Who Talks?

A student reader wanted to present their thesis research results at a conference, but the student's advisor said no -- he would present the results, and the student couldn't even go to the conference. The student wonders why he/she couldn't give the talk or attend the conference.

The easiest way to find out would be to ask the advisor, but in the absence of this information, we can muse about some possibilities. Please add to the list if you know of other possibilities. I think it would be most useful if we confine ourselves to examples we know have occurred, but if you want to throw in some paranoid speculation, go right ahead (though it would be helpful if you noted that you are just speculating.)

Possible explanations:

1 - The advisor is on the tenure-track or otherwise needs the exposure (see point #4 in GMP's recent post). The student may need the visibility as well, but if the advisor doesn't get tenure, that isn't in the student's interest either. If this is the case, the advisor should just explain to the student: "This is really great work and I think it would be best for my tenure case and for the research group as a whole if I present it at the X Conference." Ideally, the student will get due credit for their work, will have other opportunities to 'own' the work (at conferences and in publications), and should feel some satisfaction that the advisor thinks the work is good and important.

2 - No matter what the career stage of the advisor, there may not be enough money to pay for the travel of both student and advisor. Some conferences -- particularly if they involve international travel and high registration fees -- are very expensive. If there is only enough money for some, but not all, people in a research group to go a meeting, the advisor will make decisions, some of which seem (or are) selfish. If it is important for the work to be presented (e.g., to show progress on a grant-funded project), and the advisor definitely has to go to the meeting (to chair a session, serve on a panel, attend a meeting-within-a-meeting, schmooze with funding program officers), the advisor will go and the advisee might not. Again, the advisor should just explain: "This is really great work, but I only have enough travel money for one of us to go to the X Conference, and I need to go for [these other professional reasons]". Note: As a a grad student, I paid my own way to some conferences in the US when I could afford to because otherwise I wouldn't have gone to the most important conferences in my field, so a separate question is whether the advisor would/can forbid a student to present their own work if they pay their own way.

3- If the advisor thinks the student won't do a good job with the talk, s/he may decide to give the talk to make sure it is presented well. This decision may be based on experience or speculation. If this is the reason for not wanting the student to give the talk, the advisor should be clear about the reason and proactively help the student improve for the future. (Yes, I know that advisors can and do give poor talks as well, but we are discussing here why an advisor might choose to present a student's talk instead of the student).

If the advisor is giving the talk on research primarily being conducted by a student, it may not be possible for the student to attend the conference if not giving a presentation. Depending on the source of the travel funds, their use might be contingent on active conference participation.

Mostly, I think the advisor should explain the situation and reasoning to the advisee, whatever the reason. And if that doesn't happen, it would be good if the advisee could ask for an explanation in a non-confrontational way. I know from the e-mails that I get from students that some are very reluctant to ask their advisors these types of questions, as if asking implies criticism, and perhaps fearing negative consequences of some sort.

These students may well have experience that shows this to be the case, and if so, perhaps the information could be obtained in an indirect way -- by asking more senior students, postdocs, or friendly faculty who are willing to explain some of the more mysterious aspects of professorial behavior and decision-making. In other cases, advisors might be happy to explain their decisions, and it just didn't occur to them that there were questions and confusion.

56 responses so far

  • Sam R. says:

    Whatever the reasons, the advisor should be able to explain them to the student in detail. Anything else is bad advising.

    And this isn't a random research project, where the numbered reasons in the post make a lot more sense. It's the student's own thesis. Students must be expected to start building professional experience with presentations and publications, and in most cases the research they have to go from is their thesis. The student needs their first real conference presentation more than their advisor.

    Finally, judging from the conference presentations I've seen, "due credit" for student work is a rare, possibly mythological beast.

  • Mac says:

    Sam - I don't think you can tar all advisors with the same brush. My advisor presented some of my thesis work in a much broader, invited talk - it was a major summary of work he had been involved with for years. Despite the relatively minor role of my work in this big picture, I heard from other folks later how they had really liked my work because he really emphasized it and talked me up. His talk was the best exposure my work could have had.

    I know some advisors are jerks but I don't think the starting assumption that they ALL are is fair. My situation was not this scenario but another reason the advisor might give the talk rather than having the student give it is that it will get the research, and ultimately the student, far more exposure. Profs are more likely to be in organized sessions that attract more people and to draw a bigger crowd than a grad student. As a grad student I would have much preferred to have my work presented by my advisor to 200 people than present it myself to 20. Just a thought.

  • The only times I can think of when it ok for an adviser to present a student's work are
    1) the student is unable to travel
    2) the adviser is presenting the work of many people from the lab in one summary presentation, with no one student's work taking more than 5 minutes of the presentation.

    Certainly the adviser should never present a student's work as their own—that is outright plagiarism.

