I'm a CS undergrad in my senior year(last week!). I've been working as a part-time research assistant in a research institute. I didn't think twice when I took the job, as I just thought it would be fun, and because it's not a school, I never thought I'd continue my research in this field after this job-at least not there.

However, recently I've decided to go to a graduate school, and I want to pursue a master in a different field. I still want to finish my work and hopefully publish my current project, which would probably take 6 months to 1 year more.

During a lunch, I told another RA(graduate student) about my plan. He said that I should quit my job immediately, or otherwise it'd be abusing resource. I'm very confused right now as to how should I take this situation. Is it generally considered unacceptable or unethical for me to not quit my job?

  • 110
    Is it unethical for me to work part time in a shop over the summer even though I don't want a career in retail? The idea that you can't have a job outside your field as an undegraduate (or even as a post grad or post doc!) is absurd. Jun 18, 2017 at 17:06
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    He said that I should quit my job immediately, or otherwise it'd be abusing resource. — Oh, please. He's just being a jerk.
    – JeffE
    Jun 18, 2017 at 17:56
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    I suspect what the student means is that they don't like the idea of competing for limited opportunities with someone with the audacity to have a preference for another topic. Remember that grad school is about learning the skills of research, not primarily learning facts about a given subject. Research experience is good experience, especially if you learn about creating publishable papers. It would be a greater waste of resources, IMO, if you throw it in now.
    – Jessica B
    Jun 19, 2017 at 6:26
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    I had an excellent programmer working for me once, and when I asked about his career plans, he told me he really wanted to be a rock musician. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. It gave me a slight dilemma about how much to invest in his training, but he was doing a good job and being honest so there was no way I could complain. Jun 19, 2017 at 10:08
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    Some people get weird ideas about academic resources and what constitutes a "waste" or "abuse" of such resources. It is short-sighted to think that your continued contribution to the present project won't benefit the grad student, yourself, the field you're currently working in, or the field you plan on going into in significant ways. Jun 19, 2017 at 12:34

8 Answers 8


It is definitely not unethical. Many undergraduates interested in medical careers do research in, say, biology labs, since it looks good on their applications. It is common practice in the field, and no one considers it abusive.

More importantly, oftentimes people take up RA positions specifically for a purpose like yours: to figure out whether or not graduate school is right for them and, if it is, whether they want to stay in the same area or switch to a different one. Being an RA is one of the best ways to try out a particular line of research without a long-term commitment. That said, once you decide that you want to pursue research in a different area during grad school, it definitely doesn't mean that you should immediately resign (especially since you are planning to publish your work). Even though you are not planning to stay, you can still make a contribution!

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    Thanks for clearing that up. I'm planning to switch to psychology for graduate school and did not find much information about this kind of situation.
    – RexYuan
    Jun 19, 2017 at 10:50
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    Perhaps you should consider this RA as a research opportunity. :-) Jun 19, 2017 at 11:02
  • @BobJarvis I will. I've been enjoying it!
    – RexYuan
    Jun 19, 2017 at 13:55
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    @RexYuan Your programming skills should be extremely valuable in grad school! I am in cognitive neuroscience, a related field, and find that the computer science courses I've taken make my life a lot easier.
    – neuranna
    Jun 19, 2017 at 15:36
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    @RexYuan To echo neuranna, I am a programmer whose wife is working on her PhD in clinical psychology. The research she is doing requires quite a bit of programming (statistical software like SAS or SPSS), and I definitely see her (and her department, really!) struggling quite a bit with it (and she goes to a very good school). I suspect that in many psychology departments, you will find real, serious programming skills extremely in-demand. It’s a skill that they need and often don’t have enough of.
    – KRyan
    Jun 21, 2017 at 15:23

The grad student that you spoke to has no idea what they're talking about. As long as you are doing the work you've agreed to do so for the supervisor, you are fine ethically. You are likely paid by a grant, and the grant was for a specific research objective -- it almost certainly wasn't to force an undergraduate to make a commitment to spend their life in a particular field. Quitting immediately would just disrupt the project, and generate extra work for the Principal Investigator.

The graduate student who you were talking to probably knows almost nothing about how/why research is funded, and is just being a jerk. I certainly didn't know much about funding when I was a grad student.

