I am a junior PhD student in electrical engineering and I need ideas about how to handle my mentor. Whenever I go to her with an idea she rejects it saying it is wrong or not interesting. But after a few months she comes back with a slightly modified version of my earlier idea and takes credit for the full idea. She asks me to do experiments with her version of my idea. Then when we have results, she publishes them in a conference (includes me as an author), but she gives the talk at the conference saying she came up with the idea and I only did experiments.

I don't want to stop working with her because I have been working with her for two years and leaving will set me back by at least one and a half years. Can you suggest how to avoid this?

  • 28
    Don't walk. Run.
    – JeffE
    Dec 10, 2012 at 7:03
  • 2
    she might did this because she believe its actually her idea and its different from yours. Have you talked to her about how her idea is actually yours?.. I see nothing major in her behavior if all other things being good. Wait for another try and it will work most likely.
    – seteropere
    Dec 10, 2012 at 7:13
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    "nothing major" ? this is quite a problem. An advisor competing with their own student for idea ownership is a bad situation.
    – Suresh
    Dec 10, 2012 at 8:05
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    We have only one side of the story, so to be the devil's advocate: is it possible that your ideas are rough drafts/more or less random guesses, and the "modified" versions are a workable version, that is more likely to succeed? Anyway, in addition to other answers (it is always safe to protect one's own idea, be it a draft), I would ask to my mentor what in the new version makes the idea operational.
    – Taladris
    Nov 4, 2015 at 8:41
  • Everybody seems to suggest to cooperative, communicative solution here. However, and unfortunately, my basic advise to you is to hide your ideas, and work on them concealed until you have the first results, or better, the first draft of the publication. Only then present it to your supervisor. Then she can hardly continue her habbit, and if she does, you have a clear argument to contradict.
    – davidhigh
    Sep 25, 2018 at 6:41

4 Answers 4


I suspect the advisor is relative young and probably not fully even aware of the problem. Her perception of events may be completely different. She may feel that she contributed the essential part of the idea to make it valuable. She may not even remember that the idea came from you originally. But that does not mean that she shouldn't be corrected and give credit to you.

This can probably be solved by communicating with her, or by communicating with someone more senior, who could have a talk with her. Are there any annual progress meetings where this could be done?

Not dealing with the problem will only exacerbate it.

  • 3
    Note the word "Whenever" OP used. It indicates to me that it happened more than once. If it happened only once, I would believe it was just an accident or bad memory. If more than once, I think it's delibrate and that's the problem I am having with this answer. Will communication work? Would she admit it? The admission could mean her career is finished.
    – Nobody
    Dec 10, 2012 at 13:16
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    If she is unaware of the problem, then she may be unaware of it multiple times. Naturally, this will need to be handled delicately. It need not finish her career, just require her to make adaptations to her "working style". Dec 10, 2012 at 13:21
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    "I suspect the advisor is relative young" : +1, otherwise she probably wouldn't so eager to give the talk in the conferences. Dec 10, 2012 at 14:35
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    I would strongly recommend taking the "communicating with someone more senior" route. As others have stated, this needs to be handled very delicately, or else there will be hard feelings afterwards. I strongly suggest speaking with your department chair or knowledgeable, respected colleague and asking them to help moderate any discussoin.
    – eykanal
    Dec 10, 2012 at 15:12
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    It is possible that what @Anonymous perceives as slightly modified, the supervisor perceives as an essential difference.
    – gerrit
    Dec 10, 2012 at 19:55

It's a common psychological thing that people treat their own ideas, and others' ideas, on a different grounding. And even there is a strategy of convincing people to make them believe that they genuinely came with the idea. The thing is that in academia, it's not only about "making things work" but tracking who came with the idea first.


  • I disagree with JeffE's "Don't walk. Run" (perhaps for the first time),
  • I would talk to her, especially referring to e-mails or something when you explicitly cam with this idea, but starting a discussion, not an attack.

