I'm in a rough place right now in the homestretch of my PhD, and I'm looking for advice. I've recently reached out to my advisor about this, but they are not responding to my emails, hence me asking this question here.

My advisor is on sabbatical this year (my final year of my graduate program). Three months ago, I sent my advisor a more-or-less complete draft of my thesis, and I have not heard anything at all from them since. No edits, no comments, nothing. In part, I feel responsible for this situation; I was slated to finish last year, before my advisor left, and now they are having to edit my thesis while on sabbatical. I realize that this is a big burden. I am not sure whether or not I have the right to be upset about how long this has taken as a result.

My main concern that I have is that I want to defend before September 1st, as I have an academic job that is set to begin on that date (contingent on me actually being awarded a PhD). In order to give committee members enough time to review my thesis and for my university to process the necessary paperwork, I will likely need to have edits incorporated into my thesis by the first week or two of July. Given how long this is taking, I am not sure if this is possible anymore, and I am not sure who is ultimately to blame here.

My main question is this: Is it out of the question for someone in my position to ask their new employer whether or not it is OK to defend their PhD after the start date of their new job? Would I most likely have the offer revoked if I do so? I realize that there is know surefire way of knowing without actually asking, but I'm looking for some advice before potentially shooting myself in the foot here.

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    A sabbatical is not time off work for an academic. Is your advisor answering any other type of emails? Does they have other students to whom they are responding? – Emilie Jun 11 '19 at 12:35
  • As @emile hinted, "now they are having to edit my thesis while on sabbatical" It is perfectly normal to supervise PhD students, including thesis writing, while on sabbatical. However, I would add that your supervisor is not an editor. They should critique, not edit. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 12 '19 at 10:43
  • @Emilie A sabbatical does relieve the academic of a large number of duties, which may include academic advising, to be replaced by specific academic pursuits like visiting research or writing a book. Students are often advised to take prelims/qualify/defend outside of the sabbatical period. It isn't merely "working remotely". – user71659 Jun 12 '19 at 17:49

I'm going to just guess that meeting your tight deadlines will be impossible with an advisor on sabbatical. So you need some short term action that will preserve your position.

You can certainly ask a new employer about starting before you have officially received the degree and they might be fine with that, or not. But it would be more likely to be a positive decision if they had some quasi official assurance that your timely and successful completion is not in doubt.

You might try one or both of the following. Ask your advisor for a letter, assuring the reader (your potential employer) that completion is a pretty much pro forma situation. "We need to dot some i's and cross some t's etc."

Go to the department head and get confirmation of the above and even his/her help in getting that letter from your advisor. The head might also include an additional supporting letter, confirming that your progress is on track, etc.

Many employers would be supportive as long as the situation doesn't seem like it will go on and you wind up ABD or unable to do the job you are being hired for. Of course, there may be some situations in which there are firm, legal, requirements that you get the degree before starting the job, but those are likely rare. But I'm assuming this is an industrial job, not an academic position, which might well have firm requirements to start.

Another option, perhaps, is to ask the employer for a delayed start date. But that request would also be positively supported by the sort of letter(s) mentioned above.

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  • Did you mis-speak? "assuring the reader (your potential employer) that completion is not [???] a pretty much pro forma situation" ? – paul garrett Jun 11 '19 at 16:37
  • oops. @paulgarrett. Thanks. I guess I changed my thought process in the middle of the sentence. Aged aged prof. – Buffy Jun 11 '19 at 16:39
  • "Of course, there may be some situations in which there are firm, legal, requirements that you get the degree before starting the job, but those are likely rare." I have been employed at two universities after getting my PhD. At one of these universities I had a postdoctoral position and had to show my PhD as part of registration. At the other university I am involved with hiring postdocs and know that they need either a PhD or an official letter saying they have completed all PhD requirements (including having defended their thesis!!). So maybe not so rare? – Pete L. Clark Jun 11 '19 at 18:37
  • @PeteL.Clark, I was reading it as an industrial job, not an academic one. But, yes, more likely a firm requirement for an academic job. – Buffy Jun 11 '19 at 19:00

I fear that if you have got to this point in mid-June, it will now be too late for you to submit in early July - at least unless any changes are very minor.

However, provided that you have tried a number of times to contact your advisor, it is reasonable for you to escalate this elsewhere. After all, whether or not your advisor is on sabbatical, it is reasonable for you to expect that somebody in the department will review your thesis.

I would identify an appropriate person (depending on country and university this might be a head of department, or a director of studies, or somebody in charge of postgraduate research students, or similar. Or just ask a member of staff that you know well for their advice and they can probably point you at the right person). I would approach that person, explain the situation, and ask for their help. Do not complain about your advisor, or blame them - just outline what has happened to date, explain why it is urgent, and ask the department to make arrangements for somebody to give you feedback (this may be your advisor, or maybe they will appoint somebody else).

It might be wise to warn your prospective employer of the problem. If they have offered you the job contingent on your completing your PhD in time, they obviously want you, and if you can explain that the delay is not your fault then there is a good chance - though of course not a guarantee - that they will make allowances. It is important to discuss it with them soon, both out of politeness and so that if they say "no", you have time to look for a different job. If they want evidence, then the person you speak to in your department above may be able to write a letter for you.

Good luck!

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