Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Doesn't Compute

In the olden days, way back when not everyone had a laptop, many students used research group, department, or university computer facilities. I was always buying computers: I provided a few computers for general use by my group, I bought desktop computers for postdocs to have in their offices, and I purchased a laptop or two for use by students and postdocs working on particular projects.

All that was fine, but I also had to pay the university a fee every month for network connections in the offices of my students and postdocs and in my lab, and also for the ones in my office, other than one 'free' port that the university provided for each professor. Faculty were not allowed to use funds from federal granting agencies to pay these network fees, presumably because this kind of thing was supposed to be covered by indirect costs (overhead), so we were always trying to get additional funds from sources that didn't have rules against paying for internet connections.

In theory, we were not even allowed to use hubs to make more efficient use of our network connections (e.g., for connecting to a printer), and there were always vague rumors that there would be inspections for hubs and we would be forced to relinquish them. We lived in fear.

If one of my postdocs or students were assigned space in an office that did not have a network connection, I also had to pay for the additional cost of having the university telecom people thread cables through the walls. In the deepest darkest part of this era, I felt like the department's hostile zombie administrative assistant was moving my research group members around to different offices each year so that I could pay for the networking of the building. Paying for installation of a network connection in an office did not guarantee that one of my students or postdocs would be put in that office the next time the office became vacant.

The point of all this reminiscing about ancient computer and internet history is to note the contrast with the situation today. I still buy postdocs desktop computers if they so require, I still keep some computers around in a research space for general use, and once in a while I buy a laptop on a grant and give it to a student to use, but I spend a lot less than I used to on computer and internet related costs and fees. Now there is no monthly fee for network use, wired or wireless, and most students have their own computers.

I suppose I have become complacent about my reduced commitment to providing computers and computer-related things for my group because I was taken aback recently when a grad student asked me if I would pay for the cost of getting his personal laptop repaired. He uses his laptop for research related computing, in addition to recreational uses. It is going to cost nearly as much as the price of a new laptop to recover the files from his crashed hard drive, which was not sufficiently backed up.

I don't have a budget line for paying for the repair of a student's personal computer, and I am not sure how I would pay for it even if I thought it was an appropriate expense.

Is it an appropriate expense? He uses the computer for his research, though I have no idea what the ratio of research : recreational use is, though I hope it is high. His not having his research files backed up has caused a delay of at least two months in finishing a manuscript that should have been submitted long ago, and I am annoyed by that.

The advisor-angel sitting on one shoulder tells me that maybe I should share the expense (somehow) because it is in the best interests of the student and his research project to help him fix this problem quickly. I benefit from the fact that most students acquire their own laptops, so perhaps I should share in the perils? The advisor-devil sitting on the other shoulder tells me that if this student had been using one of the computers I had purchased for my group, of course I would pay for any repairs, but why should I pay just because he didn't back up the data on his personal laptop? His co-advisor and I paid for the data to be acquired, and he had a responsibility to keep the data and other important files safe, for his own sake as well as for that of the research project as a whole.

At the moment, the advisor-angel's voice is very soft and intermittent -- perhaps she has a weak signal or a bad connection? -- but the advisor-devil's voice is loud and clear and uploading advice directly into my head.

47 comments:

Sara said...

The situation is clear-cut. When the computer belongs to the student personally, it is the student's financial responsibility. When the computer belongs to the lab or the department, then the lab or department is financially responsible. If he had wanted to avoid this responsibility, he should have asked for a lab laptop.

Also, what prevented him from backing up his data? It is irresponsible to not back up data that you are being paid to collect, and foolish to fail to back up data that you're collecting for your own research.

I think your advisor-angel's voice is faint for good reason.

Chris said...

This isn't meant to be rubbing your nose in the situation, but I think there's a lesson that can be propagated here.

Throughout academia, I'm consistently horrified by the lack of proper backups that most students have. (the same goes for post-docs and PIs) That spreadsheet or data set on your computer is the culmination of months of work. Protect it, for chrissake!

Every lab should have a backup server and have training for new students on how to use it. Institutions should include this in the curriculum, right up there with keeping a lab notebook. There's just no excuse these days for being careless with data, when making backups is so cheap and easy. Set it up once, and forget about it.

Talk to your school's IT department. I bet they'd be delighted to help a lab that was being proactive, rather than frantically calling them asking for help after a hard drive crash.

