Like A Business

Aug 23 2011 Published by under advising, faculty, graduate school

In recent posts over at FSP, we have been discussing to what extent a professor should intervene if a student exhibits signs of possibly maybe (but probably not) needing to see a doctor. In the specific case described, an undergraduate student fell asleep during a meeting with a professor about the student's research project. Some commenters said that, despite the student's claim to be fine (not ill, not feeling faint etc.), the professor should have done more to insist that the student seek medical attention.

I don't want to talk about that specific case in more detail here, but one commenter's argument for more assertive intervention by the professor hinged on the opinion that we professors are supervisors and are therefore responsible for the physical and mental well-being of our "team members"; in this case, an undergraduate student.

Agree or disagree?

There is no doubt that we professors are managers in many ways. We supervise the work of our researchers, whether these are postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, technicians, or others. Grants that we obtain pay the salary, benefits, and -- in some cases -- tuition of those we supervise. We fill out lots of forms.

And yet, there are differences. We are advisors, not employers. The employer is the university. If I have a problem with one of my graduate advisees (for example), I can't "fire" them in the way that employers can. I can remove myself as advisor, but if this occurs within the time-frame of their guaranteed support, my department has the responsibility of helping that student find another advisor, or facilitating the student's transfer to another department or institution. Similarly, if a student decides to change advisors, they can. In this way, they are treated more as students than as employees.

Perhaps the argument that professors aren't really employers or managers in a business or industry sense is analogous to the argument that students who are research and teaching assistants may (or may not, depending on your opinion) be "workers" in the same sense as employees who are not also students.

So, the question for discussion is whether (and/or in what ways) a professor has the same type and level of responsibility for the physical and emotional/mental well-being of their advisees as those in business or industry.

Certainly we professors are responsible for providing a safe, healthy, and fair working environment for our advisees, but what can/should we do beyond that? I know little of the non-academic world of work, and therefore have no idea how (or whether) an employer in industry would intervene in the personal life of an employee who showed signs of possibly/maybe having a health problem; for example, an employee who fell asleep during a meeting.

What, beyond asking the employee if they are OK, would/could a non-academic employer do? Is it really the same for a professor to ask probing questions about a student's health, as it is for an employer to ask an employee, or is it different?



33 responses so far

  • Pramod says:

    My (non-academic manager) boss fell asleep several times during meetings (never in a 1v1 meeting though). Nobody did anything. I assume she was overworked and lacking sleep and anyway nothing very interesting/important was being said.

    I think both situations are the same. You can ask a few questions and if the student/employee still insists that they're fine, there's not much you can do. These folks are adults.

    On a related note, I've been in situations where people have tried to force me to seek medical attention of a certain type against my wishes and I find it extremely difficult to deal with these situations. I appreciate the person's concern, but there are reasons why I might want to go to medical center A instead of B and I'd rather not explain these decisions to those who are not good friends.

  • moom says:

    What would your chairman, dean, or HR people do if you had problems? Your position relative to the student is similar to the chairman relative to you or an immediate manager rather than the CEO in a company.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    Even in business a supervisor can counsel an employee to get assistance - particularly if the employee is falling asleep in meetings or is exhibiting some other disruptive behavior.
    Now in the military, you can send an employee to medical, but that's different.

  • We're talking about ONE incident here, right? This individual feel asleep during *A* meeting? Which, as I'm sure you're aware, could be from a number of problems, none of which are anyone else's business so long as it doesn't interfere with his/her ability to continue meeting the academic and professional requirements of his/her situation.

    And "I'm fine" is an automatic response in some cases... the individual may already be under a doctor's care.

    Perhaps this all hits rather close to home for me, since back in '80 I had a similar thing happen to me while I was an undergrad. I was recovering from pneumonia which I'd been treated for during winter break, and was still on medication when I returned to school. Not only did I fall asleep in front of my professor, who was arguing a point which I strongly disagreed with, but in front of 10 of my peers. I am ashamed to say now that I was too embarrassed to go back and explain myself, but also didn't want to have to feel weaker or less competitive than the other students.

