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I'm a third-year Ph.D. student. A few months ago, I lost my maternal grandfather and grandmother in quick succession. More recently, I lost my close friend in a bus accident and my paternal grandmother was wheeled into the emergency room. These incidents have affected me personally and I haven't been able to focus on my work as much. I emailed my advisors everytime an incident happened (to take a 2-3 days off) but both of them didn't bother to reply. Even after I met them face to face, they did not ask me how I'm doing or if I need any help?

This has led me to feel that my emotions are not valued and I'm being used just as a tool to get experiments done. Am I wrong to expect a word of condolence from my advisors or do they think that they might cross personal boundaries?

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    This could be because they feel that this is "awkward" to bring up in this context, or they feel it's better not to talk about it because they'd rather not remind you these bad experiences. – Cris Jul 4 '18 at 0:33
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    It's very important for advisors reading this to understand that the correctness of expecting condolences from advisors and the correctness of advisors giving condolences are not proportional. (Just like you shouldn't expect/demand strangers to smile at you, but it can be a very friendly thing to smile at strangers.) – Wildcard Jul 4 '18 at 0:33
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    Some advisors simply don't care or don't have time to think about their staff's personal problems, their mind is full with other thoughts... I learned to have very low expectations regarding personal matters with advisors/supervisors in academia. – Herman Toothrot Jul 4 '18 at 12:48
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    The normal time to offer condolences would be when replying to your email. "My condolences, you can take some time off". The fact they didn't respond to your emails at all is what's interesting to me. No response has a very different meaning than a simple "ok" without condolences. One possible explanation I can see is that if their first opportunity to reply to your email about your days off was after you left (e.g. if your email was along the lines of "I had bad news, I'm leaving NOW and coming back next Monday"), they may have opted to leave you some time alone rather than reply. – Alexandre Aubrey Jul 4 '18 at 14:59
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    I'm very sorry for your losses. – half-pass Jul 4 '18 at 20:42
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Expressions of emotional concern are a tricky balance for supervisors to find sometimes, and can also have a strong cultural or religious component to it. For example, some faiths have suggested that mourning should be confined to a very particular interval and not extend past that. (I’m aware of this in certain Muslim and Jewish denominations, for instance).

Also, the response of an individual to reminders of grief can be intense and unexpected, and advisors may not want to put you under any additional pressure or stress or cause an episode while you’re meeting that they can’t or don’t feel comfortable handling.

So it just might be that they don’t want to cross any boundaries that feel inappropriate.

All of that said, there does remain a finite possibility that they may view their advisees as labor input rather than complex human beings. Such advisors sadly do exist and are not particularly enjoyable to work for.

If it’s an important enough issue that you feel that it’s making you less interested in your work or the relationship with your advisors, you may want to consider having a discussion with them at the end of a meeting to discuss it.

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    Yeah, I know a person that complains every time anybody mentions death that her day is ruined. I guess they just don't know whether it is appropriate to tell you anything or not. Not replying to original emails though is rather strange. Maybe they are just non-emphatic types. – akostadinov Jul 3 '18 at 18:08
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    I don't see what Judaism or Islam has to do with that, yes Judaism have the week of mourning, and the 30 days mark, but after that you're expected to start building your routine again, not completely ignore the death. There is not a single Jewish person I can come up with that wouldn't ask "How are you doing" (in the "how are you handling things nowadays") even a few weeks after death of a close friend/relative. At least to some person in their lives. If anything else, this is a cultural thing, or a distance issue of advisor-advisee. – Ink blot Jul 6 '18 at 17:20
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Originally posted as a comment but probably works as an answer as well:

Assuming they haven't had any issue with you taking several days off and are treating you as professionally as usual now that you are back, I would take that as a sign of their support. They are keeping the matter professional and have not pressed for details or 'evidence' to back up your unexpected leave. Obviously your milage may vary but I quite like the 'no questions asked' approach to personal matters. If I want to discuss it as friends or personally, I'll bring it up myself.

So I would say you shouldn't 'expect' condolences depending on the culture of your workplace - they are making an effort not to invade your privacy and are allowing you to take the days off you require without prying into your personal affairs.

