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Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 2, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1998
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Year 1998
Publisher provided Keywords advisors and Case Cases Consent Corporate ethical General Historical Human Informed issues Mentoring relationships research Setting: student Subjects Supervisors trainee Type: University workplace
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
Language English
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  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 8 years and 1 month ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 2, 1998 

    edited by Brian Schrag

    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
    To make an honest assessment of his potential in graduate school and beyond. To treat him fairly, without bias based on race, religion, etc.
    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
    To maintain an active research program that brings both prestige and a consistent source of income to the institution. To mentor graduate students.
    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.

  • Karen  Muskavitch

    Posted 11 years and 7 months ago

    Karen Muskavitch 

    Indiana University

    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

    • 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).

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 2, 1998 

    edited by Brian Schrag

Cite this page: "Today's Specials" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 2/16/2006 OEC Accessed: Sunday, September 24, 2017 <>