A PhD student "Alex" has a few years to impress their research lab advisor and then their dissertation committee. During these years, I imagine that Alex will come up with some great ideas that can be modeled, simulated, and perhaps validated with physical experiments, etc. It might feel that all of Alex's work "belongs" to the lab, and namely, to their lab director / advisor. Then after several years of working at such a high-energy pace, does Alex have to worry about running out of ideas, and that they gave all their ideas away to their advisor? Or does Alex have so much more to gain from sharing all of their best ideas and then receiving crucial feedback in return, and that the benefits far outweigh the 'costs'?

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    If "Alex" is a good and capable PhD student, I would not be worried about running out of ideas. If "Alex" isn't such a good student, and all his idea were really just ideas from someone else at that lab, or extensions of other peoples ideas, then he might run out of idea once he leaves that environment and nobody else is going to provide suggestions to him.
    – Jan Lucas
    May 24, 2018 at 11:21

8 Answers 8


Research ideas tend to grow exponentially.

  • At the beginning, Alex is a student who doesn't know what's already been done -- no ideas (though maybe some interests)
  • As an undergraduate, Alex will start to have ideas based on what he reads and his experiences. Many of these will be off-topic, already done, or impossible.
  • Then Alex will spend time doing research "at the cutting edge" -- usually on someone else ideas (i.e., his advisor's). He'll now start to understand where the gaps are and what ideas could be developed, adapted, or applied to plug these gaps. Some of these ideas could be valuable.
  • As Alex continues to read the journals and perform his own research, he'll identify more and more ideas. The limiting factor is time: having ideas may be fast, but taking an idea from conception to publication always takes a long time, so Alex normally has a long list of ideas in the back of his mind.

So yes, Alex will gain by discussing his ideas with his advisor. In most cases though, students start by work on their advisor's ideas, which they gradually make their own and begin to supplement with their own ideas as they mature.

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    This is a straightforward and general outline of a researcher candidate. There are also cases where students by themselves have feasible ideas and even tries to write projects themselves mostly. In that case, and as I understood from the question, "Alex" worries that advisor might just take all the credits of his ideas and when Alex, presumably, runs out the ideas of his own, he will be left with nothing and his career collapses. I have seen such people, I have seen such advisors, please elaborate this side as well.
    – user91300
    May 24, 2018 at 7:01
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    I like this answer because it doesn't mention any other title than graduating, which means one could be on point 4 without doing a PhD or a master.
    – llrs
    May 24, 2018 at 7:30
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    Is your answer "No, it's not a valid concern, because things usually work out like this", or is it "Yes, it's a valid concern, although things usually work out like this"?
    – NotThatGuy
    May 24, 2018 at 8:26
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    To add to this: Too many ideas, not enough time, is probably a good reason to want to supervise one's own students!
    – Flyto
    May 24, 2018 at 8:55
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    @GürayHatipoğlu: I'd say that someone who already as a student has ideas on their own will be even less likely to run out of ideas. And students with ideas on their own and able to write their own project proposals will have better chances to get away from bad advisors. OTOH, anyone may run into mental illness. May 24, 2018 at 10:10

I am now at my 5th year as post-doc, and I do have much more ideas than time now. I share them with PhD students and coworkers, and try to make joint papers, as it is beneficial for both of us.


Ideas are cheap -- usually free. (Or even cheaper than free, having negative values - in many areas creators of ideas have to pay people to attend to them, like paying agents to plug their music and books.) Most people already have far too many of their own ideas that they don't have time to do anything with. It's unlikely they would get any benefit from stealing any more from anyone else. Actually doing stuff is hard and involves money, time, effort and reward.

  • This sound reassuring, but in reality, I find that ideas gets stolen all the time. Ask around. If you lost an idea people will sympathise and tell you their own stories. Why do people steal ideas even though they are abundant? Not sure, maybe an idea sounds nicer when you hear it from someone else. Kinda like the kid who takes the toy a smaller kid is playing with even though he has his own
    – Asdf
    May 25, 2018 at 14:32
  • @Asdf Because humanity is diverse and abundant. Some people are jerks. Others think you're over reacting (and sometimes you are). Nothing you can do about it. More often than not sharing ideas is a net benefit to everyone. May 27, 2018 at 6:17
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    Ideas are a dime a dozen. Really good ideas are not quite as common. And, while it is true that sometimes it is difficult to convince people of one's idea, people are less stupid than one gives them credit: "nostrification" of good ideas does happen - people hear them, they forget they heard them and they come up with them "independently". May 27, 2018 at 10:35
  • Yes so the point is that the only way to demonstrate that your supposedly brilliant idea is, in fact, a brilliant idea, is to get the money, time, and other resources to implement it and show that it works. When you have finished doing that you can quickly publish and/or patent it then everyone will know that it was your idea. Unless you have made such a proof it's 99.9% likely to be another worthless random pub-talk idea. May 28, 2018 at 10:33
  • The asker seem to be asking two questions: 1) will an active researcher run out of ideas and 2) should you share your ideas freely. For 1), the answer should in general be no. For 2), I will depart from most other people in this thread and say no. A good idea obviously hold a lot of potential value. If you share it prematurely with the wrong people, the cost of getting scoped is high.
    – Asdf
    Jun 3, 2018 at 14:41

