Assume that you are a Ph.D. student in math who after a few years of working in the field discovers a new idea (independently). You present the idea to your advisor. Later your advisor realizes the importance of this idea and claims that he discovered it.

How do you deal with this situation?

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    This depends on how much effort you want to put in to it and how much risk you want to assume.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 21 at 23:56
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    First, pick an advisor with integrity that you respect and trust. Second, if you don't trust the advisor, then don't share the idea with him. Commented Mar 22 at 6:13
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    "Later" if later is anything longer than 3 weeks, and the PhD student did not bring the idea forward again, I am rather sure that the advisor forgot completely about PhD presentation and either reached the same idea of PhD because of being exposed to similar environment, or simlpy the advisor forgot that the idea was not their idea but an idea they borrowed from someone else. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 22 at 14:58
  • @ EarlGrey This is not the case. I continued showing him the work. He started writing a paper on it and asked me to keep working on it. There were a lot of unknowns that had to be figured out. This was done collaboratively and I mostly attribute him as much as possible because of his encouragement. But the original idea was completely mine and I wish that people would know that.
    – anon
    Commented Mar 23 at 2:07
  • "But the original idea was completely mine and I wish that people would know that." This is not really how mathematical collaboration works. It could be that you have a "dishonest advisor" if they are trying to claim the idea as exclusively theirs. But if the real cause of your unhappiness is that you came up with an idea, fleshed out the details in collaboration with your advisor, and now are unhappy with the fact that the reader cannot deduce from reading your paper that "the original idea was completely yours", then that's a very different situation. Commented Mar 24 at 15:17

2 Answers 2


The question is phrased as a completely hypothetical scenario, but I am going to assume that this actually happened to you.

There are lots of personality-related factors that make it impossible to answer the question in general, but if I were to give generic advice, I would recommend talking this through openly with your advisor, and trying to establish a timeline that you agree on, who said what to whom and when. It is possible that you two have different perceptions of what happened.

I once talked to Michael Atiyah about some of these issues, and something he said stuck in my mind. Supervising PhD students is hard work, he said: first you have to prove a theorem, which can already be hard, depending on the theorem; then you have to explain the theorem to the student, which can be hard, depending on the theorem and the student; and then, the hardest step, you have to convince the student that it was them who proved the theorem. Now, this is Atiyah we are talking about, and not all supervisors operate this way, but it illustrates the point: often the supervisor will have fed you lots of ideas that you assimilated without realising it.

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    An alternate story, probably apocrvaphyl, is a professor (math?) who said to a student "I don't mind writing your dissertation for you, but I'll be damned if I'll explain it to you when I'm done."
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 22 at 14:59
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    Emil Artin allegedly said that a Ph.D. thesis is a paper of the adviser written under unusually trying conditions. Commented Mar 22 at 23:50
  • This is a nice story, but it is also a problem. No one would believe if a grad student claims an idea, as the professor is always right. In my case there is actual evidence of me informing the professor in email that I have an interesting new idea, and then typing it up and sending to the professor. Then there was in person communication in which I said how this can be used to extend some existing theorems. He claims vaguely that some of this was his idea. Further asking for details and presenting evidence, he goes silent.
    – anon
    Commented Mar 23 at 2:03
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    The opposite experience is possible. Andy Gleason, my advisor, said he would much rather his students found their own problems to solve. He was a lot of help (both mathematical and psychological) with mine, but we both knew it was mine. Commented Mar 24 at 0:28
  • If you've had email backing it up, it may make sense to talk to the department chair.
    – JoshuaZ
    Commented Mar 24 at 0:43

Let me answer with a question: Why are you so obsessed with whose idea it was? In the end, good ideas are plenty and in the end it's what you do with them.

As a PhD student, with less experience than a more senior scientist, it's easy to think that you have done the bulk of the work. Maybe in this case it's true. Maybe it isn't. The important thing is, that you share the idea with the world in the form of a publication, presentation, talks etc. From your question it's not clear what the current status of the idea is. Is it an ongoing project? Do you have evidence that your advisor is also claiming the entire idea/all of the work as their own? What exactly do you want to get more credit for?

So I would say - focus on the actual work and insights/problems/answers that stem from the idea, do the best work you can, treat this as a scientific collaboration with your advisor (it sounds like they did encourage you to keep working on the idea, so you could argue that they understood it's value and are supporting you to work in this direction), and be happy that you are capable of coming up with good ideas - this will come in useful later in your career, should you care to continue in academia.

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    Why am I so obsessed with whose idea it was? Because that is kind of the point of doing research in math. I do not have a six figure salary. The only satisfaction is having come up with interesting ideas and people knowing it.
    – anon
    Commented Mar 24 at 11:32

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