Assuming that I'm a PhD student/Post-doc, what kind of tasks are the principal investigator(PI) - i.e the group leader - legally allowed to ask me to perform?

For example, is s/he legally allowed to ask me to pick up her/his kids from school? If so, what can s/he do if I refuse?

The exact answer might depend on the details of my contract but you can assume a typical PhD/post-doc in a university/research institute. I also welcome examples from other European countries other than Germany.

I would appreciate if you could support your answers with the relevant law.

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    I've even heard of such requests being made by profs in the US. Legal under the law is one thing. Ethical under the university's code might be less so. And that may lead to dismissal from the job even if the request is legal. – Fizz Feb 11 at 12:07
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    There's are long way to “pick up kids” to “preparing teaching materials”. The latter will sometimes be ok, but this should be a question on Academia SE. – Stefan Feb 11 at 15:21
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    Please don't substantially edit your question after you've gotten answers - whether a PhD student can be required to prepare teaching materials is a very different question than picking someone up from school. If you'd like to ask about that, please ask a new question, or maybe as on Academia.SE – Azor Ahai -him- Feb 11 at 19:19
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    And FYI, it's not required, but you can use "they" instead of "s/he" - I only bring this up because you seem to be a German national and maybe not a native English speaker. I prefer not to edit how people chose to write out pronouns, but "they" is a bit easier to read than "s/he" – Azor Ahai -him- Feb 11 at 19:20
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    This question's tagged Germany, but I can tell you that it definitely isn't allowed in Australia, because you need a Working With Children card to legally interact with children as a part your job here, and someone hired to teach adults wouldn't have one. The purpose of these cards is to prevent pedophiles and sex offenders from working with children that they might victimize. I can't find with a quick Google search whether or not Germany requires a similar card for working with children. – nick012000 Feb 12 at 3:34

The Black and White

In the USA -- and I imagine in most places -- employees are only contract-bound to carry out the terms of their contract. If you are not contracted to do a certain task, then you are not legally obligated to do that thing as part of your job.

In short: it depends on the terms of the contract.

The Gray

Of course, no contract outlines every single task a supervisor could ask an employee to do. Discretion is required of all parties.

It is relatively normal for coworkers to occasionally ask for personal favors from each other, such as trading a work shift or helping out with a task at work so another person can leave early. This is a normal part of teamwork, and many places have developed a culture of mutual generosity between coworkers. Must you cover for a coworker's shift? No, but if you do, you build goodwill between you and them, and perhaps you will earn the right to ask for a personal favor in the future.

If a PI is asking a grad teaching assistant (hired to help with a class) to do things related to the PI's research, it's generally frowned upon. It may be acceptable in some circumstances and not in others.

All of this is further complicated by the power dynamics between advisors and grads/postdocs, who depend on their mentors for letters of recommendation. Grads and postdocs may want to help out to garner additional favor.

Two Examples

My own contract to be a graduate teaching assistant (GTAs) for a major US university in 2016 specifies certain (university-wide) requirements and says that departments may impose additional requirements if they don't conflict with the main requirements. It says GTAs may be assigned a faculty supervisor who they report to and who will mentor them as necessary. GTAs were to "complete all duties and responsibilities assigned to them by the appointing department(s)" — departments, not supervisors. I couldn't find any document limiting the cope of those tasks, but it's hard to imagine all tasks would be required. There were documents describing the code of conduct and giving tips about how to navigate power imbalances.

Part of the terms for a postdoctoral scholar position at my university (buried in a referenced document, not the actual contract) included the following (emphasis added):

Duties and responsibilities of a postdoctoral scholar shall consist of those assigned by the president or the president’s designee, who may be the principal investigator or supervising faculty member. All duties and responsibilities shall be carried out under the direction of the president or the president’s designee. Duties and responsibilities shall be related to the expertise and competence of the postdoctoral scholar.

In other words, the tasks that the PI assigns the postdoc must be related to their job and cannot include personal requests like picking up kids from school. However, the PI could ask the postdoc to write grants that are related to the postdoc's expertise and competence. I imagine similar language exists for similar contracts, but one would need to carefully study a given contract to be sure.

How to Get Help

If you or someone you know has issues with their advisor asking them to do things they don't think are obligatory or ethical, you might point them towards their university ombudsperson program for some investigation. They can determine for that situation whether the requests are legally obligatory. Many universities offer several other levels of mediation, including free legal counsel, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to protect employees at all levels, and other similar resources.


Asking as such is hardly ever illegal. Any stranger can ask you to pick up their kids from school, like you always can tell them where to go.

What I guess you are actually asking is whether the PI can require you to do it. No they probably cannot: it would have nothing to do with the matter of your contract or nature of your professional relationship with them.

However, if they are in the position of power, they will have discretion in making decisions that will affect you. Whereas you legally can tell them where to get off, it might be good idea to attempt some interpersonal workplace tactics first.

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    If the PI arrived in a hospital after an accident, someone needs to pick up the kids, and he/she goes through their phone book trying desperately to find someone to help, it would be possible that the PhD student would be say #10 on the list and gets lots of bonus points for helping out. If the PI wants to save the money for a babysitter, that’s totally wrong. But a refusal must absolutely NOT have any negative consequences. – gnasher729 Feb 11 at 11:31
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    Asking as such is hardly ever illegal. I think that's a dubious statement. Criminal solicitation is a huge topic. It depends on what you're asking someone to do, and OP, in this case, is concerned about whether what they're asking crosses a line. – J... Feb 11 at 15:12
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    @Our - your 'seemingly' academic jobs are, in fact, academic jobs. Real world experience in proposal writing and teaching preparation are part and parcel of a PhD program. You don't magically acquire those abilities once you graduate, you are trained in them by doing. – Jon Custer Feb 11 at 15:19
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    @J... "criminal solicitation" requires the act being requested to be illegal. – Barmar Feb 11 at 15:55
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    @Our There's just such an enormous gap between requiring a student to run personal errands, which poses a whole host of ethical and potential legal issues, and requiring a student to perform work related to their department such as working on grant proposals and instructional materials. Conflating the two renders the question meaningless. – Zach Lipton Feb 12 at 6:01

As the other answers have pointed out, you may be able to refuse to perform tasks not specified in your contract. However this will vary with jurisdiction, and most employment contracts are fairly vague and include catch-all terms along the lines of "the employee is expected to perform all tasks requested by their line manager".

However, your PI is ultimately not the person employing you. You are employed by the university or institute, and your salary is either paid for out of their funds or by an external grant. They are paying you to perform research and related tasks as a PhD student or post-doc, not to be a childminder or personal assistant. If your PI attempts to force you to work on unrelated personal tasks, they may be breaking their own employment agreement or violating the terms of their contracts with external funders.

If you require clarification on whether your PI is allowed to request a particular task from you, the best authority would be whoever has oversight of your PI's employment. This could be a head of department, HR partner, head of graduate studies or similar.

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