Good luck with your situation - here's hoping you can get the data back, one way or another.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend either buying a new computer for the student to use for research (but not personal use) or at an external hardisk to be used for backing up research on a regular basis. There is no reason a student should have to use their personal laptop for research purposes. All students at my university have computers purchased by their advisor (and I don't think shared computers in a lab are enough either).

blop said...

I agree with Chris.

Did your lab had a backup server and a backup policy that the "student" (I put quotes because he's a worker at this point, not a student) failed to follow? If so, that's his fault. If not, that's yours.

When this "student" arrive, did you offer him a laptop that he refused? And did you warn him that, by using his own, he was taking risks that you won't cover? If so, that's his fault. If not, that's yours.

Do you pay this "student" so few that 2 months of his work (not counting on the demotivation for the rest) is less than the repair?

I'm a bit harsh because what I see in academia is, in my opinion, absolutely not normal. And I expected you to be different in that matter, because you are different (more human!) on many others.

Did you ever see a private company asking its employee to use their own computers for work? Why do private companies pay laptops to their employees: to let them play or because they will also work extra hours?

To tell you a story. I'm doing modelling of biophysical processes. In a lab, there has been one month between my arrival and the arrival of a computer. In an other one, when I came, the PI bought a $50k cluster. Guess in which lab I've been the most productive?

I'm really serious when comparing with private company practices. These companies are not known to waste money, quite the opposite. They are not known either to be stingy when time comes for buying computer.

Chic Scientist said...

When students join my lab I purchase a laptop for them to use for their thesis research. I also purchase a lock for their computer at their desk and each person has a separate firewire drive for each of them to be used for backups. If they have a lot of data at the end, I'll purchase another firewire drive and ask them to make a backup for me to keep. While I have no doubt that personal stuff also ends up on these laptops, I have absolutely no "lab" computer issues, and no one has an excuse to not to process their data or to write their papers. I'm the only prof who does this here, but I think it's 2K well spent. By the time they are done with their thesis, the computers are old technology and it makes sense for them to leave the lab with the student. About once a year for my lab meeting I talk about computer issues, how the networking works, how important backups are, etc... I do have a source of "institutional" funds, which I use for these purchases, but most of our work requires computers these days so I see no reason why these should not be allowable expenses on a grant. The alternative would be using graph paper to reduce our data. How ridiculous is that!

Regarding your dilemma, are their other computer resources for the student to use that the student just chose not to? I mean, was it appropriate for this student to have been using their personal computer for their work? And should they have been backing up their data somewhere else at work?

And even if the answers to all these are yes, is the data worth it to you to recover it? A few hundred bucks is certainly less than it costs to reproduce the experiments....

Anonymous said...

It sounds like it's become commonplace for your students to use their own computers, which means that new students likely get the message that they have to use their own computers in your group and probably don't rock the boat. With your emphasis on maintaining a professional environment, I'm surprised you're so at ease with this setup, since I don't think I've ever heard of any business where its employees are expected to provide their own computing equipment (which is really a part of lab equipment with MATLAB, etc. used so widely).

Anonymous said...

FSP, do you use your own laptop/computer for research purposes or a university-provided one?

If you use your personal, think how you would pay for it if it breaks.

I doubt my professors would pay out of their pockets, since they KNOW they use it mostly for research. Doubting your student about the use of his/her personal laptop is then totally out of line.

etbnc said...

Computers are wonderful, when they behave as expected. Likewise for people, now that I think about it. :)

I used to be one of those people who put wires in the walls. That meant I was one of the people who had to figure out how to pay for the wires and the equipment. Dealing with rapidly changing needs, rapidly changing technology, and rapidly changing costs was kind of a challenge. I like to think my little corners of my academic institutions handled it as equitably as circumstances allowed.

I also used to be one of those people whose job involved preaching the Backup Your Data sermon.

Finally, I confess I'm also one of those of people who has lost data anyway. Not practicing what one preaches is a time-honored tradition. :)

But even as someone who's been in that embarrassing situation (or perhaps especially as someone who's been there) I certainly wouldn't expect someone else to bear the burden of correcting it. That personal computer sounds like a personal problem to me.

Cheers

Mister Troll said...

