I’m a first year grad student beginning this year. My professor was diagnosed with cancer and won’t be in, probably all year, maybe even the entire time I’m in class. He’s a great man, and also a nice man, which are two things that don’t always go together, so I’ve spent a while just being sad, but now I think it’s time to try to figure out what I’m going to do. I don’t want to make it to obvious who I’m talking about because I don’t know if he’s announced it publicly yet, but I am studying an ancient language… So he is the only professor in my program who knows how to read it. My question is do I change my topic of study to match a different professor at the school, or do I continue to focus on what I had hoped to focus on without the guidance of my advisor? Thanks so much for any thoughts you can give me on this topic.

  • I took tag healthissues back out. The tag wiki doesn't cover such a case. The OP has no health issues. Sorry to disagree with a mod. Put it back if you must and I won't object.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 17:30
  • 2
    @Buffy : Are you say that tag should be used only for health issues of the person who is posting? Why would that be? Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 17:49
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    @MichaelHardy, Read the explanation of it on the Tags pages. It seems pretty clear that it is for personal issues. In the case here, the situation would be the same if the advisor was unavailable for other reasons than health. Health is peripheral to the issue.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 18:02

2 Answers 2


Your best option, in my opinion, is to discuss it with him. You may need to wait a bit until he feels well enough to think about it, but you really need his advice about how to proceed. He may be able to help you in your current studies, or not. Depending on the illness he may also never return to work. But, if you need to change professors and projects, he can probably help you get started with someone else, and is probably the best person to do that.

If you stay with the current project you will need to prepare for the eventuality that you will have to finish on your own. If that is the outcome, you will need to find resources to make that possible. It might be possible for you to continue yourself or not, depending on many things. But the professor will likely have advice on all of that.

I would advise against just making a decision without such advice. It may be that other professors in your department can give you the best advice about how and when to contact him. Good luck to you both.

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    Indeed, the professor is the starting point, but the department chair is a close second. If the professor is not currently in their office at all, I would go to the chair immediately to discuss concerns and contingencies. That is part of the job of the department chair after all.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 14:15
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    @JonCuster good suggestion, except that at my department and I believe at many other large departments, the graduate vice chair/graduate program chair will be the more appropriate person to talk to about this. I held the role of department chair for several years, and although I was happy to talk to grad students when they had something they wanted to discuss, I was not always the best positioned person to help them.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 15:26
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    @DanRomik - Sure, but you were probably the person to start with, not least because you would know the right person to talk to next (rather than the student executing a random walk through the administration). Certainly, finding/deciding on an alternative supervisor would seem to be delegated back to the department chair by the grad school folks. And the chair is likely in a better position to know (if anyone outside the immediate family does) the severity of the diagnosis.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 15:33
  • @JonCuster no I was not the person to start with - that would be the graduate vice chair. Anyway, that’s how things work in my department. It may or may not generalize to other places.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 16:22
  • "You may need to wait a bit until he feels well enough to think about it …" but keep in mind that if a cancer is diagnosed early, in the "short term" the treatment may be much more debilitating than the disease itself, which at that stage may not be causing any obvious symptoms at all.
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 16:53

As mentioned in the above answers as well, I would start with the Professor himself, asking him how he would advice you to proceed during his absence. I assume he would also take the necessary precautions for your research if he decides that he will not be able to continue being your advisor. I would communicate what he tells you to the department chair so that in case something unintended/ unexpected happens you have a backup plan already in place for your graduation requirements and completion of your work, which might include change of topic/ finding advisory committee member(s) outside your institution etc. I would like to add that it might be very difficult to complete the research and study on the language you work without the guidance of an expert on it. You will need to decide for yourself if you will have access to the necessary resources/guidance without your advisor in case that might end up being what you have to do. Hope he gets better and good luck to you!

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