15

I am having a hard time deciding what to do or feel so I wanted to ask this question here.

For background, I am a PhD student and am doing pretty well overall. I also happen to have a fellowship that covers my tuition and stipend for the next two years. At this point, I have a very clear and novel research agenda that I will most likely work on for the rest of my career and that I have presented at different venues.

My advisor has recently watched a talk I gave and told me that she would like me to write a grant proposal based on the ideas in my talk. Now, I feel uncomfortable doing this because I feel like she had absolutely zero contribution in the development of any of these ideas in this talk, and, if she gets the grant based on these ideas, I would lose "authority" over my own research agenda.

During my time in the Ph.D., my advisor has contributed very little intellectually to my work, (although I admit he has been a great editor). When it came to publications, I never had an issue regarding this because I would always be the first author, and it was clear that I was the expert on the topic (giving talks, etc...). However, if I understand correctly this grant proposal will only have his name on it, and it would not mention that the ideas developed in the grant belong to me (other than references to our past work).

Am I right to worry? What can I do?

4
  • 1
    Would you enjoy collaborating with the professor long-term? If an idea is good enough, there are often many pieces of it that require work. I always have more ideas than time to fundraise, do paperwork, manage students, and write.
    – Dawn
    Jul 13 at 1:02
  • 4
    Relevant PhD-Comic Not 100% true, not 100% your situation, but close enough.
    – Sabine
    Jul 13 at 14:37
  • 3
    Are you sure advisor isn't indirectly trying to teach you how to write grant proposals? Did you ask them why they need YOU to write a grant proposal? Are you sure this grant proposal will be submitted?
    – Mindwin
    Jul 14 at 18:07
  • "However, if I understand correctly this grant proposal will only have his name on it" --> can you confirm that you indeed understand this correctly? I know of different countries (e.g. UK, the Netherlands), which do allow including Named Researchers in the proposals (e.g. naming the postdoc -- presumably you -- who would work on the project), and even allow Research Co-Investigators (you) to be included as the proposal authors.
    – penelope
    Aug 8 at 15:27

10 Answers 10

39

Here are two simple reasons why you should encourage your advisor to write the research grant with your idea:

  1. In your own words:

I admit she has been a great editor

Editing a scientific manuscript seems like a trivial thing, but depending on the context sometimes it is the task that requires the most effort. This is not something that you can ignore.

  1. Your advisor asking you to write a grant proposal means that she finds your ideas valuable enough to convince a funding source.

Since you are a member of the project, this is a great opportunity for you. At the end of the day, the funds will not be spent on your advisor's personal purchases. It will be your travel money, conference registration fee, research visit compensation, etc.

I do not believe that the ambition of getting the credit that you think you deserve is a feasible goal here. In the best case, she will say "OK then, I won't write a grant based on your idea." And then what? You are back to square one.

In the future, you will have many brilliant ideas, and most of them will be way better compared to the one that you have today. So, the best course for you (I think) is writing the proposal, and enjoying the grant both by putting an item in your CV and spending the money to travel around.

2
  • 12
    +1 but be alert "At the end of the day, the funds will not be spent on your advisor's personal purchases. It will be your travel money, conference registration fee, reseearch visit compensation, etc." Do not take this for granted. Maybe these funds would cover just one year of a PhD position, but then the work promised in the grant will need two years of a PhD position ... but professor&dept head would be happy to show the university board "look, we got $$funds$$ for a PhD for one year!"
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 13 at 9:19
  • 1
    Is it in the US the same that: you cannot use grant money for your own salary, meaning yes while a phd student could apply for a grant they could only use it to fund equipment and other people. So practically a person on the payroll of the uni basically has to be the person applying.
    – lalala
    Jul 14 at 6:18
20

I understand your concern, but you have a couple of things backwards.

While, in theory, when it comes to papers, you could write these yourself and you don't need your supervisor*, when it comes to grants, however, it's a completely different story. I'm speaking from a UK perspective and terminology here, but I assume similar practices apply elsewhere.

