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I would have thought the document and overall findings are to be a closely guarded secret until defense or publication, so you can imagine my horror that a hiring professor would ask if he can have a pdf of my dissertation. This is in the context of a job application, whilst he decides whether or not to invite me for an interview. I have already sent them the other standard documentation that was requested in the advert. Is his request as unorthodox as it seems to me?

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    Are your findings a closely guarded secret? You tell us! – Moriarty Aug 20 '14 at 18:52
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    Since your dissertation is supposed to built on already published results, with some exception, like industry sponsored research, it is pretty unlikely that every single page of your dissertation is highly guarded secret. Also, I can imagine good reasons to ask for a PhD thesis, e.g. if you hint expertise in your CV that otherwise not clear from your publication record. – Greg Aug 20 '14 at 19:34
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    Just to clarify, to me, the word "recruiter" suggested a recruiter from industry. I don't think people usually use that word for potential academic employers. (Though I think my answer would be fairly similar if an industry recruiter were involved.) – Nate Eldredge Aug 20 '14 at 20:14
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    Yes, it is a strange request, because your thesis is already available from your web page, and probably arXiv as well. Right? (Ha ha only serious.) – JeffE Aug 21 '14 at 3:06
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    @JeffE: Well, I think most people do wait to put their thesis on their web page or arXiv until it's actually finished. In this case it sounds like the asker is still writing it and has not yet defended. – Nate Eldredge Aug 24 '14 at 18:12
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In a word, yes. It is very common for academic employers to want to know about a candidate's research in progress, and they often ask for research plans, unpublished manuscripts, reports on ongoing projects, etc. From the employer's point of view, they want to know as much as possible about what the candidate is doing, so as to evaluate the promise of their research program and their productivity. This is especially true for junior candidates who do not already have a large body of published work. So a request for a draft of a PhD thesis would not be out of line.

When a candidate shares such material as part of their application, the hiring professor or committee has an ethical obligation to hold it in confidence. They should not circulate it beyond those people within the department who are involved in the hiring decision. Also, it would be ethically inappropriate for anyone with access to this material to exploit it for the gain of their own research program (e.g. by trying to solve the candidate's thesis problem before they do, or giving it to one of their own students). As the candidate, you have the right to expect that this will not happen.

Of course, as a matter of practice, if you want the job, you don't have much choice but to give them what they ask. But I wouldn't see such a request as unusual or unreasonable, and I don't think you need worry about them using it unfairly. If you are still worried, you could send them the thesis along with a note saying "since this is work in progress, I would ask that you keep it in confidence".

Also, I would say it's an exaggeration to say a thesis should be a "closely guarded secret" or to react with "horror" to a request to share it. It's generally prudent not to share unpublished work indiscriminately, but it's not as if it were missile launch codes. If there is something to be gained by sharing it with someone (e.g. useful input from an expert, a potential collaborator, a job) then often that's a good idea. It seems to be pretty common for people starting out in academia to overestimate the risks of people stealing their work: yes, there are horror stories, but in the long run, you usually have more to lose from excessive secrecy than from reasonable openness. Paranoia is generally not a helpful trait for an academic.

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    "has an ethical obligation to hold it in confidence" - exactly, and if the OP doesn't trust in that, there should be no problem adding a note stating just that into your document - e.g. a footnote, or a greyed out watermark, on each page, saying something like "unpublished version - do not cite, do not circulate". (Of course, this shouldn't sound/look like specific distrust towards your prospective employer, but rather like a standard note that was routinely inserted to the document for the very purpose of handing out preliminary versions to collaborators.) – O. R. Mapper Aug 21 '14 at 6:39
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    "It seems to be pretty common for people starting out in academia to overestimate the risks of people stealing their work" +100 – xLeitix Aug 21 '14 at 6:54
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    +1: I found terrifying when researchers (and not only young researchers) hide their current projects as if you were really going to start a whole new project just to scoop them. I regularly present unpublished research sometimes even in its "embryonic stage" and I find that it is much more helpful to do this rather than hiding in your corner and not telling anyone. Also, it is a very good way to start collaborations and to have people become interested in your research. – nico Aug 21 '14 at 10:52
  • @O.R.Mapper -Great idea – The Wonderer Sep 17 '14 at 8:08
  • @xLeitix Those chances are much higher for an unaccomplished researcher. The story that scares me the most was when some guy republished Perelman's proof of Poincare conjecture as his own and got away with it, until the international academic community stepped in to defend Perelman's intellectual property years later. The chances are if an average young scientist's ideas are not worthy of the Field's medal, no one is going to bother to step in for him if he is scooped by a more accomplished or talented researcher. – Arthur Tarasov Jan 27 '16 at 2:43
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It might depend on the field, but it strikes me as pretty normal to ask for the PhD thesis in the context of an academic job application.