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    It's not just "no questions asked" when OP needed some time off, it's "no response given". He emailed them to let them know he would be gone for a few days but didn't even get a response. This has a much different meaning than something along the lines of "ok, take the time you need". – Alexandre Aubrey Jul 4 '18 at 14:48
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    @AlexandreAubrey I see your point but I personally disagree. If the OP stated he would be taking time off (rather than asking) then the lack of response suggests consent. I would agree that a response would be much more 'human' but in this situation it isn't strictly necessary. – Smeato Jul 5 '18 at 10:45
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    "Professional" is a much abused word that can mean anything or nothing at all. Not even bothering to respond strikes me as exceptionally rude. – Szabolcs Jul 5 '18 at 19:13
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Advisors are people who you have a association with. It is absolutely okay to expect any human in your life to wish you well, and when you've had as bad a year as you clearly have then that goes double.

Caring for your advisees (which is after all the job of an adviser, at least in a professional sense) while keep a professional distance is not difficult. Saying "I'm sorry for your loss" is not going to make someone suddenly think you are their best friend.

Honestly, the idea that we can't expect basic human decency from people in academia either because its "not professional" or because "academia is full of people that have trouble with people" just enables and excuses poor behavior. Sure some people find social interaction difficult, and inappropriate behavior can be somewhat forgiven if an individual is clearly trying but getting some subtleties wrong. But saying "academics are bad at people" just gives an excuse to not even try.

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    I'm interested because at a glance it seems like your answer is the polar opposite of mine but it brings up my initial question of 'what do you mean by Expect?'. You are basically saying Yes you do have the right to expect your advisors to offer condolences; so then do you propose the OP brings up the issue with their advisors and demands to have their expectations met? – Meelah Jul 3 '18 at 16:12
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    No. I don't think that bringing it up would help. Someone offering their condolences after you've told them too is hardly going to sound sincere. I just don't think its wrong to feel bad about it. So what practical affects might we have. 1) the biggest is make a note of this, and if you are ever in the position of these advisers, remember and make sure you don't act this way. 2) This is going to color your advice to others on whether they should do a PhD with these advisers. 3) It might be a piece evidence in a complaint about a larger pattern of neglect/instrumentation/abuse in the future. – Ian Sudbery Jul 3 '18 at 17:06
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    One additional thing a student can do: leave. If this is a part of a larger pattern of neglect/poor communication, It's reasonable to leave the bad advisers. One incident like this reflects on them poorly but isn't a huge deal. If things like this are a constant issue, you may be happier working with someone else or doing something else entirely. That's a last resort, but it's there. The prevalence of poor communication in academia is no reason to put up with it. They aren't forced to be kind, but you don't have to continue to work with them either. – IanH Jul 3 '18 at 19:39
  • I guess my point was that if you want to work with someone else, but at the same institution, you'll need to make a case for that. – Ian Sudbery Jul 4 '18 at 8:52
  • Interesting. I think that giving condolences is normally avoided, except the matter (death not condolences) is brought up by the affected person. Otherwise I would not want to open healing wounds. Not everyone wants to get condolences, because of different reasons. And thats why I would avoid giving them generally. Except if I know the person well. But then I again the words are meaningless to my mind. It is much more relevant that you are there for the person, just saying "I'm sorry" is quite the worst in my opinion. But everyone is different. – Kami Kaze Jul 4 '18 at 11:41
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What the advisors did strikes me as extremely rude. If someone tells me about their recent loss, it's a basic norm of politeness to offer condolences in reply, irrespective of whether we are close to each other or complete strangers.

After that's done, whether to ever bring it up again, or whether to bring it up at all if you learned from elsewhere, may indeed depend on you relationships. Also, offering condolences in personal conversation may be an awkward task for some, but this excuse does not apply as the conversation took place over e-mail. Writing a standard sentence shouldn't be difficult for anyone. Even more so since professionally, as a rule you do answer a request for days off.

So, based on your description, I would judge that not only they don't care for you personally, they don't care enough to even make their behaviour look respectful and professional.

All of this has little to do with academia, of course.

  • "All of this has little to do with academia, of course." Personally I'd say that it isn't academia-specific. Human feelings do enter into academia, after all. – Faheem Mitha Jul 4 '18 at 12:04
  • @FaheemMitha: Well, that's exactly what Kostya said! – Lightness Races in Orbit Jul 5 '18 at 12:36
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I received such words of condolences when my father, and later when my grandmother, died. That said, this depends on the people - one would hope that the advisor(s) would be understanding and polite, but this might not always be the case. There is little to do but find someone to talk to elsewhere.

