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I got a postdoc position and I am moving to a new university. I was contacted by my new professor about choosing a laptop that the department would buy for me. The option they have is roughly the same model I have currently as my private machine, and the one that I have used to finish my grad school. Thus I find another laptop unnecessary, but also a hassle (having two computers means installing the same stuff twice, etc.).

My question: is it a bad idea to refuse their offer?

Additional information:

  • I don't have problems using my private computer for work, nor mixing personal and work stuff on the same machine. I did that during my graduate school.

  • But also I understand the pros of getting a work computer (e.g. if the laptop is broken or stolen it will get taken care of) and that my response of refusing their offer may be strange.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Apr 2 '17 at 2:16
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It surely matters where you are.

In the U.S., at many universities, "privileged information" of various sorts is supposedly not ever to be kept on "personal", as opposed to "institution-owned and maintained" machines. Or, as in some comments, as soon as you do have work-related data on your personal machine, that machine becomes liable to Freedom-of-Information warrants, and you yourself can get into various sorts of trouble for insufficiently guaranteeing security.

A similar issue exists (depending on jurisdiction, etc) with regard to email accounts. My (U.S. R1) university account is subject to search without too much probable cause. Some of my colleagues hesitate to have any substantive-sensitive discussion by email because the University's policy is that we are not to delete any such email, but preserve it indefinitely. That kind of thing. (No, it's not clear how this would be enforced, nor what the impact of "pleading ignorance/technical-incompetence" would result in. Maybe it's just CYA policy on the part of the institution.)

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    Wow, I had no idea that the law (in the US I presume?) worked like that. That seems a little unfortunate. I think it healthy for universities to have a strong sense of freedom to communicate ideas without fear of official reprisal, yet from what you describe the system is not really set up that way. – Clumsy cat Mar 28 '17 at 23:51
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    @TheoreticalPerson, fortunately, operationally, you'd never guess that those were the official policies. They are the announced policies, and even though no one comes around "checking on you", if by mischance something unfortunate happens, the Uni has "covered its @$$" legally by having told you that you couldn't do anything at all... and you are all by yourself out there in violation of privacy and other data laws. With good luck, all this is irrelevant, of course. As with many things, the question is about how catastrophic the failure modes might be, as opposed to not-good-but-not-so-bad. – paul garrett Mar 28 '17 at 23:55
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    We had a person die on the job. The university had 2 disks one for work stuff and one for personal stuff as a student/worker. Now this person had saved everything under personal network disk... as a result we had to plan and enumerate what files we needed from the disk for 1 week and then with the supervision of 1) Our manager 2) Universitys Lawyer 3) Executor of estate we could under 1 hour dig for files we deemed nessesery to use. After that it all got sealed for 50 years. Admittedly I am not in US but legal reasons across the globe exist. – joojaa Mar 29 '17 at 6:18
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    @TheoreticalPerson In academia the law is applied not so much to prevent exchange of information and more for two purposes: (1) to protect the IT infrastructure of an institute from harm via infected devices. This usually means only centrally administered computers gain access. Computer users generally hate it but there are some benefits to it. (2) Data protection issues. If you’re working with human patient data, there are all sorts of (good and important) restrictions and regulations of how the data must be handled so no private information gets leaked accidentally. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 29 '17 at 9:52
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    @TheoreticalPerson The goal is not to restrict your freedom but to be able to control the IT infrastructure and prosecute its misuse. Imagine someone using a legitimately-looking university e-mail in scams for example. – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 29 '17 at 14:10
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First, I would strongly suggest that you have a work computer and a personal computer, and then keep those two separate for legal reasons. Although this is not the place for legal advice, and there are many other factors to consider, you should know that in general:

  1. Your employer owns your work computer, and can legally confiscate it at any time and for any reason. Thus, you should consider any personal information you have on your work computer to be accessible by your employer. This includes personal information like tax forms and private correspondence. It also includes information you might not want your employer to have, like criticisms of the administration or job offers from other institutions.

  2. Academics tend to have many varied endeavors inside and outside of their academic profession. Your employer probably has a very strong claim to the intellectual property rights of anything you create on their computer, even if the IP does not relate to your university job and even if you're only using generic software such as Microsoft Word.

  3. Your position at a university may expose you to FERPA or HIPAA protected information, and your university may have specific expectations about how you access that data. My university insists that all laptops use whole-disk encryption because the loss or theft of unencrypted student records is a major FERPA event that must be disclosed to the government and/or public.

Second, there are some practical and legal problems with retaining your own computer from a software licensing point of view.

  1. There's a high probability that a lot of the software on your current computer should no longer be used according to common academic licensing agreements. This is definitely true for certain specific software such as MATLAB, which are generally licensed to the university for use by university students and employees (this is called a "site license"). Since you are no longer a student of that university the license demands that you stop using that software.

