No Free Lunch? Or, how much work do we have to do to be collegial & promote our work?


I *love* getting letters!

Friends, this semester is busybusybusy for me–I’m doing a lot of talks for the book, in addition to the usual teaching and service.  I’ve just given up entirely on that little thing called “scholarship” until the spring semester is over.  (How many more weeks to go is that?  Oh, lord.)

Fortunately, a troubled soul wrote a letter asking for our advice.  That’s worth at least 20 minutes of work avoidance, don’t you think?  Give a broad a break–I’ve got a few ideas, but let her know what you think, especially if you’re a fellow scientist and have a better grasp of the traditions and etiquette of academic culture in the sciences.  Read on, friends–the highlights in the letter below are my own:

Dear Historiann

I could use some advice, from you and/or your readers, if you’re willing.

One of the students who took my seminar last year is now working in the lab of a well-known scientist in Big City. The student recently asked if I would be willing to talk with her boss about my area of expertise, since her boss is apparently fascinated by the stuff that I study, which is only very tangentially related to what her boss studies. (We are not at all in the same field.) The next day I received a formal email invitation from the student to give a presentation to her boss’s entire lab, with a follow-up from her boss indicating how excited the boss was about this possibility.

In general, I’m always happy to geek out about my area of expertise. But this presentation will require a fair bit of work (they want me to talk about aspects of my subject area that are relevant to their subject area, not a way I’ve conceptualized things before, so I’ll need to spend time thinking about what and how to present), and there is no speaker’s fee or other compensation. The presentation will be via Skype, so there’s not even travel expenses or a fun meal. There’s an outside chance, I think, that making a connection with the boss might open up other possibilities in the future, but there’s no guarantee of that.

I’m reluctant to give away my labor for free, and I don’t want to model that for my former student either. (Student and I are both women. This feels gendered to me–I suspect women are far more often the people who give away their expertise.) But I don’t quite know how to say that in a way that sounds reasonable and professional. Maybe this is just a professional courtesy that I do and hope that it turns into something useful down the line? I don’t know. I’d love to get your perspective.

Thanks in advance for any wisdom and your readers are willing to share.

Just sign me,

No Free Lunch

Dear NFL,

I share your concern about this invitation, and like you I’d be torn about saying “no” to what could be a fruitful collaboration.  I’m sure these folks are interested to hear from you, but as you suggest, it’s hard to say “yes” to this invite when you feel like you’re being asked to do all the work while your putative hosts do nothing–not even a small honorarium or dinner with the lab in question.  To be fair, you don’t know exactly what your former student might have said about you and your work, so the lab in question may think you’ve only got time for a Skype conference.  They may also not realize how much extra work it would take for you to do what they ask.

That said, I think you can look at this invitation as merely a first proffer.  Why not write back and say that you’re happy to share your work with the lab and then have a Q & A session with them in which you’d be willing to spitball the connections between your work and theirs?  That is, put some of the responsibility back on them to make this a genuine exchange rather than just knowledge delivery by you.  Heck, you might also suggest that you’re available for a proper visit to tour their labs and get to know their students and other post-docs.  There are polite but firm ways you could suggest that they treat you like a colleague rather than a student or a supplicant.

In other words, let them know what you can and can’t do, and then let them decide how they will proceed.  If they withdraw their invitation entirely–then it’s just as well you didn’t spend a week preparing a presentation for them.  If (as I suspect) they say, “yes, and how about. . . ?” then mission accomplished.  You’ve communicated your boundaries as well as your willingness to work with them, and you’ve modeled for your student how to achieve a mutually beneficial, not one-sided exchange with professional colleagues.

In other words, you’re winning!  You’re going to win so much you’re going to get sick of winning.

Friends, what do you think?  What should NFL do?  What did I get wrong?  School me!

9 thoughts on “No Free Lunch? Or, how much work do we have to do to be collegial & promote our work?

  1. To play Devil’s Advocate, one reason the Skype talk may have been suggested is b/c the other lab doesn’t want to obligate you to commit to a full-on visit. I know when I invite someone out to the lab, I’m often asking them to spend a day or two in transit, and then a night or two away from home/family. Even when airfare/hotel/food is covered, that’s usually a big ask.
    Second, you said the PI doesn’t do what you do. So they are obligating their lab to stop work to attend a seminar that is tangentially related to their own interests. An in-person visit with a meet and greet with their lab members is similarly demanding. The PI doesn’t know you, and may not want to commit that time — especially if they have never heard you speak.
    I’m a big fan of the “f you pay me” philosophy, but it’s possible you are getting offered precisely as much as your talk is actually worth to the other lab.
    My specific advice? (worth what you paid for it) Reply that you’re crushed for time and can’t prepare a talk, but would be happy to stop by next time you’re passing through Big City.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like David’s suggestion, which also strikes me as a good way of determining just how serious/interested they are.

