A professor in the same department has asked my friend to collaborate with him in writing a paper which is close to his area of research. My friend is not sure what to tell the professor since he is afraid that his supervisor will not be happy that he is publishing papers without letting him know or without adding his name.

Should he ignore the invitation of this professor or let his supervisor know about this? What should he do in this situation?

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    What is keeping him from asking his supervisor about this? Easiest way to find the supervisor's opinion... Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 14:16
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    Do the faculty in your friend's department not talk to each other? The idea of a PI inviting a student to collaborate with them without any discussion with the student's PI seems utterly bizarre to me.
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 14:24
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    @MJeffryes: I have written several papers with graduate students in my department who are not my PhD students. In no case did I ask the student's advisor (if they had an advisor at the time, which some but not all of them did) first. So something which seems utterly bizarre to you seems pretty routine to me... Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 18:08
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    ... I will comment that most of these collaborations took place in the context of a course I was teaching; the exception started with a problem proposed in an email sent to my entire department, and the student was the one who answered it. Whenever I thought that a project with a student would take a substantial portion of their research time I did encourage them to talk to their advisor about it...and in most cases the student decided not to pursue the project further. Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 18:09

5 Answers 5


In some cases, a supervisor will be happy to have a student work on independent projects as well. In other cases, the supervisor will be happy for the project to happen but want to be involved themselves as well. In yet other cases, the supervisor will feel the project is a distraction or problematic for some other reason and strongly advise the student not to take part in it.

Which case you are dealing with depends critically on the details of the people and projects involved, and the best thing to do is for the student and supervisor to talk. Don't make it a big scary deal, just let the supervisor know about the opportunity, say you're interested, and ask what their opinion is.


Your friend should consult his supervisior for sure, explain situation and ask him to work on that paper as a side project. There is no reason for supervisor/mentor to have bad reaction to this. On the other hand, paper is public thing, if he goes behind his back sooner or later his supervisor will find out and that will seriously affect their relationship.


Your friend should consult with his supervisor for sure, this seems like a pretty trivial matter to me.

Just make sure the friend wants to do this themselves, and isn't just being pressured or motivated just because some professor asked them too. I mention this because a student afraid to mention something so trivial to a PI might be one who thinks they have to say "yes" to anything someone with a PhD tells them.

If your friend wants to do this then he should tell his PI. I'd tend towards informing the PI what you plan on doing, and asking what they think rather than asking permission. You do not, and should not, need permission from anyone to write a paper about whatever you want, especially if they're not really involved.

If the PI is very against this, for some reason, then your friend should feel free to try and be persuasive. Sure, it's going to take some time, but if it's not going to tank his primary research then he should do it. Having more publications is very much in his interest, even if it's not in his PI's interest. Many grad students are too timid with their PIs. They forget that they have rights as students/scholars/employees, and often PIs will give you their opinion expecting you to push back if you disagree, and timid people won't. In fact, students who do the latter will often find their PI confused when this kind of thing is discussed. For example: PI: "Do this by Friday." Student: "It will take longer than that." PI: "Oh ok next week then."

If the PI commands this student "YOU MAY NOT WRITE THIS PAPER." Then he should consider getting a new PI (if possible) because this one is terrible. If he doesn't want to do that, then consider just doing it anyway or not doing it.

I have found that many times when a PI tells you "Don't waste your time on that" and you do it anyways, they often won't seem to remember they told you not to, plus if it ends up being useful they'll be happy you did it. I often did things I was told to not waste my time on. If it turned out being a waste of time, they never found out about it, and if it didn't he'd often just remember it as his idea anyway.


In an ideal world, research collaborations with others would be none of his advisor's business. As long as your friend does not neglect his responsibilities that pertain to his thesis work, there should be no reason for his advisor to even care, maybe except for appreciating that they have a prolific student. As for adding his name, the advisor should certainly not get credit for work that he did not contribute to.

In the real world, things are more complicated. The answer, more than anything else, will most certainly be determined by his advisor's personal preferences. Some professors will be happy that their advisee is pursuing research on their own time, and some will be very upset. Your friend himself is probably in the best position to know the answer in this specific case. That said, most disciplines have conventions around matters of credit and authorship, which may influence the advisor's outlook. My understanding is that when the advisor is responsible for providing facilities (lab, office, equipment...) to their students, they will justifiably expect to receive credit for the work done by the student, even when they are not directly involved. If your friend is using resources provided by their advisor for this project in any way, he should definitely not act without consulting them. A similar code may apply if the work relates to a method etc. that the advisor is known for. Otherwise it is almost entirely a matter of personal preferences.

In addition, (as a commenter points out) it is interesting that the professor has come to the advisee rather than the advisor with the invitation. In a situation like this, most professors I know would ask the advisor if they could 'borrow' the student first.

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    "In a situation like this, most professors I know would ask the advisor if they could 'borrow' the student first." Students are not "owned" by their advisors. In my opinion, an advisor who objects to a side project the student is doing on his own time with none of the advisor's resources is being completely unreasonable. When dealing with colleagues, I try to assume that they will be at least somewhat reasonable unless I have a good reason to think otherwise. If a colleague approached me in this way, I would say: "It sounds interesting, but you should really take it up with [the student]." Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 18:17
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    @PeteL.Clark In certain countries a PhD student is considered an employee: so, it might not be "owned" by their advisor, but, like any other workplace, the employer has all the rights to tell what the student can do or not. And, at least, the advisor should be informed. And even where the student is not considered an employee, the advisor might be the one who secured the student's funding. Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 18:21
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    @PeteL.Clark Certain students work on projects that might have tight deadlines, especially in countries where the duration of the PhD is not as flexible as in the US: if a student underestimates the time or the commitment needed for a side project, and then they are too tired to fully work at their main project and miss the main deadlines, as advisor, I could get angry. And the programme committee might ask at the end of the year: why this student didn't make sufficient progress on his project during this year? Should we admit them to the next year or should we fail them? Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 18:52
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    So, yes, I want to be informed of any side project: it doesn't mean that I intend to forbid the participation of the student to a side project, but I want to know what will be the impact on their main project. Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 18:52
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    @Massimo: I don't disagree with anything you said, but your worries about a student badly allocating their time are certainly something to discuss with the student, not with the other faculty member. On the other hand, if a student is sure that she can complete a modest project without it interfering with her main project, and if she is right about that: no problem. So it is most often the case that asking your supervisor is the right idea, but...there are some capable, independent students out there, right? Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 18:56

Work with whoever you want to. You are a free man. Do things which you like. Work with people who you want to. Life is short. Opportunities run away fast! (telling from personal bad experience)

If your supervisor creates issues then he is not the right man to work for in the first place. Even if he has issues, you must have a relationship with him where is not sure if he can tell you anything about it, if he is not correct!

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