    This all depends on the specific licenses that your university has negotiated, but the situation above is very common. It almost certainly applies to any proprietary technical software you've got, and there's a very good chance that it also applies to any proprietary productivity software you've got (e.g. the Microsoft Office suite, VPN software, etc.). It may in some cases apply to the operating system itself, though this is less common today than it used to be.

  2. The reverse of the above situation is also a problem. Many university licenses stipulate that software may only be installed on university owned computers or on student computers. As a postdoc you're no longer a student, so their IT department might balk at installing any work-related software on your personal computer.

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    The IT department might, by policy, decline to assist you with your personal computer in any way. Depends on the institution. – 200_success Mar 28 '17 at 23:18
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    @200_success In my experience the IT department may also, in practice, decline to assist with a university owned computer… – gerrit Mar 29 '17 at 0:51
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    I've always taken this approach (+!) though the work machine is a desktop and I do use my personal laptop for limited work-related stuff (e.g. presentations which aren't confidential). A laptop that would suit me for portability wouldn't be up to everyday use so it works well and sidesteps any licensing/compatibility issues. Our helpful local IT people will advise at least when it comes to work-related tasks on personal hardware -- I don't just say that because one of them knows who I am here! – Chris H Mar 29 '17 at 8:22
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    I know someone who wrote an app using his work laptop. Completely different market segment, but once it was commercially successful, his employer tried to get a piece of it. They did drop the claim before it got to court, but only because the company decided the cost of going after it (including a severance package) was more than they'd win. He dodged a bullet! – corsiKa Mar 29 '17 at 21:36
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    @einpoklum I've never seen an employer that didn't issue their own hardware, and make you sign an agreement that says 1) they own it and everything on it, 2) you agree to constant monitoring (whether they do it or not is another story, but they CAN) and 3) you agree to surrender with any or no notice. Literally every single one, even the tiny ones. – corsiKa Mar 29 '17 at 21:38
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It's probably best to write to them saying you would prefer to us your own computer and ask whether that's an option.

If they do require you to use their machine, you could order one with very similar or compatible hardware to yours, image the disk of your old laptop to an external hard drive, and restore on the lab computer. No installation or configuration necessary.

7

About using personal computers for work - ignoring any possible legal arguments, I would advise taking a work computer if you have got the option.

First it can save you the hassle of lugging it around as you can transfer data and emails between them using cloud/web services (be it private or public cloud); it also saves both of them from wear and tear.

Talking about wear and tear, your personal computer may also benefit from:

1) Not being used so much;
2) Not being carried around.

Talking from experience, when I entered my last job they did not have the option to have a Mac / MacBook Pro, and I used my own during two years. If ended having a LCD problem ensuing a small fall and the laptop being moved around every day.

I also lived nearby, and I wanted to walk and often it was a hassle or depending on the time of the day, even insecure to carry a computer with me.

Nowadays, I have a MacBook Pro at home, and other at work, one has 5 years, the other has 4.

A top-of-line work notebook can be costly, and accepting a work notebook, depending on the part of the world, can signify saving between at least 2000 to 5000 dollars at the end of a few years.

As for the question of reinstalling everything twice, one notebook used to be a clone of the other for years. Lately I do prefer to have two distinct devices, at home I have more software installed that I paid from my own pocket, than at work.

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Try asking them for something else, instead. Perhaps they don't provide you with a desktop computer? You might exchange one for the other, and have IT manage your desktop in case you'd rather avoid the hassle.

Alternatively, ask for some other research budget allowance to be made available.

There's no certainty you'll be obliged but it's worth trying.

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There are two main benefits of using your personal laptop for work:

  1. You have administrative access to the system. This can be really helpful, if you frequently install new software. IT departments often have good reasons for not giving administrative rights to the users.
  2. Depending on your field, you may find that research projects last longer than postdoctoral affiliations. Hence it can be unwise to rely too much on employer-provided resources to do work.

On the other hand, extra laptops are rarely harmful, especially if they are similar to the ones you already use. Make your working environment easy to synchronize across multiple systems, and life becomes easier when you lose a laptop or move to the next university.

The above only applies to research that you do more for yourself than for your employer. You should use employer-provided resources for teaching, administration, and other duties, which you do directly for your employer, as well as for handling sensitive data. This remains true regardless of whether you are formally required to do so or not.

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Certainly there is no harm in accepting the laptop/computer from your office/ university. Keeping seperate things for office and personal use is good practice. For any software issue or defects etc you can look towards university people. And moreover u need not carry it daily if there is safe place in office where you can keep daily after leaving the office

  • The question mentions explicitly the hassle of having to install/update everything twice. – Federico Poloni Mar 29 '17 at 14:58

protected by eykanal Mar 29 '17 at 15:18

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