I'm a bachelor student in mathematics writing my thesis at a small university in the US. A PhD student that has the same supervisor has spent a very significant amount of time working exclusively on a theorem which he hasn't been able to prove, so the supervisor offered me a thesis on the topic. No one was really expecting me to make any real progress, but everyone was very nice and enthusiastic.

It turned out that I was able to prove the theorem essentially straight away using a different approach to what they've tried. After this happened I've felt a distinct change in attitude towards me. There is no excitement, there is no discussion on how to strengthen or generalize the result and I generally get the feeling that they are pretty embarrassed about the whole situation.

The PhD student has a severe lack of publications and is probably feeling quite stressed because further progress on this problem seems unlikely. So what is my best plan of action here? Keep in mind that stepping on toes is the last thing I want to do given that I was hoping to pursue a PhD in this very department. How do I act diplomatically while at the same time making sure I get due credit for my achievements? Is it possible they will try to bully me out of first-authorship to protect the reputation of the PhD student?

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    "hoping to pursue a PhD in this very department"? Why, if you're producing graduate-level results, would you miss the opportunity to do research in another institution? So-called "Cross-pollination" of research groups is the normal and desirable thing. Now this is not to say that you should try to make yourself unwelcome. – Ben Voigt Apr 13 '16 at 0:15
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    Essentially, he wanted me to investigate special cases of a problem, while PhD worked on the general case. I got an idea that turned out to be general enough to solve the general case. I suppose supervisor did not assign this event any significant probability but IMO he really should have. – horsestaplebattery Apr 13 '16 at 1:22
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    Hooray! The struggling grad student gets a publication with an undergraduate coauthor! Everybody wins! – JeffE Apr 13 '16 at 3:32
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    Is there a way that the main problem here is that the grad student and faculty now, with your quick proof, understand that this problem is just not as interesting as they thought it would be? – xLeitix Apr 13 '16 at 6:00
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    Do not give credit to others, if it is your idea you should be the first author. Accepting an offer to trade credit suggest a possible significant level of corruption and misconduct in the department. – Mikey Mike Apr 13 '16 at 12:25

11 Answers 11

First, if you haven't already, I suggest you have a discussion with your advisor about what to do with the result. Is it worth writing up? Is it worth trying to publish or try to go further? If so, you should write it up and make sure there are no errors, and hopefully your advisor will be willing to help check over this.

Is it possible they will try to bully me out of first-authorship to protect the reputation of the PhD student?

Anything it possible, but nothing you have said gives any indication anyone else thinks they should be a co-author for this result, assuming it is publishable. It's common in math that a problem seems difficult from one perspective, but is easy from another. This can always be a little embarrassing, but usually it's no big deal if you're dealing with reasonable mathematicians. However, it may mean (for a variety of possible reasons) that the problem is less interesting to them than originally thought, and this could be part of what you're sensing. I've often gotten excited about discovering things, only to realize later that they weren't so novel, or been interested in problems because I thought my methods could solve them then lost interest when I found out other methods are much better.

Anyway, hopefully an open chat with your advisor about this will clear things up. I would not mention the PhD student in this discussion, just focus on the questions in my first paragraph.

Edit: I forgot to say, your situation may indicate that this department might not be your best option for a PhD (there may be a trend of weak grad students or not-on-the-ball advisors).

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    This is the most realistic take on the situation. OP is making a lot of assumptions here, like saying the PhD student has "a severe lack of publications" (lots of PhD students don't have any publications until right before they graduate) and assuming there's a major problem based on a perceived lack of enthusiasm from his supervisor (which could have nothing to do with this incident). – user37208 Apr 13 '16 at 6:00
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    From my experience as a math grad student myself, I agree with the suggestion that it is not that the PhD student (say Paul) is particularly slow, but that the problem itself was easier than Paul or your advisor anticipated. When you are acquainted with a larger collection of techniques, it is easy to start throwing everything you know at the problem, thereby making the problem actually seem much harder than it is. – Ian Apr 13 '16 at 14:10
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    For example I attempted a naive 2D extension of a method that had worked in 1D for a certain problem on a lattice. Superficially it seemed that nothing should be different, but in fact there was more room in 2D for nonphysical effects, which were present but minor in the 1D case, to propagate and thereby persist. This essentially killed the idea of directly extending that method...which my advisor thought would likely work. – Ian Apr 13 '16 at 14:12
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    I suggest you to publish it immediately – Alexey Vesnin Apr 13 '16 at 18:14
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    BAD IDEA @AlexeyVesnin ! If the work the OP did is in any way based on any quantity of research done by others in his department he will be accused of taking credit for other's work. Even the grad student's failed approaches are valid parts of the research that must be given credit. If he publishes without the university on board it is the END of his career. What he needs to do is establish evidence that he is the originator of the proof and then approach the team and the uni to see what they plan or want to do. Maybe they will all be cool but he needs to be ready for the worst. – O.M.Y. Apr 17 '16 at 11:36

How do I act diplomatically while at the same time making sure I get due credit for my achievements?