I have to agree with the above. It's the student's computer/student's responsibility. And *no one* backs up. (Speaking of which, it's a new month - time to back up my own computer!)

What I remember from relatively recent graduate school days is that advisors now don't concern themselves with the computing situation of the students -- and the students typically don't ask.

The advisor then saves a bit of money on a nice computer, and the students struggle to coax computing power out of their ancient, accident-prone machines. It's not a good situation for anyone.

Perhaps in the future you could consider having some official-ish computer policy, which would state when you would (try to) provide computers for your students, and what happens if they decline to use the lab computer(s)?

I just think it would be nice if both the advisors and students actually *talked* about computing facilities.

PS. Nothing wrong in the student asking for support! Also nothing wrong in giving it.

Academic said...

Your title says it all. The situation doesn't compute. It's one thing if there was some reason you had responsibility, but this is the student's issue. Students should not look to their advisor as a "Bail me out" source.

Jennie said...

I don't think you should pay for the students computer to get fixed. But, this is a good time to remind all your students about backing up their data. This is something I learned at a job between undergrad and grad. No one talks about it in graduate school. I also don't think you should be encouraging your students to use their personal computers. Although it sounds like there isn't much of a choice. My department has received old (but not very) computers from computer labs on campus so each student has their own computer provided by the dept. Many students have their own laptops they may prefer to use, or I would use mine at home when I worked there. The computers in my lab aren't used very much, mostly by undergrads or to check e-mail while waiting for your next sample.

Anonymous said...

I am shocked at the audacity of your student. I can't believe that he'd ask for you to pay - in every lab I've been in, if you don't use the group computers for lab work, you're on your own. Who's to say your recreational activities didn't cause the problem/invite the virus/wear out the hard drive? That's why lab computers are not for recreational use. Check your e-mail, sure, but no games, no personal websites. (I have my own computer so I can read your blog with little worry.)

Also, what kind of responsible person/scientist only has data in one place? Hopefully this is a lesson your student will only have to learn once.

I support your decision (and wonder a little about your student.)

Anonymous said...

Would you also pay for repairs to the student's car that let him commute to work?

Anonymous said...

I understand the argument from both sides.

I am guessing the other students in the group are also using their own computers for research. My point is that this is not an isolated incident in that it is bound to repeat itself with other students.

If it were me in your position, I would take the most democratic solution: allow your research group to vote on the issue. Schedule a group meeting and ask the student with the broken computer to present his case, and then you can present your case (just reiterate your blog post). Poll the group to see what would be the best solution.

I would also use this opportunity to announce that you will be buying portable hard drives for everyone to backup their work. Since you are the group leader, you are responsible for the work itself, and I believe backing up data in a way does fall into your responsibility....I mean, if the student leaves abruptly, it is still your data.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised by how many people think this is the student's responsibility. Of course the student should have backed up data -- lesson learned. But computers are absolutely necessary for research, and advisors should be responsible for providing the tools for research. You benefited financially because the student was generous enough to provide the computer, and now you should accept the cost of repair.

Keep in mind that unless you work at SOU (Snotty Overprivileged University) your student barely makes ends meet on what you pay him/her. Do you want to add to the financial burden by asking your students to provide expensive research equipment like computers?

plam said...

Interesting issue. I actually recently bought a laptop, so I had to think about whether or not to pay for it using my startup grant, which would then lead to a similar issue if the computer then catastrophically failed. It seems to me that the main differences are: 1) I'm not a poor student anymore; 2) in the event of catastrophic failure, I'd be spending my own money (research or personal) to fix it, not someone else's money; 3) I'm a computer scientist. (What would you do if you lost your data on a personal laptop and you could pay for it with your own grants?)

It would seem funny to me that students would be using personal laptops, because I certainly always used a school-owned laptop in graduate school (in the not-very-distant-past). However, many students come with their own laptops now, so I can see how it might make sense to not actually have two laptops. (I certainly don't have any problem with using a lab laptop for personal use, especially a lab laptop that's using an operating system resilient to crapware, like Mac OS X or Linux).

I think that I would find some way to pay for the laptop repair from research money. Then I'd make sure that I would deploy backup services. I don't think it makes sense that I'd be saving money for not paying for a lab laptop and then saving more money by having students fix the laptop themselves. That doesn't seem fair to me, especially since it's a situation that just happened organically.

