Tenured profs should pick up the check?

Jan 03 2017 Published by under Academics, Conduct of Science

While I think generosity on the part of more senior scientists is a good thing, and should be encouraged, making this an obligation is flawed. How do you know what that person's obligations are?

I post this in case any PI types out there don't know this is a thing. If you can pick up a check or pay more than your share, hey great. Good for you.

But nobody should expect it of you.

27 responses so far

  • A. Tasso says:

    No -students- and -postdocs- should expect it, but I think your colleagues have every right to expect you to behave in such a way toward your students and postdocs. The PI should model generosity in publications, so why not model the same generosity toward your lab at conferences?

  • postdochell says:

    I think the PI should be clear about whether they are going to pick up the check for the lab dinner. If you are great, I probably won't order something very expensive. If not, no big deal, it's nice to know ahead of time. But don't surprise us at the end of the meal by asking the server to split the check evenly when some of us ordered a salad and others ordered a $30 entree..

  • Laffer says:

    Yes, I'm happy to defray costs on food and beer on lab business, it does bother me when students expect it. We have a weekly beer thing, and I think the students just assume the faculty pay for it.

  • odyssey says:

    so why not model the same generosity toward your lab at conferences?

    Because maybe your tenure didn't come with bags of money? Or you're trying to pay off crippling student debts? Or have kids headed to college? Or elderly parents needing long-term care? Or any one, or more, of 100's of possible reasons why you can't afford to.

    The issue here is not whether you should be generous with picking up the tab as a PI, it's the assumption that you can.

  • Laura says:

    I agree that it shouldn't be expected, and I have an alternative suggestion. A PI I collaborated with when I was a graduate student had a policy for group outings - he had a pre-set amount, grad students pay $10, post-docs pay $20, PIs pick up the rest. (I forget what the exact values were).

    It was great because it meant I didn't have to turn down dinner with him+other senior people at conferences if they went somewhere fancy - I knew I could afford $10.

    But a bigger thing to me was that by chipping in too, I felt like an adult at the table too - not some kid who needed someone to cover for me. I really appreciated this system.

  • xykademiqz says:

    I buy food for the group meeting 1-2 times per semester; whenever someone graduates I take the group out to lunch (meaning that I pay). However, when we are at conferences, there may be multiple meals that need to be paid out of pocket. I don't think it's fair to expect the PI to pay for *everyone every time* out of pocket, for that would easily get into thousands of dollars at a 5-day conference where I attend with several students.

    I don't know where people get this idea that tenured professors are Mr./Mrs. Moneybags who can afford to throw money away. The parents of my son's swim-team friends (he's in high school) all have bigger houses, nicer furniture, and 2-plus-however-many-kids-over-age-16 cars. These people are medical doctors, shrinks, layers, and various corporate types, and good for them that they are doing so well financially. However, academia is not a career path you get on if you want to be wealthy; my former students who work in industry make what I do now (full prof, 12 years post PhD) within ~2 years of their PhD.

  • anon says:

    "I don't know where people get this idea that tenured professors are Mr./Mrs. Moneybags who can afford to throw money away...."

    They are compared to grad students and postdocs, who usually make a third to one half -- if they're lucky! -- what even an untenured asst. prof makes.

    Anyway, aren't meals at conferences covered by grants?

    And if it's the profs who decide to go to the nicer restaurants for the meals, booze, etc., then no, they definitely should not expect their trainees to accommodate those expenses on their very limited wages.

  • m says:

    I don't drink alcohol and thus would find it immoral to buy alcohol for anyone, especially people I employ.

    And then there comes to where the responsibility/duty of care lies if something happened e.g. drink driving accident/conviction etc.

  • Grumble says:

    Immoral? What is this, the 1910s?

  • Ola says:

    My general rule for conference food for trainees is spend what you would if you were at home anyway, with a bit of leeway. In other words, just because someone else (the lab/grant/slushfund/PI) is paying, is not an excuse to eat more richly than you normally would. So, if a student hits up the post-travel refund form for a $40 lunch and a $60 dinner, that's getting rejected. A $60 dinner might be allowed, if they went to Subway for lunch.

