Edit: Since teamwork has come up in the answers, I think it would be useful that I add this. The other student has requested to team up with me, and the advisor has rejected this. Besides, I already have the solution to my research question. Not much left for teamwork on that section. I will have to share my solution with my supervisory panel, and then start the evaluation which I can't and rather not to do in secrecy.

A student recently moved from another area to study with my supervisor. Along with this change in supervisor, the student has also changed direction and has started working on the same problem as mine.

The change in subject is quite a sharp turn too. For example, think of a student with a background in microbiology(all the way up to masters and over one year work of their PhD), suddenly starts working on a machine learning model for aggression in dogs. While I have deidentified the subjects, the problem I have been working on is even more specific than the imaginary dog problem. It might be worth adding that the subject of my study was proposed by myself after over two months of literature review.

The change sounded weird to me at first, but I wasn't worried until I saw part of my study plan and one of my ideas in this student's review presentation.

I am sure that this has been my big mouth not keeping what I say in check, primarily because I usually think very positively of people. I can keep my mouth shut from now on, and the supervisors I have are quite good. However, I imagine they have quite a challenging task in remembering which idea/solution was shared by which one of their students, and not to talk about it to the other student unintentionally.

I am not sure why the hell someone would throw away years of background and start working on something that they have no background in and is already being studied under their nose. A tough challenge is that how do I exchange information without a worry that these ideas might leak out? One of my supervisors is a very busy person, I am sure that this person has a fantastic memory. However, is it possible that they forget which idea was shared by who? and unintentionally share it with the other student? What should I do? Suggestions?

To my principal supervisor, if they happen to see this: Please do not take offence, I have great respect for you and will always be grateful for all the incredible support I have received. This issue is part of my learning process, and I'd like to tap into all resources available to me so I can tackle and learn about it to the best of my capability.


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    You should probably talk to your supervisor (in a calm, non-combative way) about your concerns. Presumably he/she can advise you much better than we can, since we lack a lot of context.
    – ff524
    Sep 27, 2016 at 6:51
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    I was hoping to find more information on that. There is a clear risk of unintentional plagiarism when two students study the same problem under the same supervisor. I will change the question. It is worth noting that the subject of my study wasn't from my supervisor and was proposed by myself after two months of literature review.
    – dan
    Sep 27, 2016 at 7:30
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    How similar is this other dude's topic? Even a slight difference in emphasis its enough that you could both work on it. My major proff. had 5-6 students working on one project line over the years. Each, for the most part, refined the last guy's project. Mostly, then, sequentially. I actually worked with another guy in similar topics. We worked great as a team. Our projects, while similar, were not identical.
    – The Nate
    Sep 27, 2016 at 9:22
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    I am with @ff524. For perhaps a majority of questions asked on this site, "Talk to your advisor" is relevant, helpful advice. But this time "Talk to your advisor" is really the answer: it is the only way to resolve issues of the type you've raised. Sep 27, 2016 at 11:19
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    Somewhat related: Am I obliged to share my most promising data?
    – Mad Jack
    Sep 27, 2016 at 12:25

3 Answers 3


Just because you are a grad student, and your advisor is an established researcher, does not mean:

  • that you do not have the right be be supported in a positive way by your advisor

  • that your project, that you came up with, and defined, and started to work on, should be assigned to another student

  • that you should have to pussy-foot around protecting your small, medium-sized, and big steps towards your thesis from your own groupmates and your advisor, for god's sake

  • that you do not have the right to assert yourself with your advisor

In my opinion, if you want to continue to work on this topic, with this advisor, and hold onto your self-respect, you have an obligation to yourself to assert yourself with him or her.

I'm not saying it will necessarily be easy (although you may be in for a pleasant surprise -- you never know!). I'm just saying it has to be done.

If you want to, you could talk over the problem with your dean of graduate studies in your department first.

It is precisely the imbalance of power between you and your advisor that makes what s/he did (giving your topic to another student) appear so questionable.

Let's hope s/he did it out of thoughtlessness, or in the belief that the topic can somehow be subdivided neatly enough into two theses that the two of you can continue without being in competition with each other. (If the latter case -- I hope it is true.)

However, I suggest you start thinking about a possible different advisor, just in case.

