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I'm currently doing a PhD in mathematics and have been working with my current adviser for almost a year. My adviser is at an advanced age, however, even though he still has a couple of more graduate students apart from me. My work has been going decent, but with oral qualifying examinations coming up, I'm confused if having a co-adviser may be a good idea for me. There are a couple of reasons for me to think so.

First is the fact that my adviser is at an advanced age. Secondly, while my adviser was away for a semester last year, I worked with another faculty member, who recently told me to consider if I wanted him as a co-adviser. I've not spoken about this issue with my adviser yet.

In this situation, I'm really confused about two issues. Firstly, will it be a good idea to have a co-adviser at all in my case, or should I continue having a single adviser while continuing my work with the other faculty member and keep him in my committee? Secondly, if I indeed choose to have a co-adviser, how should I bring it up with my principal adviser so that he doesn't mind? This has left me very confused recently and I'd love to hear some general advise in this situation.

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I wonder why it is necessary to formalize an advising relationship at this time. If you are getting good advice from a second person, you are fine. If something happens to remove your principle advisor from the picture, you have a backup.

I also wonder what you mean by "advanced age". Many grad students think that 55 or so is old. I passed that milestone 20 years ago and am still kicking mentally (though you can judge that from my writings here).

But if you do think a formal relationship is advisable, you might tell your principle advisor (a) that you have been getting good advice from the other person and (b) s/he has suggested a formal relationship. Ask what they recommend. But don't bring up age - please. Such a formal relationship can be good for the other person, of course, and may be the principle reason why it was suggested.

It doesn't need to be a "touchy subject".

  • My university requires me to submit a form before my oral qualifying exam with the names of all faculty members on my committee. It also asks if someone mentioned there is an adviser/co-adviser or a member. So I have to declare a formal relationship now if I intend to have a co-adviser. And, of course, I won't bring up age. – adrija May 21 at 16:00
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There are pluses and minuses, but usually it's a net positive to have two advisors. Two sources of advice, expertise. Ability to play things more towards being your own boss. Also, ability to work more with one than the other if some conflict starts to emerge.

I think you should generally have some subject matter rationale for the two advisors though. One is old is not a good reason. And usually older advisors are kinder/gentler/better...young ones needing tenure are the worst. If anything being towards the last advisees of a famous older advisor is slightly noteworthy. I was the last Ph.D. student of Linus Pauling--not really, but you get the cool factor. Don't underestimate being plugged into the network of the former advisees of the old big wheel either.

If you are doing something cross-disciplinary or cross-topic, this is best justification for the two advisors. E.g. I'm doing comparison of circuits to fireflies and want an EE and a biologist advisor. Or...I'm doing synthesis of compounds for fluorescence studies (want a synthesist and a laser jock).

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