Female Science Professor said...

I provide some computers for my group, but most people choose to use their personal computers, for various reasons. For example, the student in question always buys the next New Cool Thing from Apple on the day it comes out (hardware and software). The computers and resources I provide can never match his technological desires.

When the hard drive on my laptop, which was purchased with grant funds, crashed last summer, I paid for the repair myself because the grant that had purchased the computer had expired. Everything important on it was backed up, so the crash was inconvenient but not dire.

Candid Engineer said...

I can see the issue from both perspectives. In the lab of FSP, students use their own computers, and they should be responsible for their own personal property.

On the other hand, I think it is unprofessional to *expect* students and postdocs to provide their own computers. Yes, I realize that FSP provides a few general computers, but the fact of the matter is that these computers no longer cut it for typical research usage. It's basically like saying that the grad student should use what is essentially an obsolete system provided to him, or buy his own computer (which is a big expense for a typical student).

How much more work is accomplished with the portability of a laptop? I sure wouldn't have been trekking into the lab regularly on weekends just to sit at the general computer where all of my data was located.

I think chic scientist has the right idea. The 'issue' of this post shouldn't be an issue to start with. Any would-be professor should give every student/postdoc $x for the purchase of a computer of his or her choice at the start of an appointment. Rules would have to be in place so tech-crazy or irresponsible students could not abuse the system.

Plague of Crickets said...

Purchasing computers has become a real problem, at least at some institutions. My university, for example, interprets NSF rules as prohibiting computer purchases unless the computer will be used solely for the funded research. So computers can be purchased if they are dedicated to data collection for the funded project, but cannot be purchased for general use. And since little money is available from internal sources, this means no desktop computers for students unless (1) the PI is willing to lie about how a new computer will be used, (2) the PI farms out older computers from previous projects (which many students are not particularly happy to receive), or (3) the students buy their own. Repairing a personal computer with research funds would be completely verboten (and likely to be flagged in a NSF audit).

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

Wow, what a range of responses! Agreed that since the student insists on having the Latest/Greatest, it's his own problem. However, I would use the opportunity to announce in lab meeting that I was generously going to cover half the cost of this incident, since lab data is important--but that the next time this happens, people are on their own. This makes it clear to your lab that their personal laptops are not your financial responsibility, and that they should take steps to protect their data, but that you're not an ogre. Because, unfair or not, students would possibly mutter dire words about a PI who wouldn't help out a little bit with laptop repair.

Strong words to the student in question would not be out of line. Good luck.

Global Girl said...

Sorry to be blunt, but if you didn't provide the student a computer to use for his/her research, what else did you expect the student to do other than to use his/her personal laptop? I would LOVE to get a research-only laptop, but no one's willing to pay for one. Hence, if I'm going to present at BYOL conferences (and the main one in my field is such), I have to bear all of the expense and responsibility for purchasing, maintaining and backing up my data with my personal money. I can take responsibility for backing up my data from time to time, but if you want regular, reliable backups, I'm not paying $200 out of my own pocket for a backup system in addition to the month's salary for the laptop itself. You want everything done in order, make policies (and enforce them!) and pay for the execution. Similarly, your angel is right - your choice is more delay or take responsibility for a possible outcome of not providing computer infrastructure for students. The smaller delay is the smart managerial choice.

Anonymous said...

The problem is mixing personal machines with work machines, and mixing work machines on various projects. I am now supposed to buy separate machines for teaching and each research project, each paid for from separate funds, and use the machine solely for each project. The extra expense is enormous and everyone I know ignores these rules.

You should provide each employee with the computing resources necessary to perform their job, including backups. Part of their job may or may not be to perform the backups themselves, if so this should be made explicit. If a student wants to use their personal computer for work projects, issues like backups and repairs should be spelled out in advance. If the students' use of their personal machines improves productivity and saves you money in hardware/software purchases, then it is not unreasonable to contribute to the cost of the machine.

But, contributing to the cost probably violates the rules.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with most posters and think you SHOULD repair the student's computer.

You saved $2k by not having to buy him a brand new computer (putting it another way, he donated a $2k piece of equipment to the lab). This in effect means his computer is a piece of lab equipment. Refusing to fix the computer and retrieve the data is tantamount to refusing to fix any other piece of equipment that a student accidentally breaks. When this happens the lab fixes it, you lecture the student and do everything you can to ensure it doesn't happen again. You don't leave your equipment broken.

