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Yesterday, my mum was recently diagnosed with cancer. However, we have yet to know what stage is her cancer and whether the cancer can still be removed from her body or it has metastasized to other parts of organs. This is a major health concern and it will of course affect my health and mental being for the next several years.

I am a PhD student and I thankfully successfully submitted my thesis a few months ago. So far, I have yet to receive the news regarding my viva. Given the history of my university and accounts from other students' experiences, my department is very tardy in processing viva examinations. It can take up to six months for students to finally undergo the viva and then a few months for correction afterwards. Now I have to worry and be stressful for two things: my mum's health condition and my viva.

I want to e-mail my supervisor about the possibility of speeding up my viva process. I have been well prepared for my viva for a month. I have re-read my thesis multiple times and re-read the journals that I cited. I really hope that my department can speed up my viva so I can move on with my life (getting a good job, taking care of my mum, etc.). Delaying my viva will certainly damage my well-being. However, I don't know whether emailing my supervisor will undermine my professionalism (the art of separating personal and work).

I am in my 20s with no experience of experiencing sudden loss of my loved ones and this news will definitely affect me in the immediate future. And I don't write this post to look for sympathy or anything. This news will certainly make me appreciate life and moments that we have now.

Should I e-mail my supervisor to state my current condition and hopefully she could do something regarding my PhD limbo?

EDIT: I do have a very good relationship with my supervisor. However, I don't want to come across as someone who tries to milk this tragedy for my own gain. Therefore, I am juggling the decision whether it will be fine or not to tell my supervisor and at the same time to request viva speed up.

  • By 'right', do you mean 'by law' or 'by social norms'? – Frank FYC Dec 11 '17 at 23:27
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    If you don't tell, good chances your advisor will notice that something is going on. Personally, I would like to know, not only because it will have impact on the production, but because I care about my students. I would do everything on my power to help. I don't believe I'm rare in this aspect :) – Fábio Dias Dec 11 '17 at 23:37
  • The question in the title (does supervisor have a "right" to know) is not really the same as the question in the body (would telling my supervisor be helpful). – ff524 Dec 11 '17 at 23:46
  • @ff524 I submitted a revised title. – Frank FYC Dec 12 '17 at 0:00
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    I had a lot of terrible things happen last month, like my Grandmother dying after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, my coworker committing suicide, and my cat dying. I told my Principle Investigator that I've had a lot of crazy stuff going on, and she was so kind and compassionate. – xyz123 Dec 12 '17 at 9:16
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Many countries have rules in place that allow employees to take paid or unpaid leave to care for an ill relative. No shame or unprofessionalism should result from making a request to accommodate a need to deal with a loved one's illness.

If you have a good relationship with your advisor, then your advisor should understand.

(That said, the advisor may or may not have much control over the viva, depending on who is responsible for scheduling and organizing it, and who else must attend. But you won't lose anything by asking.)

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  • Regardless of whether there's a legal requirement to grant leave, I'm confident that leave will be granted if requested. – user2768 Dec 12 '17 at 12:33
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What happened/might happen should not affect you severely for several years. If it does affect your mental well-being for more than a few months, to a degree where you are not able to work most of the time, you can and should get professional help, which might even be provided at your university.

Usually, there will be times where you feel fine, and times where you might want to stay in bed all day - therefore it would generally be good that your supervisor knows what is going on.

If it is possible to speed up your process of defending your PhD will depend on local regulations. In your case, it might be best to talk with your supervisor (not just email him/her) to inform him/her about your and your mom's situation, and to see together if there are ways that your supervisor can support you (e.g. by speeding up the final steps required for your PhD). That is, if you have a relatively good relationship with your supervisor.

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  • good, answer, what if students are at the beginning of Ph.D., first year. what would you suggest them then? – SSimon Dec 12 '17 at 6:24
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    @SSimon The same, why should it differ? It might be even less of a problem, because it could be possible to work less for a while, or work from home (depending on the research), to spend more time with one's relatives. – Mark Dec 12 '17 at 9:50
  • Really? WOW unexpected, since usually there is contract in olace – SSimon Dec 12 '17 at 11:51
  • @SSimon How could a contract change anything? – user2768 Dec 12 '17 at 14:55
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Personally, I would tell them - just so they know.

They could ask you what you would like to do : earlier date or later date and then see what is possible.

They won't tell anyone else so it won't go public so that is not a worry.

However, Best wishes to you and Mum.

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Do not hide behind your problems If your mum's health directly affects your ability to work and your supervisor notices or will soon notice, explain yourself. Do not make up any excuses, because there is nothing to be sorry for. Just...

State the facts Tell them what happened and that it is currently influencing you as you are understandably worried. Do not, again, use this to "hide behind", just state it as a fact and mention that you are trying to do your best.

Take the help you are offered At that point, as you stated you have a good relationship with your supervisor, they might already offer you help or tips. They are a human being, they have been going through one or the other hard situation in their life as well. They are your supervisor, they have an interest in you succeeding.

Ask for help Some people might be hesitant to offer help. Maybe they just don't know what you need, maybe they do not want to feel that they do not believe in your ability to handle your own problems. Maybe they are just overwhelmed with their own life. If you need specific help from a specific person, feel free to ask. Asking does not hurt. Don't request things (yet), but ask tentatively. Ask for what you can do first, before asking for what they can do for you. Ask "Is there anything I can do to speed up my viva, so I can focus on being there for my mum?"

Request what you are entitled to If things get worse, you might be entitled to time off to care for a sick relative, for example. Not everybody around you will know that or think of it, so request these benefits when you need them instead of waiting until you are offered them.

But most importantly: Stay calm Maybe a long, hard journey is ahead of you. Maybe things turn out better than expected. For now, do not create worst-case scenarios until your mum has a full diagnosis. Also, do not paint worst-case scenarios for others. This might be influencing for years, or it might be a bad scare, but could be over in much less time. (I have seen both happen amongst family friends and acquaintances. Interestingly, the people who were scared most after the initial diagnosis fought the cancer fast and completely in less than 18 months. Some are calmly living with it for years now. I am not trying to play down your worries, but keep an open mind for the good scenarios. That will enable you to be much stronger for yourself and your mum.)

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Stay calm.

Your mother has been diagnosed with cancer and that is terrible news. But, I truly encourage you to remain optimistic.

Remain optimistic.

Cancer treatments have advanced significantly and the outlook upon diagnoisis is generally good. (You haven't provided details on the specific type of cancer, so I won't speculate further.)

(In)Action.

At this stage, I personally don't recommend taking any action with regards to academia. Look after yourself; wait for a full diagnosis. Try walking, exercise, or even working, anything that helps you get through the wait.

Viva. You've submitted your thesis. Congratulations! The hard work is already done. The viva process varies country-to-country, so it is difficult to provide specific details. But, the time-frame probably cannot be shortened by much, because time is required to evaluate your thesis (which is probably a long document). Your supervisor might be able to help speed-up the process, but the evaluation procedure is probably conducted externally, so it is unclear what speed-up can be achieved.

Once you and your mum have received her full diagnosis, you'll be able to think more clearly about the future. Perhaps ask another question then. For the moment, stay calm, remain optimistic, and look after yourself.


(Possibly) Going beyond the scope of the question, one can ask: When should I tell my supervisor about a personal issue? I personally recommend telling a supervisor when that issue has the potential to negatively impact your work over a prolonged period.

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