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Grad student advice: what if my advisor leaves?! January 31, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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I’ve been getting quite a few hits with search terms along the lines of “grad school advisor leaves”. I imagine the page they’re coming across is the one dispensing advice stating anything can happen. And that is still true.

However, in this case, I am happy to be more specific. I’ve observed this happening to several friends over the years. In particular, my husband’s advisor left about a year before he finished his PhD. The good news, at least from my observations, is that there are many alternatives:

1 – You stay.
2 – You go with them.
3 – You go someplace else.
4 – You quit grad school.

I’m pretty sure this really ought to be a flow chart…

The first question you should ask yourself is whether or not it is possible for you to continue working with your advisor. Don’t assume that if they’re leaving academia, the relationship is over. Even if your advisor can’t still be an official advisor, they can still sometimes act as a de facto advisor while the student has an ‘official’ advisor at the school. They can often serve as a committee member, as well. So when I’m asking if it’s possible, what I am saying is 1) are they willing to continue advising you? 2) What are your school’s policies about outside advisors and/or committee members? 3) How will you be supported (if you were previously funded by your advisor)? Some schools will honor their commitment and provide a TA or something, but some schools see that as the responsibility of the advisor. 4) Can you find someone to act as an official advisor? If everything sounds good, then you need to ask yourself one serious question before you go forward with this arrangement: how invested is this person going to be in seeing you graduate? If you have suspicions they may not care or will be too busy with other things, this is definitely not a path you should consider.

If your advisor is continuing in academia, but at a different institution, they may be able to advise you remotely such as in the scenario above, but there is also that possibility that you could (and maybe even should) move with them. Most professors, when they move, are able to make arrangements for their grad students to come with them. The whole process of admission is streamlined. If you are in the early stages of your project and are sure you want to keep working with this person, this is probably your best bet, especially since there will be new rules about how many classes you must complete. If you’re a pretty good way along and aren’t dependent on your advisor’s physical presence, say for lab space or equipment or funding, staying may be preferable to leaving. Also, if you would have to start over with your coursework, staying is probably advisable. The good news is that an advisor staying in academia will probably be more concerned about you graduating than one who is leaving.

But what if you don’t want to continue working with them, or moving would be too difficult and you can’t finish without them? This would be a perfect time to decide if you want to stay at your current institution and find a new advisor there, move to a different school, or jump ship altogether. The advantage of finding a new advisor at your current institution is that you probably have a good idea of the landscape and know who is a good mentor and who is not. You may also know more about others’ research than you did in the beginning. Both of these are useful pieces of information. Additionally, you wouldn’t be starting fresh with coursework requirements. Going someplace else presents more of an unknown. However, if you’re not happy at your grad institution, maybe a change of scenery would be helpful. Maybe you have a better idea of who you’d like to work with as well as what interaction style works better for you. If that’s not available at your institution, then perhaps you really would feel better going elsewhere. It will also give you more breadth to work with someone else.

Finally, if you really don’t want to go someplace else, you don’t want to stay, and you can’t work with your advisor, then I’d take that as a good hint that the ‘real world’ is calling. If your advisor is leaving, that’s a good time to make that decision.

My observations have been that the farther along a person is before their advisor leaves, the more likely they are to complete their degree. I suspect it’s because they have a harder time settling on a project that really appeals to them. However, that’s not set in stone…just keep in mind that if the situation you chose still isn’t working for you, you always have the option to change your mind and no one should hold it against you.

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