You are going to have to be truly insistent about backing up to all members in your lab. If you have a postdoc or senior student who is particularly fastidious, make it their job to ensure that everyone in the lab backs up on a LAB external hard drive at least monthly.

It's lab data - make it a lab responsibility.

usagibrian said...

Hmmm, the student doesn't get Apple Care with the latest & greatest? Combined with the lack of backing up, there's some evidence of not being a great long-term planner.

As to the current dilemma, you said it yourself, you've become complacent about managing your computers in your lab (it's easy enough to do). Resolving the issue as expeditiously as possible is to everyone's benefit, so it does seem appropriate to help the student out somehow. Then revisit how you manage the combo of personal and lab owned machines in your group.

I'd suggest exploring supporting student workers with the purchase & extension of the machine warranty/care programs if they are using the machines for research (and setting up a group back up device really only makes sense--the data is the really valuable part). Out of pocket repairs for out of warranty machines hurt any budget (says the person who had his laptop screen die last month just after the holiday expenses were all paid off...). That was on my personal machine that I use as a work machine when I travel personally or on business. I paid for that, but the IT department was kind enough to provide me with a loaner for a week so I wasn’t disconnected at home.

Anonymous said...

A laptop represents probably 5-10% of a grad student's YEARLY income! By no means should this expense be borne by the employee (as someone else pointed out, that doesn't even happen in Rich Corporate America), and "that's how it's been done sofar" isn't really a great reason to continue it. Students and employees should not have to kick back their salary to their boss, whether that's in terms of computers or daily massages.

Of course students shouldn't look to PIs to "bail them out" ... of a housing mess or a relationship mess or a commuting mess, but they should be bailed out of a computing mess or an academic mess or a research mess. Those are risks a PI, or any boss, takes on in training a blank slate.

Backups are a separate issue. They should be made easier, and made mandatory.

Back to the computer in question: I think that FSP should pay for the repair, and after doing so, should then own it as lab equipment.

Anonymous said...

I had a related experience recently, as a student. I use a lab provided laptop computer, and I was (past tense) using a lab provided external drive for storing my thesis data. I had backups, but hadn't made one in a couple of weeks when the external HD crashed. Even though the HD that failed was university equipment, I figured it was my fault for not backing up to another place (our network at the lab, a dvd, etc) regularly enough, and ended up purchasing data recovery software on my own because spending $100 or so seemed worth it to me. But I didn't feel like I could ask my lab to absorb that expense.

In your situation, I think that providing a computer for your student to use for research is the right thing to do - but if it's less expensive for you to buy a new laptop than it is to repair his old one, then I think you have every right to buy a new one -- I don't think it's your responsibility to repair his personal computer. I definitely don't think it's your responsiblity to pay for him to get his data back, but if you can afford to do it, I can't see anything wrong with that, and as someone else mentioned, recovery has to be cheaper than redoing the work. Computers can be finiky and sometimes they just stop working - we've all lost work due to unexpected technology issues.

Just my 2 cents, but I think that asking someone to not use a lab laptop for personal reasons is silly and would be impossible to enforce anyhow.

Anonymous said...

It's tricky. I'm assuming that the student must be desperate to ask you for help, as I would be if I asked my advisor for help with something like that, so it's possible that if you don't pay for the repair the student might not be able to find the money (or may have to go hungry to find it).

But I think personal computers are a personal responsibility - they could have used the lab computers if they'd wanted but they chose not to. I choose not to use lab computers and use my laptop at home because it improves my personal comfort - if not my efficiency. I paid for a few programs that were helpful to me in a general sort of way (e.g. the most recent version of office, a reference management package that is available on university machines), and my university department provided programs that are necessary for my research (diagram drawing programs, specialist search engines, maths packages) that are too expensive for students to buy.

I think of what I'm doing as getting an education as well as getting a job, and although I'm getting much more of my education paid for than I did as an undergraduate, I still accept that there are some things I need to pay for if I want them - my own copies of textbooks that I can write in, rather than use library copies, a personal computer rather than university owned workstations, coloured folders and file dividers rather than the plain black ones that are provided and so on.

