Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Gifted Students

A reader writes:

I have a summer intern (in this case, an undergraduate), who has done a lot of excellent work for me this summer. I am looking for gift suggestions as a way of expressing my thanks for (in this case 'his') hard work that was far above expectations. I had thought of (a) a nice lunch out; (b) university-wear - seems blah; (c) or an Amazon gift card - the fungible option.

Of course I realize that the student is getting a lot already (payment, research experience, probable future letters of recommendation). This isn't a long-term relationship like an advisee or post doc - its one summer.

Anyway, do you counsel for/against such gifts, and if you are for them, do you have suggestions that have been well-received in the past?


I have previously discussed the issue of gifts from students to professors (typically as thanks for writing reference letters, or as a general thanks for years of support and advising), but not the other way around. Note, however, that in the comments to the post linked above, one person mentioned that their father, a professor, gave his graduating students a tie or a copy of On the Origin of Species. I do not know the era of the father's academic career, but somehow I doubt there is much tie-giving these days*.

Anyway, I do not typically give students thank-you gifts, although I have given gifts on various occasions, including:

- When a student borrows a book or science gizmo from me and I think they would benefit a lot from having their own, I might say "Keep it". This is more of an encouragement than a thank-you gift.

- Sometimes I get an idea for a strange or humorous (in my opinion) item -- for example, a T-shirt festooned with a particularly unusual or stunning figure from a student's thesis. This is sort of a gift, but not really, especially if a committee member wears the T-shirt.. Mostly this is just intended to lighten the mood or mark an occasion.

- Once, years ago when my group had been going through a particularly rough time owing to the extreme behavior of one unbalanced person (not me!), I got everyone together at a Mexican restaurant and gave out goofy presents that each had a specific meaning or symbolism for the recipient. This made us all laugh, and was a good way to get us all back on track as a (reasonably) happy, functioning group.

Of the possibilities listed in the e-mail above, I guess I would go for the nice lunch out. I've done that before, typically inviting various group members and colleagues to make an event out of it. But giving routine tangible gifts, such as gift cards or U-wear, to excellent students? No, I haven't done that, and can't imagine that I would ever do that.

Have you given (or received) a gift as a student, from a professor? What was it and how did you feel about it? Or, even if you have not given or received, do you think there is anything strange or wrong about professor-student gift-giving?

* except possibly in some engineering departments, in which tie-giving may well be rampant.

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