‘Opportunity’ v ‘extra work’ –perspectives of a new PI.

Last week I spotted two tweets about opportunities. One said something along the lines of ‘stop telling PhD students you are giving us opportunities when really you’re dumping extra work on us’ and another implied ‘opportunity’ in a euphemism for unpaid labour.

I have to admit, both of these lead me to take a good hard look in the mirror!

Genuine opportunities for early career researchers are something I have always considered to be critically important in academia. Because of this, over the last few years I have consciously tried to offer PhD, MSc and BSc students what I saw as ‘opportunities’, in particular the chance to get their names on my papers.

This is something that is really important to me. I wasn’t lucky enough to get my name on other people’s papers when I was a student (except for one review!) and I would have killed for the chance to run a few PCRs or analyse some data to get an authorship. For me, this didn’t happen until I was 3+ years post PhD, at which point I had enough of my own first author papers that a co-authorship was less of a boost to my CV than it would have been earlier on.

As an undergrad or postgrad, if you’re hoping to become a PI one day, you already know that publications are key. But without the resources, funding, political sway or niche expertise that a more experienced researcher might have, you’re somewhat reliant upon others going out of their way to include you. Or at least that’s how I felt when it was me.

This is the reason I have made sure to include the students around me over the last few years, and as far as I was concerned – it was working! Recently three of my project students have gotten their names on two papers each, as well as a couple of the nearby PhD students getting their names on almost everything I publish. I must admit I’ve been giving myself a pat on the back for this… Sharing my modest success and building the CVs of the talented future PIs around me had felt like a privilege, and a rewarding endeavour.

But was I really just exploiting them?

Let's Get Together To Talk About This Exciting New "Opportunity" - Dr. Evil  Air Quotes | Meme Generator

Looking back, some of those students probably had no interest in building their CV towards a career in academia, and could probably take or leave the ‘opportunity’ to get their name on a paper. They of course each told me that they really wanted the authorships and were really grateful for them. But that’s exactly what I would have said too, regardless of how I felt – maybe they were just being polite!

With one student in particular, I remember getting a sense that perhaps they weren’t that interested in the ‘opportunity’ I had offered. It was someone I knew well, and I was comfortable being candid with them about this. I recall saying directly that there was no pressure to take it on, that I was happy to do it myself and the only reason I was offering it to them was to give them a chance at authorship. They insisted that they were keen to be involved, and went ahead and did the work, which amounted to a full figure and prominent authorship in the resulting paper. It was only afterwards that they admitted they actually had no interest in that particular topic, it was just extra work, and they had only done it as a favour for me.

I won’t lie, it felt like a bit of a gut punch. My ‘good deed’ had been perceived as unpaid labour.

Outside of academia, unpaid labour can be a huge problem, particularly now that social media has become so key in growing people’s businesses & careers. Stories of professional photographers or bakers getting asked to do weddings in exchange for Instagram posts, or artists being asked to create commissions for nothing but the offer of ‘great exposure’ are rampant, with some notable and entertaining examples on the ‘choosing beggars’ subreddit if you want a laugh: https://www.reddit.com/r/ChoosingBeggars/comments/gfkhqv/background_dancer_gets_an_offer_from_a_music/

Could this be the case with students in academia? Is authorship payment enough, or should we only offer to get students involved if we can actually pay them cold hard cash for the experiments they run or analyse? This would certainly vastly reduce the frequency with which I could give students authorships on my papers, as funds are generally not available to pay them with.

Is it enough to frankly say to a student ‘I have no funding to pay you to run X experiment, and you don’t have to do it, but if you do, I will put your name on the paper’, or does that run the risk of them going along with it out of politeness, as happened to me recently?

If I were to stop offering these ‘opportunities’, would keen students who want to be PIs one day end up missing out? Students who would have been just as excited as me to get their name on a paper?

How do we determine whether we’re offering someone an opportunity or purely exploiting them?

I wish I had the answer to this, but as with many other things in my first year of being a member of faculty – I have no idea.

Discussion, comments & advice welcome as always!

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