Unfortunately, in practical terms, there is absolutely no way for you to apply for a traditional grant as a PI at your stage, and are unlikely to for a long time. This is because funding bodies tend to have strict eligibility criteria, of which the most common is "permanent academic position in a recognised higher institution", closely followed by the often unstated criterion "demonstrates experience and an established presence in the field, and is the most suitable permanent post academic to lead this particular proposal"

In other words, it is probably not possible for you to be writing a grant at this stage. Which means, your best bet of actually continuing this line of research that you're banking the rest of your entire career on, may in fact well be to convince someone grantworthy to apply for a grant on the basis of your ideas, for you to continue working with them. Otherwise, once you're out of the phd and looking for a job, your most likely route is that you'll have to join a project based on a grant that someone else proposed, which is unlikely to be your particular niche topic that you so love. And this doesn't even address the whole "even if you apply for a grant yourself to resurrect this line of research once you've made permanent, say, 7 years down the line, this research may no longer be grantable, based on current trends and buzzwords".

Having said that, there are ways for you to be an official contributor on the grant proposal, rather than simply be a person that your PI happens to hire with the grant money. Many funding bodies allow the concept of a "named researcher" on the grant. This is typically someone who is at a stage in their career that is ineligible to apply for the grant per se, but it is understood that they are an integral part of the proposal (typically understood to mean the project is largely their baby and they will be the ones pouring all the work on it), and is therefore named on the grant. This is great for your CV, because it shows you have experience submitting grants and getting funding. Plus it saves the university time and money because they won't have to go through the hiring process.

So if I were you, not only would I encourage your advisor to write the grant, but I would try to find out if you can be a named researcher on the grant and continue your research with them in that capacity.

Ok, I am lying a bit, because there is in fact another, more straightforward way to go about this after your phd, which is to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship. This is an award that allows you to work as a postdoc for a few years working alone on your own research. But at the end of the day, these grants are far rarer than traditional grants (which are already in high competition), and are thus even more competitive than normal grants, are much less flexible (e.g. in terms of creating a partnership), and still require finding an interested supervisor to supervise the work. If you do get one of these, it may be seen more favourably than a named researcher route (in that you won such a grant directly), I'm not too sure. But in reality, if you are a named researcher on a grant, this is already great, much easier, and will still allow you to control and continue your research.

These are all personal opinions, and I'm also still learning the ropes and shortcuts of the system, so I may be wrong on a couple of points. But more or less this has been my experience. Happy to be corrected in the comments below. Hope it helps.

PS. The cutting edge novel stuff I was working on during my PhD that I thought would change the world and I was ready to base my entire career on? Haven't managed to touch that in 7 years now. Now that I'm getting a permanent post I may go back to it, but I've already got other projects in my hands already, which are far more practical from a funding point of view.


* Though in practice, even here, I think you're probably underestimating the impact that your supervisor will have had, both in terms of what they contributed to the research in indirect terms, as well as how the impact of the paper may have changed from the network effect of having their name on it.

0
14

An idea can be put down to a A4 page. Writing a superb 20-50 page grant proposal, project and financial plan is something completely different. Managing a project successfully is another different career step.

What you have to decide is not who had the idea or is the "owner", but what is the likelihood to get funding for it without your advisor and that someone else doesn't have the same idea at another place/how long you can save it up.

This is a poker game. You know what professional poker players do? They invest in other poker players (to get some ratio of their win) even playing the same tournament as their opponents to maximize their winning chances.

I was also thinking like you once. Maybe there are branches and periods within a research career within you can work and manage a project/idea/proposal completely on your own. But this cannot stay your modus operandi to become professor and stay profressor. You have to share ideas and success, delegate responsibilities, divide labour to stay successful.

If you idea is more than an idea, then patent it. Universities often ask their coworkers to come with patent-ready ideas to their patent departments. Then it will also be clear who had which share % developing the idea.

7
  • 7
    Research is not a poker game. What you describe (betting on one's opponent in a tournament) sounds unethical, and I'm having trouble understanding what the analogy in the academic world would be. Give some of your grant money to your competitors? This only makes sense if you don't think about it.
    – N.I.
    Jul 13 at 20:54
  • 1
    @N.I.the analogy is quite simple and obvious. Time is money and risk evaluation to invest time and share ideas with other researchers/opponents concering funding money essential to be more successful than others. But this question is not meant to explain game theory basics...Poker might have higher standards and rules of behaviour than the research game, when many research results are not reproducable nowadays. You think research is more like chess? :-) Then we strongly disagree and I take your downvote happily. Alone your assessment that poker is an unethical game is kind of strange...?! Jul 13 at 22:13
  • 1
    @N.I. "Give some of your grant money to your competitors?" that's exactly what you do when you participate in workshops and conferences organized by other institutions ...
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 14 at 8:12
  • @EarlGrey Not all fields have registration fees
    – N.I.
    Jul 14 at 11:59
  • 1
    @N.I. you mention there are no registration fees. However, there are expenses involved (for example travel, remote conferencing infrastructures ... ) and costs: I understand that (often and unfortunately) time has no value in science/research, but someone participating in a conference/workshop is spending time, time that is paid from somewhere (even without grant). I hope you are oblivious to the costs of workers (yes, being a researcher is the best possible job in the world...) but not to the other side of the medal, that costs of workers must also be a fair salary...
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 14 at 12:27
7