Surely, there are chances that:

  • the idea was different (seemingly subtle differences are actually big), at least in her eyes,
  • she honestly forgot that she came with this idea (but it is also not that impossible, that she got rather inspired and not only you, but a number of guys),
  • she actively wants to get all/most of the credit (perhaps not that uncommon for a group leader, but definitely bad for you).

I would approach this the same way I would have done in any workplace:

  • In future, all proposals from you to her would be initiated by an email, with explicit copies to an external, personal email account of yours.
  • In the event of any offline conversations, write a summary of your discussion and send it to her (and yourself) in the form of an email - end the email on a note that this is a formal "notes of the meeting minutes", and that she should reply if there are any discrepancies in it.
  • In the extreme case, if all of the above do not work, write your idea in the form of a draft paper, submit it to arxiv, wait for it to get accepted (takes a couple of days I think), and then initiate the proposal (through an email, of course!)

To clarify, I wholeheartedly agree with JeffE - an adviser is your mentor for life, and if this is the foundation of your relationship, you should break it off ASAP (no matter how many years you lose - your peace of mind isn't worth it!). Also, note that while the above steps may stop her from plagiarizing your ideas, she would still be in a position of power and can screw you over in n different ways (your defense, recommendation letters, feedback on faculty hiring committees etc). So, use my suggestions in the short-term till you find a different mentor!

  • 1
    She included the OP as a coauthor, so it is not plagiarism per se. She did give him credit! Dec 10, 2012 at 18:18
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    But as a co-author, not as the first author (as is my impression from the question. In CS (especially in TCS), I've been led to believe that the first author is the originator of the idea - I maybe wrong on that, but if not, then is that not plagiarism (perhaps on a different level)?
    – TCSGrad
    Dec 10, 2012 at 18:27
  • I wouldn't call this plagiarism. Sure, it is not giving the credit that is due, but credit is given. And the reading of the order of authors depends on a lot of factors. It may not be the originator of the idea, but the one who did the work. Or the student. What about alphabetical order? Dec 10, 2012 at 18:37
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    @TCSGrad actually it is TCS in particular that author order is irrelevant, since we usually do alphabetical ordering.
    – Suresh
    Dec 10, 2012 at 21:28
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    @TCSGrad it varies greatly. Loosely speaking, the closer to TCS, the more likely you are to see alphabetical ordering.
    – Suresh
    Dec 11, 2012 at 0:45

Continue working with her until the end without giving too much ideas. In the meantime, work on your own ideas, but wait the end of your PhD to publish them.

  • 3
    Maybe it's not the same in all fields, but a PhD dissertation contains mostly joint work. The OP mentions that he co-authored the papers with his advisor, the only bad point is that the advisor is telling everybody that the ideas are her ideas, but 1) if the OP publishes a lot of his ideas after the PhD, that will not be a problem, and 2) generally, somebody with this behaviour has been exposed a long time ago (even if nobody is doing something about it). Dec 10, 2012 at 14:23
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    If the advisor goes around telling everyone that the ideas were hers, the OP won't get a job doing research, and won't get the chance to "publish a lot of ideas after Ph.D"
    – Suresh
    Dec 10, 2012 at 16:30
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    Actually I made no such assumption. It doesn't really matter whether the advisor is well-respected or not.
    – Suresh
    Dec 10, 2012 at 21:25
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    I saw the case that the OP presents here twice. In one case the advisor was known for this kind of behaviour and it did not preclude the PhD student to find a very good postdoc. In the other case, the problem was on the student side (he did not understand the difference between his ideas and the ones of his supervisor), and even with a bad letter from the supervisor, he found a pretty good research position. Dec 11, 2012 at 7:37
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    in the past, in 2 committees where I was, I saw the exact same situation : a student stating that his supervisor takes his ideas. In one case the problem was really the supervisor, in the other it was the student. In both cases the situation was harmless for the student. Dec 11, 2012 at 12:10

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