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I have a rather difficult quandary. I'm a first-year student, and I joined my lab group to work on a clinical psychiatry/neuroscience grant. I've been making slow progress towards familiarizing myself with the grant. However, my advisor (actually, one of my two-advisors... they both run the lab together) has been having me work on a separate project of his, completely unrelated to my work. From what I can tell, this project would take a few months to work out, and the result would be my co-authoring on a small paper with another graduate student in the lab.

My worry is, I receive a stipend from the university every month, and that stipend is paid for my the psych/neurosci grant. By working on the second project, I have the feeling that I'm "stealing" from the first grant. I was told by my advisor that this sort of time-sharing between grants is normal within the research world. My question is, is that true? If it is a problem, how should I deal with this?

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    I think it would be helpful also if you detailed how much time this second project takes, especially in comparison to your primary research (i.e. is it just something quick that will get you another paper or is it a Herculean task that will occupy the lives of ten people for the next ten years?) – user136 Feb 19 '12 at 18:07
  • Are you interested in the other project? And when you say "a few months", do you mean full-time? – user102 Feb 19 '12 at 18:34
  • @CharlesMorisset - re:interest, I'm not really, but do you think it matters? And with the "few months", I'm not that good at gauging time, but I'd imagine that this project plus coursework will keep me busy full-time. I'm not sure, though. – eykanal Feb 19 '12 at 18:46
  • @eykanal As detailed in my answer, I think it matters :) But that's a really good question, and I'm sure many students can/will relate! – user102 Feb 19 '12 at 19:11
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I think it's true that the time-sharing between grants is quite normal within the research world, at least, I've observed it a lot, and in any case, you shouldn't have to worry about that, because it's under the responsibility of your advisor.

Actually, one of the problems when it comes to funding is that in order to make a grant proposal, you somehow need to know precisely enough where you're going, otherwise you have the risk not to be able to achieve what you promised. Hence, I know that it's quite normal that when applying for a grant, some parts of the results promised at the end of the grant are already done, although maybe not finalized. So, you can use the time you would have spent doing the research you promised (but already done) to do some other research on another topic, so that you can apply for another grant on this topic.

That's why in the end, the main question is whether it benefits you, as a first-year student, to work on the other project. Clearly, working on a different topic is always a good experience, especially when there is a potential publication at the end. I don't know how long is your grant, but if it's 3 years, then spending a few months on working on something different will not really impact it. Of course, if you have a grant of only 6 months, then maybe you can't really spend half of it working on something different.

So, to summarize: don't feel guilty about it, I believe this kind of things is pretty common, and just consider whether it can be good/interesting for you or not.

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Time sharing between grants is extremely common - I've often been asked to work on projects unrelated to what I am formally being funded for.

As @CharlesMorisset mentioned, many grants are now written with a sufficiently robust idea of where they're going, how they'll get there and that they'll work that a considerable part of the research is already done. Additionally, since grants need fairly strong preliminary results sections these days, one is essentially forced to use current funding to do the research for "future" projects.

So I wouldn't feel bad about it for the reason you've mentioned. I would consider asking your advisor "why this project?" Do they just need a warm body to do the work? Would they like to give you a shot at an early, modest publication? Is there a particular skill they are hoping you'll develop working on this project?

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