My ex-colleague (let's call her C) in the Lab is now a faculty member at a university. We have collaborated before in our work. Our works are similar in the methodology but different in the topic. In other words, in her dissertation, she used method X to solve a problem in topic Y. In my work, I will use a variation of X to solve topic Z.

C is now planning to write a research grant proposal about my topic and she asked me to help her in preparing for the proposal. C and my advisor (her ex-advisor) will be the PIs in the proposal. I asked C to include my name (as PI or any other way) because this is my work and I have already a published paper about it but C said that only faculty members can be included. But I feel that if I'm not included in the proposal in any way, my work will be stolen because C tries to get her students in her university to work on my idea.

If the funding is approved, I am afraid that they might hire someone else to work on my idea and then probably I won't be the first author anymore or maybe not included in the publication at all because both of them know my idea very well.

I'm new to the funding stuff so please help me. I might be overthinking about it.

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    What do you mean by "include your name"? In what capacity? Are you saying you want to be a PI? – Nate Eldredge Aug 30 '17 at 20:20
  • as PI or any other way just to save my work and idea – Fabio Aug 30 '17 at 20:26
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    Where are you? What kind of grant is it? In many cases, it's true that a PhD student cannot be a PI and cannot be included in the list of participants to the grant, and that only faculties and technical staff can. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 30 '17 at 20:33
  • In Italy and I do not know which kind of grant it is. – Fabio Aug 30 '17 at 20:43
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    Usually, at least for common grants in Italy, only permanent personnel can be listed as participant because it's only them that can contribute to the labour cost. If you ask them which grant they're applying to, you can easily find the instructions and check for yourself, but I have no reason to think that they are doing anything troublesome. When I was a PhD student I certainly participated in writing at least 4-5 grants. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 30 '17 at 20:50

While it depends on your region as well as the specific grant to which your colleagues are applying, I think you are approaching this issue the wrong way.

It is true that after working very hard on a certain field, subject or method, we may become overly attached to the ideas that we generate. However, if you are not willing to accept (and even embrace the fact) that other people are so interested in your work that they are using it and, more importantly, submitting grants on it, why are you even concerned about publishing what you do?

More importantly, they should (and likely already have, given that they are asking for your help to write the proposal) realize that you are possibly one of the most capable persons to work alongside with them on the topic, given that it was you who initially proposed the idea. You can benefit from their grant by collaborating with them -- perhaps by providing guidance to the students who they are willing to hire to work on something you value important!

As someone who collaborates with many other people who work on ideas that I initially generated, here's how I would approach the issue. Tell them which particular research directions you would like to work on yourself (perhaps as a part of their grant, trusting that they will fund you if the grant is funded), and offer your expertise to them on additional directions that they can have other people working on. On those latter papers perhaps you won't be the first author, but you may collect papers as second, third, etc, as well as see your ideas grow into a fruitful research.

Honestly, ideas are cheap. Most students and faculty have a dozen a week. Execution is expensive, and that's the part they are willing to do. I don't see a reason why you shouldn't help them.


You are worried that

they might hire someone else to work on my idea and then probably I won't be the first author anymore or maybe not included in the publication at all because both of them know my idea very well

But that can happen regardless of whether your name is mentioned in the proposal, and regardless of whether you even help to participate in the proposal.

You also mentioned that you already published a paper about this work. Anybody who wants to build on your published work can, including C, your advisor, and other people you don't even know.

Having your name on the proposal doesn't affect whether others can work on your idea (with or without your involvement), so it wouldn't resolve the issues you are worried about.

However, since C and your advisor asked if you would be willing to help with the proposal, you have an opening to talk to them about who would carry out the work if it is funded, and what your involvement would be. I suggest you initiate a conversation about this. Discuss with them how this proposal relates to your current and planned work, and who will be involved in carrying out the work in the proposal (if it is funded). (As suggested in glauc's answer.)


You should only collaborate on proposals with people you trust. I don't know a definite way of protecting an idea in realities of academia, apart of some engineering disciplines, maybe. So you are right that after the proposal is written and submitted, only PI's will have control on how the project will be executed.

I never heard of people asking their PhD students to help them work on their proposals, unless these PhD students were then included as postdocs on the project. Otherwise, I can't see, what's in it for you. It is not your contractual obligation or academic duty as PhD student to help your professor write their applications. The same is true for your ex-colleagues and other members of academia.

You could politely ask your colleague to clarify in which role are you invited to collaborate on the proposal.

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    When I was a PhD student, I certainly helped writing grant proposals, as many other students did. I don't see anything wrong in this -- and it can be actually instructive -- if the grant is for a group project in which also the student is involved. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 30 '17 at 20:53
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    Like @Massimo I also help with grant proposals as a PhD student. There are benefits to me: (1) I get experience writing them, (2) it's instructive to see how to develop and "sell" a research idea for a proposal - makes a difference in how I think about research, (3) when I am on job market my letter writers can talk about how I contributed to proposals that brought in $X, and (4) now we have lots of funding for my project, to carry out my ideas. – ff524 Aug 30 '17 at 21:13
  • Colleagues, feel free to downvote, but I personally disapprove an expectation that students should work for "experience" without being properly acknowledged for this. For @ff524 (1) and (2) led to (3) and (4), but for many others it did not. – Dmitry Savostyanov Aug 30 '17 at 21:38
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    @DmitrySavostyanov My contributions to the proposals I worked on were acknowledged, and I made them without any expectation that I had to. But with "I can't see what's in it for you" you suggest that there are no other benefits to working on proposals as a grad student, and with "I never heard of people asking their PhD students to help them work on their proposals" you imply that this is abnormal. I don't think either of those are true in the general case. (It might be more true in some fields than others.) – ff524 Aug 30 '17 at 23:04
  • Data point: in pure math it is unheard of (by me, anyway) for students to be involved in the writing of faculty grant proposals. But actually in pure math the student is usually not directly "contributing" to the advisor's research program. Anyway, while Dmitry's claim is far too categorical, I think there is something to it: in some academic fields "faculty member" = "PI" and said person spends most of their time applying for grants, while the actual work is carried out by subordinates. In such a case, it is easy to see how asking the subordinates to write the grant could be exploitative. – Pete L. Clark Aug 31 '17 at 2:11

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