    • NeglectedPostDoc says:

      I agree - it is plagiarism. My postdoc "mentor" presented data that we had been working on together and was not included as a co-author. In fact, I got no credit for it, not even in the acknowledgements. He even used slides that I had made for an earlier presentation of my own. Needless to say, I no longer share my powerpoint files with him.

      • A says:

        My husband is a post doc at an R1. His [tenured] advisor ROUTINELY presents my husband's work as her own (full-on plagiarism). He puts up with it because he's counting on her network to get him a tenure-track job.

  • S Seguin says:

    I totally agree with Mac, I would love it if my boss were going to present my work. In fact, he often talks about the work of my coworkers (I work on a side project, long story). I don't think that is plagiarism, but maybe it is different in life sciences. It's pretty clear to anyone listening that my boss hasn't been at the bench in 10 years, and Team Lab Group has these shared interests, which he represents very well. I've actually noticed he is very good a representing the group as a team in public settings. (That makes his in-lab criticisms seem like an effort to improve advisees, because outside of lab he always duely impressed). But, he is very good about giving credit- maybe that is part of it.

  • Anon says:

    When I was in grad school my adviser went on vacation to visit family, but when she got back I found out she presented my work without me knowing and without giving me credit. The next day I changed advisers and the department head banned her from accepting any students for 3 years.

    • Siz says:

      This makes absolutely no sense. How would a PI bring in grant money or do the other 1/2 of their job (research, advising etc) if they were banned from having students.

      Nice made up post there.

      • EK says:

        Siz: there are fields other than the one you work in (broadly or specifically). In my field, which is quite theoretical, the above does not seem so strange. We have a number of faculty in my graduate department who have not had students in years (or, if they're newcomers, period.).

  • atmos_prof says:

    Just a data point. I have presented work of my students (or postdocs, or other collaborators/trainees of various sorts) under the following circumstances:

    1. As a part (usually small part) of a larger talk containing much other stuff

    2. When I am invited to give a talk somewhere (usually departmental seminar
    rather than conference) and I give them a choice of topics and that's the one they

    3. The person who did the work can't or doesn't want to travel to the meeting,
    for reasons other than funding.

    Though it's possible that I am conveniently forgetting, I don't think that I have ever
    gone to a conference and given a talk purely on someone
    else's work when they actually wanted to go, just because I couldn't afford to send
    them. Although I can imagine that it could be defensible to do that, I think it would
    make me feel ashamed to do it - besides being good to the student, what kind of old
    useless fart am I that I have nothing of my own to talk about? I am in a non-lab field
    where it is still possible for advisors to do some work of their own....

  • jojo says:

    I'm not sure if this is the case in all fields, but in biological fields, conferences are usually a mixture of invited and submitted talks. Invited talks are only extended to professors (or occasionally postdocs) that are the leaders in field X. Invited talks are great for 2 reasons: they are more prestigious, and usually the conference will pay for the invited talker's conference fees/travel/accommodation. It's not hard to imagine a scenario where the professor is invited to give a talk on topic X, and the best new data on topic X is from the student's thesis work. It would be great if the prof also had money to invite the student to tag along and perhaps give a submitted talk also, but in this scenario it's actually free for the prof to give the talk, but would cost a lot for the student to come too.

    Now it's possible for profs to choose to let a student talk for them at an invited symposium, but it's pretty rare. It usually only occurs if the prof has real life issues that prevent them from attending and someone has to substitute.

  • TC says:

    As an addendum to "student may not present talk well" it would also be the professor anticipates the work being controversial or attracting particularly aggressive questions, and they would prefer to handle that themselves.

    It's tempting to say "some people are just jerks, the advisor is being selfish", but my advisor (late career, well-established) actually avoided giving talks himself - he gave his "invited talks" to grad students or postdocs and would not have wanted to talk in a student's place.

    Also an addendum to the "no money" issue - it's possible there *is* money, but if the student already has a job lined up, it's not worth it to the advisor to spend it on giving the student exposure.

  • I've seen advisors give talks that incorporate some of their students work in it, but usually not prominently. It is usually preceded by a line like "This is based on work done by/with X Y, who has a brilliant thesis up on his/her web page and will be graduating this year." It's good advertising.

    Also, a variant on #3, I've seen advisors go to conferences where a student is presenting his/her own material to a large audience and sit in the front row to ask useful questions, or help the student overcome stumbling blocks in the QA session afterwards. If the advisor is clever and the student knows the material well, the advisor's greater experience in presenting material clearly helps the important points of the research shine. But it can easily backfire and just make the student look weak.

