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In the Fall I will be completing my last year of undergrad. Once I graduate I want to get my PhD, and so grad school applications are approaching.

I’ve been doing research with a professor at my university over the past year, and I’m continuing this research into the Fall. Generally speaking, it’s been going pretty well. I enjoy the research and it’s been productive. I’ve also been doing this research with another undergrad at my university.

I have a dilemma with him, though. Truthfully, over the past year, I have been much more serious about the research, have contributed all of the major insights, and written essentially all of both papers. Our research meetings (between me and him) essentially consist entirely of me explaining what I’ve been working on, and he does not really contribute to our conversations. He also sometimes says things which indicate to me he does not even truly understand the research problem. I’ve felt alone in this process much of the time.

I have put this past me, since I like him, and I know that what matters most is conducting meaningful research. However, a recent conversation with him and my advisor kind of sent me off the edge, and I am looking for advice about what to do moving forward. Specifically, he expressed that he wants to continue working with me on the research in the Fall (which I was not expecting), even though he will have a full-time job and many other responsibilities. I am not confident that he will be able to contribute to the research, given my experience over the past year when his responsibilities were much lower.

Further, my professor mentioned that working on research alone is better for grad school admissions. I am not from a top university and I know admissions are extremely competitive for my field. I now have this strong emotion, whether justified or not, that having my research partner’s name on our work…what feels like just my work...will damage my chances. This emotion only builds when I consider the research situation in the Fall, where I’ve cleared out much of my academic schedule for the research, and he has significantly more responsibilities to juggle. I don’t consider myself cutthroat, so I hate that I get angry when I think about the prospects of him being put above me in the admissions process because of this situation. The upside is that I’m pretty sure my professor knows I’m carrying the operation and hopefully this would come through in his recommendation.

My current plan is to talk with my research partner about these concerns tactfully (specifically the research in the Fall). However, I am nervous he will convince himself he will have the time and energy to contribute, for which I am not confident as mentioned. I also do not want to burn bridges, as it is not good professionally, I don’t want to create a division, and he is my friend. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Does anyone have advice on this situation and maybe where my mindset is flawed?

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    Anything preventing you from talking to the professor about this? That would turn "pretty sure" to "absolutely sure" that he knows the situation.
    – Dawn
    Jul 18, 2023 at 16:35
  • This is something I've thought about. I guess I am nervous and as mentioned I don't want to cause a division. But those are not necessarily good enough reasons to avoid that solution. Jul 18, 2023 at 16:47

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I would consider having a chat with your professor about your concerns. Express your commitment to the research and get their take on how your research partnership might affect your grad school applications. They can offer insights into the admissions process and how much weight is placed on individual contributions. You could also discuss the possibility of working on separate research projects. Collaboration and teamwork are crucial, but don't forget to prioritize your own academic and career goals. Having an open and honest conversation with your research partner is another approach. Share you concerns and express you expectations for the future. Communicate your perspective on the research and your plans for the upcoming Fall Semester. This could give them a chance to understand your viewpoint and possibly reevaluate their own commitments. Discuss and possibly establish what your expectations are for your research collaboration moving forward. Determine the level of involvement and contributions expected from each party. It's essential to have a mutual understanding of the responsibilities and time commitments required, especially considering your partner's full-time job and other obligations.

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These situations can be frustrating. Group projects (research collaboration included) never really change. Sometimes people just don't put in the effort and still expect to benefit. So on one hand, it is not cutthroat to fight for proper acknowledgement of your work. On the other hand, it is very cutthroat (and arguably rather unethical) to push someone off of a project without giving them a chance to contribute properly. So, while your concern about this other students current contributions (or lack thereof) is reasonable, it's not necessarily fair to push them out because you think they will be busy during the coming semester and it is almost certainly unethical to push them out solely to benefit your application.

The correct way to resolve this would be to give this person a chance to remedy the situation i.e., begin to contribute to a more reasonable level. If they still do not put in work then, and only then, should you considering having them removed.

In your case, I think you should talk to your professor. Express your concerns and see what they think. You mention your "pretty sure" your professor knows what's going on. So just have a conversation.

On a side note - it sounds like you are leading this research project. This can be really hard and the path of least resistance for inexperienced researchers is often to do everything yourself. This can lead to a situation similar to the one you are in. You do all the work and your research-mates seemingly do nothing. At some point (usually once people are independent researchers) this isn't an excuse. But undergraduate students almost always need specific tasks and instructions. Maybe you don't, but the average student does. So perhaps a solution is to just give your classmate tasks. If there is something that needs doing, ask him to do it rather than just doing it yourself. If he doesn't do the work, then you can go ahead and escalate.

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    "give this person a chance to remedy the situation" equally important is to set expectations. Be clear that you expect a certain amount of output.
    – Passer By
    Jul 19, 2023 at 12:15
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I think that your instincts are correct, in that the other student is unlikely to change their ways. It's a sweet deal for them: you do all the work, they take vacations, give excuses (however reasonable), make promises (however heartfelt), and at the end, they get publication credit. Now they are making more promises, but once you accept the deal, you can count on them dropping the ball again. And why wouldn't they?

Two ways to solve the issue:

(1) Express to your friend that you'd like to have a sole-author publication, and that they suggest a way to split the project so that you work on your stuff and they work on theirs. They won't get anything done, but at least you won't feel the resentment that's currently eating at you.

(2) Set clear expectations, in writing, with clear milestones, and deadlines. Lots of small deadlines. They might realize that the gig is up and give up on the paper and let you get the sole authorship you want. Or they will start missing deadlines and with every deadline, you bring again Option #1, splitting the paper.

Whatever you do, you need to get out of the corner where your partner's promises of work result in publication credit.

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