stolen phd project


Hi, everyone

I'm here to ask for opinions on a matter that I'm not really sure how to handle.
Last year, while finishing my master's, I had an idea for an extra experiment and I consulted a post doc about it because it required an equipment/technique that she was familiar with. Long story short, we did have the required equipment but there was no standard protocol yet to perform the experiment and I didn't have enough time on my master's to do everything. So I kept that idea for my PhD project, which I wrote by myself.
This said post doc lost her scholarship due to lack of publications and early this year - after I had already written my PhD project - she emailed me and my advisors asking for help on her new project because she was using my idea, but according to what she wrote on the email, it would not be with the same goals than my PhD, so I told her of course I could help because I think it's a great idea and we should work on that. But in the end she didn't ask for help. I only learned that she had already written the project when she told us that she had gotten the scholarship and then presented the project on our labmeeting.
And during her presentation I realized that her project was basically my PhD and she didn't mention my name once. SHe talked about the results I got on MY master's, but did not mention my name, nor that it was my work. And when she directly talked about my PhD project and goals she failed to mention that it was my PhD. She basically made it all her idea and work and invalidated my PhD because there's really no reason for my work now since she's going to do everything.
I'm really, really upset about it because I really liked my project. I wrote it, I worked for it and now she just comes along and takes it.

So I just want opinions on how to talk about this to my advisors, if I have the right to feel how I feel and if anyone has ever been through something similar because I'm really lost. Also, the submission for the PhD program ends on the 30th this month and I'm not sure I'm applying now because I don't have a project anymore.

Avatar for rewt

Hi Giu,

I am sorry I didn't see this earlier.
I am very sorry to here what the post-doc has done, is 100% unscrupulous but it is unfortunately part of academia. People "develop" on other people's ideas or more commonly known as steal all the time, it is why academics are very guarded about future work until, they have funding. Unfortunately, there is very little you can do to stop them continuing on the project. Although they should give you credit for your data. If you collected the data by yourself without them, they are plagiarising you by presenting it themselves. You can talk with them or their supervisor about a co-authorship or acknowledgement for your contribution because they are presenting your work which is a big no-no in academia.

I wouldn't give up on the project yet. If the postdoc is as incompetent as you say, you will probably outperform them and publish first. Also, if your department/ lab group knows the postdoc will be doing the method development you can take the project one step further. Slightly change the end goal or application or combine it with something else. Instead of them copying from you, you can copy from them and go even further. If you need any help changing the scope, I can give more advice later. Two people working in a similar area is not the end of the world if you can differentiate the end application. Also, it is sometimes looked favourably upon if you are both working on the same method development.



Hi, rewt!
Thank you for taking the time to write this message. I just needed to know I wasn't overreacting because I got really upset and angry.
I talked to our advisors and they recognized that she should have mentioned me in the project and in her presentation. They also said that I'll be a co-author in every paper that she publishes on the subject, so at least there's that. I won't be completely ignored. But all in all it serves me as a lesson.
Thank you once again! I really appreciate it :)


That's really awful, sorry to hear that. At least the supervisors have acknowledged this and promised to add you as a co-author. I'd keep an eye on this to make sure you are given credit. For instance, if any publication goes out without your name you should contact the conference/journal editors and explain the situation. Wish you all the best

Avatar for rewt

I am glad your supervisors are acknowledging your contribution, Giu!


I think honestly the best thing you could do would be to become a friend and colleague to her.

This will be painful. Possibly duplicitous. But in my experience every academic I've seen who's been collaboratively minded, has walked all over academics that are competitively minded. Competitively minded people make enemies, and you only need one enemy you've made in the last 2 decades on a panel judging your grant application to nudge it to unfunded.

You may also realise she's a human being that was scared about losing her job. That's not your problem, but generally, purely evil people are pretty rare and if you can seek to understand why someone is behaving as they are, you can sometimes make a friend, colleague, and someone that will go out of the way to support your grant applications for life.

This is incredibly wooly, unreliable advice, but I can firmly advise that I've never seen a formal complaint in academia work out well for anyone concerned.