What Gifts Are Appropriate for Students to Give to Professors?

My buddy Dan, a graduating 3L from Georgetown (congrats, Dan!), asks a tough question: If a grateful student wants to get a professor a gift, what is appropriate? It’s hard to answer this question because I have some obvious self-interest!

Let’s start with why a professor teaches in the first place. There are many motivations, but the vast majority of law professors genuinely want to help students accomplish their objectives. However, we rarely know if we’ve been successful that way. A student takes our class, graduates, and then we never know if we helped the student or not. So a student helps satisfy my motivations if the student tells me how the story turns out a few years down the line. Did the student get to where the student wanted to go? Was I helpful in getting the student there? If not, what could I have done to be more helpful?

Thus, from my perspective, the single best gift is when a student checks in with me a few years later telling me that I was helpful (if that’s the truth). That always makes my day! So, Dan, make a vow to check back with your professors in a few years and tell them how their teaching/support affected you. That’s the best gift of all.

However, this does not give you an immediate answer to your question. If you want to do something now, a thank you note would be incredibly gracious. I don’t expect such notes—they should be done only when truly heart-felt—but I’ve occasionally gotten thank you notes from students over the years and they always warm my heart.

Beyond that, I don’t see a need to give a material gift; a thank-you note would supersede the communicative effect of any material gift, and a material gift without a thank-you note would be very nice but not quite as meaningful as a note.

Having said that, occasionally students over the years have gotten me slinkies and that always brightens my days. I have a slinky obsession that I often reference in class examples (or students discover while investigating me on the web), and sometimes students get me slinkies when they see them. I am very touched when a student does something so personally motivated like that. Other gifts in the same vein—such as intellectual property artifacts like the Marshmallow Peeps art given by one of my students—all show that the person is thinking about me personally and about the topics I’m passionate about, and those say a lot.

However, I cannot stress this following point enough: I don’t expect gifts or thank-you notes or any further recognition from students. I don’t need fealty, I have no expectations and I don’t keep score.

If, despite all this, you choose to give a material gift, three ground rules:

1) No gifts before grades are finalized. While most professors would not let a gift affect their judgment, the possibility for impropriety can make such gifts uncomfortable. (This may also hold for thank-you letters).

2) No gifts that are too personal. I don’t want to be uncomfortable explaining anything to my wife. (This may also hold true for thank-you letters).

3) No expensive gifts. We know that students have a ton of debt, so an expensive gift would break our hearts.

Note that the foregoing discussion applies when the student wants to express gratitude for the professor’s teaching/support. I think the situation is slightly different when a professor has done something above-and-beyond for you, like write a recommendation letter. In that situation, I think you should treat it like any other situation where a friend has gone out of their way as a personal favor. For example, I rarely can write a recommendation in less than an hour, and students almost always ask for the letter with a deadline measured in days (or, sometimes, hours). This invariably means that I have to rearrange my schedule to help out the student. I don’t expect a thank-you note, but a thank-you note is never inappropriate. A small token of appreciation, like something you would give a friend, also can be OK, but I feel a little less comfortable with gifts as a thank-you for recommendation letters—if handled incorrectly, this can feel a little like pay-for-play.

Thanks for asking, Dan. I hope this helps. If anyone has further thoughts, please comment!

UPDATE: The Chronicle on Higher Education has a string on this topic.

UPDATE 2: I’ve also blogged on gifts that are appropriate for new first year law students.