Follow JeffE's advice: You have at least three people who contributed to the proof of the theorem. The advisor who suggested the problem. The grad student who worked out several ways that don't work. And you who produced a proof. So it is perfectly valid to write a joint paper. In mathematics it is pretty important to figure out ways how not to prove something. (There are papers and blog posts by renowned mathematicians starting with "How not to prove…", e.g a paper called "How not to prove the Poincare conjecture", the blog post "How not to prove that P is not equal to NP", the paper "How not to prove Fermat's last theorem".)

Very often it is the case that a proof is discovered by somebody only because he already had seen enough attempts that don't work. It is really common to try two different ways to prove something, see how each one fails at a different point and then see that some third way will succeed. In addition the grad student may well be able to write a good introduction on the background and context of the theorem.

Is it possible they will try to bully me out of first-authorship to protect the reputation of the PhD student?

There is not such thing as "first-authorship" in mathematics, see here: https://mathoverflow.net/questions/19987/math-paper-authors-order

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    I think this is by far the best answer. Don't focus on the problem, focus on the solution. And here there is a very clear one, which should make everybody happy and transform this from a sad success disaster into a fruitful collaboration. – xLeitix Apr 13 '16 at 8:14
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    In math, neither suggesting a problem nor failing to solve it usually merits co-authorship. The "How not to prove..." links you gave are not typical research articles. – Kimball Apr 13 '16 at 13:15
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    Does that mean Perelman would have had to add Poincaré as a co-author? – phresnel Apr 13 '16 at 15:45
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    There is no such thing as "first-authorship" in mathematics One less opportunity for bullying. – GEdgar Apr 13 '16 at 15:51
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    There's nothing here that suggests that the advisor's name should be on the paper (if the result is publishable), nor that the advisor would want coauthorship. Math publishing conventions are different than many fields, and most student papers are not coauthored with the advisor. A joint paper with the grad student may be appropriate, since the graduate student may have worked out closely related results, examples, or applications, and the prior failures of the grad student may have helped in finding this proof. (Though, depending on circumstances solo authorship might be most appropriate.) – Noah Snyder Apr 18 '16 at 15:11

Of course I can't say anything definitive based on the limited information in your question, but one possibility is that you may have inadvertently committed a faux pas. Your advisor may be upset that he/she didn't anticipate this possibility and head it off.

One of the basic rules of the mathematical community is that you don't compete with graduate students by working on their thesis problems. This rule isn't always followed, but exceptions are rare and they look terrible unless you have an awfully good excuse. The reason is that grad students are generally inexperienced and slow compared with faculty, which makes it unfair to compete with them. There's little glory in winning, and you can do an awful lot of damage if you swoop in and ruin someone's thesis.

Of course this rule is not really aimed at undergraduates, and you aren't in nearly as awkward a situation as a faculty member would be. However, the fact that you could prove the theorem indicates that you are unusually talented, in which case it could still look bad if you screw things up for a less talented student.

I don't mean to suggest that you are primarily to blame. It sounds like you were put in a delicate situation without being warned about potential pitfalls, and your advisor should not have let this come about. However, when you started trying to prove the theorem, what did you think was going to happen to this graduate student if you succeeded? There are various possibilities (restarting work on a different problem, hoping to find extensions substantive enough for a thesis before you prove them, dropping out of grad school), but they aren't terribly appealing.

It comes across as callous to be more concerned with getting credit yourself than the repercussions for this graduate student. You deserve credit and should get it, but I'd recommend having a discussion with your advisor (in private) about how to avoid causing problems for the grad student. For example, maybe there are directions for follow-up work that you could leave to him to explore. This could help relieve the tension by showing that you realize it's an awkward situation and want to make sure the other student has a viable path forward.

