I am currently writing up a thesis and was wondering if one should cite the PhD supervisors on insights that were solely their idea?

As an example I have a sentence in the thesis that looks something like this in the outlook section at the end of the thesis:

We noticed {cool new phenomenon}, which we suspect to be a result of {awesome effect/explanation}. The details are currently under investigation.

Now my supervisor and I discovered this phenomenon together, but she came up with the explanation without my input. One could say that "we" means "my supervisor and I" in a thesis, but then the author of the document is just me.

I was wondering what proper citation practice is on something like this?


  • Maybe I can put a reference to "superviorName, date, private communication"? Is that enough though
  • Explicitly putting their name into the formulation, e.g.

    My supervisor {supervisor name} and I noticed {cool new phenomenon}. {supervisor name} found this to be a result of {awesome effect/explanation}. The details are currently under investigation.

  • 1
    I cited one of my advisors in my thesis - but this was because my paper explicitly used papers she had published. I didn't cite either of my two advisors just for the ideas they gave me.
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 19:31

4 Answers 4


Since this is a concrete item (rather than some generic advice) and someone else (meaning "not you") came up with it, you need to cite it.

A personal communication reference would be in order. Your first text sample seems fine to me though (once the reference is added): I assume that you do share the suspicion of your supervisor, so the text is not misleading.

Asking your supervisor about this is definitely a good idea, though.

  • thanks for your answer! I also feel like I need to cite it, there is only one problem I see with it: realistically all the projects in the thesis are to a large extent crafted by the supervisor and many of the main ideas come from them, even though it might not be such a concrete item as my example. But if I cite my concrete example doesnt it seem foolish considering that I never cited any of the other non-concrete stuff? It may almost seem like I intended to indicate that this was the only thing the surpervisor did, which is really the opposite of what I want to express with the citation. Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 14:25

I think it is common and well-known that the supervisor sometimes helps the PhD student. In fact, the main work of the supervisor is giving ideas that they come up with due to their experience and knowledge. In many cases, this ideas will not work, in some cases they may. It is up to the PhD student to work out the details and see what comes out in the end.
Thus, I don't think that you should cite your supervisor at every idea she came up with. It should of course be clear in the document who supervised you and you might want to add an acknowledgement.

Two small points to finish:

  • If the result is important enough for a stand alone publication, i.e. if you are writing a paper out of it, your supervisor deserves to be one of the authors (then again, this should be rather common for most papers written by a PhD student...).
  • If you are in doubt, ask your supervisor about it. She will know how to write it and you can be sure that she agrees with your choice.
  • I do think it is best practise though if the student is clear about which ideas they got from their supervisor and which ones they came up with on their own. In this case it is not even clear to me that this is an observation the supervisor intends to "give" to the student.
    – Arno
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 9:33
  • 2
    @Arno I think it depends on how elaborated the idea is. Something general like "this paper I read recently might help you" might need a different treatment than "I worked out this theory and I proved that it solves your problem, here you have my five pages of notes". Thus, asking the supervisor might be the best choice here.
    – Dirk
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 10:09

Many years after my PhD thesis with Andy Gleason I wrote this in a tribute:

The central mechanism for producing examples and counterexamples showing the theorem was sharp came later that spring. Moreover, I think the idea was his, although I didn’t give him due credit then. (http://www.ams.org/notices/200910/rtx091001236p.pdf)

He didn't say a word when he read the thesis.

I don't think you need to thank her for this particular idea. But you should ask.


During my diploma thesis, my supervisor indeed insisted in having ideas stemming from him properly cited. The reason he gave was so that I could not make any claims when he made use of them.

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