I suppose a good ol' cost-benefit analysis couldn't hurt. "Alex" should ask himself the following questions:

  • Could he have graduated anyway without sharing his idea? He might already be working on a promising thesis project and should focus his attention.
  • Could he have pursued his ideas without the infrastructure, funding, and support of the lab?
  • Does the lab in fact deserve most of the credits solely because of the infrastructure it provides? If he has followed through a research from ideation to funding proposals, to equipment purchase, to hiring and training support staff, to experimentation, to failed experimentation, to multiple failed experimentation, to data analysis, to conference events, to publication, he might agree that having an idea is perhaps the easiest part.
  • Without sharing/sacrificing his idea, could he have achieved the academic standing necessary to find funding to support researching his own ideas afterwards?
  • Without sharing his idea and pursuing it now, would the idea be discovered independently by other researchers easily?
  • Are the odds of discovering newer and better ideas as a result of pursuing this idea now worth more than losing some credits to his adviser?
  • Is there a way to timestamp an idea in his field? It is typical to keep an audited research logbook in postgraduate. Sharing his idea, by exchanging emails with his peers, can also serve as a means of attribution. Or by publishing a letter to a journal instead of an full-blown article. He might even burn some bitcoin to lock his discovery in the blockchain forever. If the work is important enough that historians will look back to the original research notes, losing attribution now may not have mattered.
  • Could he have framed this idea as a side project collaboration with another trusted P.I., such that at least his own lab cannot claim all credits?
  • Did he receive any peer feedback from within his own research area that his idea is indeed novel and practical and of academic interest and not done or proven false before?
  • As @cag51 accurately mentioned, he will have more ideas than he has time to pursue them.


A PhD research is (in my mind) not like working for a company. You are doing research, science. At least in the past, science was a shared effort amongst all of humanity.

My suggestion (and I do think you are asking more for a "mindset", not law and regulations) would be this:

  • If Alex is in it for the long term, i.e. teaching and science, then he better get used to the idea of sharing more or less everything immediately. The question goes away then.
  • If Alex, instead gets the PhD simply to get a better post in the industry, later, then he doesn't need to worry anyways, because what he did during the PhD wouldn't matter that much, or at all, anyways (except for building up a network of possible company contacts to apply at).

That said, a smaller part of your question seems to be about burnout. That, indeed, is something which not only Alex, but everybody working in a "brain-related" area needs to worry about a lot, these days. He most definitely wants to pace himself such that he stays ahead of the stress curve. This has little to do with the other parts of the question though, i.e., it does not matter for this whether his ideas "belong" to someone else.


Yes, sharing your ideas is the way to go in research. Your advisor is not your enemy, but a future colleague. People that keep ideas to themselves miss the point : get other people to adopt your ideas, and spread them.

It's a measure of your own success when people get to the point of saying your ideas as if they occurred naturally.

As for running out of ideas, don't worry, it's a kind of have or don't have situation. Some people have the creativity to do good research, and for others it's hard to find a semi original contribution. Experience helps, but people that have good ideas don't run out of them.

It's ok for many exchanges in research to be a bit asymmetric, let one partner be the wall against which you bounce ideas. A good wall (a good advisor) brings precious feedback, don't underestimate it, even just by bouncing the ball (your own idea) back with an unexpected spin. Finding a research colleague interested in what you do and collaborating with you is not a given in all contexts, enjoy it through your thesis. You'll get to write papers alone (mostly after your phd:D), but it's not usually all that much fun to do stuff alone.


I had various ideas for my PhD which I was sharing around, including with people who could make use of them.

One day, one of my fellow PhD students came to me mentioning that he read about neural networks (a very, very niche and theoretical area at that time) and that, maybe, this could be an idea I could think about.

I ended up with a PhD 70% around the use of neural networks, as an innovative way to approach some problems. I would not have done it if people around were not aware of my thoughts and did not come back with some feedback (for which I profusely thanked her in my thesis, she was I think right after my advisor and before the girlfriend, friends, parents and dog)


Depends, maybe Alex has to work with PostDocs which give no ideas or input back. Instead they notice everything whenever he tells something during a presentation and later take these ideas or even the preliminary results to publish without Alex. Maybe some PostDocs also fake results or struggle and run to the institute leader to delay Alex own papers. Later when Alex runs out of time they just finish what he has in the pipline. Or maybe, the supervisor is a micro manager and his students have to follow his projects even if they know it will not work out, instead to do something useful.

I think, there is sometimes really the possibility that someone runs out of ideas which can be followed in some institutes.

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