Topic: The different ways that advisors deal with graduating students or departing postdocs in terms of continuing research projects. The ‘data’ on which this post is based represent an amalgamation of the experiences of several colleagues and me.
Two scenarios representing the best and worst case examples (from the point of view of the advisor), both of which involve a former advisee moving on to another position that involves research, are:
Best case scenario: The departing person is a creative and productive individual who contributed significantly to a shared research project and who is either moving on to research projects that are entirely their own or who is taking the ‘old’ research in new directions. In the first case, the advisee intellectually owns the project, and although there are likely some rules about archiving research materials, there should be no problem with the departing person's taking the research project with them. Even in the latter case, most of us are more than happy to help our former advisees continue working on shared projects and for them to take relevant research materials with them (again, leaving archived copies of some materials – e.g., notes – as required by university/funding/ethics requirements). It is in a former advisee’s best interests to become independent as soon as possible, but in some cases it can be important or necessary to continue existing projects for some time.
[This post is told from the point of view of the advisor, although there are probably cases of evil advisors cutting off excellent advisees from their promising research for nefarious (selfish) reasons. I am not personally familiar with such situations and I hope they are extremely rare.]
Worst case scenario: A marginal student/postdoc demands to continue working on a particular project although he/she has not demonstrated the ability to take the research any further, at least not independently. If the project was not their original idea, even if the student/postdoc has provided some data (and is therefore a co-author on publications), it is not their project to take, intellectually or physically. This particular scenario has resulted in problems ranging from illegal/unethical situations (former advisees taking research materials without permission) to uncomfortable interactions (telling a former advisee that you aren’t willing to continue working with them).
It is difficult to tell an advisee that you don’t want to continue working with them after they leave your institution. Even if there is historical evidence to show that in general you are happy to continue working with former advisees, you will seem like an evil, grasping ogre who is selfishly trying to keep for yourself all the glorious rewards that obscure basic science research can provide. And what do you do if you have several advisees all finishing their degrees/projects at about the same time and you are not treating them all the same in terms of your willingness to work with them after they leave?
And then there are the complex intermediate situations: In one recent case involving a colleague, a very talented and hard-working former student is demanding that the former advisor and fellow researchers not be coauthors on his publications, even though everyone contributed ideas and work to the project. It remains to be seen whether this demand will be met. In general, being unethical and manipulative (“I thought you wanted me to succeed”) is not a good route to take to demonstrate independence, and will likely backfire anyway (most people in their field will know that the advisor and other people in the research group were involved in the project and will wonder why they aren’t coauthors..).
There is no cookie-cutter approach to handling the terminal stages of advising, as each case is different and comes with its own special mix of pride, hope, and anxiety.
8 years ago