My adviser is stealing my project!

Ask Alice, Lightbulb

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science.

Dear Alice,

“The project is really mine, so I feel it would be wrong for the professor to do this. What can I do?” —Pete

Q: I am a graduate student, and I expect to get my degree this coming June. I have made an important discovery and want to continue to work on it after I leave the laboratory. However, my professor has asked me to teach an incoming student all the techniques I use, and I am afraid that my professor will continue to work on the same problem. The project is really mine, so I feel it would be wrong for the professor to do this. What can I do?

- Pete

Dear Pete,

A: Let’s look at your claim that the project is yours. Did your adviser suggest your project, or at least give you the broad outlines of the questions that you could explore? Did your adviser’s funding pay for the materials that you used to work on your project? Who provided the equipment? Is your project related to ongoing research that is being done in the laboratory or focused in the area of your adviser’s interest? If you answered any of these questions affirmatively, then you and your adviser worked as a team on this project; the adviser provided resources and ideas, and you provided skilled labor and ideas. Both your contributions were essential.

I asked several professors who have extensive training experience to share their views about your situation. Some guidelines emerged. If the problem you are working on is part of an ongoing project in the laboratory and fits the lab’s general goals, then the professor has every right to continue to work on the discovery. Even if your discovery arose from a project you introduced to the laboratory, your adviser can still legitimately claim some ownership. Of course you, too, have a legitimate claim. So, both you and your adviser have a right to continue the work. Ideally, you should decide together which aspects of the project each of you will work on, but this seldom happens. If you end up competing with your former graduate mentor, you’ll have an advantage because you are more familiar with the details of the work than your adviser is.

No matter what, go ahead and train your replacement in good faith. Don’t even think of sabotaging the work or the training by leaving out important steps. Work hard to keep your relationship with your graduate adviser cordial. There’s a lot riding on this relationship; you will need good reference letters, whether it’s for your next position, a fellowship, or something else. Don’t put those at risk. 

- Alice


Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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