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(The poster asks, essentially, whether he should expect his advisers to offer condolences for his bereavements.)

It depends on what kind of people your advisers are. But you should have some idea of that already. My very limited experience of academia is that it isn't particularly full of caring and empathic human beings, but I am sure there are some even there. To answer your questions - yes, I think it's entirely reasonable for your advisers to at least write a few sentences in reply to your emails to say they are sorry for your losses, and ignoring you entirely isn't very nice. But unfortunately people (including academics) are often not very nice; it's just something you need to make allowances for. I also think it would be reasonable for them to express some sympathy in person. I'm not sure if it is reasonable to expect them to ask if you needed help - that would depend more on the kind of relationship you had with them.

Disclaimer: this answer reflects my personal biases, because I really dislike being ignored, particularly by email. Unfortunately this is common in a busy and crowded world, where things are increasingly about the bottom line.

You might want to expand your answer to explicitly tell us what reaction they had to you wanting to take a few days off. And did this require any adjustments in your academic schedule? E.g. did you miss any scheduled meetings? And if so, what reactions did you get from your advisers, if any?

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I suspect that local culture has a large effect on this. I'm answering from Germany.

  • First some context: Here, the unionized employment contracts (TVL for academia) specifies that on the death of spouse/legal partner, child or parent your employer has to give you 2 extra days off (they can of course give more).
  • In any case, you have to ask for the time off. And time off to attend a funeral is a fairly common thing, even in academia - so something that I'd expect to be handled professionally.
    If it is not so close a loss (say, a more distant relative), the procedure would be like "I need a day off to attend a funeral next Weekday" "I'm sorry. Of course."
  • Ask for time off (for any reason) is something that always requires an answer, either confirming or denying the request. Not answering is so unprofessional that I'd consider it an indication the email was not received.
  • I'd say the cultural norm is to have at the very least a brief sentence of condolences in the reply email. If a supervisor does not feel up to typing a personal sentence, they could always use generic fall-back formulations (say, "my condolences" instead of "best regards"). But not including even such a short generic phrase would be considered extremely rude.
  • I've never heard of a case where the request for a time off in order to attend a funeral was refused. To give an example, the defense of my Diplom (master) thesis was shifted about 2 days because one of the committee had to attend a funeral. (I was asked and agreed to do the defense 2 days earlier)
    Usually the time off will be subtracted from the amount of holidays you have.

All points up to here I'd consider the minimum standard.


  • On the other hand, I consider it a sad fact of life that some people will behave inappropriately - and in times where you do not have the emotional resources to glance over such incidents that will hurt more.
    So while I describe here what I consider the cultural norm, nevertheless you better prepare yourself for the case that those norms are not met.

The next points would be not as clear cut and more depending on circumstances

  • E.g. depending on how close the loss was, finding a substitute for scheduled appointments (such as teaching duties) would be either on the supervisor for close losses or on you (for more distant losses).

  • As to behaviour when next meeting in person: that would be more varied.

    • People are awkward about death, and may not know what to say or do and thus refrain from saying anything. Consider also that you do not know what recent losses your supervisor may have had, even if they would usually be able to handle the situation more gracefully, they may not be just now.
    • Etiquette here is that a supervisor will not tell the group of your loss unless you ask them to. So you colleagues will not automatically know. (Ideally, of course, the supervisor could ask you in their reply to your request for time off whether you wish them to inform the colleagues.)
    • The context of that next meeting also plays into what to expect/from the "ideal" supervisor's point of view what to say/do. E.g. if that meeting is on the hallway or in a room with colleagues who may not know of your loss they may want to be very careful not to trigger emotions that you may not want to display in public.
  • Asking whether you need help would be considered a sincere offer to help, not a polite glance-by expression. It is outside what can be expected (depending somewhat on how close the relationship is - but it doesn't seem so close in your case).
    I'd say briefly asking "Better now?" when next meeting in person would indicate they acknowledge your loss without wanting to go in details.
    "How are you doing?" (like "Do you need help/can I somehow help you?") would be asking for a longish explanation of how you are (and in the context of close losses the one who asks should be prepared to meet emotions). Again, outside the expected for a work relationship.
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Am I wrong to expect a word of condolence from my advisors

