27 and a PhD

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Post thesis defense gift-giving

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.


April 2012
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So, yesterday night hon and I talking as we usually do at the end of the day, when he mentions that before he goes to the airport for his defense (this week!!! THIS WEEK PEOPLE!!!) he’s going to pick up some gifts for his examination committee. We’re in different disciplines and the make up of his examination committee is totally different from mine. In grad school, my committee was comprised of local members only. I had to have a certain amount of PIs from within the department and I could have however many from departments other than mine. I gave a 1hr lecture, and immediately after that, I had a 1.5hr-long examination. My committee signed the first page of my thesis (with the condition that my PI checked that I follow their comments and include their corrections) and besides the after party, that was the last time I saw most of them (except one of two at graduation the following year).

Hon’s thesis committee is almost completely different from that of his qualifying exam, and the one he’s had for the last couple of years in preparation for his defense. Two of his usual members are part of the examination committee, a third member from the faculty and a fourth from within the university are there, along with a totally external one, a complete stranger from another uni.

We got into a tiny argument about how “rude” it was of me not to get my committee, which had been with me for 3 years, a gift, as a token of appreciation for taking time out of their busy schedules to attend my defense. I was a bit shocked, and thought that I hadn’t heard anyone, especially from my lab, do that. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, I just wasn’t aware of it, nor did I receive any indication of it. Besides, as rude as it is of me to say this, that’s part of their jobs, no? He asked what my mom had said about not giving any gifts, and I answered nothing, since my mom is always all proper and very Ms. Manners. My mom said nothing about not getting gifts, though I think she may have brought my PI some sweets my mom knew my PI loved.

The whole conversation got me thinking about gift-giving after the defense. My boss paid for her own copy of the thesis, and I placed the order, and printed all the pages to be bound. She also covered the after party and invited us over to her place for a little celebration the following weekend. No one else from my committee requested copies, so I didn’t offer any. My thesis has been freely available for the last 2.5 years. I presented in my department every time I was required (2x a year) and even volunteered to present in the lab of one of my committee members. I did send my PhD mentor a very thoughtful thank you note, which she didn’t acknowledge (maybe she didn’t get it), which is very rare, as she’s always very proper and thoughtful. She did get me another small treat for graduation, but to me, the most important point was that she was there for the hooding ceremony.

So, I have a little poll. Feel free to answer below, or tweet. I’d love to hear your thoughts:


  1. Never heard of it in my field (Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry) where I did my PhD. I’ve sometimes heard of labs and/or PIs getting the student something small, but never for committee members.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Same here. In my department, the PI would make arrangements for the after-party. And people usually got a card, and maybe a little token of appreciation, but it was from the advisor to the student, never the other way. Thanks for your comment!

      • Chen Guttman says:

        I must add (in addition to my note below) that it is very interesting to see the cultural differences even in the same country! Anyway, in our department and lab it is custom to give and token to the PI and to the lab members and to be given a token back.

  2. genrepair says:

    Fuck ’em. I brought them cookies and stuff for years. This is their professional duty, maybe a handwritten note of thanks for their mentorship, but if they are waiting for a gift, they will be waiting for a long time.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Yeah, I brought cookies, treats and coffee to every single meeting, so no, I didn’t get them anything. I feel bad for not getting my PhD mentor anything, but in the end, while I was there, I was a was an author or co-author in half a dozen papers. Good enough, no?

  3. wakedukechem says:

    I was one in a long line of people to get my committee a gift… and then something extra special for the boss. I hand wrote notes to all of them. My parents weighed in and saw absolutely no reason why I *wouldn’t* do it. My PI buys everyone that defends a textbook ~$100 and everyone in the lab signs it for them to take with them. This was in a lab that was in both the Chemistry and Biochemistry Departments.

  4. Alethea says:

    I’m in neuroscience and I’ve never heard of it. Usually the student pays for the PI’s copy of the thesis and the PI gives the student a small gift (my PI does charcoal pencil caricatures in his free time and usually gives outgoing students a framed caricature of how he sees their “lab personality). Most non-PI committee members get nothing, although I have a co-mentor on my committee (who is also my F31 cosponsor) who I might consider giving another thesis copy to.

  5. Chen Guttman says:

    Your post here demonstrates what culture is. As you obviously discussed above, it is composed of a “Norm” (what is expected of you) and what personal terms have you had with your mentor (Good, neutral, negative). At the end of the day I think that what counts is what you feel is right for you (while considering that the world is small and you might not want to wreck any important bridge on your way out from the lab).
    I enjoyed your post a lot!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Thanks for your insight Chen! Glad you liked it. I definitely love learning what other people/labs/departments/countries do. As you very well say, it depends on the country/culture/lab. I really enjoyed the post on how to get things organized to start writing the thesis. Wish I’d had that 3 years ago 🙂

  6. Party? Gift? Pshaw. We did none of those things. I was an outlier as I left and got a postdoc job before I’d finished writing my thesis, so I was well out of the lab when my defense happened. Usually the lab would put on a morning tea etc for the passed student but that certainly didn’t happen in my case. I did feel bad about that. The lab was far too large (~40 people) to have an after-party for each passed student, so that didn’t happen. As for gifts…well, it was my advisors’ fault (more than mine) that it took me an extra year to graduate, so I didn’t feel particularly generous. I did later read the comments my PI (not the supervisor I interacted with regularly) wrote about how stellar my thesis was, and those got me onto the Dean’s List, so I did make sure to thank him. My regular supervisor and I have barely spoken since I finished my thesis edits. She wasn’t a part of my defense process (uni regulations) and she’s never made much of an effort to stay in touch; we’ve gone in different directions.

