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:
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
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!