That said, it would be really nice if someone else paid for things like USB drives that I pretty much need to store and transfer data. And as someone above said, although it is possible to use lab computers normally, if you're going to give a talk or presentation, it gets tricky without your own laptop.

So, I guess on one side, you may just have to pay up because the student may really not be able to find the money - at least not in the short term. (Could you give a loan?)

On the other side, there may be other students in your group who have paid for their own computer insurance or for fixing computer issues, and could feel annoyed that another student gets this paid for because they haven't planned ahead/didn't use the money they were planning to use for a holiday for the repair.

But I would definately provide lab owned CDs/USB drives etc in future to have data backed up onto which are lab property and stored in the lab.

Anonymous said...

Wait. The student has a Mac? Something sounds odd- macs don't crash! If he has a newer model, it should be covered by a warranty. If it's within three years of purchase, he should have gotten the extended Applecare warranty.
Does your school have an IT department? some of these whizs have saved me in the past...

Ms.PhD said...

More or less what chris and mister troll said.

In my view, it is YOUR job to provide easy, efficient backup for ALL the data in the lab. Period.

That is one of your responsibilities as the PI.

IF and only if you did that AND the student did not make appropriate use of easy, efficient, available backup services provided by the lab to him at no cost, THEN you can tell him to pay for recovering the missing data out of his own irresponsible pocket.

And to apologize for being so irresponsible. And maybe he should wash your car while he's at it.

I would not be annoyed, I would be FURIOUS. I remember when you mentioned this in a previous post.

I otherwise agree with the whole range of comments here. The best medicine is prevention, or in this case education (in academia of all places, just imagine!).

In the best of all possible worlds, I had an advisor who paid for surgery for a grad student who had insufficient health insurance (not the student's fault the university policy sucked) and a car for a postdoc whose car died (not the postdoc's fault the university postdoc policy sucked).

I think good managers know: anything that interferes with productivity is worth fixing, if it can be fixed.

I think it's lame that advisors don't consider it their job to provide computing services, and I pay for my own equipment out of pocket when I know it can double for personal use, but I still resent the often exorbitant cost.

I know plenty of people who simply cannot afford it. And their work suffers, and they steal software instead of buying it.

Bad for everyone!

Grants should cover this, and the technology IP watchdogs should make them cover it. And PIs should make a bigger stink about universities not covering it out of the overhead $$ they're otherwise embezzling.

Anonymous said...

I wish all PI's had a clear computer-agenda similar to chic scientist's. At least my old PI bought all of us a desktop or laptop (choice was hours) and it was clear that that would remain lab possession and stay after we left. I just started a new postdoc at a well known university and am (apparently) supposed to bring my own laptop to work. No one offered a computer for work related stuff, I guess it is just assumed that I want to carry this thing with me everywhere I go.

Emily said...

Dear FSP,

Normally I'm a huge fan.

However, as a recent graduate of a computationally intensive Ph.D. program in a department with spotty computer policies, I have tons of sympathy for the "not providing each student with sufficient computational resources is exploitation" position. Why should ANY of your data need to be on ANY of your students' computers? They don't provide their own mass specs / telescopes / seimometers / SEMs / other equipment necessary for research. Why should they supply the computer equipment?

If you're going to tacitly endorse students needing to provide their own computers to get your group's research done, then I hope you're providing the software and hardware for appropriate backups.

And if you're not providing the computer or the backup solution, then I think you've got a lot of nerve to complain about your student's donated laptop resources needing repairs because he failed to also donate an appropriate backup solution.

And if two month's of your student's time really isn't worth the cost of retrieving the data, then I'm doubly glad I got out of academia.

Female Science Professor said...

I forgot to mention that although I do have large pools of grant money lying around that I could spend on bigger/faster computers for my group, I need that money to buy a new chandelier for my yacht.

Perhaps there is a difference of opinion on what is considered "sufficient". Can I provide each of my students and postdocs with the latest/greatest/fastest computer (laptop or desktop) every year? No, I cannot. Do I provide everyone access to a computer, including laptops for travel if they don't want to bring their own? Yes. Do all students choose to use the computers provided? No. Hence my question: What happens when a student's personal computer -- which they are using by choice, not by necessity -- breaks down?

EcoGeoFemme said...

