TL;DR As a part time volunteer, what is the best way of communicating to my professor that I would like to be able to work independently on a project of my own to work towards a first authorship paper, rather than playing second fiddle to a full time graduate student?


I am planning on applying to MD/PHD programs next year, and to that end, I am volunteering in a lab and trying to get some research experience and a publication under my belt. My primary goal of doing research as a volunteer is to be able to independently complete a project and obtain a first authorship paper, even if it's a very small one.

This may seem a bit crass to say this straight out, but with a first authorship paper, I believe I can show admission committees that I am able to independently perform research at a graduate level, so this is my utmost priority.

I have been working part time (~10hrs/week) at a lab as a volunteer, working independently so far. I entered the lab a couple months ago and independently researched and explored the lab's field of study until I came up with what I felt to be an interesting and novel project. I communicated the details of this project to the professor a week ago and he also seemed very excited by the potential implications and findings it could yield.

To my dismay, at this week's lab meeting, this professor more or less assigned one of his full-time graduate students to the project I proposed to him last week. He heavily implied that I would be assisting this graduate student. As a part timer, I know that 10 hours a week would definitely not be able to keep up with a 40+ hour a week full timer, so a first authorship on this project seems increasingly out of the question.

I'm not trying to obtain credit for work I didn't do, nor am I trying to find shortcuts to an easy first authorship paper. I know both things are not possible, nor is it my wish to game my way out of hard work and effort.

However, I do want a fair shot at being able to independently do my own work, even if it's for 10 hours a week, in order to achieve a small first authorship paper that I can claim as my own.

I don't want to present an image to the professor of being greedy, scheming or not a team player, because I honestly don't feel that I am any of these things. However, I do have my own goals for working hard and volunteering my time, and I need to be able to fulfill my goals or else I am wasting my time.

I know professors can get defensive about "cutting" a larger paper in half into two smaller papers, so that seems out of the question as well. I want to ask my professor if I can work on another project (if I can come up with another one), but that makes me seem like I'm being difficult/uncooperative.

TL;DR As a part time volunteer, what is the best way of communicating to my professor that I would like to be able to work independently on a project of my own to work towards a first authorship paper, rather than playing second fiddle to a full time graduate student?


1 Answer 1


In general, you should explain to your advisor that you are really interested in taking the lead on a research project, and ask if there is any way you can do that in the scope of your role in the lab.

Some suggestions:

  • Have this conversation sooner, rather than later. It's easier to sort out before too much work has been done on the project.
  • Ask "What do I have to do to..." rather than "Can I...". As in, "What would I have to do to be able to be first author on a paper coming out of this project, or another project?", not "Can I be first author on this project?" (He may say something like "I think that to submit a paper by December, we'll need to put in around 60 total hours per week of work" - and then you may decide that you can't do that, but that second authorship and a great letter of recommendation is better than no paper. Or not.)
  • Don't assume that your solution - working independently - is the only one. For example, your professor might suggest that multiple papers are expected to come out of the project, each with a different focus, and you can "specialize" in a certain part of the project and be first author on the paper on that part, even while collaborating on the project as a whole. Be open to other suggestions.
  • Don't assume that you have the full picture. For example, this grad student may be working on the project with you for a few weeks just to get you started, or on the side while also pursuing another project. Etc.

Note that just like you have goals and want to put your time towards them as efficiently as possible, so does your supervisor. Supervising one student per project, especially when that one student is a temporary part-time student without much research experience, may not be an efficient use of his time. (That doesn't mean he'd never agree to it; it does mean that you may have to be flexible about what kind of solutions you'll accept.)

  • Thanks, I can tell that this advice is sound, particularly the part about asking "what would I have to do...". I have some anxiety about broaching the topic of wanting a first authorship paper. I have never explicitly stated this with the words "first authorship paper", and I don't want to come off as some kind of pompous, over-reaching volunteer. Is the best way of stating my intention to just be upfront about it from the beginning, or should I want until I have more concrete results/contributions under my belt before I have the right to use the words "first authorship paper"?
    – ays0110
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 3:15
  • 1
    @ays0110 I wouldn't lead with that. More like, "As you know, I'll be applying to grad school next year, and I am hoping to have a publication on my CV for applications. Do you think that's realistic? What kind of papers do you think will come out of this project in that timeframe, and what kind of role do you think I could play in them?" Then after you've discussed possible papers and what would go in them, it's natural to ask "What would I have to do to be first author on that paper?"
    – ff524
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 3:21
  • Thank you very much, I'll think on your advice and hopefully have a conversation with my advisor soon!
    – ays0110
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 3:29

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