What should you give your PhD supervisor for Christmas?

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Five years ago, a student gave me a little brass plate on a stand with an etched view of Hong Kong harbour. I am no stranger to the odd bottle of wine or box of chocolates, but a little brass plate on a stand was unexpected kind of gift from a student.

My student told me that, in his culture, it was a sign of respect for your teacher if you give them a ‘permanent’ kind of present. It was his way of telling me I had made a difference and I was touched. The little plate has sat on my bookshelf ever since and is often a subject of discussion when colleagues visit me.

Last year at this time I did a post on what to buy a PhD student for Christmas, so I thought I’d continue the tradition this year with one on gifts for supervisors.

When I asked on Twitter what people were buying their PhD supervisor I was surprised by the range of different responses. Some people had no idea what to buy and expressed interest in such a post because the etiquette for this situation is so opaque. In countries like Australia, where gift giving ‘rules’ are largely unspoken and context dependent, it can be difficult to know what advice to give. So I thought I would just tell you about the four types of responses I got and leave it up to you to decide what to do!

Nothing

I’ll admit I was surprised when some people questioned the idea of buying a present at all. Some explained that in their culture it was not the done thing to give a gift to a teacher (make note all you students in Sweden). Some people were not sure they wanted to give their supervisor a gift because the relationship was strained. Others thought that giving a gift to a person who is doing their job is not appropriate in any circumstances. It was pointed out that gift giving creates a sense of obligation and reciprocity, which can be awkward for a supervisor – especially if they have many students.

Then, of course, we are a diverse society. Many people do not celebrate Christmas all because of their atheist stance, others routinely have their own religious holidays ignored by Australia’s Christian slant.

I’m not sure how you negotiate this social minefield, but perhaps, if you are unsure what is considered normal behaviour, ask the students who have been there longer than you. Make sure you ask more than one as opinions may vary. Finally: just because certain behaviour is considered ‘normal’ doesn’t mean you have to be normal. As I highlighted in my story, experiencing the gift giving norms of another culture can be delightful.

Wine / chocolates

If you do decide to give a gift, in Australia wine is considered a safe, socially neutral choice.

Unless, like me, your supervisor is not a big drinker.

In Australia, being a non drinker is considered a weird thing (I know – it says something about our culture doesn’t it?) therefore people may never tell you they don’t drink. The assumption is, however, that you do.

So here is my problem: I’ll have the odd glass of something, but Mr Thesis Whisperer doesn’t drink at all, so there’s no occasion to open the gifted bottles of wine at home. I don’t want to use them to cook with as that seems rude, so I have a shelf full of bottles of wine which lovely people have given me that I have never got around to consuming.

For that reason I say that chocolates are probably a safer choice. Unless of course the giftee is watching their weight, has a gluten intolerance, or is allergic to food preservatives … argh! This is hard!

Home baked goods

The key advantage of the wine / chocolate gift is that they are meant to be consumed. An expensive, permanent gift may be more of a burden than a pleasure. First there is the question of taste, as illustrated in this clip from the Big Bang Theory where Amy gives Penny a huge painting for teaching her how to be ‘cool’:

The rest of the episode revolves around Penny hiding her horrified reaction to the ugly painting and her efforts to avoid hanging it in her house, but in such a way that she wont hurt Amy’s feelings. However sometimes, like Amy, we want to give a gift that shows how much we care and value our teachers; store bought wine and/or chocolates can feel like a cop out.

If you feel this way you might consider a homemade, edible present which demonstrates you have taken time and care to make something special. Christmas is a great time to make edible gifts as there are so many ‘themed’ choices in the tasty treat department. Have a look at this post on Christmas baking for some ideas.

Just make sure you don’t give your supervisor food poisoning…

Writing

A few people told me they were giving their supervisor a conference paper or overdue chapter draft to read for Christmas. Writing – the gift that keeps on giving!

There is not a Christmas that goes by that I am not reading a thesis draft from a student or a friend (I’m looking at you Jason Downs). I find the holidays a surprisingly good time to do this kind of work. I can whip through a whole draft in a couple of afternoons, sitting by the pool watching Thesis Whisperer Jnr swim, but find it stressful to do this kind of thing during the year, when I come home from work tired.

Check first though – not every supervisor finds wielding the big red pen a fun way to spend their down time. If you are in doubt, maybe just write them a Christmas card.

So – what do you think? Are you studying in another country and therefore living in a different ‘gift culture’ than you are used to? What do you think is the appropriate gift giving etiquette for the supervisor student relationship?

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