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    Downvoted because the idea that an undergraduate can take any blame for taking an assignment, and performing it too well for diplomatic niceties, is beyond my ability to accept. – Daniel R. Collins Apr 13 '16 at 4:46
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    The posting explicitly says "the supervisor offered me a thesis on the topic". That being the case, it seems absurd to suggest a rule was violated. "you don't compete with graduate students by working on their thesis problems" seems like a rule for faculty. A student who is "offered" "a thesis on the topic" cannot be considered to be violating such a rule because he succeeds. – Michael Hardy Apr 13 '16 at 5:11
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    I understand that a faculty should not swoop in and steal a PhD student's thunder. I even understand that a fellow PhD student should not do that. But assigning (even partial) blame to the undergrad because he solved the problem too well seems super odd to me. – xLeitix Apr 13 '16 at 5:58
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    when you started trying to prove the theorem, what did you think was going to happen to this graduate student if you succeeded? is holding the OP responsible for not thinking carefully. I strongly disagree with this sentence. What is the OP supposed to think? Why should he think what is going to happen? He just took the topic from his advisor and worked on it. What did he do wrong? What else can an undergrad do when he is given a thesis topic to work on? – scaaahu Apr 13 '16 at 9:16
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    "It comes across as callous to be more concerned with getting credit yourself than the repercussions for this graduate student." It's not his job to be concerned about the grad student's progress; if anyone, the advisor has been negligent here. Downvoted because this answer in effect discourages excellence. – G. Bach Apr 13 '16 at 11:11

Just publish it. You are the "kid" in this business and all you did was to do what was asked of you. You just happen to do better than what was expected of you. Hardly anything to be worried about! So be humble and thankful but grab the credit that you deserve and let the others worry about their own ego frailty. Those are not your problems.

Spread your wings and look elsewhere for graduate work.

  • Totally agree ! – optimal control Apr 14 '16 at 10:17
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    BAD IDEA! A publisher will almost always contact the university to ask about the author's credentials while vetting the paper. If the supervisor is either unethical or just plain embarrassed this could backfire badly on the OP. Unless the OP has created evidence that he is the true originator of the mathematical proof, publishing without any in-house discussion is a very dangerous game. – O.M.Y. Apr 17 '16 at 11:07
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    I disagree completely with O.M.Y.'s comment. I have never heard of a publisher contacting an author's university; in any case, it is certainly not true that this "almost always" happens. Moreover, even if they did, there is nothing inappropriate here that the publisher might discover; the OP does not need any supervisor's permission to publish a paper! – Tom Church Apr 17 '16 at 12:38
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    Tom's right, I have no idea what O.M.Y. is talking about. You're well within your rights to go ahead and publish without talking to anyone. But writing a math paper is its own kind of skill, and you're likely to have a stronger paper published in a better journal if you get advice from someone more experienced when writing that paper. That's why you should talk to your advisor, not because it's mandatory, but because it will help you. – Noah Snyder Apr 18 '16 at 15:54

It's worth keeping in mind that in the long term the amount of "credit" that this result is worth to anyone is almost certainly very very small. Math is very hard, and it's very rare to find genuinely important questions that an undergraduate or a weak graduate student can solve. Most of the value of undergraduate research is learning whether you enjoy the process of research and not in the result itself. Most of the value in an average PhD thesis is the training in the process of research and not in the problem itself. I feel like a lot of the answers and comments here are treating this like the amount of credit involved in your result is unrealistically large. In the long run, people care about your research program, and this paper will fall outside of that program, and so won't be important in evaluating you.

That said, it's a great experience for you to solve an open problem! Hopefully this has showed you that you're capable of getting a PhD and that you would enjoy it. It also should be valuable to you in that it should show admissions committees these two facts! It is also worth remembering that this "credit" to the admissions committee is at least as much in how your letters of recommendation talk about this result as it is in the publication itself (which may well not be through peer review when you apply for grad school).

So think about this more in terms of experience and less in terms of piling up formal credit. Talk to your advisor and figure out what is best for you in terms of further experience. Maybe there's a solution that will also allow you to learn valuable collaboration skills by working with the graduate student on related questions. You will also learn valuable skills by writing up the paper (whether alone or in collaboration). All of these things will make you a stronger graduate school candidate and a more prepared researcher. A strong letter that says you're an excellent problem solver and an excellent collaborator and great to work with is how you get the most credit. Generosity and credit are not enemies of each other.

