I am doing a Ph.D. in chemistry/material science in Sweden and during my first two years I developed a novel material that has great potential for commicialization for medical applications.

My supervisor owns a company which is working on this and my material is based on their prototype material. But I managed to create my own material based on that, which will be a better candidate in the future. The idea of making this material is different from the ideas my supervisor gave me in the beginning.

Now my supervisor is SECRETLY applying for funding and recruiting a new PhD student who will work on my material in the future, without telling me anything. I just learned about this and I am actually graduating in 6 months. I tried to ask him to fund me for a postdoc position but he said that there is no funding available currently.

I wonder if is this normal? And is there anything I can do in this situation?

  • 1
    I'm puzzled here and elsewhere by the question "Is this normal?" Apart from the fact that it's not clear what the standards are for "normal" (the situation itself seems fairly special so there may not be much experience for telling apart what's "normal" from what's not), something that is fairly "normal" may still be problematic and things that are not normal can well be fine. (Apart from this, my sympathy to you as I can absolutely see that this is a bad situation for you, caused by your supervisor's behaviour that to me seems not OK, "normal" or not.) Oct 3 at 15:41

2 Answers 2


Frame change-

I don't think your main issue is around starting a project, seeking funding, and bringing in a new student -- In fact, there's an argument to be made that this is not really your business (I wouldn't argue that, but there are those, some of whom know what they're talking about, that would)

What you're really concerned about, without really saying it, is your intellectual property rights. If you're an inventor, you need to be listed on any patents as an inventor -- even if there are other people who also should be considered inventors.

It's a delicate issue to broach, and frankly, even bringing it up can have unforeseen ramifications and impact the relationship with your advisor. The fact that your advisor has a company and financial interests complicates this further.

So, if I were in your situation, what would I do? Once I decided that pursuing it was better that not pursuing it (and the latter is certainly a real choice, and the easiest choice), I would probably approach my advisor and say something like "I believe my contribution to Substance Zeta might be sufficient to make me one of the inventors of Substance Zeta, and I'd like to meet to discuss our intellectual property scenario".

The response to that would pretty much define your further response. You might get a "you're completely right -- let's apply for a patent", in which case you'd go to whatever mechanism your university provides for these things, often some office in charge of technology transfer, and start the ball rolling. Your prof may instead want to do this independently through his company, including you as an inventor. This may or may not violate their employment terms.

If you get any real reticence, you may choose to drop it, or you may choose to pursue it further. The latter may start a S--t show. (In fact, just bringing up the subject in the first place might also, but if you're dealing with a mature level-headed person, it shouldn't).

There are a variety of responses to reticence on your advisor's part. Possibly the most effective one would be "Because of the financial interests involved, I feel there may be a conflict of interests on both our parts, and I'd like to use university mechanisms to establish a conflict of interest plan moving forward. Perhaps we should schedule a meeting with the Chair".

I think a mature investigator may respond "you know, you're right -- let's do that", but there is a real possibility of starting up a s--t show, and the response could even be "get out of my lab". Degrees have a tendency to go away in s--t shows.

Before starting any of this, you probably want to review the whole situation, and think about whether your contribution is actually provable. If it's not, I'd lean toward dropping the matter.

As a disclaimer, I am not a lawyer, and even if I were, you're not my client. The way to really make sure your legal interests are well-covered is to hire a lawyer.

UPDATE: The reason why I say the IP is really what you're interested in is because if the IP is handled correctly, you really have no worries about what happens next. At the very least, you'll get recognition as an inventor (based upon what you say in your question -- of course, your mentor may see things a whole different way) and presumably a portion of the financial fruits if something turns this material into a windfall, or even if it just gets licensed. In fact, it's conceivable that your mentor's company may have to license the use of the material from the university.

To back up Dr. Krause's excellent answer, yes, people with the most money to either back up or tear down a patent often win patent cases. One of the easiest ways to void a patent, though, is to prove that the inventorship listed on a patent is wrong. If your contribution is as central as you say it is, and if the material has real commercial promise, then it is in everybody's interest to make sure that the patent goes in with the correct inventor list -- your interest, your boss's interest, his company's interest, and your school's interest.


Now my supervisor is, SECRETLY, applying for funding and recruiting a new phd who will work on my material in the future, without telling me anything.

It is part of a professor's job to constantly apply for funding and recruit new students. They do not need to ask their students' permission to recruit new students; it is expected that future students will build on past work in the lab, including your work. You did this, too! You did not start from scratch, you started with a prototype material already created for you. Everyone working in an academic setting is building on the work that came before them. It would be extremely unusual for a professor to stop a promising avenue of research when the student working on that research graduates.

PhD positions and post docs are temporary positions along an academic career. There is no expectation that PhD students will be hired by their advisor as post docs, even if money is available. You are not owed an offer of a post doc even if you've been a great PhD student. Most see the best-case scenario (from the student's perspective) as getting a post-doc in a different place, to build a resume independent of the PhD advisor.

For the "average" academic, research is about advancing human knowledge and publishing findings. There are certainly individual claims to stake and some self-serving activity because of the various zero-sum games involved (job search, funding/grants), but there is less of a concept of ownership of particular ideas and results: you do the work and then you publish, and then everyone is free to build on that.

In your slice of the world, though, with your supervisor operating a company and you seemingly having primary interest in this new material with commercial promise, things are a bit different and are governed not by academic ethics but by intellectual property law. It does not seem like you have a clear understanding of your legal rights (or lack of rights) involving your research. If you want to play the business side, rather than the academic one, this is going to really hurt you. You need to get up to speed, quickly, on what exactly your legal rights are. That might involve staff at your institution or it might involve lawyers you need to pay. If your supervisor and their company have lawyers, and you do not, you will lose.

I think it is extremely unlikely that you have any claim to sole ownership of any of your research product. Even if you've come up with some of your own ideas, you've worked with the support, guidance, and resources of your supervisor. The question is whether you have any ownership, and what that ownership is worth.

You must log in to answer this question.

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