  • GMP says:

    Seems that a lot of people consider the work to belong to the student alone.
    Does the student work in vacuum? Aren't there other people involved? Does he/she not actively receive advice from the advisor and get paid on the advisor's grant? Does the advisor have no ownership whatsoever over the work performed by his/her group members? I think calling an advisor presenting the work of his/her group members plagiarism is going too far.

    My collaborators routinely present my work that was performed as part of our joint collaboration. Should they restrict themselves to what they alone did -- what's the point of collaborating then if no one can ever present the whole story? Multiple people presenting the work in multiple venues and to multiple audiences just enhances the work's visibility.

    As long as credit is given -- I certainly always show the pictures of the student/postdoc/collaborators who were involved and describe who did what -- I don't see why anyone who is a coauthor on a paper could not in principle be able to present the work.

    That having been said, students in general need more practice and exposure than senior faculty; in my field it's common practice that students give contributed talks focusing on their work alone while faculty give seminars and invited talks with a collage of projects. But, it's not a 100%: for instance, as FSP indicated above, if there is an expensive overseas conference and the group received 1 talk and 3 posters, often just one person from the group goes and presents all of the group's work, and that's typically the boss.

    I actually find that my students are not too crazy about going to innumerable conferences. There are many conferences per year in my field, with different scopes and audiences; typically I forward relevant conference announcements to the group and suggest which work would be appropriate and we discuss who gets to submit abstracts and who wants to/gets to go. There are typically plenty of opportunities for both students and faculty to go, and while I am sure students would be unhappy if they never got to present their work, they are usually fine with 2-3 trips per year and don't mind if someone else presents their work elsewhere. But it probably helps that they are consulted about where they get to go and present.

    • lost academic says:

      I might also note something from my business and industry experience: no one would ever question the senior principles or VPs or presidents of companies presenting the work and materials and so on of their staff. It's much more clearly understood how the work of the business is done and who is ultimately responsible for the overall success and flow of projects, and who is then responsible to the people paying for the work or results. The reputation, experience and visibility of more junior staff are important, but weigh less heavily with other issues often enough.

      I find this to be more true in academia than we might want to think, but we are less clear and upfront about it with people at different career stages. We typically have a less clear hierarchy and often different understandings between individuals about what's important and when, and to whom. Graduate students and postdocs are specifically term trainees and they along with their supervisors have a responsibility to their futures and progress, but as someone else noted, it's also critical at certain points to make sure that the PI or the group overall can create the best possible image, defined however it is relevant. I think more communication and clarity on how that works and how it will change over time for trainees especially is important, and too often overlooked (or not understood well enough in the first place by the PIs...)

  • Canadian_Brain says:

    There are also some conference panels/symposia where, historically/typically, the presenters are all older/bigshot/established PIs, even if the talk is mainly from one trainees research. I've had my work presented in this format and wasn't even mildly miffed...

  • neurowoman says:

    I actually don't think any kind of explanation is even warranted. The student works in the adviser's group, the thesis is part of the larger picture of what the lab does, the student is paid from grant money for projects the adviser outlined to do. The adviser does not in any way need 'permission' to present work from anyone in their lab at any venue, ridiculous. It's nice if they include the student in the plans & preparation, and certainly work with the student if their name is going on the abstract or proceedings. Major talks at conferences and invited talks are usually presented by PIs, because they are meant to be bigger picture, not a single project, and most students don't have the skill to present to a large audience anyway. Most talks I see the PI shows a slide at the end with names & pictures of who contributed, and sometimes at particular slides to point out a particularly significant contribution.

    Students can and should present as appropriate, at poster sessions, at smaller conferences, and toward the end of their grad study at short talks during multi-track symposia. Occasionally a student can stand in for an advisor who doesn't attend but has been asked to speak, and that's a big deal, but usually they can't present the overall picture of what the lab does.

    The only exception I can see is the case of a student who is independently funded, doing an entirely independent project based on their own ideas outside of the gist of the lab, and the PI is presenting the work as if they did it entirely themselves without the student's input. That I would find skeevy.

  • science_is_real says:

    I think that getting the work more exposure is also a likely scenario. As mac said above, many people will come hear Big Name Prof give a talk about Topic just because of the person presenting, versus a grad student talking on the same topic.

  • editor_gal says:

    This must be field specific. As with some of the commenters above, most of the conferences I attend include invited talks by professors who manage a group of 5-50 people, and - as far as I can tell - have little to no direct contact with experiments. I think they generally do an outstanding job of highlighting the students, postdocs, and collaborators they've worked with (and I have noticed a significant shift in this in recent years to do a better job, often including names and/or photos on every data slide), and - as most everyone is well aware - they wouldn't have anything to discuss if they had to restrict themselves to 'their' work.

    Thus, in regards to the actual question asked, I obviously think it's not a big deal at all for an advisor to present a student's work, as long as the student is credited properly and they are not prevented from seeking their own opportunities (with questions of money being the foremost complication here).

