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What are the common guidelines and best practices for developers who are studying for their master or doctoral degrees, while still working to earn the living in a commercial entity. Especially, if profile of the commercial entity is partially similar to the research topic.

The reason for this question is because:

  • Master/doctoral students have to publish their findings, therefore releasing information to public domain
  • Commercial entities usually have clauses that all work items assigned to their employees, electronically, in spoken, and in written, are actually copyrighted, and the employee is transferring all ownership to a commercial entity
  • Most commercial research is considered trade secrets and not to be released to a public domain, NDA, etc.

So, for example, if you are employed for a company that simulates turbine parameters using server clusters, while your research topic is, for example, "Physics simulation frameworks". The thing suddenly becomes muddy. Yet, at the same time, seems that thousands of people work and publish their findings in conferences while working in the same exact field.

What's the catch? How can you keep doing your research work while maintaining rights to your exact research field, and a copyright to implement the proof of concept/prototype/product after graduating if you later decide so. Seems that a lot of people do somehow.

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closed as off-topic by ratchet freak, MichaelT, Dan Pichelman, GlenH7, Kilian Foth Nov 3 at 9:27

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Questions seeking career or education advice are off topic on Programmers. They are only meaningful to the asker and do not generate lasting value for the broader programming community. Furthermore, in most cases, any answer is going to be a subjective opinion that may not take into account all the nuances of a (your) particular circumstance." – ratchet freak, MichaelT, Dan Pichelman, GlenH7, Kilian Foth
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This is indeed a good question. It's probably best answered by: the company's lawyers; the school's lawyers; the student's supervisor. All at the same time! –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 8 '11 at 20:37
Isn't this really up to the company? Otherwise, you'll need a lawyer. –  JeffO Aug 8 '11 at 20:38

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Generally, you'd want to have a conversation with the company you work for when you are preparing your thesis proposal. Just as you want your advisor or dissertation committee to sign off on the scope of the proposed research, you want your employer to sign off that the research is sufficiently separate from the intellectual property claims that the company wants to protect. Frequently, the company is fine having research papers published about their systems because they are tangential to the business the company is in or because they gain publicity and are able to attract top researchers. If your research would have an immediate impact on the company's efficiency (i.e. you're proposing a different approach to modeling a certain type of problem that makes the company's turbine simulator twice as fast), they're likely to find that a fair trade for a paper that may help a competitor implement similar changes in their system in the future.

At the same time, however, you may find that the company wants to ensure that your research doesn't touch on certain trade secrets that they want to protect. If the company wrote some proprietary operating system modules to make their cluster particularly efficient, for example, they may want details of those modifications made public. If that comes out while you're writing your thesis proposal, it's generally easy enough to modify your research plan to either avoid those areas of concern or to get your advisor and/or your thesis committee to agree that those points of concerned will only be addressed at a high level in your thesis.

If everyone agrees to the thesis proposal, that generally makes it far easier in the end when you need everyone to sign off on your actual thesis. People often run into trouble when they wait until their thesis is nearly complete to involve the company-- at that point, the company has much less incentive to sign off on the thesis because the research that is likely to be useful to them is already done. If they've already signed off on the research proposal, on the other hand, it's generally much easier to point out that they had already agreed to let you describe their turbine simulator as long as you didn't disclose the "secret sauce" of the proprietary operating system modules. And it's much easier to get the thesis committee to sign off on a thesis that glosses over those details if they agreed when they approved the proposal that those proprietary components are out of scope.

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Universities that really care about industry collaboration often have a Technology Transfer Department (name varies) where they are experts in that. They are the ones who know how to organise academia/industry joint projects and make the necessary organisational and legal arrangements for a hybrid thesis like this to work.

Having had experiences in these matters at a few universities in different countries, I wouldn't advise you to embark in a joint project by yourself, or with the aid of your academic supervisor only. Having the expert support of a knowledgeable department is crucial, and it will guarantee that your uni cares about the project as well.

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My own experience was that my company was all for a research topic related to what I was working on, since they did consulting and it was a third party credential that would help establish my (and therefore their) expertise. There was little concern about the thesis being public since there is a difference between professional software and something that gets by a thesis committee, and it wasn't dead on to what they were doing anyway.

However, the university hated any thesis that might be commercially useful because they wanted to draw a distinction between academic and commercial work, and they shot down proposal after proposal for not being academic enough. It either had to be useless or match a professor's pet project (my thesis adviser told me this outright!).

I couldn't make it work myself, so maybe I'm not in the best position to give advice, but I guess my advice would be to be wary of the academic side as well - a business has some incentive to be pragmatic but the university pretty much has free reign to be as arbitrary as they like.

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Don't take this offensive in any way, for it is not ment as such ... but a university with such policy is but a poor university :( –  Rook Aug 8 '11 at 21:54
I'm offended by the policy, but not at all by your comment. –  psr Aug 8 '11 at 22:25
At least in one field I take an interest in, it is painful to watch what is considered "academic". I see rivers of professors and grad students running in channels that aren't incorrect, merely irrelevant. –  Mike Dunlavey Aug 9 '11 at 1:29

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