Today's Specials


This case discusses two important, interrelated issues: ethical decision making between science faculty members and prospective graduate students.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 1

Professor Steve Hill and his wife, Karen, had just sat down at their table and begun to study the menu.

"Hi, there. My name is Jake, and I'll be your waiter. Allow me to tell you about today's specials."

Looking up from his menu Dr. Hill looked as if he had seen a ghost.

"Jake, what are you doing working in this place?"

"Hey, Dr. Hill. Hello, Karen. Well the funding for my post-doc over at the research center was not renewed, and other employment options in academia have not come up. The mortgage company isn't very sympathetic, so here I am. I am trying to remain optimistic that something will surface, but I needed to pay the bills in the meantime."

"I must say that I'm rather surprised to see you here. You should have let me know you were going to be out of a job. Perhaps I could have been of some assistance," Hill replied.

"Well, I felt as if I had exhausted those connections after grad school, and I didn't want to seem as though I couldn't take care of myself," Jake explained.

After a fine meal and an exceptionally large tip, the Hills discussed the encounter as they headed home.

"I thought that once you got your Ph.D., a job was supposed to be waiting for you," Karen commented.

"Perhaps that's how it used to be, but not anymore. I had heard from some of my other students that the job market had become a bit saturated, but this really hits close to home. Jake was an excellent student!" Hill said.

Hill enjoyed an illustrious career as a marine ecologist. He had been a mentor to many students, the majority of whom went on to successful careers. He wondered, though, whether his research program had become a bit dated. Although other specialties had become more prosperous, he was reluctant to subscribe to them. He was always able to obtain funding and lure quality graduate students, making him a valuable and esteemed member of the faculty.

At a faculty meeting the following day, Hill spoke openly about the situation. "Perhaps there might be a problem with an over-abundance of professionals in biology. Good students are having trouble finding jobs and I wonder whether we bear some of the responsibility. Perhaps the department should consider limiting the number of graduate students that are accepted."

"Now, Steve, you know the grad students are the bread and butter of the university. We should continue to recruit and take on the best and brightest, as long as we can bring in the funding with them. I don't want to hear another word about this," replied Dr. Butz, chair of the biology department.

Discussion Questions

1. Does the department have a responsibility to devote resources to collecting data on the job placement of its graduates?

2. Should Hill raise this issue at the faculty meeting?

3. Should the department have a responsibility to make information on job placement available to prospective students?

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Part 2

Upon returning to his office, Hill learns that his latest pre-proposal has been accepted. Hill had promised a prospective student, Mike Bowman, that he would call him as soon as he got any information about the proposal. Having the proposal funded would allow Mike to be accepted into the graduate program at the university and work in Hill's lab. However, Hill is concerned about the future job prospects for Mike and is wary about taking on more students. He picks up the phone and makes the call.

"Hi, Mike. This is Steve Hill. I'm calling to let you know that I received some feedback about the proposal I had told you about. I'm really not sure whether I will receive the funding, and I think it is in your best interest to reassess your other options."

"That's too bad, but thanks for the consideration. Let me know if anything changes."

Discussion Questions

4. Was Hill's phone call appropriate, given that he intended to act with Mike's interests in mind?

5. How else might he have conveyed his message to Mike?

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Part 3

Later that week, Hill is stopped in the hall by Dr. Alice Devorak, a junior faculty member.

"I just received a phone call from a bright young man, Mike Bowman. He was inquiring about whether I had any interest in taking him on as a new student. He mentioned that he had been in contact with you as well, but that it did not look very promising. Can you tell me why?"

"He seemed bright, but his ideas and talents did not seem to be well aligned with my research program."

With a puzzled look, Devorak continued, "The interesting aspect of the conversation I had with him is that he somehow got the feeling that reason was related to the status of your latest NSF proposal. It was my understanding that you had received favorable feedback about the pre-proposal you submitted."