    I do remember labs in the US (during my BS and MS years) where the PI got a nice present for the student when they passed their defense. I think it depends on the nature of your relationship with your PI.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Love your answer Kelly! Like you very well said, it depends on the relationship with the PI and the lab culture. In my case, though I deeply love and respect my PhD PI, it didn’t occur to give a gift, I don’t even know if she was expecting one, and in my lab and department it was mostly the PI who would get something for the student, not the other way around. Thanks for your input.

  7. Hon says:

    It might be cultural, and by that I mean the culture of the department, the culture of the university, and the larger context of the country and/or province/state. Online, I’ve found other people who have very different ideas. For instance, in this forum here, opinions range from “letters of thank you” to a Kindle for adviser and wine bottles for committee members http://ask.metafilter.com/212212/How-to-Say-Thanks

    Here, the opinions vary considerably too http://scienceblogs.com/sciencewoman/2008/09/do_you_give_a_gift_to_your_adv.php. Most people seem to think small gifts or just a copy of the dissertation.

    Before I decided to buy the gifts I asked others in my department who had defended recently and they told me that either they bought presents for the committee members or they asked them to dinner. I think small presents are easier to control in terms of cost. If you take people out to lunch, you expose yourself to a big check and, to quote you, “hell to the no, I’m broke”.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hon I love you! Thanks for your input. Indeed, it may be cultural thing. Like I said the other night, I’d never heard of it. What I did hear about was that, whenever there was a committee meeting, especially if it was during lunch time (like most of mine were), it was nice to make arrangements (via the department), for some snacks and coffee (and tea and water), but that was the extent of it. I can’t remember if I bought some lemon cake once, and I did know that some students baked or cooked something, but you know me, that’s not my style.

      The Kindle thing is …. well … wow. Thanks for your input!

  8. antisocialbutterflie says:

    My PI got a present but that’s because I adored him. As for the committee members, my department had an explicit policy where we weren’t even allowed to bring food because it could potentially be construed as a bribe. The policy only served to make mid-morning committee meetings incredibly unpopular, eliminating a two hour window from the already difficult to coordinate scheduling. Or worse they’d bring lunch and you’d present hungry.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Ohhh, don’t get me started on the presenting hungry thing. My goodness, I wanted to crawl on the table and eat everything, even if I didn’t like it. I particularly liked the story that someone shared about a student bringing booze and then walking away with the bottle unopened because no one read the particular sentence in her thesis where she mentioned she’d give booze. Had I done that a) my PI would have been shocked and in shame, and b) I would have had to bring multiple bottles of booze because I got a LOT of comments. They all read the whole thing. Thanks for your visit!

  9. rpg says:

    I paid for all the thesis copies. My supervisor bought me a bottle of champagne—which we opened immediately after the defence!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Yeah, my supervisor refunded the cost of the fancy paper and paid for the only bound copy of my thesis. I decided not to print mine at the time, as I was poor (still am). I didn’t have alcohol for at least 2 more weeks. It was a fun experience though. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  10. Liz says:

    I’ve never heard of students giving gifts to their PI or committee members. In my lab, when someone graduates, we have a lunch out for the lab, paid for by the PI (big lab, so probably comes in around $200). When I graduate, I think a thank you email is all my committee members will get, but I haven’t been particularly close with any of them. I am quite close with my PI but I still think it would be a bit weird to get him a gift because no one else does.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      I know, eh! I’ve been thinking of sending my PhD PI a little congrats something, something due to some nice changes she’s experienced lately. We’ll see. Maybe I can add some words of thanks for being a good mentor.

  11. BeckyM says:

    As Im defending in the middle of June, this is an especially relevant discussion for me….Im in Medical Genetics, and in my almost 6 years here not a single person has graduated without getting a gift for their PI, and most for their whole committee. I see 6 bottles of decent wine in my future personally, with some kind of special touch for my co-supervisors. Im very surprised how common it is to NOT gift the person who mentored you towards your PhD….very unusual here for sure to not present some token. The lab always pitches in to get a gift for departing students, and our students association gets something engraved as well, for the defendee

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Thanks for sharing the experience in your school/department Becky! Glad you found the discussion relevant. I have to say that it didn’t even crossed my mind, until I started thinking about people not only congratulated me, and my family, but my boss after my defense. I honestly wish I’d had enough presence of mind to get her a little token. It totally escaped me!

      So cool to get something engraved for the defendee! Best to you during the last steps towards the defense! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  12. DrugMonkey says:

    What? I think a coupla C-notes per member is totally expected.

  13. annahesketh says:

    If your professor is in the chemical, biological, or physical sciences, these laser-etched crystals can be exquisitely personalized: https://bioetch.com

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