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A Research Idea That Will Never Be Shared

“I got this new research idea that I would like to share with you. I am very excited about it. May I describe it to you now?” I am hearing this from Dave–one of my Ph.D. students. I just finished discussing with him my evaluation of his progress in the program. Dave is a non-traditional graduate student. We used to be Ph.D. classmates. I finished my Ph.D.; Dave did not. Last year, I convinced Dave to join our graduate program and complete his Ph.D. He put his trust in me, so I feel responsible for his progress. I mark his progress this academic year as “Satisfactory” in the online form. Despite all the difficulties of restarting his graduate studies in a new research environment, Dave is getting the hang of it, so I feel confident that he’ll succeed in our program. And now he wants to share with me his exciting new research idea. Oh, how much I want to hear about his idea!

As a professor in a research university, I like to think of myself as a man of ideas. It is for the opportunity to create, evaluate, and disseminate new ideas that I hang in a small secluded university town, making a fraction of the salary I could be earning at an industry job. Good ideas bring in research funding, publish papers, and propel graduate students toward their career goals. Besides, I know that Dave’s idea is not a fluke—he already has a solid publications record. In my evaluation for him, I have written “Next year, he should plan to publish a research paper that would set the trajectory for his Ph.D. dissertation. This publication will solidify his prior research record, showing to the faculty that he is able and willing to do quality research.” Dave seems to be pleased with my evaluation. In my mind, I am already planning to petition the faculty to allow Dave to skip his qualifying exam, enabling him to start working on his dissertation right away.

Dave is really excited about this research idea and starts drawing something on the whiteboard in my office. I wish I could learn about his idea right now, but I can’t! I have a deadline to meet—I supervise 9 graduate students, and their progress evaluations are due this week. A diligent student, I have never missed an academic deadline, a habit I carried throughout my life. Hesitantly, I turn to Dave and posit: “Well, unfortunately now is not a good time to discuss research ideas. I have evaluations to finish up, and another student is already waiting to meet with me. How about if we get together next week, when I will be able to give your idea the time and attention it deserves? I would like you to create a PowerPoint presentation—I am sure you’ll get to reuse this presentation on multiple occasions as your idea starts yielding publishable results.” Dave says that he’d be glad to do it. Over the weekend, I text him: “Let’s shoot for Wed night to talk about your idea. I’ll be done with my teaching for the week, and we can spend as much time as it takes to have a quality discussion.” When I don’t receive a reply, I am a bit surprised, but I don’t read much into it.

Well, Dave never got a chance to share his idea with me, nor will he ever do so. The very next night, he passed away from a coma induced by undiagnosed diabetes. He was only 55 years old. I feel as shocked and heartbroken as everyone else who knew him, but I am also devastated by the fact that Dave’s idea perished with him. If only he had shared his idea with me, my students and I would make sure to follow upon it and include his name as a co-author on the resulting publications.

Dave’s passing has taught me a valuable lesson. I will never again postpone the opportunity to learn about a student’s new research idea to meet an administrative deadline. I hope my colleagues would understand and won’t be too upset with me. Life spent in constant pursuit of deadlines loses its meaning.  Life is too short to leave ideas unshared.

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