      I would also suggest asking, possibly via NFL’s grad student, about their knowledge of NFL’s research and what their expectations are for a discussion of NFL’s research. I gave a talk recently on a topic related to my overall research on eighteenth century law and politics and was invited by a member of the audience to give the same talk to her organization. The second talk was a nightmare because the person who had invited me had not specified to her organization that my research focuses on the eighteenth century and said organization decided I was there to talk about research on the nineteenth and twentieth century ramifications of the eighteenth century laws in question which is a topic I have never studied other than living in the late twentieth/early twenty first centuries and it was a bizarrely ugly two hours (note to the world: do not refer to adult women as “young lady”) which I would really like to have back. Nothing about this invitation suggests anything quite like that but being absolutely clear about the research that will be discussed strikes me as a good idea.


  2. I think you’re right about the opening for a negotiation. Preparing this kind of talk, whether for an in-person event or via Skype, means NFL is being asked to deliver uncompensated intellectual work. If the lab can’t come up with something of equal value, I think NFL should decline. This brings back memories of one of the rare times I declined a speaking invitation. The big university down the highway asked me to come and deliver a talk on a topic that was just outside my area of expertise and wanted it to be done on all original primary source material. The event was in less than 6 months and they offered to pay me $50! I tried to negotiate, and was told how good this would be for exposure. I declined.

    Liked by 1 person

    • HAW! Like when I got the marvelous “offer” to write for the HuffPo for free.

      Like I don’t do enough free writing here, and in most of my academic work! At least here & in academic books & journals they’re not selling advertising.


  3. Definitely make sure to set boundaries and get something out of this yourself — at least a strong letter of thanks you can keep in your files? One of my big mistakes as a faculty member was being glad to help everyone who asked. (I do mean glad. It makes me happy to help people.) Then when it came time for major reviews, the attitude was very much what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. One particularly unpleasant prof turned out to think it was just my function to run DNA sequences for everyone, a sort of DNA Core Facility except free….

    I guess what I’m saying is watch out for jerks. Molecular biology, at least, bristles with them, following the pattern laid down by Watson.


  4. In my (scientific) field, it’s pretty rare to get an honorarium for a seminar. Departmental seminar series are built on unpaid intellectual labor, as are peer review of manuscripts, proposals, editing, most society work, etc etc.
    In my opinion, the benefits of getting some exposure for your work, exploring potential collaborations or new avenues, and listing another “invited seminar” on your CV far outweigh the hassle of putting a new talk together. It is a little odd that it’s via Skype. It’s an ego-boost when they shell out $$ for a visit, even if you don’t get an honorarium, but travel is also incredibly time consuming, so….

    Most scientific funding agencies expect you to communicate your ideas and expertise to other scientists and the public. Your dean wants you to establish an international reputation. This is an opportunity to do both. How much effort should you have to spend to promote your work? Well, do you want your work promoted, or not? Because no one else is going to do it. Now that’s a gendered idea for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the humanities, if we’re invited to give a research talk there’s usually an honorarium or some compted travel involved. I invite book authors to Skype with my classes all the time without offering honoraria, and most are really happy to do it. I’ve done this too for classes with both of my books, and I think that since many of the students have read (& even also bought) the book, that’s a good enough reason to show up.

      But the situation NFL describes is different. It’s much more of a “lecture/presentation on demand,” without any clear rationale for her to do this extra labor. It’s one thing to discuss a book or article you’ve already written, versus write a bespoke lecture tailored to a particular audience.

      In any case, NFL reports back that the invitation has been negotiated to a successful conclusion. The free exchange of knowledge will continue! Our minds will learn and grow! Hooray!


  5. Thanks, all, for your thoughtful advice! I suppose it was less than clear how wide a gulf separates my field from that of the PI who employs my former student–I’m in the humanities at a SLAC. So it helps to know, anon, that honoraria might be pretty rare in the PI’s field. On the other hand, presenting to this lab is not likely to grow my reputation in any way that will be useful for tenure/promotion. That said, money or some other quid pro quo is not required for me to agree to present. I’ve given talks in return for a lunch; I’ve even given talks because they were good opportunities for me to work through some ideas. This invitation didn’t look like one of those. But the PI seems like an interesting person who might be fun to talk to; and I DO like talking about the stuff I study, whether it’s with specialists or non-specialists.

    So: I basically followed Historiann’s original advice. I wrote back and offered to talk about a couple key concepts, then open things up for discussion. That was immediately accepted, and the date has been scheduled. I’m looking forward to it–should be fun! And I don’t need to prepare anything at all. PI gets to learn about the stuff I study; I get to meet PI. To me, that seems like a good trade.

    Liked by 1 person

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