have adequate time to work on your own project.

If such requests are common, regular and frequent, then schedule specific times in your workweek to work on them. When that time is up, that's it - go back to your project and you'll resume handling the remaining outside requests next week. If a large backlog starts to accumulate and things start taking unreasonably long then that's what should happen in a situation where the volume of such ad-hoc requests is too large - instead of sacrificing your project while hiding the real problem from everyone else. It will be a clear indication to the requesters and supervisors that some other resources or people are needed to handle those tasks.

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