    If it's a lab group dinner (2-3 times a year for grants/papers/graduations or other big events) then I pay, and usually request the others at the table leave the tip.

  • qaz says:

    I don't understand. Are we referring to the students in my lab to whom I pay a reasonable salary? If I need to pick up a meal check, then I'm not paying them enough. Or are we referring to students I am interacting with at a conference? They should be getting reimbursed by their PI. So if I pick up their check, then I'm not covering them, I'm covering their PI. (If it's my students at a conference, we're all getting reimbursed and university rules frown on mixing per diems.)

    And this assumes that the student is not independently wealthy (*) or that the faculty does not have some reason to have to scrimp money (say a health issue or a caregiver requirement or whatever). * I have known several cases of independently wealthy students over the years. Definitely rare, certainly, but never assume. (One returned to grad school after being industrial senior management, several came back after making it big in tech, and at least one is [I think] the descendant of nobility.)

    All in all, this seems to be a very power-declaring dynamic. Assuming someone is too poor to cover their dinner can be insulting. I think it's one thing to round up or throw more into the pot when you are well-enough off to not worry about it, but I also think that it's up to you to determine when you are comfortable. I suspect that most PIs are comfortably well-off, but that's their business, not mine.

    Official lab dinners or other official events (recruiting, etc) should be picked up by the office. Usually, I would expect the PI to use its card to cover until reimbursed, but that's not what we're talking about, is it?

    Sometimes I'll take the lab or friends out (say to celebrate a grant or a postdoc getting a job or a major publication or whatever), but if I am going to do that, then I state it in advance and it's my treat. I've also seen postdocs or grad students bring donuts or other treats into lab. Again, that's not what we're talking about, is it?

  • EPJ says:

    My opinion: if the lab head has enough money allocated for that, tenured or not, it could cover party expenses sometimes.

    Matter of fact, when it is done with a guest and the lab it is because it matters for the work, you know like an informal but needed diplomacy.

  • drugmonkey says:

    In other words, just because someone else (the lab/grant/slushfund/PI) is paying, is not an excuse to eat more richly than you normally would.

    Given the readily available options for lunch at my typical conference locations, and given the fact that conference dinners are often professional networking type events, this seems silly to me.

    Are we referring to the students in my lab to whom I pay a reasonable salary? If I need to pick up a meal check, then I'm not paying them enough.

    I think the point here is less about "need" and more about relative ability to pay. Yes, we all know the student who made it rich in X before slumming it in grad school but we're talking general principles here. As far as "not paying them enough" goes, as always I suggest one should stick to relevant standards lest one fall afoul of unconscious bias. And as of now, most trainee guidelines call for a lot less than I make per year. Probably you as well, qaz.

    Assuming someone is too poor to cover their dinner can be insulting.

    This isn't Dickens, holmes. I don't think anyone assumes that trainees literally can't afford to eat at conferences. More that one assumes it is nice for a relatively better-off person to cover a nice(r?) meal or a few conference-locale-spendy drinks for the less-well-off person. I mean, I guess if you made it a point to cover one trainee but not others of the same level, perhaps that would be insulting. But who would do that?

  • Jmz4 says:

    Do you guys not have per diems or reimbursements for meal costs when you go to conferences?

    For booze, I'd be leary of setting up a situation that makes it easier for PIS to ply their trainees with drinks.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You are not wrong that the booze fest needs to be handled very carefully.

  • NeurallySound says:

    People are mixing conference events and social events happening around the university on a more day to day basis (department social, paper acceptance celebration). There's a few salient differences.

    Conferences are major networking events, where going out to dinner to get to know people is most of the point of being there. They also happen with a bunch of other expenses, even if they are being reimbursed eventually. A plane ticket, hotel room, food, and any other travel expenses add up quick and they either sit on the credit card or tie up all available cash for many grad students until the reimbursement comes in. A prof throwing in a couple extra bucks if they can afford it isn't insulting unless they make a big show of it, especially if they were the one that wanted to go to the fancy restaurant.