  • +1 for "Most of the value of undergraduate research is learning whether you enjoy the process of research and not in the result itself. Most of the value in an average PhD thesis is the training in the process of research and not in the problem itself." – Yemon Choi Apr 19 '16 at 17:27

As an academic with three departments under my belt, I'd strongly advise you based on your experience here to take your skills elsewhere. It is generally a bad idea for an undergrad to continue on to do graduate work in their same department: to the faculty, you will still appear to be the same undergrad, not "fresh meat" that everyone is excited to work with. And there is also the general rule that first rate people seek other first rate people, second rate people seek third rate people, third rate seek fifth rate, etc. If there is no excitement at your unexpected result -- you should seriously consider whether this is a department you wish to be affiliated with.

Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you grant the credit to others. Not only does it do discredit to you, it does discredit to the entire field, and cements and institutionalizes the theft of credit.

In my experience, an undergraduate who achieves a significant theoretical result belongs in a place which can develop their abilities. Such an achievement would go far towards a very strong graduate application.

  • "undergrad to continue on to do graduate work" this is about undergraduate research. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 13 '16 at 4:29
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    I disagree that you should never continue from undergrad to grad at the same uni (I did so myself along with a number of others, based on good advice that this was perfectly reasonable). Otherwise, there are some sensible points here, although they are not really answering the question that has been asked. – Jessica B Apr 13 '16 at 6:10
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    who seeks second and fourth rate people? Or in general 2n rate people (where n is an integer and n>0)? (yeah, I used to be a scientist too :)) – WoJ Apr 14 '16 at 14:04

Whether you have embarrassed your adviser will depend on his/her personality. If the focus is on the maths or scientific progression, then he/she should be happy. Moreover, he/she should have the graduate student build on your progress (if there are avenues for doing so).

I don't see why you should feel bad about proving the theorem. You should celebrate! Yes, you may have embarrassed the graduate student, but heck, that's is normal. You came in with a fresh perspective so you have a better chance. From your description, the graduate student seems weak academically. There is nothing you can do about it. His/her adviser on the other hand can maybe help out a bit more, but that is his/her problem.

(Too long for a comment.)

Worrying about potential consequences to some grad student is a task of their supervisor, yet this is not an ideal world. To a various degree, most of us frequently act with a wider context in mind, protecting others from their (usually) temporary stupidity. Note that in many countries some things are explicitly forbidden instead of only marked as dangerous. This is also one of the reasons why some people are great team players, while others aren't. Moreover, this is often far from easy, there are lot of factors the difference that matters might be slight, like saying that everybody is alright before that there was a car crash.

Doing math is a social activity, and we should consider other people feelings.
We should strive for an excellence, but that is no excuse for being a jerk.

I think @JeffE's solution (a joint publication) is the best one.
Do not accept giving away the result, but a joint paper should be ok (with an alphabetical order of authors). Be aware that although in math the author order does not matter, it might matter for some other things (scholarship rules, etc.). Perhaps the grad student can do some additional work to justify coauthorship if you are unsure. Talk it over.

As for the change in attitude, normally it would depend whether that was a change in attitude towards you, or towards the problem and situation in general, whether it was positive (more respect) or negative (you are a threat), permanent or temporary (it's normal for people to get grumpy for a few days). In your case however, unless you have some special circumstances, I advise you to pick a different place for your PhD.

I hope this helps ;-)

I'd suggest you offer to go out for a couple of beers (you pay) - And after a few beers just be honest about your concerns. Be sure to give the PhD student a wealthy round of thanks for the "great" work that he has already done, as it certainly played a part in the solution you were able to come up with. Above all, be humble!

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    I do not consider beer to be a professional solution, but it depends on the local culture. The rest is good. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 13 '16 at 1:03
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    I agree with @AnonymousPhysicist. Awkward professional situations like this require whisky. – JeffE Apr 13 '16 at 3:34
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    a wealthy round of thanks for the "great" work that he has already done - Dishonest flattery is not becoming. – Kimball Apr 13 '16 at 5:24
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    Okay, so I overstated it a bit, and I don't suggest dishonest flattery either. Acknowledging that someone else's work had some part in your success (if true) can never hurt the situation. I guess my focus here with beer, encouragement, and humility is that we are talking about human relationships here. Building someone else up is always a preferred to tearing them down. – megachuck Apr 13 '16 at 17:25

If you ever need to defend yourself against a charge of plagiarism you will want evidence/proof of originality. Before you do anything else I would create what is called a "Poor Man's Copyright" as such evidence. NOTICE: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice (this is just what I would do based on my experience) so use at your own risk:

Do the following but make every effort not to use campus-owned supplies (paper, blank DVDs, etc) or equipment (computers, copiers, etc) unless you have no choice (mainframe screen-grabs). Do not give anyone an excuse to say you were misusing University resources:

  • Write this up as quickly as you can, even if it is not perfect ... probably what you have already written is sufficient. Date it now if it does not already have a date on it.
  • Print a copy of the writeup and put it in a simple long envelope.
  • Take that long envelope mail it FROM a post office to your home address. Send it via "registered mail, signature required, and return receipt requested". Be sure the envelope is well sealed.
  • DO THIS TODAY!

