I have couple questions for you guys and I hope to find some answers here.


I finished my master's degree with a thesis at school A. During my master's program at school A, I was a research assistant for my thesis adviser (Let's call him Professor A). Now, I am applying to school B for PhD (because PhD isn't offered at school A) and I am hoping to work with Professor B who has a same research interest as Professor A.

Professor A has requested that:

  1. I do not share any codes with Professor B.
  2. Choose a research topic that is different from my master's thesis for the conflict of interest.


My questions are:

  1. Is this understandable and typical situation for many students? What do you do about this?
  2. Do I need to completely change the trajectory of my PhD research topic from Master's and start a new topic in the same research area?

Edit: We are in the US. Codes were collaborated. And already received my masters.

  • 1
    Is the software public domain, property of school A, your property, or what? That depends on School A's policies and the relevant laws. Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 8:25

2 Answers 2


II don't know anything about the law in your country, but I think that the request of Professor A has a weak justification:

  1. As lang as you wrote the code in the course of your master program, your advisor has no right. The algorithms should be considered as public domain (unless you've signed an NDA). It is different, if (parts of) the code are done by others.
  2. Being a master student does not constitue an employment relation. There is simply no base for any restriction to your further academic career.

Beside of this, I consider the behaviour of Prof. A (given you've presented all facts) as a bad academic style. Knowledge exchange, a.o. by exchange of people is a well established academic method. To answer your direct questions:

  1. While conflicting loyalty may be a typical problem, I've never heard that a colleague of mine issued such request. Your course of actions depends (of course) on practical issues, too: Is there any danger that Prof. A prevent you from getting the master degree? If so, explain the situation to Prof. B and try to reach an agreement that you "officially" apply after you get your degree.
  2. As I explain above: IMHO no. I would be a waste academic resources, i.e. your knowledge and abilities. (Beside of this, it is always a good advice to at least widen your area of expertise as well as include at least few topics that are totally new for you: It make you a better researcher)
  • While I agree with the second half of this answer, the first half contains several inaccuracies. I suggest you edit to correct (or remove) those parts.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 9:08
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    "As long as you wrote the code in the course of your master program, is should be considered as public domain" - This is just not accurate. With a few exceptions (e.g. employee of US government), code is owned by either the author of the code, or by their employer or someone else who has arranged ownership (e.g. through a contract). It is not in the public domain. (Saying it is in the public domain means that nobody, including the author, owns the code.)
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 9:09
  • 1
    Also, regarding "Being a master student does not constitue an employment relation" - The OP was a research assistant for the masters advisor. In some circumstances, a research assistant job is an employment relation.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 9:09
  • @ff524: It depends what "owning" means. In my country, there is a difference between the intellectual property (who can claim to have written the code; this right is not transferable), and usage right (who may use it). The OP ask for the second (usage). Unless specified otherwise, any document that is study-related would be public. This may be different, if the OP wrote the code in her/his function as RA (what is not related to the status of a Master student)
    – Matthias
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 9:28
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    @davab: If the code is a collaboration, A has the same rights as you. Regarding the topic: If A believes that she/he has to keep your knowledge, maybe A can offer you a research position with better conditions than B.
    – Matthias
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 21:30

I think restricting the use of the code, if the advisor was a co-author, is a legitimate request (even if not protected by law, so you had in principle the option to - legally - ignore the request).

Forcing you to switch topics is not.

If you want to be cooperative with A, you could try to avoid using, say, "state-of-the-art" techniques which A has not published yet, until the publication is completed. But it is unreasonable of A to expect that you abandon a potential future career direction on their behest.

  • This might sound funny but What can constitute as a different topic? How different of a topic can be regarded as "different" in same research area?
    – davab
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 17:31
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    Are you going to submit to A's request? Frankly, there are people that believe that a whole area belongs to them; while I do respect the work of PhD students in that I consider their topic to some extent out-of-bounds, as long as it is limited, but if it is a major field/principle/theorem (think, say, Riemann's hypothesis), they cannot expect to be exempt from "infiltration". Even less so, can an established scientist. I am not answering your question about "different topic" directly here, as it is too opinion-based, but perhaps it gives you an idea how to approach this question. Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 18:24
  • I think speaking with the professor to clarify somethings would be best for me. To understand her intentions and limits that I would have
    – davab
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 21:50

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