  • mathgirl says:

    I agree that it depends on the field. In math, for example, small workshops can be awesome for students, but the big national conference is only useful for a student who needs to do networking (for example, applying for jobs at small institutions during that particular year). These conference tend to be a waste of time in terms of research. My PhD supervisor used to discourage me from going to such conferences until I was a grown up, and I got to go to such conference and eventually agreed with him. His point was that if you travel too much you don't have much time to do research...

  • Namnezia says:

    I usually show the acknowledgement slide at the beginning of the lecture, as in the work I'm going to talk about today was done by X,Y and Z, in my lab. So in case things get rushed at the end, I make sure that at least credit was given where its due. But I agree with GMP, neurowoman and others - the students don't "own" their work. Their thesis project is usually part of the greater research going on in the lab, funded by the PI's grant, and guided with input from the PI. To say that the PI needs permission to present work from their own lab is ridiculous. Obviously the PI has to give credit to those doing the work, and should even talk up how good a job they did. In my lab, students usually present their work as posters or short talks at meetings, I usually give the bigger talks, even if they mostly involve one student's work.

    Plus in many cases, talks are invited and it is typically the PI that is invited to speak. Last summer I spoke at a small specialized meeting about a student's work, and the student also presented a poster on the same work. During my talk I advertised my student's poster and the following poster session he was fending off a large crowd, so this worked out well for both of us.

  • Science Professor says:

    I wrote the post from the point of view of someone in a field along the lines of what GMP and neurowoman described -- in which the advisor is actively involved in the research and the research isn't "purely" the student's. I would not give a talk that was basically a student's thesis in its strictest sense, but, in certain circumstances, I would give a talk that incorporated elements of student research, especially if I had a major role in developing the ideas for the research and have been close to the work as it progresses.

    The original question came from someone in the life sciences, though, so this post may or may not apply to that student's situation.

  • David Bellamy says:

    As far as I am concerned, this is a complete outrage. I would do such a thing only if the student were extremely ill and asked me to, was deceased, or had visa issues preventing him or her from attending a conference in another country.

    But, it does seem that we in pure mathematics have different ethical standards from some other people in STEM fields.

    • sciencecanary says:

      David, It may or may not be about ethics.

    • lylebot says:

      This isn't the first time I've seen a mathematician ascribe to "ethics" what is better ascribed to "culture". It's pretty clear to me that mathematics works very differently from other STEM fields, particularly w.r.t. student-adviser relationships. A different type of student-adviser relationship is necessarily going to lead to different "ethics" for presenting work.

      I've presented my students' work when they couldn't travel. I always explain that it's their work, they couldn't be here, etc etc. I would always expect that if a student is first author, they will present the work unless there's some reason they can't go to the conference.

      I've presented colleagues', collaborators', and friends' work as well, always acknowledging that it's their work, not mine (though somehow the questions always presume that it actually is mine). I can't imagine how that could be plagiarism, but I guess maybe it goes back to different cultures.

      • mathgirl says:

        In (pure) mathematics, either the supervisor contributed to the work and is a coauthor, in which case s/he has the same right to present the work as the student, or the supervisor did not contributed to the work (at least, not officially), and is not a coauthor, in which case this is the student's paper and it would be totally weird for someone else to present it.

  • jen says:

    As others have implied, in my sub-field oftentimes a PI will be invited to a meeting and requested to talk on a specific topic. (These are usually sessions that only have PI's running big labs who are speaking; I've never seen a PI ask a student to speak in his/her stead unless he/she had an unexpected illness or something.)

    That being said, I always thought it was an honor if my advisor spoke about my work at a meeting - especially if they had an option to speak about two or three different things and chose to talk about my stuff. Usually PI's want to brag about their best and brightest trainees in a talk. However, if this student hasn't been to a meeting yet and hasn't seen how (usually!) this can be a bragging session for the Advisor ("An extremely talented student in my lab had this clever idea...") then I can see how they would feel odd/confused. If they haven't been to a meeting, the Advisor ought to have made some attempt to explain this...

  • sciencecanary says:

    Some of these comments assume that there is enough money for everyone to attend a conference. But what if there isn't? (as the post mentions). And what if the advisor has to go to the conference (example: sometimes I am on a hiring committee that meets candidates at conferences). Is it better that no one presents the work?

  • Cherish says:

    Is the student going to be listed as the primary contributor to the work?

    If you're an advisor who gives your student a project for their thesis, then I can see presenting their work. If you're an advisor who expects the student to come up with their own idea, do all the legwork on the background, and then do the work with some guidance, then they really deserve credit for the work. This is especially true if they're not working in your lab and instead are TAing or doing something else. I'm sorry, but there are a lot of grad students who make it through without much help from an advisor, and simply being a person's advisor doesn't mean you can take credit for your student's work.

