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This has not happened to me, but to a friend in the final stages of her PhD, she and the rest of the research group are understandably devastated, as the advisor was not only (in my friend's words), brilliant, but very kind and approachable.

My friend and all the research students are also worried about their research projects, as the advisor was one of the top researchers in that field and apparently, the only researcher in that university. The associate advisors have indeed stepped up, but as good as they are, they do not have the insight that the late advisor had.

What is a bit of advice that people may have for this situation?

One suggestion is that the research group (students, co-authors etc) band together to help each other out, with the guidance of the associate advisors.

I have looked over this question and the posted answers, but I feel that this situation is considerably different as there is the ever-present aspect of the feelings of loss, that are present and should not be ignored.

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    Sounds really hard. I would recommend reaching out to the advisor's collaborators, and/or others at other universities working on related topics. Under the circumstances, I imagine some of them would be willing to pitch in some effort helping out the stranded students. Best wishes to your friend. – Anonymous Aug 3 '13 at 1:00
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    Not an answer and I am not being insensitive. You must realise that research does not stop if one person passes away. Its not the same though. Seek another expert from another university. Many will be glad to help in your case. – Javeer Baker Aug 3 '13 at 1:03
  • @JaveerBaker, no, you're not being insensitive, that is the same pragmatism my friend has. – user7130 Aug 3 '13 at 21:28
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We had a similar situation at my university when a professor running a large group with millions of research dollars passed away. There are a few issues that have to be dealt with, and usually the department chair and/or the dean play a major role in this

  • research funding: often this can be transferred (in consultation with program managers) to faculty in related areas who (depending on the degree of involvement in the research) either merely manage the money for the students involved, or might play a more active role in spending it.

  • students: students need committees and replacement advisors. Again, the department chair, in consultation with the students and related faculty, might be able to assign faculty as caretakers for the students.

  • teaching/committees: while there are likely significant teaching/committee disruptions, these don't affect the former students of the researcher, so I'll ignore this component.

My view is that students that are close to graduating need someone who can sign off on their thesis work (hopefully without too much modification). They hopefully already have a few other people who can write letters for them for jobs, and can mention the advisor's demise in their letters to explain the absence.

Students earlier in the Ph.D program (say just post-qualifying) are in the biggest bind: they've spent enough time in their research area to have committed to a topic, but now they have no one to guide them. They are the ones who probably need the most help from senior students, other faculty and the department.

Students early in the program have the option of switching advisors, or even schools if there's no one else in the department who can advise them/fund them/works in their areas of interest. Again, the department is usually sympathetic and might be able to provide such students with short term funding via TAships if that's an issue.

None of this of course addresses the feelings of grief and loss

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    +1, the main player will be the department chair and/or the dean; he's the person in charge at that point – F'x Aug 3 '13 at 7:31
  • great advice, according to my friend, this is pretty much what is starting to happen. – user7130 Aug 3 '13 at 21:32
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This is without doubt a tragic situation. However, it is not an insurmountable problem.

As you suggested, the important thing is to allow both the grieving process and the research to continue at their appropriate paces. Without the room to understand and deal with what's happened, the research can't really go as it's supposed to, and the work is needed to provide a focus so that grief doesn't completely bring the group to a standstill.

From an emotional perspective, I'd certainly recommend that the department make a counselor available to the group members, and to encourage them to talk about things, rather than to shove them aside.

With respect to the research, there really isn't a completely satisfactory solution. It really does need to be a group-wide effort, as you've suggested, with collaborators and co-advisors stepping up to take a senior role. Another idea might be to reach out to former group members who are still active in academia to help with mentoring the group members. Note that this is not the same thing as being a full-fledged advisor; this is more of having an extra person to talk to when needed.

(This is also why good short-, mid- and long-range planning is essential for everybody, and why thesis committees and planning meetings with the advisor are so important for graduate students. If appropriate plans-to-finish and related strategies are in place, then it should be largely a matter of executing those plans, rather than trying to devise something new without the advisor's help.)

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    Yes, good advice, my friend and her colleagues are seeing a counsellor, they are truly banding together. – user7130 Aug 3 '13 at 21:31

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