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I am a Math PhD student at a US university. I have made a decision on who I want to work with for my PhD, but I was made aware that the professor in question is going on a sabbatical next year, to be spent in a different university (not in close proximity). What is the best way to approach a potential advisor in such a situation? I have not yet asked the "question", but have met with the professor in question multiple times on research related issues.

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You should probably talk to him about it. Sabbatical for some professors still means coming to the office every day, just not teaching classes. – Austin Henley Apr 17 '14 at 23:26
@AustinHenley: see edit – user14261 Apr 17 '14 at 23:29
So work with someone else for a year. What's the problem? – JeffE Apr 18 '14 at 4:10
Depending on the situation, you might also have the opportunity for an extended visit with your potential advisor. I did this for a semester during my third year of grad school to great benefit. – Zach H Apr 18 '14 at 4:20
@JeffE: I don't think it's that simple. Many math students will focus on a single problem for their entire thesis. (Some will do a "stapler" thesis where they solve several smaller problems but this is certainly not universal.) In that case, a year working with someone else may give independent results but not really help progress towards the thesis; the end result may be "finish a year later." (And given time and funding limits, that in turn may mean "don't finish at all".) – Nate Eldredge Apr 21 '14 at 15:56

I think the situation is volatile, depending on the communication skills/inclinations of the faculty person. I.e., do they do email often-and-effectively? If so, there's scant obstacle. But, on the opposite hand, if the only way they communicate effectively is face-to-face, then this would be a bad situation.

And it depends of course equally on your own capacity to communicate effectively by a medium where there're no facial expressions, no body language, and... many people seem to be slow to see this... committing questions or comments to email disallows remarks like "Oh, I don' get it" that seem ok in conversation. Thus, one must exert more effort to compose an email than to make a vague verbal remark in person. This is not at all a bad thing... unless the net effect is significant inhibition of communication, in which case one should re-consider one's mode of operation.

On the whole, some risk here, but, if both parties' communications chops are good, it could be as productive as any.

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Face-to-face communication can be very useful, but it can be simulated pretty well with Skype. I've used Skype to work with Ph.D. students and also with undergraduates doing REU projects. Admittedly, this was for a two-month period, not for a whole year, but I imagine it could scale up. – Andreas Blass Oct 26 '14 at 23:51

It's not uncommon for professors on sabbatical leave to bring their graduate advisees who are at the thesis writing stage with them for the sabbatical leave. I've seen this particularly at some of the NSF funded research centers that I've visited. However, if you haven't yet started working with this professor, and especially if you have significant course work left to complete, then it probably makes more sense for you to stay where you are, take course work and perhaps get started working with your advisor via email, internet teleconferences, etc.

I think you should meet with your prospective advisor and ask him/her whether they would like to take you on as an advisee or not. If they're willing to take you as an advisee, then they'll probably have some plan for you.

You haven't discussed your funding situation. If you're currently working as a TA, then you obviously couldn't expect this funding to continue at another university. If your advisor will fund you as an RA, then it may well be possible to take this funding with you to the other university. Another possibility is that your advisor might be able to arrange for you to get funding from the other institution.

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Adding to what has already been said about communication and funding, from experience, it will strongly depend on at what stage your PhD project is. In my case, my advisor was away during the last 12 months preceding my graduation and it made the collaboration a lot harder resulting in some frustration and delays.

If this situation happens at the beginning of your work, it might be less of an issue. Unless your work includes laboratory experiments for which it's usually critical to have close supervision.

Some of the points you could discuss when you bring up the subject:

  • is the supervisor willing and capable of using a videoconference software, securing a decent connection and decent hardware to run the thing (don't laugh, you'd be surprised how many highly educated people are clueless when it comes to this)?
  • is she/he ready to schedule regular calls (eg. once every two weeks)?
  • Are plans to visit an option? if yes, can funding be secured for that?

One thing I did was to send updates in the form of screencasts, or videos with slides and audio describing the work, or videos of me in front of a white board. That seemed to be appreciated by my supervisor and triggered the most fruitful feedbacks.

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Here is a possibility to consider: ask for a coadvisor, or ask for someone on your thesis committee to take a slightly more active role in mentoring your research while your advisor is on sabbatical. Even if the coadvisor is not strong in your area, they should be able to read the signs of what progress you are making and advise you generally on what to change, even if they cannot make technical comments. Further, it will prepare them for giving a better critical evaluation of your thesis as you will have spent some time talking to them about it. (If you do follow this route, it is incumbent on you to make things transparent and as easy as possible for all involved. In particular let both advisors know what meetings you had, what you discussed, etc. Having a semi-private blog to record this may be useful.)

Of course, this is very situation dependent, and may not be the best answer for you. The point is that the doctorate is your responsibility, and if you can't or don't follow your advisor physically, you need to do what you need to do to finish the degree, which can involve a lot of creative thinking and work on your part (and hopefully not much extra on the part of the system: you can't expect the world to change for you as much as you should expect to change the world).

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