    My MS advisor generally assumed that we were responsible for our own work, and that meant we were also responsible for giving talks and presentations on papers. I can see some of the situations mentioned above as exceptions, but part of the role of an advisor is to train students for all aspects of their careers, and presentations need to be given in industry just as well as academia.

    I remember going to a really fabulous talk by an engineering professor where he gave credit to all of the responsible grad students. Afterwards, some professor complained about that particular aspect, saying he shouldn't have done that because it's his lab so he should just assume credit. So why is it okay to assume credit for something someone did because you're paying them, but copying results from someone else's lab is not okay?

    In either case, I think the advisor does owe the student an explanation. Maybe there is a very good reason for this, but it is also plausible that there is not.

  • lost academic says:

    I have observed another reason, though with only a couple data points and an unusual PI: this PI has presented the work of a graduate student twice in my personal experience, a presentation that is something that HAD been presented internally and was the primary work (data collection and analysis and such) of that student. The students in question give good talks. The PI's concern was with regard to those particular presentations and conclusions drawn themselves: he considered the results and conclusions somewhat provocative and expected the reactions and questions to be of a potentially different nature, and he felt that he was the best person to respond. On top of that, there really wasn't a lot of money to send multiple people, so it made some financial sense to keep the student home and just send the PI, who had other reasons to be there (an additional invited talk in one case that I recall).

    I'm not sure even now if I agree with the rationale he had, though I'm glad we knew what it was. I think the student in the most recent case would have handled the questions just fine, she always has. The PI is known for being overly cautious with regard to presentation style and conclusions, which isn't a bad thing normally. The work was excellent and he has never failed to give credit in all ways, even though he's also well known for permanently having his foot in his mouth at the best of times and saying seriously inappropriate/unprofessional things at others, but credit is always given and appropriately so.

    Do others have experiences similar to these instances? Is this a common thing in some fields but perhaps not others?

  • chemcat says:

    Uhm, perhaps I'm missing the point. I'm a recent associate prof, and basically I haven't been at the bench for a while. ALL the talks I give are based on students' and postdocs' work. Usually I collate several people's work, but in some rare cases it's a single student's work. In all the cases, the idea was mine, and I'm the one providing advice, support, and grant money. So what's the problem exactly?! Students do not work in a vacuum. In my field (supramolecular/biochemistry/protein chemistry) I have never ever seen a student present outside the young investigator slots. Rarely a postdoc may fill in for a busy and generous advisor. I've done that when I was a postdoc. Note that as a postdoc I often worked on my own ideas, but still, it was the boss who got to do the talk-- and the talks were broader than just my work. In my subfield one is not even allowed to bring projects with them when starting independent careers-- not even if they initiated the project.

  • Alex says:

    A lot of absolutism here. Let's break it down.

    I think it's perfectly reasonable for the professor to give a talk on work that the student did, if the professor was an active participant in the work.

    On the other hand, if the talk is exclusively on work done by that student and that professor, i.e. nobody else from the group was involved (so not a "big picture talk") then it would be better for the student to give his/her own talk, from a mentoring standpoint.

    But mentoring issues are not the sole issues involved, as FSP pointed out. It is probably advantageous for the group if the work is presented to as many audiences as possible, which means that the professor might attend some of the conferences while the student attends other conferences. As long as the student is given opportunities to present, I think it's perfectly fine for the professor to also present the work.

    On yet another hand, if the professor has only one project to show off, this raises bigger questions about how well the lab is being managed.

    Finally, I understand that people in some fields would recoil in horror and shout "ETHICS VIOLATION!" if somebody presented the same work twice to different audiences, while others would just shrug and say that the whole point of going to conferences is to show your work to as many people as possible. I suspect that this depends on whether conference presentations serve a strong archival purpose in those fields (i.e. a conference paper has status close to a journal article in other fields). In fields where conference abstracts are a dime a dozen (i.e. most of the subfields I've worked in) nobody would get upset over this.

  • snowmonkey says:

    I once had a terrible postdoc who got nothing done and caused a lot of mayhem (threatened violence, stole things). When the postdoc was fired, one of the reasons they gave for behaving so badly was that I was cruel. The prime example of my cruelty: If the postdoc had obtained some research results worth presenting at a conference, I wouldn't have let them present the results. This was a very hypothetical situation -- the postdoc did no work and had no results. But if there had been results, apparently I wouldn't have let the postdoc present them. Never mind that all my other postdocs routinely present their results at conferences. What was fascinating is that the terrible postdoc focused on this particular thing as potential evidence of my poor treatment of the postdoc, as if this somehow justified even threats and theft. This indicated to me for the first time that who presents what at a conference is a very significant and delicate topic for some. I had a much more casual attitude about it before.

