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I have recently obtained an undergraduate degree in Computer Science with excellent performance and shortly afterwards got a research assistant post for a two-year industry-university collaboration project with the professors I worked with. The perks of this job are a modest salary for two years and an opportunity to get a postgraduate degree in a project-related area which will be partly covered by this post. I would be doing R&D work for the rest of my two years.

Upon joining, my professors and myself spent many days trying to formulate a research idea that makes sense in the project's context. We finally proposed an idea and loosely specified its details to our project partners and we got their approval. Work started immediately.

To our surprise, our industry partners revealed that they went ahead and implemented a massive chunk of work that was assigned to my team on their own accord. They were faster and produced higher quality work. It was later revealed to us that our partners had attempted similar endeavours in the past and had a lot of groundwork ready.

One may question the communication strategy of all involved stakeholders. We have been operating with regular meetings and on-site visits as frequent as once every week in which we exchange progress and ideas but we did not exchange any artefacts.

There is actually quite a small amount of work left from my team, but it seems that our partners did a lot of work overlapping with ours. Now that we are at the end of our project and we have to communicate with our funding agents, we must detail some results in a report and that would be the end of the project.

I feel useless and a fraud. I did a lot of R&D work on projects that are very niche and not likely to find any adoption in practice. Also, some work is incomplete. I did many sleepless nights and unpaid overtime hours on the essential parts of this project but industry partners finished the same work quickly and without my contribution, thus possibly invalidating my work in a sense. This also makes me wonder if it is justified that I feel an element of disrespect and mistrust. But worst of all, I feel scared. Many of our interactions are undocumented - it is time to produce reports for our funding agents and I can't help but wonder if my or my professor's reputation are at risk and whether funding will be questioned.

How can I act diplomatically in this context and defend funding? Everyone worked very hard. How can I maintain good relationships? Is this normal in research projects or is this form of research not for me? Is it time to quit?

  • What does your professor think? They know way more about the details of this situation than anyone here will know. It certainly sounds like there are some project management issues here and unclear responsibilities within the collaboration, but I don't see why you are concerned that a team at an industry partner with a head start is more productive than you as an individual. – Bryan Krause Dec 19 '18 at 19:38
  • What does the contract with the industry partner say? Who owns intellectual property? Is the industry partner receiving any financial compensation from your funding agency? This sort of sounds like a job for the university's legal counsel. – Vladhagen Dec 19 '18 at 19:41
  • I am not aware of contract details and intellectual property is owned by the industry partner as far as I am concerned. In this joint venture, the funding agency has invested money into all partners. – bolefavi Dec 19 '18 at 20:20
  • If you are there with the intent to get a PhD degree (and you need one if you are considering academic career), this is a red flag. A PhD candidate needs to have some individual project to work on, however amateur it is; there also should be someone among your superiors who is interested in you getting a PhD and who will help you set up this individual project and protect you from admin and other non-research issues. – Alexey B. Dec 20 '18 at 0:49
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First of all, your supervisor should be principally responsible for accounting for funding. The brunt of reporting the results for funding purposes is not on your shoulders. (This does not mean that you will not be asked to help in the reporting process).

Because it is hard for us to know what the parameters of your position and funding are, it is relatively difficult to gauge what types of results you were supposed to get and/or report on. Surely you documented the work that you did on the project? Can your own/your professor's actual work not be reported on? Simply report what you did to the funding agency. Joint ventures can be messy and academia and industry focus on different work strategies and outcomes. Report to the funding agency what your end did on the project. That is what they will be looking for. You either produced results and work or you did not. That is what the funding agency will likely care about.

Based on my topical understanding of your situation, it sounds like you participated in a joint venture with an industry partner and they developed a solution independently from you. Are they contesting that you helped? Are they part of your funding? Not knowing these aspects of the arrangement and outcomes, it is difficult for me to provide specific guidance on any issues that may arise from such an arrangement.


As a piece of holistic advise for future research with industry partners, make sure that there are actual detailed contracts produced before engaging in any joint research. (This may not be your duty as a research assistant, of course). If you professor does not have any sort of contract, communications, or documentation of your joint work with the industry partner then he muffed pretty badly here. (Although, again, as an RA, this in not your job and you should not really be blamed for possible failures on the part of your supervisor).

Ultimately, this situation sounds like it may be your professor's job to lead the way in handling legal and reporting outcomes. No quality professor will throw the legalities and finances of a joint venture project at the feet of a research assistant.

  • We have a joint project and funding is on this joint project - both parties obtained funding. We did similar work to implement the same artefact. They are not contesting that we helped, but quite frankly there is ground for that so I am quite worried on that. We are supposed to implement and then report about the behaviour of this artefact but both implementations are the same. – bolefavi Dec 19 '18 at 20:41
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    @bolefavi I guess I am just unclear why this has ultimately become your problem to solve. What advice is your professor giving you? He/she is the person to bring this problem up with first. Anonymous people on the Internet may not know your whole situation. Best of luck! – Vladhagen Dec 19 '18 at 20:44
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I've never been in quite this situation, but I'm pretty sure that it is common. As other here have noted, a well organized team can work a lot faster than two people, especially when those two have other commitments.

However, I wouldn't worry too much about it in general unless you get complaints, say from funders.

But you may have an opportunity, which is why I'm writing. Think of your situation as a crashing wave of progress. Maybe some of what the "team" did was inspired by something you did. Or maybe not. But, perhaps you can get ahead of that wave and ride it to a good place. To do that will require action on both your part and that of the prof to integrate with the team and to make sure that you can have some part to play in where the project goes. It is harder (much harder) if you need to work apart from the others, but if you can work on-site you might be able to get recognized. If nothing else, you will get some experience about how it really works "out there".

To do it will require, perhaps, that you think differently about your part. If you think of it as a "separate" piece then, just like working remotely, it will be less likely to be successful. Get in the scrum. Mix it up.

And, you aren't a fraud in any sense. This is pretty common if a team has good synergy. Things can go very fast with ideas flying about like mosquitoes on an August day.

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