If a graduate student or postdoc develops or plays a large role in developing an idea (this could be anything from a new experimental method or new code for running simulations), what's supposed to happen when they move to a new institution?

Can they use these ideas on their own after the move, share them with their new PI/colleagues, use them to get their own funding? I assume the answer is generally yes, but

  1. what if the idea is unpublished with the original group?
  2. does it depend on the idea, code/scripts vs. less tangible ideas?

Just not sure what's the normal protocol or if I'm assuming incorrectly.

  • 11
    In my opinion any PI worth her salt will have more than enough ideas to let her students take their innovations with them to their new positions. A PI should maximize the chances that her students succeed, not constrain and compete with them.
    – Corvus
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 4:24
  • @Corvus I certainly hope so. Maybe I'll learn a thing or two about the people I work with.
    – userABC123
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 4:37

2 Answers 2


I think the main thing you should keep in mind is, did it seem like people in your old lab/group will be or would like to be working this? You don't want to end up "stealing" someone's project, or competing with them.

There's a difference between an idea you've come up with completely on your own, and something you've come up with together with other people. For ideas of the latter type, it's reasonable to suspect that your former colleagues may still be thinking about this. In addition, if they contributed significantly to the ideas, they should have a chance to be included in the project. If how the other parties feel about working on this idea is not clear from your prior interactions, just talk to them about it.

  • I wonder if this could be an advantage of working in small groups (or simply as a student-PI pair)? I guess in calling it an advantage, and this whole question in general, assumes that being able to take ideas with you provides an advantage...
    – userABC123
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 4:26

In an ideal world I agree with the comment to the OP by @Corvus; a PI shouldn't need a single idea in that case. Practically speaking, I don't think it ends up being like that particularly often, at least not in biomedical research.

Consider it from the PI's point of view. You have applied to grants and funding agencies, you have put in tremendous amount of work, "selling" the project to the university, the ethics committee, funding agencies, ...

If the money has come in, and the project has started, they results will be expected. I don't think anyone is going to let a "good" project leave the lab just like that. Especially not if the PI is rather young/junior and in desperate need of good publications.

Another aspect is the commercialisation potential for the project. If the idea is a new molecule that can be made into a medicine, or a new process that makes manufacturing X% cheaper/faster/more efficient etc, there's serious money and prestige on the line. In a situation like that not only the PI, even the university might attempt on trying to keep that project under its roof.

So, bottomline being it's complicated, and the outcome likely to vary by each individual case.

  • "I don't think anyone is going to let a "good" project leave the lab just like that." That's a bit sad that some are just given the scraps to run with after they leave. But looking at it from the PI's perspective, it seems right.
    – userABC123
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 4:21

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