  • David Bellamy says:

    I wrote a joint paper with my adviser while I was a grad student. It was regarded as permissible only because it had NOTHING to do with my dissertation research. I only once have written a joint paper with a Ph. D. Student, and only after her Ph. D. was complete. It seems to me that if a student's work is not independent enough to be a singly authored paper, it is not sufficiently independent to be an original contribution by the student to the field, and hence not suitable for a Ph. D dissertation. Furthermore, a faculty member who publishes student work with his or her own name on it as an author, even a coauthor, is in essence taking credit for something which is not his/her work. I cannot see why this is a "cultural" rather than an ethical issue.

    • mathgirl says:

      Consider the following situation. A supervisor gives a problem and a vague idea of how to solve it to their student, then the student does all the work of adapting the idea to the particular problem, writing the paper, checking all the details, etc. Question: should the supervisor be a coauthor?

      I think, in (pure?) mathematics the answer is normally no. In the other STEM fields, the answer seems to be yes. The other STEM fields have a way to distinguish how much people contributed to a particular paper by a very specific order of authors. The order varies with the discipline: sometimes the supervisor goes in front, others s/he goes in the back.

      If you want to bring ethics, then we mathematicians are the less ethical because we help our graduate students and then we let them be single authors...

      I honestly think these are cultural differences. In the same way, "the right answer" to the original post also depends on these cultural differences.

      • mathdude says:

        By the time a supervisor (or at least the good ones) gives the problem and a "vague idea" of how to solve it, there have been months of thinking and years of experience that led the supervisor to ask the question in the first place.

        I do not know if that deserves co-authorship or not, but certainly the supervisor is a lot more involved in the work than you think.

        • mathgirl says:

          I agree with you. I'm not saying that the supervisor didn't contribute. I'm only saying that in these cases, in mathematics, the supervisor doesn't get to be a coauthor of the paper.

    • Siz says:

      What bizarro field of research do you work in? It doesn't work like that is the physical sciences.

      Please refer to the rest of my comments.

      How is a PhD student going to get a PhD with out their adviser's resources? Hmmmmmmmmmm????

      All physical science publications I'm aware of have the students who performed the work AND the adviser who developed the project idea and supplied funding as authors.

      Seriously? What bizarro field do you work in where someone's adviser is not a co-author?

      • --bill says:

        Bizarro field = mathematics.
        My advisor pointed out a couple of prospective directions, I picked one and went away and worked on it for two years. I checked in with my advisor about once a semester during that time. At the end of the two years I had a bunch of theorems, we went over my proofs, I had to correct a detail or two and I had a PhD thesis. He wasn't a co-author, and my support came from the university as a TA rather than from a grant by my advisor.

    • grad student says:


      I know this is discipline related, but I do not understand getting a PhD if you are given a topic and told what to do.

      I am in a field where sutdents are not funded by advisors, but we sometimes work in lab/fieldsite of our advisor. The advisor guides you, and yes, is often a co author. Talks are supposed to be given by the primary author.

  • Alex says:


    Well, in some fields most research is done in collaborative groups. In those situations, true independence is rarely possible, so the question is whether the student was able to play a leading role in significant aspects of a project.

    I don't know what field you're in, but if your standard were applied to every field then we'd have to stop awarding the PhD in many fields of science. That dire step may be perfectly defensible if you adhere to a very specific definition of a PhD, one that is not amenable to every field, and replace the PhD with some other degree that is suitable for fields with collaborative work. Or we could skip the relabeling game, accept that different fields have different standards, and say that a PhD signifies as much intellectual independence as can be reasonably expected in that field.

    As to ethics, the main unethical thing that one wants to avoid is misrepresentation. If everybody in a field understands the meaning of collaborative work, then there's no misrepresentation to anybody in the community if a student is awarded a PhD for taking a leading role on a project in which others also played a role.

  • thehermitage says:

    Amusing how many bright academic minds are completely unable to envision a world that is not exactly like their own, and if it differs in any way it must be morally bankrupt.

  • GMP says:

    mathgirl says above: A supervisor gives a problem and a vague idea of how to solve it to their student, then the student does all the work of adapting the idea to the particular problem, writing the paper, checking all the details, etc.

    This essentially never happens -- if it does, that means you have a Kickass Superstar Genius Student and also that you are probably doing deeply theoretical work. In the physical science fields I am familiar with (but I think this is also true in life sciences) from the vague initial idea to an actual workable idea (original enough to be worth doing and publishing yet doable within a reasonable amount of time and within the available resources -- cost, equipment, expertise in the lab and that of collaborators) there are usually many months (years?) of iterating -- stu goes and reads up a little, or tries something simple in a lab, comes back next week with nothing, you talk more, brainstorm, sketch some potential things that can be done next week, stu goes and tries them, talks to some people, reads up more, comes back again perhaps with some other things not working or graphs that look like crap... The back-and-forth between Stu and Advisor and usually other collaborators is essential in getting anything done.

