Dear Kate – October 2015

“How do I have a difficult conversation with another grad student who is stepping on my research area?

– Toes

Dear Toes,

First off, is the other graduate student working with the same adviser? If so you want to make sure the adviser and you are clear on what your expected role is and then the other student’s expected role is. The other part to keep in mind is that frequently there can be a lot of overlap between projects (I’ve found this varies by adviser/department/field, so what might seem like too much overlap from one perspective could be viewed as perfectly fine in a different field ).

All that aside, however, if you are not comfortable than something does need to be done. In terms of how to approach this, I think a good thing to identify is what exactly is bothering you — is it that the new graduate student is trying to publish your material? Or just trying to approach “your” problem with different ideas? If so, you could always look at working together.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, frankly, having competing work can be a part of science. I can think of several labs that work on very similar things and frequently try to “scoop each other”. It’s not my style of work, but some people enjoy the competition. Some people deal with that by not talking about their own work (aka keeping your results more secret until published).

Frankly, it’s a tough situation. Depending on the other student and what you want out of it, be careful of escalating things. When I’ve felt like there was perceived overlap between myself and another student, I approached my adviser about it and we talked about exactly which parts I was covering and what the other student could and would contribute. It was very helpful and calmed my worries (which were mostly groundless in my case). Plus it was useful in highlighting exactly what I was expected to produce.

Good luck!

– Kate O

Dear Toes,

What I would say to you first is, how do you define “your” research area? Perhaps try to see it from the other person’s side, maybe they think this area of research is “their” area. Then I would recommend sitting down with the other grad student, if you two have a good working relationship, and discussing what each can contribute to the project or what each of you will work on.

Without knowing more specifics it is hard to say whether your advisor should be involved, but it might help to bring your concerns to your advisor and perhaps try to work out with the three of you who should be working on what, and where to draw boundaries, if they should be drawn at all. In general it is best to err on the side of over-communication and being open and forthcoming with any concerns. It is better to address concerns or conflicts sooner rather than later.

I actually had a similar experience in grad school, but my feeling was more along the lines of: this person was going to take over a project that I really wanted to work on, because he spent way more time in the lab than I did. I ended up speaking to my advisor about what I could contribute to the project, and making sure I carved out a piece for myself. Setting clear guidelines for each of us really helped and gave me a sense of security that he wouldn’t step on my toes.

– Kate L

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate O., and Kate L.