  • 3
    It is precisely the imbalance of power between you and your advisor that makes what s/he did (giving your topic to another student) so unethical. - I think it is premature to decide conclusively that the supervisor's behavior was definitely unethical. We are only hearing one side of the story, and it's definitely possible that the OP doesn't fully understand the second student's direction, or know what instructions the supervisor has given the second student. There's still a very real possibility that this is partly a misunderstanding, and just a matter of poor communication.
    – ff524
    Sep 29, 2016 at 1:45
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    @ff524 - fair enough, will edit my statement, but only slightly. I can only base my opinion on the information provided, after all. Sep 29, 2016 at 1:47
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    Note that the information given does not include anything about what transpired between the supervisor and the second student. Hence my hesitance to draw conclusions.
    – ff524
    Sep 29, 2016 at 1:48
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    @aparente001 Although this is a bitter reality to face, not all students are nice enough to respect and credit others' work. What makes it harder is that this advisor has been supporting me from way before my PhD. I don't think that they gave the subject to this other student, most probably the other student picked up my project during meetings. I will reflect on how I can work on the solution you have provided. However, I am afraid to lose more than my PhD project in the process.
    – dan
    Sep 29, 2016 at 5:52
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    @dan "Most probably the other student picked up my project during meetings." I see. Well, in my view, when this happens, the advisor has the role of explaining that that project is already taken. Analogy: groom's sister has been planning to make the wedding cake ever since the engagement ring was bought. Two weeks before the wedding, Aunt Bessie announces she has ordered a wedding cake without checking with anyone first. Someone with a kind yet firm, authoritative tone, must call Aunt Bessie. In your environment, that someone should be the advisor. Does your advisor have a... Sep 29, 2016 at 15:44


It's rather common for teams to work on "the same thing" research wise - on a single project, shared research and (most importantly) collaborating and sharing ideas, not hiding them from each other. That is a good thing.

It may be dependent on the field, but I'd guess that having such teamwork is far more common than a "two person" team of a supervisor and a single student.

The attribution of a particular idea within a single team isn't that important - doing the work in implementing and verifying that idea is almost all of created value in a research project. Simply coming up with an idea for possible work and nothing else generally justifies a mention in acknowledgements, not even a co-authorship. Since there are more valid research ideas than time to work on them properly (and this is true even if a student needs two months of literature review to pick one suited for him/her), it is rather expected for advisors to spread interesting research ideas around - it often takes years and multiple attempts to do a particular idea properly, and treating it as "taboo" because someone else is working on it would be rather counterproductive.

If you have two or more people working on a single sufficiently large problem, that's great - you will inevitably specialize to certain parts of that problem and depending on how you (or your supervisor) organize the work, you can co-author the resulting publications or split the results in smaller pieces to publish separately; but you will go further beyond the other researchers in the same subfield than if you were struggling at it alone.

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    @dan: Is your advisor aware that the topic is so restricted? Does he or she agree with that assessment in the first place, or do they possibly see a lot more options for research connected to your topic? Sep 29, 2016 at 5:47
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    @dan: To play devil's advocate: While the situation that this is happening within your group is unfortunate, another researcher somewhere else on the world might be preparing to publish the very same solution (that you haven't heard about because they are equally secretive about their work). Possibly, you are about to find out that "specifically look[ing] for (...) a subject" that consists of "one particular problem to solve" is indeed not a very viable way to "control the scope and finish in time." Sep 29, 2016 at 6:49
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    @dan: To respond directly (and more helpfully) to your comment: "it is basically impossible to ignore the restrictions" - again, does your aupervisor agree with that stance? Please talk to them about this issue, maybe they see more options that you cannot currently recognize (professors sometimes have that almost magical ability). "The other student has requested to team up with me, and the advisor has rejected this" - interesting bit of information, maybe add to question. "Besides, I already have the solution to my research question. Not much left for teamwork." - unless all students need ... Sep 29, 2016 at 6:57
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    @O.R.Mapper Thanks, I added this to the question. I am fine with someone else who beats me fair and square and solves the problem first. What scares me is that this other student has no problem with taking my work, as I have mentioned in the question. As for the scope of the problem, I have written a relatively large research proposal defining it.
    – dan
    Sep 29, 2016 at 7:04
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    The OP's description indicates that the other student's decision may not be independent from having seen OP's work. OP is right to be concerned. If OP has a good relation with the supervisor and trusts them, they are the right person to state the concerns with and find ways to avoid interference and conflicts of attribution. It cannot be in the interest of a supervisor to gain a reputation of permitting fellow travelerships. Sep 29, 2016 at 7:51

Main point here is to prove who got what idea first. In other words, every new idea has to be dated in one way or another.

In the old days, you would mail yourself printed documents, and you would keep envelops sealed until there was a contentious situation and then opening the relevant envelop would demonstrate you had the idea first - or else.

Nowadays, you could email yourself, (use Facebook?, a published or unpublished blog?) or use a cloud solution with document versioning or change tracking options, both ways that will enable ideas/content/data to be tracked and dated.

  • Thanks! That will be useful in case we get into a dispute. However, I am hoping to find a way to prevent it from happening.
    – dan
    Sep 28, 2016 at 15:08
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    Sure you do. Prevention always better. And better be safe than sorry too ;) In general terms, you can never enough research trail during doctoral research, and probably beyond. A research diary is widely advised; again the whole point is to know what happen-s/-ed and when, for your own sake and the sake of others (supervisor, for instance; but it could also be any type of funder). Serves as personal development instrument too.
    – G-E
    Sep 28, 2016 at 16:02

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