I'm just wondering to what extent I can hire someone to collect data for me. This would be secondary data, collecting patient records from clinics. I have no clue how to organize data or use databases, so the research assistant would also be helping me do that. I would, of course, be reading the patient records and interpreting them into specific variables (such as did this patient have a heart problem: Y/N).

  • My full-time job is at the university working for a project under a PI who is not my PhD supervisor.
  • The project funding has run out that we cannot pay for our team's salary.
  • I applied for some funding as the PI on the project and got some extra funding.
  • I could use the funding coming in from the new project to cover our team's salary and also utilize the team's research assistant to collect the data for the new project and for my PhD thesis at the same time.

The project only needs data to caluculate the prevalence of heart problems whilst my intention for my thesis is to find out risk factors for these heart problems. I would only ask to further collect a years worth of history for each patient with a heart problem.

I think this arrangement I could kill two birds with one stone but I am worried about the implications such as how much of the work should be all mine for my PhD thesis. Also, I wouldn't have to pay out of pocket to hire someone to do this for me as I'm only getting paid 81k per year.

  • 2
    What does the PI say about it? Where did the funding come from and does your project fit with the grant?
    – Dawn
    Sep 5, 2020 at 2:19
  • I have not yet talked to my PI about it. The funding comes from an external body and I specifically wrote the proposal in line with my thesis except their outcomes are a little different. Sep 5, 2020 at 9:44
  • If I was your PI and PhD advisor, I would have some serious issues with you applying for funding without discussing that with me first.
    – user9482
    Oct 5, 2020 at 9:14

2 Answers 2


In terms of academic honesty, there is in principle nothing unethical about using data that was collected by someone else, subject to all involved parties agreeing to this of course. Collecting sufficiently large clinical datasets is a long and complicated process, and there are entire departments specifically created to manage such databases and provide data to researchers. Papers solely analysing and re-analysing such publicly available data are very common in epidemiology, bioinformatics, statistical genetics etc., so that definitely will not be an obstacle to publish.

However, your supervisor and thesis committee may have different expectations about the work that you will do and skills that you will obtain during your PhD. Some issues that might come up are:

  1. Are you outsourcing something that you are expected to learn during your PhD? Is the "database use and organization" something very menial, or too computational to be relevant for your field? Otherwise maybe you can do a part the process by yourself, and thus show that you have acquired enough knowledge of it?
  2. Usually there are some regulations on how much time & effort you should put into full time studies. If you do not do the data collection, will you be spending the same amount of time on some other academic work, beneficial to the project/lab?
  3. Is there sufficient scientific advance/intellectual contribution/novelty remaining in your thesis, when viewed separately from the data collection? This one is the most difficult to judge. In the eyes of thesis examiners, doing some "menial" work often pushes the candidate towards bench biology, and this takes away some scrutiny from other parts of the work (even though it shouldn't). For example, you might be expected to have a deeper understanding of your statistical models, have some sensitivity analyses, maybe comparison between different models or such.

As long as all the involved parties agree on these expectations, I don't see anything unethical about this path.

Now, whether you are legally allowed to use the new grant for this purpose is an entirely different question, and will be determined by the fund's conditions and your institution's hiring policies.

  • 1. That sounds like a great idea. I will try to do some myself as well. 2. I am spending the time extracting data from the patient history which will require me reading and interpreting these. 3. I think there is enough scientific advancement. I'm not great with IT and I find it difficult to input data. As long as I do the statistical analyses it should be fine but again I'm not all too familiar with the data analysis part so I will be asking the RA to contribute ideas towards that. I will also not be at the clinics so the RA will have to figure out how to extract the data themselves. Sep 5, 2020 at 9:46
  • I would be more liberal than juod. From my perspective, in quasi-biomedical research, this is not a big deal at all. Still check, but frankly I wouldn't even have thought of this as a problem in terms of meeting the requirements for a thesis Sep 5, 2020 at 19:53

In addition to Juod's answer, you should check your research ethics approval and see what it says. In some cases, every researcher must be individually approved by the ethics committee to handle the data. If it's not allowed under your current approval, you can probably apply and get permission for addition of the extra person.

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