    Also, I feel that the ultimate responsibility for the contents of the paper and checking the details always lies with the lead senior author -- Stu may draft it, but Advsior typically heavily revises it, and all collaborators should contribute to the content. In many fields, lead PI will be last in the author list; if the paper is silly/wrong/fraudulent, it's the lead PI's ass/reputation on the line, not that of the student.

    • mathgirl says:

      "mathgirl says above: A supervisor gives a problem and a vague idea of how to solve it to their student, then the student does all the work of adapting the idea to the particular problem, writing the paper, checking all the details, etc.

      This essentially never happens -- if it does, that means you have a Kickass Superstar Genius Student and also that you are probably doing deeply theoretical work. "

      I was talking about mathematics. It happens fairly often in mathematics. Obviously, those students are good and go on to become faculty somewhere.

      • GMP says:

        Yes, I understood that you meant math. It's just that you also said, in the scenario above, (A supervisor gives a problem and a vague idea of how to solve it to their student, then the student does all the work of adapting the idea to the particular problem, writing the paper, checking all the details, etc.)

        Question: should the supervisor be a coauthor?

        I think, in (pure?) mathematics the answer is normally no. In the other STEM fields, the answer seems to be yes.

        It sounds like the only difference between math and other STEM is that non-math folks appropriate the lone-unsupervised-completely-independent student's work and mathematicians don't, so all non-math folks appear to be an ethically challenged bunch.

        My comment directly above tried to emphasize that the scenario you outline -- advisor gives vague idea, student goes off and does everything alone -- actually rarely happens in STEM fields other than math (it can in theoretical physics and computer science), because the work is generally much more collaborative and interactions with advisor and many other collaborators are absolutely critical to get anything done.

        • Cherish says:

          Actually, GMP, it happens in other fields as well. In electrical engineering, I basically told my advisor what I wanted to work on and just checked with him occasionally. He actually got to a point on one of my projects where he sent me to the physics department to solve a problem I had because what I was doing was rather outside of his expertise. (It was electromagnetics, but I was also working with some fluid mechanics, and he had no familiarity with that at all.) My husband also did his work entirely independently as far as formulating his project, developing the idea, and testing it. He checked with his advisor once or twice a semester and his advisor did have to buy him a piece of equipment he needed, but he arranged to work in a lab off campus to take his data. While there are exceptions, the philosophy of most professors in the department is that a PhD is supposed to be independent research with the advisor providing support and necessary materials.

          With my current advisor (who is a computational astrophysicist), she told me to pick the topic, and while I have been talking with her about what I am planning to do, most of it is supposed to come from me. I may need her to help me find computational resources if I can't, but she is not paying me, and I'm pretty much working entirely on my own.

          Perhaps it is easier to say that the approach is very advisor dependent, but I don't think it's field dependent. I also think it depends on funding: if paying a student to meet certain funding objectives, the advisor will necessarily be more involved in the funding than if the student is being supported another way. I think people at R1s don't realize that there are a lot of universities that don't pay grad students primarily from grant funding.

  • This is a bogus distinction, at least in the biosciences.

    At all of the dozens and dozens of conferences I have ever attended--from small Gordon Research Conferences to big society meetings with tens of thousands of attendees--there is a clear distinction between the types of presentations that trainees give and those that PIs give. The former are posters or short platform talks (12 minutes plus 3 for questions). The latter range from symposium talks to plenary lectures. The exact same data could be presented twice at the same meeting, once by the trainee and once by the PI.

    It would be embarrassingly unseemly for a PI to present a poster or give a short platform talk. And no trainee would ever be invited to deliver a symposium talk or plenary lecture.

  • Alex says:

    It would be embarrassingly unseemly for a PI to present a poster or give a short platform talk.

    Well, at Biophysical Society (which has plenty of physiologists) I routinely see very, very famous PIs giving poster presentations. Some of them even seem to have a lot of fun with it, because it's more interactive than a platform session.

    Maybe these guys are old enough, famous enough, and tenured enough to not care what some blowhard thinks is unseemly, so they just go and talk about science and have fun.

    • channotyper says:

      Bezanilla is a prime example. He'll stand on one side and his postdoc/student will stand on the other and both give 2 poster presentations at once. Simply awesome and tons of fun!

    • Nat says:

      NOOOO!! The greatz of scienz must be protecteth from the great unwashed masses! Keep themme on their diases. Venture not to the posterre sessions!