Hill decided to tell Devorak the actual circumstances surrounding his reluctance to take Mike as a student. Alice listened intently. At some level , she agreed with Hill's concerns. However, she also thought that Mike deserved to hear the real reason the Hill had turned him away. She planned to call Mike later and explain the situation. At that time, she would also explain that she was not in a position to take on any more students.

On her way back to her office, she ran into Butz, who requested a brief meeting with her regarding her upcoming progress report. Devorak met him in his office.

"Hello, Alice. Please sit down," Butz said. "I have been pleased with much of the work you have done in the years that you have been here. Recently, however, your production has dropped off a bit. I need to be up front with you that a great deal of your success in this department will hinge on your level of productivity. You have adequate funding, but you do not seem to be putting out enough manuscripts or bringing students into your lab."

Alice replied, "I appreciate the feedback. Part of my hesitation in taking on more students is that I enjoy being involved in the research, and not just writing proposals and manuscripts."

"Well, of course, I encourage you to stay involved in the research, but I really must emphasize the importance of raising your productivity. Your funding situation certainly has room for another student, and I would encourage you to follow up in that regard," Butz said.

Upon returning to her office, Devorak noticed the note paper with Mike Bowman's number. She had promised to return his call this afternoon. She picked up the receiver and dialed Mike's number.

"Hi, Mike. This is Dr. Devorak."

"Oh, hello. Have you made any decisions about taking on any new students?"

"Well. . . ."

Discussion Questions

6. What should Devorak say to Mike? What responsibilities does she have to the university? to Butz? to Mike? to Hill? to herself?

7. Would it be appropriate for Devorak to discuss Hill's reasons for not taking on Mike as a student?

8. Are individual faculty members in a position to affect the number of new Ph.D.'s entering their field? If so, is Hill's action an appropriate way to go about instituting a change?

9. Who decides whether such a change is needed?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 2, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1998.

. . Today's Specials. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This case is intended to have a two-fold utility. First, it provides a framework for discussion of ethical decision making between science faculty members and prospective graduate students. Second, it places the glut of graduate students in science, a topic that might otherwise be taboo, in a forum where both faculty and students can address concerns. The topic has been gaining in importance as more graduate students seem to be entering various fields, even as job opportunities seem to be scarce. The problem seems clear, yet the responsible parties are not as evident. The topic raises a variety of issues that may be difficult to discuss in an open exchange involving both students and their faculty advisers. Focusing on the case may allow them to address their concerns more comfortably and openly in an nonthreatening setting.

Because the case involves a variety of parties who have very different rights and responsibilities, it might be enlightening to discuss the case within the framework of relational ethics. Within this framework, each character (or group, institution, etc.) should be addressed in terms of the rights that they have (or should have) and their responsibilities to the groups with which they have a relationship. Ethical decision making by the various participants involves the balancing of all characters' rights, while honoring their responsibilities. In many cases analyzed in this way, a solution may be reached that maximizes the likelihood that responsibilities will be met. What may be most frustrating (and therefore interesting) about this case is that it may become evident that it is impossible for some of the characters to honor all of their responsibilities, and therefore a quick fix may not be apparent.

In this case, the main players are Steve Hill, Mike Bowman, Alice Devorak and Butz. The other, less obvious players might include the department faculty, the university, the scientific community, granting agencies and professional societies.

To highlight the importance of examining ethical decision making in terms of rights and responsibilities associated with an individual's relationships, I will briefly discuss some of Hill's decisions.

At a simplistic level of analysis, Hill has the following relationships, which are accompanied by specific responsibilities:

Relationship with: Mike Bowman

Responsibilities: To make an honest assessment of his potential in graduate school and beyond. To treat him fairly, without bias based on race, religion, etc.

Comments: Although these responsibilities may seem clear, it is not difficult to think of situations where Hill's responsibilities may actually infringe on Mike's rights. For example, perhaps one would argue that it was wrong for Hill to deceive Mike with regard to the status of his proposal; the correct action would have been to be honest from the outset. Therefore the right action for Hill would be to explain his misgivings and turn Mike down.