If you are thinking about shifting fields, you should probably bring it up with your faculty supervisor. They might think of ways to adjust the work you are doing to help with that transition. I think as long as you stay focused on their project while they are funding you there is little chance they'd ask you to leave.

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    At some point most if not all grad students go through tough patches. This can lead to being rather snappy towards colleagues who appear to be having an easier ride (even if they do understand functing systems). That's to explain rather than excuse acting like a jerk, especially towards someone who doesn't know you very well and can't be expected to sympathise if you're having a bad day. (+1)
    – Chris H
    Jun 19, 2017 at 9:04

Adding to neuranna's answer: Given that the cat is already out of the bag (you told the "secret" to someone on the team who obviously opposed the idea and might thus leak that information to the rest of the team or your supervisor), it might be wise to prepare a sound explanation of your future plans should the discussion come up with your supervisor. In fact it might even be advisable to approach your supervisor directly and put all your cards on the table. There is nothing wrong with your plan to finish up the project and publish the results. Just convince your supervisor that you can still make a worthwhile contribution. One could argue that you already know all the ropes of this project whereas a new RA might have to spend some time on training and familiarization with the topic.

  • Is there any normal situation in which you shouldn't make your intent clear to your supervisor?
    – fectin
    Jun 19, 2017 at 2:47
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    @fectin, well ethically it might be a dilemma, but if your company (in or outside academia) is known to terminate you as soon as the rumor hits the floor it might at least be reasonable and in your own interest to not discuss the matter until your period of notice arives. Workplace.SE is full of such situations.
    – Ghanima
    Jun 19, 2017 at 6:49
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    This answer is misleading in that it assumes the premise that OP has anything to explain or convince his/her supervisor of. He/she doesn't.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 20, 2017 at 4:40
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    In a perfect world they might not have to, real world and "office politics" make it all look different.
    – Ghanima
    Jun 20, 2017 at 6:03

I'd say: it depends.

You most definitely may (and should) wrap up your work, finish and publish it. Otherwise it would be a waste of time and resources - including yours, of course. You are to some degree obliged to present your results to the scientific community.

The assessment of the current situation might get a little bit more difficult if (and only if) you would be "hogging resources for exclusive use" right now, and there are many people "waiting in line", "reduced to inaction" until you resign. If this appears to be the case, you should try to wrap up your work without any avoidable delays (or extensions).

But in any case you should wrap it up. This will be in the interest of the institute's chair, too.

  • If the work is of interest then someone else can pick it up. This is what handovers are for.
    – crobar
    Jun 20, 2017 at 13:26
  • @crobar I guess it takes some months to become proficient in a new project (even more if it's semi-completed). But of course, if you can manage to find someone who has enough capacity to accept the workload in addition to his or her own... something else is probably very wrong.
    – jvb
    Jun 20, 2017 at 16:21
  • The guy's an undergrad, it can't be that specialist.
    – crobar
    Jun 20, 2017 at 18:36

No, it is not unethical. If this were unethical most human adults would be considered unethical. Not many people truly do the job they really want to do (e.g. rock star).

You may laugh heartily at this RA person, for they are a fool. If anyone is being unethical here it is them, telling someone to quit a perfectly good job for no good reason.


Then it would certainly have been most unethical of George Dantzig to do his PhD thesis in statistics, given that it was not his principal field of interest and he had merely confused unsolved problems in that field with homework and handed in a solution.

The opposite is the case: it would have been unethical to bury what he had been able to contribute.


There is nothing wrong with spending time studying a particular discipline in great depth and participating in research opportunities therein, and then going on to do something else. Society has moved on from the paradigm of "one profession/career/employer/job for life" (despite the attempts of some out-of-touch unions to cling to the old ways); I know or know of many highly skilled professionals who have embraced seemingly counterintuitive career changes (e.g.: an archivist becoming a restaurant manager; a lawyer becoming an academic in the fine arts; a museum director becoming a church minister). In the arts & humanities, it is actually quite common for students to go on to study or work in a completely different field. Does that mean that the degree/research was a waste of time? No, of course not. For many people, undergraduate study/research is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage with a discipline in great depth unfettered by administrative and financial obligations (and believe me, these get really onerous and distracting even if you do end up becoming a researcher in the same field).


"I don't know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough". Richard Feynman

I believe that the unethical attitude would be leaving the project that you have started unfinished.

Do your best with the remaining part, and i hope that it will be a great experience for you.

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