In the short-term: a grant may expose your idea to third party, so you may loose some ownership on it. However, if you published the idea, there is no doubt about the ownership.

it would not mention that the ideas developed in the grant belong to me (other than references to our past work).

A grant is a funding request. You have to write it based on solid proof that what you plan to do will work, so what you downplay as "references to our past work" is of the uttermost importance. The rest of the grant (PI, name of the person proposing the grant, etc) is 20% politics and 80% bureaucracy. So publish as much as you can, but if your advisor is involving you in grants' writing it will be a good learning experience (unfortunately, even if your idea is good to guarantee you a career in the future, you will have to write more and more grants...)

In the long-term: I urge you to consider you are among peers[1]. You may have had a great idea, and you may have a plan for the future, since you state you have

a very clear and novel research agenda that I will most likely work on for the rest of my career and that I have presented at different venues.

Be realistic, there are many good ideas out there, not all of them get the required fundings. Additionally, if you were to have the absolute scientific breakthrough idea in your topic, you would be busy managing your own funds, not asking how to proceed to random strangers on the internet.

Being ambitious and knowing the own capabilities and value is good. But what is coming out from your writing/question is the usual self-entitled behavior of "succesful" PhD students. I am not saying you will not have a successful career, I hope you will have one. What I want to stress is that if it will happen only because of your merits and ideas ... it will only happen this way in your head, because your head will trick you in ignoring all the support you received and that you will be given, from your current and future peers (see your curent advisor doing a great job, supporting and setting you free to pursue your ideas).

[1] if you feel you are significantly smarter than your peers ...

A man is driving down a highway when he hears a newsflash:
"A warning to all drivers: We've just heard that a vehicle is driving down the highway in the wrong direction!"
"What do you mean, 'a vehicle'? grumbles the driver. "There's hundreds of them!"
3
  • 1
    I don't think "ownership" is the right word here - it's not possible to own an idea. There are issues of getting credit for the idea, as well as having control over the direction of research, but the OP cannot gain or lose ownership of the idea no matter what they do. Publishing a novel idea means the OP gets credit for it, but that doesn't mean they own it. Jul 13 at 17:34
  • @NuclearHoagie I agree, idea has no ownership, I just wanted to tag along the OP concept, if they are smart enough they will understand the concept you expressed ...
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 14 at 6:24
  • dear editor of the answer, I am not quoting anyone, so please do not edit the final joke
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 14 at 6:24
3

(Moved from comment to answer)

I am just a PhD student myself (so take this with a grain of salt) but I don't think one should conflate a grant proposal with a publication. Also, isn't it likely that a successful grant application would bring more funding to the research group, thereby benefiting you? Finally, I would think that one needs to trust their PhD advisor's judgment on these kinds of things, otherwise your degree may be a rocky road.

1
  • Trust their experience on publications, yes. But write a funding proposal to benefit a professor contributing only editorially to that innovation, this is irresponsible. It makes other advisers think why they should not also advance their careers by association rather than by significant contribution. And demoralises those doing the latter. If adviser made a significant contribution, well and good.
    – Trunk
    Jul 15 at 12:43
3

At this point, I have a very clear and novel research agenda that I will most likely work on for the rest of my career and that I have presented at different venues... My advisor has recently watched a talk I gave and told me that she would like me to write a grant proposal based on the ideas in my talk...

You are very worried that, by winning this grant, your advisor will somehow "scoop" all credit for the research agenda you've identified... but you seem completely indifferent to the notion that audience members from any of those multiple other venues (or readers of your first-author publications) might just as easily scoop you by writing their own grants.

Even if it plays out exactly as you most fear, working with your advisor on this will lead to funding and more publications (presumably where you are still first-author); whereas some other group beating you both to the punch might lead to only a couple citations or footnotes.