The above is the essence of a poor-man's copyright and is the very least you can do (see the very last bullet paragraph below for how it is used) but you can expand on this by ALSO doing the following:

  • Print another copy of the write-up and all the supporting documentation that can be printed. If there is software code or data for documentation either make some screen-grabs (cell phones pics are ok) or burn it to a CD-ROM / DVD disc (or disc sets). Make 4 of these discs (or disc sets). WARNING: Do not copy any software code/data you did not create yourself.
  • Photocopy three sets of everything (use a copystore away from campus if you have a choice and get a receipt). Use a black & white copier except for any specific pages that would make no sense without color.
  • Copiers malfunction so double-check before you leave the store that all FOUR sets (including the original set) are complete AND legible. Did you get everything back on your originals? Do your three copy sets all have the same pages as the original set? In the same order?
  • Have four envelopes/folders/boxes (whatever you need for carrying each set in a single container). Once you have verified all is complete put each set in its own container then go home.
  • From this point on do not write anything on those originals or change that set in any way. Keep the original documents in their container and leave it alone. Hands off!
  • At home count the number of pages (count twice, double-check) then on the copies ONLY with a RED pen number every sheet with "X/Y" (or "X of Y" if you prefer). Also put "Copy A" or "Copy B" or "Copy C" as appropriate. Work slowly and carefully as all three sets must have matching sequence numbers. If you make a mistake put a line through it, initial it, and correct it. It is okay to write over the photocopied text if you must, that is why you are using a red pen.
  • Next type up a simple letter telling your story as you did here (but with all the names, dates, and problem description included) and closing the narrative with a declaration that you are the sole creator of the proof and also personally created "the attached documents".
  • In the header of the letter put "AFFIDAVIT OF EVENTS" centered across the top of each page and also be sure the letter formatting includes "page X of Y" in the footer.
  • On the same letter, immediately after your narrative, include an attachments inventory summarizing one set of everything you copied ("Item 001: 2 pages describing the proof", "Item 002: 14 pages of data representing XYZ", "Item 003: 1 screen grab from the department mainframe terminal", etc.). If you have any discs include them on the list last ("Item 29: 2 CD's containing R code used to demonstrate the proof.").
  • At the bottom of the letter include a statement that declares everything above to be true and affirm that you are the sole author of the letter.
  • Include a space for your signature but do not sign it yet. Also leave at least a half-page of space on the same page after your signature. Reformat/resize the text/font/margins/etc if you have to but that half-page space is important.
  • Take ONLY the original set of documents and the unsigned letter and go to a (NON-campus) notary public (ask your bank manager if you don't know where to find one). Be sure you have your official photo id (driver's license or passport) with you. Also note a "notary public" is NOT the same thing as a "notario publico" -- a sort of specialized lawyer from some Spanish speaking countries -- so don't confuse the two).
  • Tell the NP you have created a "personal affidavit" of events and wish to have it notarized. Take out your letter and IMMEDIATELY sign it in front of the notary THEN hand it over to them to read. Be sure you sign the letter's signature space in the presence of the notary using a BLUE ink pen, NOT a black one. That is important because most notaries use black ink for the areas they have you sign but when the letter is photocopied it is hard to decide which is the original if everything is black.
  • The notary is only going to glance at the letter to be sure it is in fact what you have described (an affidavit). It is unlikely they will spend more than about 30 seconds doing this. They may also ask about the attachments (since they are referenced in the letter) but it is unlikely, but if they do show them the originals. Again, their primary concern is that the document is what it says it is, not the contents per-Se.
  • They will have a form or imprint of some sort to attach to that letter (which is what the half-page space is for). Depending on what state you are in you may be asked to "swear or affirm an oath" that what you have written is true. There will be a little paperwork and some sort of thumbprint will be taken. You will be charged about $10 (ten dollars) for each signature required (which should be only one).
  • Take the notarized letter and go get at least FOUR additional copies made, but a couple extra above 4 is a good idea. Put the original letter in with the original documentation and close the container. With luck you will never open this container again.
  • Go home. Put the container with the originals somewhere safe. Next get the other 3 documentation containers and put one copy of the letter into each container. Put "Copy A" aside, that will become the one you show folks in general, if you need to.
  • Take one copy of the letter and put it in a simple long envelope.
  • Take that long envelope and also the "Copy B" container (with its own copy of the letter inside) and mail each of them (one letter by itself, one container with a letter & docs inside) FROM a post office to your home address. Send them both via "registered mail, signature required, and return receipt requested". Be sure and tell the Post Office if you have included any CD/DVD discs in the package as these may affect their security scanners.
  • Take the "Copy C" container with a letter inside and ship it FROM a Federal Express office (Kinko's copystores usually) to your home address. You may need to put it in one of their official envelopes/boxes. Send it "signature required". Be sure and tell FedEx if there are any CD/DVD discs in the package.
  • NOW THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP OF ALL: When the letters and containers arrive at your home, put them aside somewhere safe and NEVER OPEN them. Put the 3 packages (the Originals, Copy A and Copy B) in three different places so they are safe from fire/water damage/theft). These letters/packages should only be opened in a courtroom (with your lawyer present) since once the seal is broken the proof of the date of their contents is lost.