    But I'm thinking more of the other reasons students may appreciate a "are you OK?" type message of concern and where a "maybe you should go see a doctor" isn't appropriate... and I could probably give a dozen examples that fall into the "it's nobody's business but my own" category.

    The other part of this is that we're talking about ADULTS here, not children, and while we have to provide a safe environment, we don't have the right to impinge upon their personal choices, nor are we responsible for their health. That responsibility lies solely with them.

  • lauren says:

    I feel very dubious about the idea that supervisors in a non-academic setting are "responsible for the physical and mental well-being of our 'team members.'" I know you're slightly overstating that to make a point, but still: I've been a supervisor in non-academic settings and I would never have thought that someone's physical and mental "well-being" was any of my business just because I was supervising their work! Sure, I'm there to ensure they have a safe, productive, decent environment to do their work, and part of that means responding to/accommodating specific problems, but a larger concern about their well-being strikes me as patronising and weird.

    But to answer your question: there are all sorts of statutory responsibilities of an employer but it boils down to 1. supervising work and 2. providing a reasonable environment for someone to do their job. So in essence, yes, the non-academic manager's responsilities and the academic advisor's responsibilities ought to be the same.

    I keep thinking of that terrible example in your other blog, i.e., the post-doc who came from abroad to work in a lab, and the PI/advisor never bothered to take down emergency contacts or next of kin. I expect the PI just thought, as you mention above, "I'm an advisor, not an employer!" Then when the post-doc had a seizure and lay in the hospital unconscious for two days, the grad students went rifling through this poor guy's apartment and finally googled his mom and contacted her at work. The weirdest thing about this story is that the person relating it seemed to frame it as some zany caper, not acknowledging how the PI ought to have at least jotted down some basic details for this person he was supervising. In a non-academic setting, the supervisor would not have been let off the hook for that.

    • GMP says:

      I don't have contact information for the next of kin for any of my students or postdocs. I really doubt that advisors routinely collect this information. Sure, in the incident you describe it would have been useful, but I doubt that any of the PI's who read FSP could say they have mom/dad/spouse/sibling contact information for their group members. That is not to say that SOMEONE shouldn't have this information, but it strikes me more as HR type info than something that PI's/academic supervisors should be collecting.

      • AllisonC says:

        In the lab where I work, there's a document with contact info for everyone, including an emergency contact name and phone number (for most people; a couple seem to have opted out). In addition, HR keeps emergency contacts/next-of-kin info (for everyone).

        This covers both bases: local emergency contacts are close at hand for "meet us at the hospital" type conversations, and next-of-kin info are on file for the "unconscious for two days" scenarios.

      • BioGirl says:

        When I was a grad student (from another country) without any kin in the I US, my PhD advisor had all required information for me, including passwords to my email accounts, emergency phone numbers, my ATM pin, etc. All I was missing was a living will. But I did not know about that option then. So did the most closest thing - having someone have all the information in case I died or something!

        • lauren says:

          Just in case this isn't a joke--please report the former PhD advisor who tried to tell you that your email passwords and PINs were "required information" for her to have.

          • BioGirl says:

            She didn't ask for them. I left them with her in case. I did not have any family in the US and in case of death it is a nightmare to figure out things (including the cyber stuff) unless someone had access to it. I had such a great advisor that I could them with all this. Before I had the opportunity meet awesome friends!

          • BioGirl says:

            Also, when this other grad student who died, that I mentioned below, that lab lost 4 years of data and all the official emails and stuff, because he used his personal laptop and it was encrypted and his family took it with them to a different state.

  • Allison says:

    I feel the opposite way to the argument that you have outlined. Like you said, in the academic setting, professors are advisors and mentors. They are tasked with sculpting young scientists or writers or engineers. There are skills to pass on, yes, but there is also an emotional component---teaching students to think; in a good learning environment, there is an emotional component to personal growth that should not be denied. It should be the professor's responsibility to make sure that those emotions are all where they need to be.

    Conversely, in a more corporate environment, managers just need to make sure that work gets done. In my opinion, anything goings-on behind the scenes are none of their business as long as no one is getting hurt and the job gets done.