    Every day interactions happen in an everyday financial context, and they typically happen with people you already know. You can establish a culture where people expect others to cover, or you can create a culture where it's talked about more openly. I really wish people would do that, as it makes me incredibly uncomfortable trying to figure out what the plan is without coming off like I expect someone else to pay.

  • qaz says:

    "And as of now, most trainee guidelines call for a lot less than I make per year. Probably you as well, qaz. "

    Yeah, that's because they are lower on the hierarchy than I am. My department chair makes more than me. The dean makes more than my department chair. But when I go out drinking with non-professionally-related friends, I don't tally up what I think they're making and divide up the drinks bill based on their estimated salaries. Do you?

    @NeurallySound: The whole issue of whether a student can float the university the money until the reimbursement comes in is a very different issue and is not appropriately handled by the PI covering the student. What should happen here is that students should be able to get reimbursed before the conference - this is currently under discussion (and has been approved for some well-defined expenses [flight, hotel, registration]) at my university.

  • Adam says:

    "But when I go out drinking with non-professionally-related friends, I don't tally up what I think they're making and divide up the drinks bill based on their estimated salaries. Do you?"

    No, but sometimes I buy other people drinks, and sometimes other people buy me drinks. I'm more inclined to buy people drinks when I value their contribution to our relationship, which, I would hope, could be said of people that work for us.

    "I think the point here is less about "need" and more about relative ability to pay. "

    Exactly. All I know is that when I was a grad student, post-docs and PIs would occasionally cover me. When I got a post-doc position my salary doubled, and then when I was out with grad students it just seemed right to "pay it forward". I think I'm probably still at even money in the long run.

    On the flip side, I also took my PhD adviser out for an extremely expensive dinner (~rent payment) to show my appreciation after successfully defending.

  • Grumble says:

    "But when I go out drinking with non-professionally-related friends, I don't tally up what I think they're making and divide up the drinks bill based on their estimated salaries. Do you?"

    The more appropriate analogy is: you work at X Corporation and your boss invites you and some of your colleagues out to dinner at a restaurant of her choosing. She invited you, so you expect her to pay, right? You might offer to pay your share to be polite, but her appropriate response would be, "no, it's my treat."

    That is exactly the rule I follow when I invite my trainees (and, often, one or two faculty colleagues and/or one or two of their trainees) out to dinner at a conference. I picked the restaurant, I chose and invited the guests, so I pay. It has absolutely nothing to do with how relatively well off I am to everyone else (although it goes without saying that grad students who are just making ends meet are unlikely to return the favor of inviting me to a fancy restaurant dinner until they are financially more stable, and it also goes without saying that I completely understand and accept this. My invitation is a form of acknowledgment and thanks, and I expect nothing in exchange.).

    It's not the rule I follow if I meet an old buddy or group of buddies for drinks or dinner - in that case, typically we split the bill equally. Again, that has nothing to do with how relatively well off each of us is to the other. It's more that no one really invited the others; it's more like a coalescence that happens naturally at conferences where you run into old friends.

  • JoshVW says:

    I agree with Grumble @9AM: this has always been the policy of my advisors when they organized a dinner/activity at a conference. Since they chose the venue, which was fancier than what the students would have chosen on their own, they paid. As students, we always followed the "order something assuming we would have to pay for it, then be grateful when we don't" rule. i.e. if we weren't willing to pay $40 out of our pockets for the lobster, we wouldn't order it just because someone else was paying.

    If we all walked to Subway together for lunch (i.e. this was a routine meal that the advisor wasn't organizing), then each of us paid our own way.

    Note that this was usually at a Gordon conference, where the meals are provided (and charged to the grant as part of the registration), so the grant wasn't going to cover/reimburse the meal no matter who paid for it.

  • Ewan says:

    Having my PI (and other friend-profs) cover occasional meals at more-than-normally fancy places during grad school was very much appreciated; in the case of the most common benefactor, it was very explicitly a case of 'you pay it forward when you get here' - and we have; it would honestly never occur to me that a grad student whom I invite to join me for a restaurant meal would ever be other than paid-for. Does anyone not do this?

