I am applying to some PhD programs this year. For some programs they require a research proposal - and this creates a dilemma for me. The more detailed the proposal is, the higher chance I get into the program but also the higher the risk that my idea is stolen. What can I do in this situation? Thank you!

  • 7
    You just have to trust people.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 16:49
  • 4
    Research ideas are a dime a dozen, even fairly fleshed out ones. Further, it is entirely probable that others are considering a similar idea, perhaps just because the time is right in the community. But, an applicant being able to write a fleshed-out idea is a positive sign for admittance. As an experimentalist, it never worked out the way I figured it would to begin with...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 17:58
  • 2
    Maybe in your field it is dime a dozen, but not in my field (I do theory). Writing research proposal means I will have to literally show the model as well as some theoretic result (If I do it carefully)
    – FARRAF
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 18:30
  • 5
    What discipline are you in? I’m curious to know in which field is it the case that someone who hasn’t started grad school can realistically have research ideas that are valuable enough that they would need to worry about the ideas getting stolen. (To be clear, this isn’t sarcasm or a put-down, I’m genuinely curious. In my area, pure math, this sort of thing isn’t an issue at the level of grad school applications.)
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 20:59
  • 2
    Why would you apply to a PhD program that you don't trust not to steal your ideas?
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 21:02

1 Answer 1


Yes, this is a known issue. What you said is perfectly true -- a vague proposal will probably be rejected, a well elaborated proposal can potentially be stolen.

The situation is very similar with job applications, where applicants are asked to produce a research plan for the next 3 years, and members of the recruitment panel can be more excited with the elements of the proposal than with hiring an applicant. Speaking from personal experience, this puts applicant in a frustrating position.

There is no ideal solution for the applicant. However, the following helps:

  1. Remain active and productive in research as much as possible and try to stay ahead of the crowd in your own field. If it is clear from your proposal that you are the best person who has the right skills to get the project done, then it is more likely that people will want to have you onboard.
  2. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Apply to several places quickly and move forward with your research at the same time. Even if someone decides to steal your idea, they won't be able to implement and publish it overnight. Use your time effectively and stay ahead of possible competition by moving faster than your competitors.
  3. If possible, try to discuss the proposal informally with your potential supervisor first, and see how interested she or he is, and whether she/he would like to contribute additional ideas or details.
  • Hi, maybe it is unclear from my post but I am applying to PhD. And the school that requires proposal is actually just a safety school for me - meaning I only go there in the worst case scenario.
    – FARRAF
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 17:24
  • @FARRAF I understand, but the issue is not limited to PhD applications, so I gave a bit more general answer. My item 3 addresses your PhD situation more specifically. Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 17:34
  • In what I do (economics), we apply without contacting anyone. even if I contact they wont answer, that is the tradition of our field
    – FARRAF
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 21:12

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