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