Perhaps, however, Hill sees potential in Mike and does not want to dissuade him entirely from science and graduate school, but instead wants to discourage his entering Hill's research program. Hill would have the best perspective on whether his research program was fruitful in terms of his graduate students finding employment. Although Hill's actions are paternalistic, perhaps he is in an appropriate position to act in such a way.

Relationship with: The department and university

Responsibilities: To maintain an active research program that brings both prestige and a consistent source of income to the institution. To mentor graduate students.

Comments: Although Hill's responsibilities to the institution are far more complex, this may be an appropriate starting point. The case explains that Hill has enjoyed a successful career and therefore perhaps his mere presence at the university affords the institution a source of prestige. Contrast this situation with that of Devorak, a junior faculty member. If prestige is gained through productivity and publications, how would her status in the department affect her decisions about staffing her lab?

Hill has received a favorable review regarding a pre-proposal he submitted. This response is a strong indication that his project will be funded. Assume that the proposal has sufficient funding (and research needs) to support a new graduate student. Hill feels, however, that he has become disjointed from the science, and is not satisfied with simply writing proposals and manuscripts, while the graduate students and technicians carry out the research. (He shares Devorak's concerns.)

Although he knows that he could get the funding and add a graduate student, he does not feel comfortable with the situation, and therefore does not pursue the funding. Has he violated his responsibility to the university? Based on Butz's comments, he has clearly violated his responsibilities to his department. But what are Hill's rights? Is he in an autonomous position to decide whether he should take on the funding?

It is clear that when we fold in the university's relationship to its graduate students, the situation becomes exceedingly complex. If the university educates graduate students, is it appropriate to view them in the context of cheap labor? Does the university have responsibilities to the graduate students beyond that of education? Or do all of these questions lead back to the responsibility of the prospective graduate students to recognize the limitations in the job market and their role in the university system?

Of course, the case may be approached in many ways. In order to get a feel for the frustration of the participants, a relational framework seems to work well, however. The above analysis is merely a jumping off point. In order to fully explore the appropriate actions of Hill and Devorak, all of the relevant relationships need to be considered. It may be especially important to consider the role of the scientific community and the granting agencies. Remember that researchers' status in the community and with the various granting agencies relies heavily on their perceived productivity. Emphasis on quantity over quality may threaten the fabric of good science.

Case Overview

The issues in this case are not unique to science. For instance, it was not unusual to wonder what one could do with a Ph.D. in English 20 or 30 years ago. At the time, a Ph.D. in biology was considered a virtual guarantee of a job at a university, but that is no longer true today, if it ever was.

The employment prospects for those holding doctorates in the sciences is a difficult topic for scientists at any level to broach, but it is one that faculty, students and post- doctoral fellows need to discuss candidly. This case could serve as a catalyst to open that discussion. Certainly the topic is no longer taboo: For one thing, it is hard to ignore. Many are finding it difficult to find jobs appropriate to their training, and some science Ph.D.s are completing three or more post-doctoral appointments before finding something more permanent. Twenty years ago, graduate students who leaned toward college teaching careers (rather than the expected, research university professorship) knew they needed to be quiet about their interest in teaching. Now many science departments offer graduate courses on how to teach college-level science, and job ads require teaching experience. Even the NIH, as well as AAAS and other scientific societies, have recognized that the traditional tenure-track position at a research university is not what awaits most of our graduate students, and they are making efforts to explore and educate scientists about other career paths.

This case forces us to consider the responsibilities and expectations of many with regard to employment after graduate school (including the scientific community as a whole, university science departments, individual senior scientists who train students, and the students and post-docs themselves). Do we see graduate training in the sciences as primarily education and inculcation into a profession, or as preparation for future employment? The responsibilities one ascribes to each of the involved parties will tend to vary depending on one's perception of the primary role of graduate education in a scientific discipline.

In many ways, the issues in this case resemble the need for informed consent in research with human subjects, particularly the ethical mandate that we respect other people as persons like ourselves; that we respect their right to make their own decisions and direct the course of their lives. Along with giving people the freedom to choose, what is critical in this situation, just as in research with human subjects, is the information on which the decision is based -- its validity, completeness and clear communication.