This comment thread made me realize how crummy my computer situation is. My university lab didn't provide any computer when I started. I was basically told to buy my own laptop (I guess I could have used the general undergrad computer lab in another building). I'm in another lab at a non-university research institution which provides computers for everyone, but mine is a hand-me-down from ca. 1998. I'm about to get a new hand-me-down, from ca 2003. It's going to be awesome!

There must be a way for you to work this out with the student. It's true that he could have used a computer provided by you, but it's also true that he freed up your money (or an existing lab computer) by buying his own.

Jonah said...

I have a question:
Anonymous 5:36pm brought up that perhaps the student is quite desperate to come asking for paid recovery. But if indeed the student is financially desperate, why is s/he buying the latest and greatest tech in the first place? If this habit has caused him/her to skimp on backup hard drives/software/etc., or to forget about it completely, then at least some example for responsible economics should be set. This could be done by paying partially (as was previously suggested) or not at all. However since you have a stake in this, partially probably fits the bill.

Anonymous said...

It is the student's responsibility to fix the computer. Both my post-doc and PhD advisors were Good Guys, but the only time we got personal laptops were if (a) we had a predoc/postdoc fellowship that had extra money for this or (b) if we bought them ourselves. I never really thought this was unfair, being as half the people come in with laptops anyhow, and (as someone else said) I would never expect my advisor to buy me a car to commute to lab. If the computer were being used solely for lab work, it would be a different story, but...

chemcat said...

How about a Solomonic solution? Pay for the repairs, retrieve the data, but then repossess the spiffy laptop for the group.
That should be punishment enough, to see his/her beloved mac in somebody else's hands :-)
We mac users are a bit obsessed. BTW if this is an Air model, I offer to buy it on the spot at a reasonable discount...

Squeaky Wipers said...

In this day and age, most people have their own laptops...and given the choice, I am inclined to believe one would choose to use their own laptop. This is a fact, and forcing students to use communal lab computers is not feasible.

What you should do/should have done is to provide a means of backing up the data. As the PI of your group, you are responsible for mentoring your students to generate that data, you are responsible for going over that data, you are responsible for using that data in presentations/posters/manuscripts, then why shouldn't you be responsible for making sure it is backed up in a safe place? You may not have control of what computer system that data is generated, but you can make sure that data ends up in a safe place. Invest in a few portable hard drives (you can get up to 150gbs for around $100 now) and set a rule for your students to back up their data every other day, if not every day.

As for your current predicament - I honestly do not see a clear cut solution. I went through several scenarios based on your posts. My understanding is that the student wants financial help to retrieve lost data on his computer? Had there been a means to backup that data in your lab in the first place, then of course you have complete and utter no obligation to compensate your student's repair. However, such a backup system does not exist, and I regard that "lost" data as your property trapped in your student's computer.

However, I can sympathize with you in that the student's recreational activities on his/her computer perhaps increased the probability of the malfunction, and I would be sore if I had to fork out money for that. Nevertheless, I feel you should compensate for at least half of his/her repair costs, and run out and buy some portable hard drives for back up right away.

Anonymous said...

If the student decided to use his own laptop despite having lab computers available in the lab, then he should pay for his own repairs.

When I was writing my thesis, I decided that I did not want to be chained to my lab desk, so I bought a laptop for my OWN convenience. I would never ask my then-advisor to pay for repairs if it had broken down during my thesis-writing period.

Graduate students are adults (or should be one ASAP). It’s their responsibility to make sure their hard work is backed up, especially if the PI had provided the means to do so!

Still, if FSP decides to pay for the computer repair, I’m saving the receipts for my car repairs. After all, my car is very important for my productivity in lab, just like a computer.

Anonymous said...

fsp - in response to your specific question. If a student chooses to use their own computer rather than yours, they are presumably saving you money in computer purchases. Unless the student is doing something extreme, the likelihood of repair is the same whether they use your computer or their own. If they further have newer computers than you do, then the repair needs probably are lower if they use their own computer. So, I would probably view repair as a research cost.

But I can't empasize enough that whatever computer they use, you should be mentoring students on good computer behavior, backups, security, etc., and provide hardware and software for them to backup work data.

blop said...