    We had other prof-friends during grad school whom we knew to be less relatively-affluent: in those cases, we tended to cook together at one home or the other. These days we have a lot of lab potlucks which tend to be at my place if outside work hours: there, everyone contributes. None of these situations have ever seemed to cause stress for anyone.

    [The oddest these days is that my doctoral PI still hosts a dinner at SfN where all trainees from the past 25 years or so are invited and he picks up the tab; that one *does* feel a little strange now that I'm not a student, but it's also <$20 each time so really not worth stressing.]

  • 5th year PI says:

    If I initiate a lab event, like dinner to celebrate a successful thesis defense, then I pay.

    If we are at a conference, and my lab members can get reimbursed for dinner from my grants, then I never pay. Why would I? The university won't let me get reimbursed for more than one dinner, so I'd be paying out of my own pocket for something that would have been free for the student anyway.

  • Pleb says:

    JoshVW +10000

    My bosses have been very generous in this regard, and if I make it to their level I intend to return the favor for my trainees and colleagues, when feasible. I can't fathom how someone would simply expect this treatment from PIs though. I imagine it has something to with how a particular trainee was raised as a child.

    On another note, I PhD'd in Canada where the grad student stipends were painfully low (about 20K CAD/ year, tuition on my own dime), and now at a UC as a postdoc where the grad students make about 35K USD / year and get their tuition paid, I don't feel particularly inclined to help them out...

  • Grumble says:

    Inviting someone you like and appreciate to dinner is not "helping them out."

  • anon says:

    @Pleb: "and now at a UC as a postdoc ... I don't feel particularly inclined to help them out..."

    I imagine that has something to do with the way you were raised. If you had to suffer, so should they? Nice attitude, jerk!

  • chall says:

    I remember this big lab with a Prof who was a big guy in my field when I was a grad student. It was at ASM meeting (huge) and I went alone form my lab, felt a little lost since 25K+ people and the prof stopped by my poster one day and invited me to go for dinner with his lab. It turned out to be a fancy affair at a French restaurant with the whole lab and there was a lot of fancy food and drinks. I stuck with the thinking that has been mentioned here in the comments "it'd e nice if they paid since they invited me, however I'll pick the foods I can pay if it comes to that". He paid for me, of course, and the others in the lab. He also invited me over to the lab to visit if I ever came by his uni later on. Overall, it was a HUGE memory for me, still today. He and his lab were so nice and so welcoming to the alone grad student from a competing lab - and we talked science and life. I tried to do similar thing when I was invited years later at ASM as a mentor for grad students and post docs, even if I wasn't a TT prof or so. It's just a growing experience imho.

  • e-rook says:

    When I was in grad school from 2004 - 2008, I had to apply for travel awards for each conference. They were typically $1,250-1,500, which barely covered the cost of the plane ticket, hotel, and registration. It was only when I got onto a T-grant that I had the ability to get reimbursed for the entire cost of a conference. My PI was somewhat MIA and didn't dine with groups during conferences. If he did anything at all, he'd take his wife or me and his wife out to the best restaurant in the city, as far away as possible from the conference networking (he called them "tourist traps" for suckers). After first year, I started the networking dinner thing on my own. The patronage and isolation started to feel creepy.

    I was really soured on an experience when I was invited to join a dinner with a loosely collaborating lab. I ordered no appetizers, a modest entree, and stuck to water. I expected either my invitees would pay for me or I would pay for what I consumed. They split the bill evenly and it was $110/person. I didn't feel in a position to object because I was the visitor and the most junior person. Perhaps they thought I would be reimbursed fully (I was not).

    I am so thankful now to work in the private sector. Meals during travel and business meals are expensible, no need to go groveling. If more than one person is present who works for the company, the most senior person present picks up the bill (the vendor always pays for the client) and submits the expense report. (why have 5 expense reports when you accomplish the same thing with 1?) Things run smoother when there's a clear policy that everyone knows about.

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