  • GradStudentAbroad says:

    FSP, I often agree with you, but not about the nature of the relationship between professors and trainees. In fact, I don't understand any of the distinctions you make here, or in other posts on this topic. You argue that professors are not "managers" and student trainees / advisees are not "workers", but this is a false dichotomy: it is possible to be an employee and be learning at the same time, in fact one would presume that this is what all employees in skilled professions do, especially in the early stages of their careers.

    Some of employers' responsibilities towards workers include providing a safe workplace (OSHA: ), and not discriminating against those with disabilities (ADA: ). Presumably, you would agree that those responsibilities also apply for the students you come into contact with.

    If a student is working for you (as an undergraduate or graduate research assistant, for example), then in that context they are an employee. The fact that their contract is with the university and not a personal contract with you doesn't change the fact that they are an employee; after all, in the corporate world, employees do not usually sign contracts with their direct supervisors. If a student is taking a class from you, then in that context they are a student.

    If a student changes advisers within the university setting (while staying a university employee), then that is very much like an employee changing managers within a corporate setting (while remaining an employee of the same corporation), which happens all the time.

    If a student is guaranteed funding for a certain length of time and cannot be easily "fired" at will during that time, how is this fundamentally different from an employee on a short-term contract? Firing employees can not always be done "at-will", depending on the contract the employer may have to show just cause, put up with them until the contract expires, etc. (try firing a tenured professor). Student employees can also theoretically be fired (or simply not have their contracts / stipends renewed) for just cause, even if this is uncommon.

    When in other posts you complain about students not taking their responsibilities seriously -- i.e. you (or your university / funding agency) are paying them to do something for you (or for your research group) and they should do it -- you are conceptualizing them as employee. You can't have it both ways, giving trainees all the responsibilities of employees and none of the rights.

    It is only in academic contexts that we pretend that early-career employees are "students" and not entitled to the rights of employees. Early-career employees who are still learning are trainees or apprentices: trainees and apprentices are employees.

    I think what you actually mean in this post is that professors dealing with students they supervise are MORE like MANAGERS and LESS like PARENTS, i.e. the students are adults (possibly employees) and professors are not responsible for what happens to students outside of the university context, or for the students' general health and well-being, except to the extent that it is work-related.

    • CSgrad says:

      Yeah, I mostly agree with this. I do not understand why academic culture insists that TAs, RAs, and even postdocs, are not real workers with real jobs (an argument that I've heard from people, including grad students! as to why TAs shouldn't unionize). They work and receive money for it, both the money that goes into tuition remission and the money that provides their stipend (what normal people would call a salary or wages). Grad students, at least in STEM fields, are akin to apprentices, receiving training and mentorship and gradually being able to work more and more independently. Postdocs are early-career. Sure, they aren't "permanent" jobs, but in case anyone missed this somehow, neither are a lot of "real" jobs anymore.

  • RespiSci says:

    As the commentator from industry who raised this issue, I would like to point out that in industry often the direct supervisor cannot fire the employee either (at least not without extensive review process and l0ads of documentation). I do appreciate that unlike industry where most companies have access to an entire human resource department for assistance, in academia it is challenging to direct the students accordingly. Do you suggest student services? Is there a union for the grad students which has health insurance (sick leave) options? This IS a lot to handle on top of research, handling budgets, writing manuscripts/grants etc. However this is also part of supervising. Managing people WELL takes an enormous and vast amount of time, energy and patience-far beyond what most of us initially expect or appreciate. Nevertheless, it is so worth it when it works out. I have been in awe of what my team can deliver under rather adverse conditions (pharma industry in midst of massive layoffs!). For research professors, the person who is most driven and passionate about having a productive lab should be you, the PI. As it is your lab, no one else should care as much as you about what happens within it. And making sure that your students can do their research effectively is part of that responsibility. To follow up with the student who had fallen asleep during a meeting wouldn't have taken much initially. A chat the next day to check whether there wasn't something going on (health, personal, just pulled an all-nighter) followed by a mention about lack of professional behavior (really, can any of us imagine falling asleep when talking to your boss?) to ensure that this won't happen again, and then watching to see whether there is a recurrence. If there is, then you need to take further action which will take more time and thought.