If the student has a mac then:
1. his computer must be more than 1 year old otherwize it would still be under warranty. So he's probably not changing his computer as often as you said.
2. if he has the latests OS, then providing him an external hard drive would have been sufficient to have an automated hourly backup!
3. macs are pretty bad for gaming and are pretty safe with respect to viruses, so I see no reason to suppose that his personal use of the computer increased significantly breaking hazards.

blop said...

concerning the car analogy: the people I know who do need a car for their work (traveling salesmen, security managers of several production sites) have a car paid by their work that they can use (within predefined limits) for personal use too...

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student and use my personal laptop (also a Mac) for research purposes. I recently had a hard drive crash (yes! on my 8-month-old computer!) and just wanted to point out that the Apple warranty definitely does NOT cover data recovery. They will replace your hard drive, but will not return the dead hard drive to you or try to get anything off of it.

I elected not to pay hundreds of dollars to try to get my data back and didn't think about asking my advisor (nor did he offer). I have an external hard drive at home (paid for with my personal money) and hadn't remembered to back up for almost a month. Painful lesson, indeed.

Reading these comments, I agree with those who think that any computationally-intensive work should have expectations laid bare for this sort of situation. I think having lab policies and equipment for backups should be standard -- if a student doesn't use the provided backup solutions, then it's not your responsibility. If you're not providing backup solutions or mentoring, then that's a place you could improve, as well.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this issue is sensitive! My old supervisor provided everyone with a computer and programs, which was awesome. Unfortunately, sometimes I couldn't open 2 programs at the same time (to copy and paste a graph/picture from one program into Word) or run more than 5 non-linear fits because it always kept crashing due to lack of memory (the lab computers only had 256 M RAM and upgrading RAM was really expensive for some reason on that computer model).

After a month of frustration, I gave up and got my own laptop with lots of RAM! But then the old lab instruments had 2" floppy drives with no USB port and weren't connected to the internet while my computer didn't have a floppy drive -- data transfer problem. Since I wasn't tech savvie, I did lots of inefficient emailing of data, because the lab network wasn't always working or really slow. Then finally a computer with a 2" floppy and usb port finally showed up at the lab, and I bought my own usb memory stick which quickly became my lifesaver.

Advances in technology does make research and other activities easier, but making everything compatible is just as necessary. Changing the computer interface on a lab instrument usually means buying a new instrument or software which can be costly, something the PI may not be willing to do.

JB said...

Just a general comment about data backup:

It is not sufficient to back up your data to an attached external hard drive. Nor is it sufficient to back it up to a network server in your lab building, unless that server is located inside a fireproof box. Even then, it isn't advisable.

The best solution is to set up a nightly automated backup of all computers on the network to a central location. Every so often (weekly, for example), the data on that location should be extracted (with something like a portable hard drive) and moved to a physically different location. This is especially true for those of you in chemistry/chemical engineering labs.

When in grad school, we had multiple fires in both buildings, one of which resulted in the loss of product, a computer and the associated backup system for a 5th-year organic chemistry student. Not only did he lose the product of his 20+ step synthesis, but he also lost all of his supporting data for all steps in the fire. The data had been adequately backed up, but the backup was stored with the original copy, and that was problematic.

While at the national lab, the solution was to house backup servers in separate buildings inside fireproof rooms.

My graduate research group had assigned one member to be the computer expert. He was responsible for backing up all of the group's computers and moving the data to a secondary location. This involved a lot of work for him, but it made our data backup capabilities much better than they had previously been.

TW Andrews said...

Given that you've made pretty clear that it was the student's choice to use their "latest and greatest" computer, but that one of the primary uses was for research related activities, it seems reasonable to cover a share of the repair cost roughly equivalent to what you think the research:recreation ratio is.

And then I would institute a policy for your lab that all critical data needs to be backed up no less than weekly to an external location (something like Amazon S3, which makes sure the backup is robust). Given how easy this is to do, and how important I'm guessing data is to you and your students, there's really no excuse for ever losing more than a couple days work.

Anonymous said...

Does the IT services of your university offer a professional backup service? At the university I work, all computers can be set up within minutes to be backed up (daily, or, if one wants every hour) to a central location (magnetic tapes). The backups there are the mirrored to a second location very far away.
the costs are covered by the university, but even if this was a pay service I would find the expense justified, since hard drives, after all, are consumables...

Best wishes!

Katie said...

I think I'd pay for the cost of data recovery - and I'd split that with the student, probably splitting the cost based on percentage of data that is research related.