I just started a PhD supervised by a clinician and a bioinformatician. The bioinformatician informed me they have received funding to get another PhD student to work on the same disease/ broad question of machine learning.

I love this PhD topic, but I am very concerned about a new student working on the same question. I wonder about how we will divide up our research. I do not like the idea of it as I do not know how our research will grow organically, and I had big plans for what I wanted to publish during this PhD, which is longer than average in duration.

Is it usual or right for 2 students to have the same question? Has anyone got experience of this and how did it work?

When I was doing my Master's I had a similar thing. A different clinician wanted to add another Master's student to my exact project, but in the end the other supervisor blocked it. In retrospect, now I know the topic better, there could have been space for another student and I to go down different routes. I think it would have occurred in the much longer term however (after the 1 year mark), and would have limited and been to the detriment of my research. Of course the commitment of a masters is much smaller.

I suppose I also wonder if it's a reflection of their perception of my capabilities.

  • I routinely set the same topic for starting students. The advantage is that students can support each other. From my point of view, I treat these students as 'one' student; so less load on my part. Along the way, I/they usually find interesting sub-topics. That's when they branch off. As the supervisor, I do have to be very careful that my students do branch off; otherwise, it will be disastrous for them. Oct 27, 2019 at 9:13
  • 5
    Can you talkk with your supervisor about your concerns?
    – Thomas
    Oct 27, 2019 at 10:29
  • 1
    Experiments in particle physics might have dozens of students working on the same experiments. They just do different things.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 27, 2019 at 16:27

5 Answers 5


Having a close colleague with whom to discuss tough sticking points, potential research ideas, etc. will be INVALUABLE for you.

There is nothing quite so lonely as being one of the experts of the world on a very narrow subject and never having the opportunity to discuss that subject with another person who shares your understanding.

You will likely produce better work as a result of having this other student around. And you two can collaborate. Don't think of this as zero sum. Think instead about collaborative potential and about this student as a sounding board. Some of the greatest research I can think of was produced by pairs or groups.


Projects can be broad. Research topics are narrow. I see no problems arising here as long as the advisor is responsible. A project at its inception has a lot of potential. That potential results in unanswered questions. Those questions may be closely related but distinct. They may also be individually very important and support the overall project.

But at the start, little is known. If a team works on the project all will start at about the same place. As more becomes known and the questions emerge there is room for different threads to be developed by the team members. This can result in dissertations.

So, I think your use of the term "question" is too narrow. The "project" is broader than any question within it. It is ok to work on the same project, but not to put students in competition with one another on a narrow question within it.

Think of a really new project like the Big Bang. Initially there is nothing. Almost immediately there are worlds and worlds to explore.

When I was a student something close to this happened to me. A friend and I worked with the same advisor within a small research seminar group. We studied the "same thing" but wound up with very different doctoral dissertations. But our advisor was wise enough to separate us when it became appropriate.

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    This is consistent with my experience also. A new PhD student joined my lab early in my PhD and begun a topic under the same project. At first I saw this as a threat and was anxious. Over time I realised how district our topics really were. Overall, our dissertations obviously ended up having some minor overlap in terms of the broader theory, but beyond that are fundamentally very different in nature. It was actually synergistic to have someone else to bounce ideas off. We now write papers together. Oct 28, 2019 at 3:13

Don't think of the other PhD student as a threat. Assuming they are intellectually as capable as you (+ you get along), they are likely to be a massive help. The point is that your PhD studies are going to be hard. They're going to be hard enough that at various points you'll run into roadblocks and have no idea what to do next. Being able to talk to someone who's very familiar with your work is a massive help. It's not just "what do we do next", you can also discuss "what's wrong with my code" or "how do we calculate X", crosscheck each other's work, etc.

Without another PhD student, you can still discuss things with your supervisor of course, but your supervisor is likely to be less available + less familiar with the nitty-gritty of your work.

I suspect the main reason most PhD students work on their own topic isn't because it's better, but because there is no funding to have multiple PhD students working on each topic.


I strongly recommend you to talk to your advisor before you hand her/him your thesis proposal.

I faced this kind of problem once. What my advisor did is she divided my thesis proposal and shared it with another research fellow.

  • Hey Lucus, when you say "my advisor divided my thesis proposal and shared with another RF" -- was this the solution to your problem or the cause of it? It seems a bit unclear as it is now. Absolutely agree with "talk to your advisor" :)
    – penelope
    Oct 29, 2019 at 10:18
  • Sorry for my unclear comments. I think the situation discussed here could result in both good way and bad way. My intention is to describe the worst consequence that could happen by giving my case as an example. At first, I was given the "broad topic" by myadvisor. And my advisor asked me to specify my project. So, I came up with my "narrow topic". After that, my advisor have another student to work with my "narrow topic" idea. And my advisor divided my thesis proposal (which I carefully writing by myself) to the new student.
    – Lucus
    Nov 4, 2019 at 10:44

We had two people working on the same project and almost the same research topic. They both graduated very succesful and founded a company together. Why am I saying this? Because their work formed a great friendship and not a competition. You should not see this as a threat, you should see it as a great opportunity. Of course this solely depends on your personalities, but you can benefit a lot from each other if doing correctly. Also for publications, you can co-author each other or write papers 50/50. You can find out one problem, discuss it, and each other tackles a different portion of this problem.

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