  • sciencecanary says:

    I am a professor who cares a lot about their advisees, but I do not collect emergency contact information for my students. This is the job of the university or department, and there should be a systematic method for getting the info from the students and for professors and other staff to access it in an emergency. I also think students might prefer to be asked for this information by an impersonal entity. I can think of two of my recent students who were extremely private about their off-campus lives.

    It should not just be up to the advisor to collect such information and put it in a file or on a piece of paper somewhere, and it should not be an indicator of whether we care/don't care about our students.

    • lauren says:

      "I do not collect emergency contact information for my students. This is the job of the university or department, and there should be a systematic method for getting the info from the students and for professors and other staff to access it in an emergency."

      So your lab only operates 9-5 on weekdays?

      It kind of blows my mind that someone supervising a (maybe hazardous) work environment, one that's open all hours, would never think of getting the emergency contacts for the people doing the work. So if someone you supervise gets seriously sick or hurt and is hospitalised, your plan is to just be like, "Yeah, someone might be wondering where she is. Not my problem. I'll see if someone in HR can deal with all that on Monday morning."

      • letsnotbemean says:

        Why assume the worst -- that this person supervises a hazardous work environment, that this person doesn't care, etc. etc.? This comment just seems to be requesting that there be a systematic means for these data to be collected, including that there be a means for people to get this information when needed in an emergency. This makes sense to me. I have also had students who would have felt that their privacy was being violated if I -- their advisor -- asked them for this information myself and if other students had routine access to the info. But I bet they would be fine providing the info to a database that could be accessed in an emergency. Note that, like scican, I am not saying or implying that emergencies only happen during working hours on weekdays. You can infer otherwise, but only if you like to invent things to get upset about.

        • lauren says:

          If you find one person who thinks that being asked for an emergency contact--by their supervisor, at work--constitutes a dreadful invasion of privacy, I'll eat my hat.

          Being a flake is one thing (and, um, typing this I realize we have a new volunteer and I need to get her details) but it's quite strange to see the number of PIs/supervisors here who are getting defensive and refusing on principle to take ownership of this one random little task that's somehow been thrown into relief here. Some are just saying outright, "It's not my job," others are making up weird reasons, like there ought to be a magical HR database that's top-secret and yet instantly accessible, or that their students are all paranoid freaks who would sue if asked for a home phone number or a partner's name.

          Maybe it just smacks too much of administrative work?

          • BioGirl says:

            One of the students I knew after I graduated died in his home and it took a few days for his advisor to realize he is missing, had no way to get hold of him when he did not answer the phone, file paperwork with the univ and then contact the cops, to finally find his body at his home. Needless to say it was a very stressful situation for everyone involved. It would be a nightmare if one were to solely rely on higher ups in the Univ administration to figure out next of kin and emergency contacts! In the very least having lab mates have spouse's number etc, would not be a bad idea.

  • CSgrad says:

    Professors don't directly employ their lab members, but managers in industry don't directly employ their supervisees either. The company employs them, just like how in academia, the university employs them. In fact, I would say that a professor is very much like a manager, albeit with a mentorship role to some lab members as well.

  • becca says:

    I agree with GradStudentAbroad that the differences imagined here between "student" and "employee" are not so cut and dried as presented. And there is a lot of incentive for professors to give students all of the responsibilities of employees and none of the rights.
    At the same time, universities often expect professors to take on all of the responsibilities of a small business owner, and none of the rights.