      Those unwashed are probably the samme who use Twitter to communicate. AAAIIIEEE!!!!

      • Alex says:

        Come to think of it, at the last Gordon Conference that I went to I saw a few PI's giving posters. One of them is very, very famous.

  • anon says:

    A commentator above wrote -
    the students don't "own" their work. Their thesis project is usually part of the greater research going on in the lab, funded by the PI's grant, and guided with input from the PI.

    In my ecology/ evolution area outside the US, this is not true. Most students and many, but not all, postdocs get their own funding eg based on academic grades. They receive very limited funding through the university, and are guided by the PI.

    Many PI talks are summaries of a research direction undertaken by their research group, but it is poorly regarded for a PI to present a students work without acknowledgement. Some PIs also give short conference talks as they enjoy participating in the scientific ebb and flow at a meeting.

    Re authorship, the expectation now is for PIs to be co-authors, in large part because of our university funding system which requires multiple publications by all lecturers/ professors for optimal funding of the university. Previously there was more variability around this, and my PhD supervisors, for example, did not appear on a couple of my PhD papers and were extremely supportive of sole publishing.

  • K says:

    It's interesting seeing the focus of other fields/countries on the PI, and how they do all the funding. In Australia, most PhD/Masters students are funded by the university via the government, including funding for conference attendance etc, rather than out of someone's grant (although some students are funded that way, usually postdocs AFAIK, it's definitely rarer). And regardless of which area of science, it is generally expected that the student will present their own work at major conferences, as a presentation or poster, and it would seem strange for the supervisor to present it unless the student is unable to be funded to go to the conference. The attitude of some people in the comments that the PI owns all the research and has the right to present it wherever they want is strange and interesting to me.

    • ecograd says:

      Here in the US non-biomed biologists, like scientists from many other branches of science are mostly dependent on NSF grants. Yet the entire annual NSF budget is 1/10th the size of the NIH's (biomed). Thus the arrogance of people like CPP. I think NASA has a big budget also, but plenty of us especially in evo/eco fields work on a shoe-string while piecing together whatever funding we can find for travel and research expenses. We are asking our own questions, writing grants, and presenting our own results (and I have certainly heard of grad students and post docs giving invited talks), while TAing or being an RA practically every semester, but clearly we are inferior beings who are not doing REAL science (like the cogs in CPPs lab- let alone the glorious bio-med PIs).

  • Mac says:

    Wow - it's kind of amazing how many folks think that the standard in their field is what everyone should be doing even if it would make no sense in other fields. Now let's expand it to the humanities and talk about the book we all HAVE to write from our dissertations. Or we can accept that fields differ - often for good reasons and sometimes because of historical artifacts in the culture. I'm in the life sciences but not one of those fields where everyone in the lab works on the advisor's problems. This is probably because we don't work in the lab much - it's a field oriented bioscience. So what Comrade PhysioProf says about *how it works* or David says about *how it should be* are both absolute silliness for my field. It's not my advisor's project - and so I have a mix of single author and co-authored papers, depending on what made sense in each case - and it's not purely independent of him (in part because it's a little more equipment intensive that pure math).

    Very important to remember:
    THERE IS NO ONE CORRECT WAY. Repeat as needed.

  • In my institution we get a bunch of funding from research councils to prvide PhD studentships. The Department figures out which Faculty/projects are eligible for students for that year. The best X students are awarded studentships and wherever possible given their first choice of project and supervisor. Thus the project, at least at the outset, is generally entirely conceived by the supervisor. We expect students to take ownership and be basically independent by the end of the PhD. However, work done during it is therefore a mix of advisor and student. There are variations between Faculty but my policy is:

    I encourage my students to present their own work both at national and international meetings. At least one international conference and several national meetings are likely to be funded via the department, or my own project funds.
    If I give an invited talk - it is usually a summary of various bits of work across my group and I include acknowledgements at the start, and the name of the person who did the work on each individual slide. My students and postdocs are usually happy that I include their work - as I was when my advisor did similarly. Usually I can only give a summary and point to their presentation or poster for more details.
    If I submit an abstract to a conference of my own choice, it will be for work I have done in person (note, this doesn't happen very often anymore!).

    On a related subject, papers written resulting from the student's work/dissertation are usually co-authored, but the student is ALWAYS the lead author (I have colleagues who differ from this practice). On my CV I therefore have a lot of co-authored papers, which has been questioned at promotion panels - I now make my co-author policy very clear on my CV which has helped. I remain convinced that it is better to properly reflect my students contribution in the project rather than increase my number of first authored papers.

    As Mac and numerous others have said - I think there are many different approaches and it helps to know what the approach is in your field or institution or country, but beyond that there are probably lots of happy mediums...