Your PhD thesis shows the quality of your research. Your PhD thesis shows the quality of your ability to communicate your research. Both are essential skills in (academic) research. Unless you already have many published papers — and it appears that you do not (or else why would it be secret?) — then your PhD thesis is the only document that can serve as evidence that you do possess those skills.

If you are worried about results leaking, you can ask for the manuscript to be treated confidentially. If you are worried about the recruiter stealing and abusing your results, you might want to reconsider if you want to work there in the first place.

10

As others have said, it's not unusual. However, to answer those talking about paranoia; at my Uni, we used to have seminars where we discussed with other PhD students different aspects of our thesis. This was done with the explicit agreement that these discussion will remain in strict confidentiality, and we will not use each other's work. However, there were no written, signed documents to ensure this. So after one such sessions where I was explaining a central point of my thesis, one of the fellow students, who was researching an entirely different subject, was quite interested and stayed on to discuss at length my thesis. I was flattered by the attention - only to find, a few months later, that he published a book containing, basically, all of my PhD thesis. I had to completely change my thesis, and although my tutor commented on the fact that the book contained what looked like my work, there was nothing I could do. The guy who stole my work is now a lecturer at the same University.

  • Did you confront the thief? Did you have any way to prove your authorship (eg., via publications, preprints, witnesses,...)? – mdd Nov 1 '15 at 12:18
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    I would prefer if horror stories came with context, so people know when to be scared. What is missing from your story is (i) how anyone can publish an academic book in "a few months," (ii) why the faculty in your department -- especially your thesis advisor and the other student's thesis advisor -- did not resolve this issue and (iii) why in the world a university would hire a former student who was accused of stealing another student's work. You only mention a "tutor," so I'm not sure where in the world this distressing story is set. – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '16 at 4:43
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I know at least one country where it's a general requirement that you send two copies of your thesis for any application for an academic position (in a particular field). Very few recruiters have the time and inclination to actually read it but that's still a requirement. Theses are also all archived (on microfiches!) and can be ordered from any university library in the country.

It's all a bit silly now because online repositories are much more practical than either copying thousands of pages or reading microfiches on a bulky machine but it underlines the fact that in principle a PhD thesis is a public document and one that (academic) recruiters might want to see.

Also, a (completed) PhD thesis is a form of publication, even if you haven't put it out in the form of a book. Depending on the field, it's not as well regarded as journal papers but it would certainly establish your priority claim in the extremely unlikely even that someone would try to publish something based on it.

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    Thesis archives, whether on paper, microfiche, or electronic form, contain completed and submitted theses, which are safe to divulge. The OP has, apparently, yet to defend their thesis, so the situation is rather different. If the requirement you mention in your first paragraph also holds for theses in preparation then you should really point to specific resources that state that. – E.P. Aug 21 '14 at 17:21
  • @episanty That's not entirely clear to me, from the question. Either way, the requirement underlines that it is not unusual to request an applicant's thesis. – Relaxed Aug 21 '14 at 22:10
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After recent experiences of my ideas stolen and authorship credit being stolen from me, I have become one of those people who overestimate risk. It is better to be safe than sorry. To help: seek advice reg. this situation with a trusted adviser/ graduate's guide/ free legal services of uni. This can also help to prepare a professional approach.

Do you have an option to ask the recruiter to sign a form / letter / email communication that the unpublished thesis will be treated as confidential, and clarifying the extent of confidentiality. This cannot be an uncommon request, if you cite examples and state your worry in an upfront manner.

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    Digital document signatures have the ability to authenticate possession with a timestamp... digitally sign the document, get it countersigned by a trusted timestamp authority, and then if the recruiter does try to steal it or make it public, do the world a favor by ending the thief's career before anyone else gets taken. You don't have to get their signature on any document to have rights, the author automatically holds exclusive copyright. A footer like OR Mapper suggested is quite enough to exercise that right. – Ben Voigt Jan 26 '16 at 5:38
  • I personally found that the much-feared phenomenon of stealing ideas is quite rare, but it does happen. More likely are scoops where someone with better visibility gets out with a very similar idea; and it does not help much to be earlier, the second discoverer may well attract most attention. Remember Stigler's law: "discoveries are never named after their discoverer". It's the general risk of being a scientist; therefore, enjoy the process of discovery and don't worry too much about due credit - if you deserve it, you won't get it - in fact, if you get it, that's when you should worry ;-) – Captain Emacs Jan 26 '16 at 10:03

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