Prospective graduate students need honest information about the current status of the academic job market as well as the availability of so-called alternative career paths. During their graduate work, they should be kept informed, offered opportunities to inform themselves and to get the training and experience that may be necessary for nonacademic careers. Faculty members need to keep up with the status of the job market and the concerns of their students. They need to talk about these issues with their students and post-docs, and to support them in considering and preparing for careers other than the traditional research university professorship. I assert that the responsibility for the gathering and exchange of information lies with both the science faculty and our students, but each student must be free to make his/her own decisions.

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Discussion Questions

  1. If one considers Bowman to be a mature individual capable of making his own decisions, one must conclude that Hill's approach was paternalistic and inappropriate. In fact, he lied to Bowman. In addition to considering alternative ways in which Hill could have handled the conversation with Bowman, it would be beneficial to look at what happened in the faculty meeting as well. (Discussion of this point may be delayed; see Question 4.) Hill proposed that the department limit the number of students accepted for graduate study, and his suggestion was rejected. What are some other strategies he might have suggested? How could he have improved on his introduction of this topic at the faculty meeting? What are some other things that he might do within his department? In your discussion, be sure to note that from what we can tell from the case, Hill is acting on limited information (his conversation with Jake at the restaurant).
  2. Devorak has a lot of things she could discuss with Bowman. The question is what she should say in this phone conversation. She feels the tension of potentially conflicting obligations to herself, the university, Bowman and Hill. The possible topics range from the real reason for Hill's refusal to take Bowman on as a grad student, through the current job market, all the way to how she prefers to do her research and the pressures to get tenure. For each of these topics she could tell the complete truth, give Bowman an idea of what the situation is, lie or omit the topic from the conversation all together. In determining what she should say to Bowman, the most important consideration is what Bowman needs to know to make an informed decision at this time. Devorak need not disclose every detail about all of these topics, and some things may be better communicated later -- in a face-to-face meeting, perhaps, but at least after Bowman and Devorak get to know each other a little better. Recall that this is only their second phone conversation. We don't know how much time Bowman has before he must decide on other offers for graduate study, or if Hill and Devorak's department has set a deadline. However, it seems unlikely that Bowman and Devorak must decide on the best course of action today, in this phone call. Thus, Devorak should not lie to Bowman, but she should communicate to him the basic situation in her lab, and the possible problem with future employment, as far as she knows it. She should not discuss Hill (see Question 3). It would probably be best for all concerned if she gave herself and Bowman some time before definite decisions were made.
  3. Devorak should not tell Bowman that Hill lied about his reasons for refusing to accept Bowman as a graduate student. This issue is between Hill and Bowman, and Hill needs to be given the opportunity to explain his actions and his reasons. She can and should urge Hill to explain the situation to Bowman, and she should discuss concerns about future employment with Bowman, but she should not presume to speak for Hill. These conclusions are based in part on professional loyalty, the fact that one faculty member tries to avoid interfering in the interactions between other faculty members and their students. The idea of autonomy is also relevant here. Hill was free to decide to lie to Bowman, and he should be free to decide how he wants to handle the consequences, unless failure to be honest with Bowman about Hill's actions threatens to harm Bowman. If Devorak discusses the job market with Bowman, not mentioning Hill, potential harm to Bowman should be minimized, and Hill will be able to talk with Bowman later.
  4. These questions are similar to the ones posed in the discussion of Question 1 regarding Hill's handling of the presentation of his concerns to the departmental faculty. An individual, faculty or student, can make a difference, but he/she needs to be savvy and well prepared, and then recruit others to the cause. A brain-storming session that includes the design and evaluation of action plans would be an excellent way to address these questions. Keep in mind possible involvement of other departments, the university as a whole and professional societies. Coming up with a plan of action for Hill and Devorak to follow in their department, or perhaps deciding on something that your discussion group will do to address the employment issue, would be a good way to conclude discussion of this case.

Author: Karen Muskavitch, Indiana University.