Sort of depends what you mean by 'expect'. You're obviously not wrong for hoping that anyone and everyone in your life will be compassionate for your loss. But if you mean 'expect' as in, 'this is an expectation I have and I will complain and/or refuse to work if I don't get it', then probably yes. You mention feeling like your advisors don't care about your emotions and that you're just a tool. What kind of relationship do you expect or currently have with your advisors? You're their student, they're your supervisors. You are in each other's lives because you believe you can help each other's careers. Why would emotions come into it? How much do you care about theirs?

You needed them to know that you would be unavailable to work for a few days. They didn't reply so you can assume they weren't going to object to this. That's all the information that either party needs. Your emotional needs should be met elsewhere.

Edited to clarify: I'm not saying your advisors were right in ignoring your emails or in not offering a brief condolence. Actually I think frankly it was slightly jerk-ish of them both. However, my point is that when you use the word 'expect', you set up the question differently from 'wouldn't it be nice if they did?'. Essentially, your response to this should be to vent to your friends and family, both about your losses and about your advisors, if you feel the need to. But I don't think you have much of a case if you intend to approach your advisors about their lack of interpersonal communication.

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    I understood it as “culturally expected”. And in Western Europe it definitely would be expected so OP wouldn’t be wrong. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 3 '18 at 19:43
  • I argue the exact opposite: my research work, especially on a new topic, requires deep concentration (while I can easily 'crunch through' writing and running experiments), which I am not able to achieve if emotionally too distressed. My supervisors know that - I don't go into an emotional breakdown often, but if I do, I am not able to do research work and I expect them to take that into account. I chose small, tight-knit research groups precisely because they are so supportive. If I got no understanding for my emotional loss such as death, separation, whatever else, I would quit if possible. – penelope Jul 5 '18 at 16:24
  • Basically, I believe that, in research especially, ones emotional and mental state effect the outcomes greatly. And, while the nature of student-supervisor is most surely primarily professional, the student is not a worker packing crates for a wage, and his boss needs to take the nature of his work into account, especially if he wants to get the most benefits for himself and the student out of the whole thing. – penelope Jul 5 '18 at 16:27
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Strange question in some ways. Are you really asking if it is OK for you to expect something or if the other person should do something. Or if it is OK for you to not get the work done.

I'm sorry about your folks. That is real life. All that said, your advisor is not your family or even your boss at work (and in the workplace people will differ also). At the end of the day, there is no requirement for your advisor to show you concern. You need to be self sourcing on the emotional front and on the getting work done for your Ph.D.

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    Perhaps it's just me, but the phrasing "That is real life." sounds very harsh. It comes across as "It happens to everyone, get over it." It probably wasn't meant like that (although the whole answer is rather on the brusque side), and may be worth rephrasing or removing. – Guy G Jul 3 '18 at 13:25
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    I don't think you read the question very well, it is their grandparents who have recently passed/been hospitalized, not his parents. This isn't a very good answer. If you aren't sure what the question is, then don't answer. – Azor Ahai Jul 3 '18 at 15:48
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    A PhD isn't like a normal job. It's a mentor and mentee. It's a master and apprentice. It's an advisor and a student. It's a very close relationship and totally reasonable to expect compassion for a big life event. Everyone involved is human. There is no requirement for most things in life but that's not how social norms work. – spacetyper Jul 3 '18 at 18:08
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    @spacetyper A lot of STEM types are barely human. Discussing emotions can be a very uncomfortable and foreign thing for some people and those personality types will often avoid it at all costs. That isn't to say that they can't, or don't, feel compassion, but it can very well be the case that they are simply very uncomfortable expressing it outwardly. – J... Jul 3 '18 at 20:33
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    @spacetyper At a normal job, the boss would offer condolences. You don't need to appeal to some special higher plane of existence of PhDs to require what would be considered normal behavior for a boss managing mechanics, cashiers, software engineers, or accountants. It's probably the strange thing about the ivory tower that you will run into way more people out of touch with basic humanity than outside. That is, after all, how the term "ivory tower" arose. – Chan-Ho Suh Jul 4 '18 at 7:16

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