What your advisor is offering here is a way for you to start the ball rolling on your research agenda at a very early stage in your career. Will this lead to some future confusion about "priority"? Maybe, maybe not. It sounds like you've given plenty of talks on the subject and have a good number of first-author publications under your belt so I wouldn't be too worried about one grant tipping the scales (particularly not if this grant leads to more publications where you are once again first-author).


Also, since we are talking about a "research agenda that I will most likely work on for the rest of my career" who's to say that this one grant proposal must give away the entire plot? Presumably, if this research territory is unexplored enough to build an entire career out of it, then some first exploratory forays can likely be packaged as post-doc projects, PhD theses, or even MS theses. Your advisor's editorial/administrative experience should actually be invaluable here - both in terms of knowing the project scopes most likely to be funded, as well as knowing how to maximize the amount of strong publications from a project of a given size.

2

(Moved from comment to answer)

I see two major questions from your side. 1. You are afraid that you will "loss the authority". 2. You are afraid that you cannot be one of the authors of the application.

For 1: I am not sure what do you mean by "authority". Do you mean that you used to be the single author in these papers, and now you have to share authorship?

For 2: I personally think you can be one of the listed coauthor of the grant application. I personally know quite a few PhD candidates coauthoring grant application with professors across different institute (with or without the involvement of their advisor). So I am not sure if there is rule prohibiting students to be listed as coauthors.

PS: Besides proof-reading, I think there are some other value your advisor might be able to give you. For an incomplete list:

  1. Share his network capital
  2. Identify good citations and potential referees
  3. Share the skills in communication with editors and other senior academics
  4. Identify the "taste" of editors and potential referees
  5. Share his experience in paper submission and grant application
1

I feel your pain. I have had to be satisfied with insufficient credit a few times and have even once had an entire final form paper outright stolen from me by researchers higher up the food chain. It happens. Don't listen to anyone who says it doesn't.

But you have to consider your position. The awarding of grants is a notoriously subjective process. (WHAT??? SUBJECTIVITY in SCIENCE??? Surely you jest! Ummm ... no.) Granting agencies will look at a proposal from an established researcher much more seriously than they will from a newbie, even a potentially talented newbie. I remember speaking with a someone who sat on such boards from time to time who said, "Seriously, I just don't have time to read these proposals. Last month I granted money to this one proposal just because I like the guy!" Now, don't blow a gasket; she went on to say, "Of course, one of the reasons I like the guy is that he does good work!" Point being, if your grant -- a first time effort -- had come across her desk in a stack of 10 others when she was already up to her nose in her own work, you wouldn't stand a chance.

In short, you need to ask yourself if you can get this funded without your advisor's help.

Also, for my money, whose name gets put on the papers that come out of the research will be more far more important than who is the lead on the grant. If your advisor is a decent person (Beware! Not all of them are!) she will put you as first author on the papers, as long as you actually do the work.

One last thing: It's not necessarily a binary thing; you don't necessarily have to tell her all or nothing. You don't have to tell your advisor your every thought. You can be cagey. There may be ways to keep the good stuff under wraps until you are ready to reveal it in a way that mark it as unmistakably yours. (Does your research group publish pre-prints, for instance?) It can be miserable having to go through life thinking like that, but sometimes that's what you have to do.

0

A couple of years ago I took a "Researcher Management and Leadership Training" Coursera course from the University of Colorado. In it they said that a good advisor will have you write a grant with them as the PI, and commit that if they get the grant and you go off to a faculty position somewhere else, you can take some of the money. This way, when you are on the job market you have a little pot of money to make yourself more attractive to potential employers. See if your advisor will do something like that.

1
  • I think this is unlikely. This would require university approval as the research funds are given for so much work at the applying university. Extracting just x% of this for a PhD or fellow would make the university department liable to make up the shortfall. Proposals are already cut to the bone as far as grant amount to man-hours are concerned. Anyway there is no way that someone would be allowed take a piece of grant money to another university/research institute labs. And the idea of people buying their way into openly competitive positions is professionally shocking.
    – Trunk
    Jul 15 at 17:18
-4

Kick for touch - and make it a Percy Montgomery !

Say you have to finish your PhD now - you must focus on that to the exclusion of all else.

After that you have to defend the thesis, apply for publication and get some well-earned R & R back home.

Then is the time to look at looking for funding for the idea you've had.

Though in the meantime you can look at who else in the country is doing similar research, whether you can work with them and so on . . .

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .