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Asking for a friend who is a grad student in a social science.

They have just finished their coursework and passed their quals. Upon entering the program, their faculty advisor suddenly left the department. After 18 months with a new advisor, this professor is also leaving. Neither advisor was great in that they were unresponsive. So my friend is not overly devestated to lose their second advisor.

Yet, since being abandoned by two advisors doesn't feel like a great thing, it still feels like a setback. Is there anything my friend can do to turn this situation to their advantage? I mean aside from being able to now work with a professor who is more supportive (should such a professor exist).

To be more precise, are you aware (or can you conceive) of situations in which a person who suffered a similar fate is compensated in one way or another (I don't mean monetarily)?

Edit: PhD program is in the US. Second, my friend's age and stage in the program doesn't really allow them to start over in another program.

  • Honestly,it sound as that department is highly toxic, I would advise your friend to leave also. – SSimon Nov 23 '19 at 15:16
  • United States? A – user115896 Nov 23 '19 at 15:31
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    @SSimon, I disagree that you can conclude it is toxic. People leave for better opportunities all the time. In a large department in the US there can be turnover of junior faculty, especially. Junior faculty can also be "unresponsive" if they are working toward their own goals - especially tenure. (US perspective) – Buffy Nov 23 '19 at 16:08
  • Did your outgoing advisor offer to take you with them to their new institution? Did your department offer to help find you a new academic advisor (and a funding source if necessary)? – Brian Borchers Nov 23 '19 at 18:58
  • @buffy I don't agree with you. It is 2020 and it is really hard to find possition. If many people are living same workplace fast than ever I would see that as a red flag. – SSimon Nov 24 '19 at 4:01
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In my opinion your friend should talk to the director of studies or whoever is in charge of the PhD program. They should explain that their situation is far from ideal and ask for advice. The objectives of such a meeting would be to:

  • Appear on the institution radar as somebody who may have face difficulties due to these circumstances. This can help the institution anticipate problems if they can, and could make them more responsive in case of more serious problems at a later stage.
  • Take any advice that can be offered: this might include suggestions to work with a particular professor or any other kind of help.
  • If they already have an idea of somebody they would like to work with, make a case for it: the institution might encourage the academic to take them on.
  • Gauge the level of attention/care given to their problem: for example if it turns out to be difficult to even talk to the person in charge, it says something about how much the institution cares about their students.

In general it's a sign that your friend should not count too much on supervision in this institution. Maybe they can turn their attention and efforts towards collaborations with external researchers related to their topic. Depending on the institution response, maybe the positive perspective would be to embrace being autonomous and having more freedom to work with people they like.

  • Thanks for the advice, Erwan! Particularly the external research opportunities sound like a promising way forward. Sometimes the faculty advisor has certain formal responsibilties so that they cannot be circumvented, like signing certain paperwork for the grad student, do you have any advice on when they don't? – Tea Tree Nov 28 '19 at 1:18
  • @TeaTree: a supervisor must at the very least fulfill their administrative responsibilities. People can be busy but signing paperwork is not really time-consuming. If a supervisor cannot be trusted to do this kind of basic task (within a reasonable time frame, say a couple weeks to be generous), then they are not doing their job and should be reported to the administration. – Erwan Nov 28 '19 at 1:41

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