Hopefully this all resolves without any accusations or legal evidence required but at least you will have this if you need it. Good luck and be proud of the proof work you did.

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    I don't understand why someone downvoted this answer without bothering to comment. This is the only answer that addresses the question as a legal problem and provides a very specific course of action to protect the author from further unpleasant situations. Until now, other answers have provided suggestions on how to behave in a sociable and acceptable way without "stepping on toes", but that's not the real issue. If any/all of the involved decide to use the OP's proof for their own exclusive benefit, there's no way that the OP can prove to anyone else that the discovery was made by himself. – Armfoot Apr 16 '16 at 23:15
  • I think I failed to make clear that the "social" solutions (private and honest conversations with the people involved, etc) are certainly worth pursuing. But having evidence ready as a backup in case those strategies do not work is all that I am suggesting. As I said, hopefully the evidence never needs to be touched once it is created, but a charge of plagiarism could destroy a career unless you can successfully defend against it. – O.M.Y. Apr 17 '16 at 10:57
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    @Armfoot and O.M.Y. You should probably read this. (Let me also add that as far as I know, it is not possible to copyright a mathematical idea.) – user2357 Apr 18 '16 at 14:20
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    Apart from up-or-down votes, the reality of the situation, in contemporary mathematics, is that doing this sort of thing, if anyone else were to become aware, would be construed primarily as evidence of crackpottery... and nearly-perfect lack of awareness of the current conventions. In particular, probably whatever problem was solved is not of tooooo enormous consequence, so going to such measures to prove one's priority is wildly disproportionate. E.g., unless one presumes the gross dishonesty of one's co-workers and advisor, it is already well-known that one did the thing, etc. ... [cont'd] – paul garrett Apr 19 '16 at 0:14
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    ... [continuation] Such quasi-legalistic priority games are not what one wants to do. It's not that anyone's trying to not give credit. Rather, it's that other people had estimated what would happen, without thinking too much, evidently, and screwed up. It's ugly when one's advisor screws up in a way that splatters the excrement around... and they're embarrassed, etc. And, yes, one should not have had to worry about it... but it would have been far better to have wondered a bit... and so on. – paul garrett Apr 19 '16 at 0:16

All of this assumes your idea is indeed great.

  1. It's unlikely they will try to steal your idea outright. If concerned, get your approach in public as much as possible (trace your original publication of it, email your group about it, post it in whichever online forum this is done, etc.). E.g., submit it to a conference, even if only for students, etc. Want to piss them off? Submit it to a regular conference.

  2. Forget these fools if they act like they don't know you. Nourish relationships with those that matter; move on to somewhere else.

  3. Catering to people's weaknesses is the real faux pas.

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    "All of this assumes your idea indeed kicks fucking ass." Why are you assuming that? The OP describes doing as an undergraduate what a below-average math PhD student at a small university could not do. That is more in the realm of "excellent work for an undergraduate, that the OP should be able to leverage into a publication and (more importantly) admission into a strong graduate program." Much of the rest of what you say is similarly off-center. – Pete L. Clark Apr 19 '16 at 17:45

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