    It is unreasonable to expect professors to counsel students over personal matters. And frankly, often times they are criminally bad at it.
    At the same time, universities are typically pretty large employers. They usually have HR departments. They usually have counseling services. They often have all kinds of wellness programs for employees and students (and if the grad students aren't eligible for the employee programs, then professors should be advocating for them). It is a professors job to know what resources are available to the student and make sure students have the information. Sometimes this can be done subtly, in a way that does not infringe much on autonomy (e.g. just providing a flyer with a note that says "in case you know anyone who needs this"). Sometimes you do have to say "I don't know if this is anything serious, but since it could be something that would need workplace accommodation, please get it checked out"

  • Dr Moose says:

    It is fascinating to know that employees of companies can choose which project they work on and also switch supervisors if they find another project or type of work they would prefer over what they were hired to do. This has not been the case in the companies I have worked for, but clearly my experience has been very limited. Seriously.. students are not the same as workers, even if some of them work for pay while they are students, and professors are not managers in the sense of supervisors in companies. The differences are just too many to take this analogy too far.

    • GradStudentAbroad says:

      I didn't claim that employees always have control over where they work according to their "preferences", although in some companies, employee's requests for transfers are in fact taken very seriously. I just said that employees often do move to different projects and/or managers, after a certain period of time, for whatever reason. That doesn't make them stop being employees of the same company.

      Grad students also do not have unlimited control over who they work with, or what they work on. They may have more control over the topics they research, who they work with, etc. than employees in many industrial jobs, but then, so do professors, and nobody is claiming that professors are not employees. I would argue that this is primarily an academy-industry difference, not a student-employee difference.

    • GradStudentAbroad says:

      Also, it is not an analogy to say that students who have an employment contract with the university are university employees. It is a statement of fact.

  • DrDoyenne says:

    I don't think there is a a real difference between being a student adviser and an employee supervisor...from the standpoint of health and safety...especially if they are working in your laboratory or other situations under your purview.

    In any case, once you are made aware of a situation, you are already involved. At least that's the attitude in my world of government science.

    I always consider the worst case scenario in such interactions to decide whether and how I should intervene. I ask myself how I would be viewed if I failed to intervene, and a student/employee suffered serious injury or even died (or caused injury to someone else). Could I be held liable for failing to resolve or report the situation? Even if I am not held legally responsible, how would I be viewed by my superiors and peers for failing to act?

    I often take students and employees to remote, foreign locations for fieldwork, and am absolutely responsible for them during those trips. I don't make a distinction between students or employees--either can do (and have done) some pretty stupid things. Also, accidents happen through no one's fault, but I would be held ultimately responsible as PI and field trip leader. So I'm particularly aware of my responsibilities. I set down guidelines, and anyone who fails to follow them is put on the first plane home.

    Although I avoid prying into my student's/employee's personal affairs, I will listen to someone who has a problem and wants to talk about it. In most cases, I don't give specific advice, but instead ask questions to steer them toward a solution of their own. If the problem is serious (drug abuse, sexual harassment/stalking, criminal activities), then I'm obligated (by my agency) to address the problem by sending them to some type of counseling or by reporting the incident to a higher authority.

    Once I become aware of a problem, I have no choice (in my position) but to take action. I can't claim that it's none of my business. I know in many cases that I would be subject to some type of adverse action or even dismissal by my employer, if I failed to act after being informed of a serious problem.

    In government, it's the immediate supervisor who is held responsible for the actions of their subordinates. No passing the buck.

  • FrauTech says:

    I'd say a professor is more like a mentor and the relationship is more one of an apprenticeship. So I would actually expect a PI to "care" more. As a corporate drone for many years I can tell you your boss doesn't care. In cases where I've seen a boss intervene in an employee's health issues it's been the reverse. They attempted to force the employee to prove they were healthy enough to perform the job. Usually they wouldn't be able to fire the person (assuming the individual knows their rights under the ADA and has provided documentation prior to any performance complaints) but they could still offload that employee and make them someone else's problem. I've known maybe one or two bosses who would care personally enough to ask if everything's alright. Usually HR is the only one that cares, and it's often to find a way to let you go assuming you're not protected by the ADA or haven't properly documented that you are.

    Moose- not sure who you are talking to. In my experience employees don't have a whole lot of say. You can be transferred without even being notified. I agree there are more opportunities than for grad students but it relies on what a manager wants not what an employee wants. Most people have to find a new job to have any control over their work situation, and even that is no guarantee as you can be reassigned, retitled, transferred, or fired at any time. In many ways employees have more options and freedom than grad students. But in other ways less ability to scope out a job, usually lower job security, and usually not the same support network labs and universities provide. Just my opinion.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I had an undergraduate student working for me. Change of semester and he did not show up. His father was a student in the department. I ran into him a couple of weeks later and asked about my worker. Turns out he was killed in a car wreck.

