I'm a student of a technical college. My MSc. final project supervisor liked my work, so he hired me for his company. Where I live, it's actually quite common (my bachelor thesis professor also hired me for a part time job, but that was after I've finished my bachelor's degree).

The thing is, that the research I'll be doing for the thesis is closely related to my work in the company: basically what I do in the company is just application of the research I do for my thesis. Is it ethically acceptable to claim hours I've spent on doing the research and experiments for my thesis and get paid for the time spent this way?

I think my supervisor is okay with that and he would pay me without blinking an eye, but how about the university? Is it ethical? And if not, where do I draw the line between my paid job and my thesis work if they are so closely related?

  • 1
    How much of what you do will actually be owned by the company and how much will you have the legal right to disclose? This might less a question of ethics and more a question of law. Does your project supervisor intend the company to be for-profit? – user2338816 Oct 1 '16 at 8:42
  • Luckily, it's easy - theoretical results of my research (computer vision) will be owned by myself (I must give a non-exclusive license for the university to publish it). The implementation (mobile app) will be owned by the company. Since the CEO of the company is my thesis supervisor, I think legal problems from the company are unlikely, since he will know exactly what I publish. I was more interested in the ethical aspect of this, if it's universally viewed as wrong, or if it's just some professors/students in my Uni. – Jan Hadáček Oct 1 '16 at 21:54

That is totally fine, many people do a master thesis in an official cooperation with a company. University hasn't hired you for your studies, and the diploma is not your "payment".

Who might be in trouble is your professor and his company, if he hasn't cleared this with the university officials. Because he has a contract with the university, and they have some rights to your results, because they provided the lab, provided your professor, etc.

  • Well, afterall, I think you are right. Well, there are no resources (like university lab) embezzled for what I do, the field is computer science... The bad feeling I have about it is probably just because what the professor does is kind of controversial (some professors don't like him for doing this kind of business). But that is not my fault. – Jan Hadáček Sep 30 '16 at 18:19
  • Many professors dislike that, especially those without good connections to companies. I know faculties with a special regulation, that you must not be hired during the time of your thesis, for the work you do for it. I don't think that rule would hold up at an administrative court, but nobody has tried ... ;-) . Anyway, I assume you've checked the rules at your school, and this doesn't apply. – Karl Sep 30 '16 at 18:51
  • Yeah, there is no formal/legal rule banning me from doing this, it was the ethical standpoint I was asking about, since some professors are strictly against company/student cooperation like this. So I wanted to know if there is something intrinsically "wrong" about it. But now I think it's just that those criticizing it either have different values (eg. academia should be separated from business...) or are just envious. Thanks for clarification. – Jan Hadáček Oct 1 '16 at 21:44
  • Well, i do not approve of your profs scheme, if he doesn't have an open agreement with the faculty about it. And it also has traps for you. If your prof makes you keep part of your work out of the thesis (e.g. because he wants it kept secret for patenting etc.), his colleagues might hang you for it. Surely a second prof has to review and grade your thesis? – Karl Oct 1 '16 at 22:00

I think it's fine to get paid by the university for doing your research. No one's going to fault you for your work having real world applications. I know many students who have summer jobs that overlap with their research interests and no one blinks an eye when they finish up their research and then go to work for companies that benefit from it. Ideally, you'd probably want to get a job for a company that does work in your area.

That being said, it's probably unethical to double-dip and get paid for the same work twice. Depending upon your school's policies, you also might have to list the company as a conflict of interest on some internal document.

  • "I think it's fine to get paid by the university for doing your research." - the university is not going to pay me anything. The results of my research will be used in a private spin-off company of my professor (and the also published as my thesis). The university, however, will give me the degree. I think there is something smelly about this situation, but I'm quite unable to pin-point exactly what, since all parties seem to benefit from the situation - university will have a student doing a thesis on real topic, the company will have the problem solved and I will get both degree and money.. – Jan Hadáček Sep 30 '16 at 18:10
  • Regarding "double dipping", I only think it is unethical if they don't know that. If the company is perfectly aware that they are buying part of my thesis, and they still want to pay me, it is ok (they are paying me for giving them my results). – Davidmh Oct 2 '16 at 13:07

I approve your initiative to request more information on this subject, however I am not sure you will be able to find your answer here.

I suspect this question is very dependent on your College, field, research, country, ...

And I would need a clarification, how much application is "application".

basically what I do in the company is just application of the research I do for my thesis.

If I think of organic chemistry, one can develop a new catalyst, for example while working at the University, and then use the same catalyst at a company to create a new range of products.

There won't be any problem in this scenario if you haven't signed any confidentiality clauses with the university. Since this would be only the application of the knowledge you gain from your research. Usually, when you are hired for a job, you are hired on your knowledge about something. It can get quite complicated though if you find something when you are working "at the company" and you would like to use it in your thesis.

To be honest, it is for avoiding such dilemma that most PhD program where you are paid require you to not work anywhere else.

If you have a contract (and you probably have) if you are doing research (even if you are not paid), read it again and see if there is any mention of this kind of situations. If you don't have any or if there isn't any mention of this, have a look at the policies of your lab/institute/program or try to figure out who is in charge of the legal issue of your College; if such a person doesn't exist (very unlikely) the head/dean of the College should probably gives you the authorisation.

As you are in a technical College, it would be funny that you are the first one with this situtation.

  • There should be no problem, the only right my university reserves on theses is a non-exclusive license to publish them and make them available for free. All other rights belong to students. There is an NDA I've signed with the company, but this only explicitly applies to code and datasets/databases I work with, not theoretical knowledge or results per se. The CEO of the company and my thesis supervisor is THE SAME person, so I suppose it should be safe, legally. I was asking about the ethical aspects of this, because albeit I'm not the only one, some students and professors "don't like it". – Jan Hadáček Oct 1 '16 at 21:38
  • I knew that it was the same person. That is where I think the real conflict of interest is. Based on your comments (to others as well) there is not a real ethical problem here. It is more a political problem. Would there be any possibility for you to postpone working for your supervisor for after you are done with your degree? – Mitra Oct 3 '16 at 15:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.