    One day I had a broken blood vessel in my eye. I didn't think anything about it, but two of my female colleagues harangued me into going to my eye doctor. So I did. When I came back they asked me what he said. "You have a broken blood vessel in your eye. That will be $34.00." I thought they should have been at least a little bit abashed.

  • bigmountaindog says:

    Professors are not managers like in a company. Maybe in some fields they are, but in mine they are not. The student is an apprentice, but also one with a lot of freedom. Certainly the university and department and advisor have great responsibility for the health and safety of the students, but the students have to take a lot of responsibility as well so that they don't do stupid things, ignore the rules, and always expect someone else to be taking care of them. But if they do stupid things, they can't be fired, unlike a normal worker. I had an alcoholic student working in my lab, and he was a major hazard to himself and others. I took away his lab keys and with strong words urged him to get help, but he didn't, he just borrowed keys from other students and went in the lab anyway when I wasn't around. I couldn't fire him because he was advised by another professor. If that happened at a company, would he still be around?

    • Jim says:

      It happens in the corporate world every single day. I'd be more surprised to find a business were it *doesn't* happen.

      Yes, a student is an apprentice. So is every entry-level employee in the corporate world. Your students will still be apprentices when they graduate and enter the corporate world (if they choose that route). You assign those students responsibilities comensurate with their knowlegde and skills - just like in the corporate world.

      Do you assign a first year undergrad to head up a major research project? Probably not - because they don't have any experience in the setting yet and you don't know the full extent of their skills. More likely you'd assign a more senior student that you know and who's skills you've evaluated - probably a grad student that's been with you for a year or two.

      You'd take that undergrad and sit them down and have a conversation about their goals and your's. You'd assign them low-level tasks/projects to help achive those goals. You'd increase the level of responsibility given to them based upon your observations and evaluations of their abilities. You'd make recommendations to them about other areas/projects to look into that are associated with what they have already learned and mastered.

      I hate to say it but whether you recognize it or not, that's called managing! This is what managers do! It doesn't matter whether they're in academia or in the corporate world. The only difference here is in the nuance of what you're managing to get them to do and even that ends at the same point; You either manage them to where they assist in achieving an end goal or you don't.

      As far as the ability to fire a "normal worker" in the corporate world, most supervisors and managers in the corporate world don't have the authority to fire anyone either. That sort of authority is usually 4 or 5 layers up the management chain. All of the corporate managers below that level are in the same boat you're in.

  • noname says:

    I just paid a grad student an RA over the summer, gave him a lot of direction and goals and outlines and was available for help, and he did so little work with so little results that I can't imagine that he wouldn't be fired in the real world. He gave himself a 2 week vacation without telling me he was going away. In the real world, don't people tell their boss when they are going away? When I told him ways in which he needed to improve, he withdrew even more and become openly hostile. Maybe if more students treated their paid work like a real job, more professors would feel more like managers in a company. I asked my chair but he said I can't fire the student, I should just keep him on the project and try to find ways to get him to do something. I would rather give his position and the funding to a student who would learn something and enjoy the research experience.

    • GradStudentAbroad says:

      Or: Maybe if students were treated more like employees (in terms of both rights and accountability), they would treat their work more like a real job ... I know I *started* treating my work *less* like a real job when it sunk in that I was being treated as less than a "real"employee. I doubt I am alone in this.

    • AllisonC says:

      Wow, all these stories are making me grateful for how functional my department apparently is.

      Here, advisors can't fire grad students, in the sense of completely kicking them out of graduate school, but they can absolutely ask students to leave their labs. Then the student must find another group if he or she wants to continue in grad school. This has happened twice in labs I've been in, and both times I'd say that it was good for both the student (both my friends found projects they liked better) and the group in the long run (though of course painful in the short run).