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I am a Master's student in epidemiology. It's an insane time in our field right now. Of course, I find what's going on fascinating (that's why I am in this field), but extremely stressful as well.

I have 2 advisors. My primary advisor is not working on COVID-19 related stuff. So, although she's really busy trying to re-plan all of her classes to be remote and just reorganize everything, she is not responding directly to the outbreak. My co-advisor, however, is on the response team for the outbreak in my country. Basically, she is working with the government to create models to predict the trajectory of the disease. I had a meeting with her 1.5 weeks ago and she said basically all she has on her mind is COVID-19. That was before the world went into quarantine so I imagine things have become even busier for her.

My primary advisor sent me an email today talking about how to move forward and in the email she mentioned that it does depend on how busy my co-advisor is (but also assured me we would figure this all out).

Unfortunately, the project I am working on now is a modelling project and my primary advisor isn't a modeller, so it's my co-advisor that needs to move the project forward. I still have other things to do for my thesis, but I am almost done those other things and I am just in the editing stages. I have a lot more to do on my modelling project, but my co-advisor is extremely busy right now. I am finished what she asked me to do a couple of weeks ago and want to send it to her.

Sorry for the long post explaining my situation. My question is, should I send her the things the I have finished or would that be a bit tone-deaf? What should I even say in the email? I don't want to come off as not caring about the biggest health crisis in at least a decade while asking her to review something that's not even related to COVID-19. How should I even frame the email or should I hold off from sending her things for a few weeks?

If it makes a difference, although I do have an office, I can do 100% of my work remotely (and do usually work from home at least 3 days a week).

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    You note, it's my co-advisor that needs to move the project forward, but surely it's you that needs to move forwards, especially as your thesis is nearly complete. Your co-advisor is on the response team for the outbreak in my country, which can be their only priority. If you cannot move forwards without them, then maybe ask your department to find a solution, e.g., find you a third advisor. – user2768 Mar 18 at 16:22
  • She tells me what to do next. For this project, I do small steps at a time. I work on creating something for a couple weeks, show it to her, and then she tells me what I should look at as next steps. After I finish that, she tells me additional steps. – aspire94 Mar 18 at 16:35
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    At the masters level, it should be fine for you to drive your thesis forward yourself. You could come up with next steps on your own, and then send your thesis advisor your current batch of results and describe what you are going to do next. Say you understand she is busy with the response and you just wanted to keep her looped in. When you are interviewing for jobs, this will be a great story to provide evidence of independence and self-direction. – jkpate Mar 19 at 18:05
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As someone who's been out of academia for a while, I would like to offer a different perspective. Yes, occupying your co-advisor's attention when the roof is on fire is tone-deaf. However: you have acquired skills that are obviously in high demand these days, and are thrown into a (hopefully) once-in-a lifetime situation to apply these skills. Especially since you're not on a strict deadline with your thesis, there are now more important things than finishing the thesis at the scheduled time. See this as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

Check if this is okay with your primary advisor, then send a mail to your co-advisor saying that you would be glad to put your thesis on ice and help her with her COVID work if she has anything you could be of help with. If you are a capable student, she probably will.

Then, when things have calmed down, reevaluate the situation, see what you have learned in the meantime, and continue from there.

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    +100 for “once in a lifetime situation”. It truly is a unique opportunity for OP to do cutting edge science that benefits humanity. – Dan Romik Mar 19 at 22:37
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    I'd add that from a selfish perspective, COVID-19 papers are likely going to get a fast track and a ton of citations right now. If you can help out your co-adviser, it will likely be good for your career as well as helping the world. – Barker Mar 19 at 22:55
  • I agree with this in total. I would send an email to update her on your status, ask for feedback explicitly saying you understand if it will not be a timely feedback, and then offer your help with sharing some work, this last only if it is in your interest (and it would really benefit you, so it should really be). – bracco23 Mar 20 at 14:58
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Yes, it’s fine to email her, but the email should be a lot shorter than your post here. Keep it to an absolute minimum and spare your poor overworked co-adviser having to read any unnecessary apologies, hand-wringing, expressions of sympathy and whatnot.

Something like this might work:

Dear co-adviser,

I’m following up on our meeting from last week. As you remember, I need some input from you on Project X. Specifically:

  1. A (by March 29 if at all possible)
  2. B (deadline April 21)
  3. C (anytime before mid-May)

See attached documents.

I understand you are extremely busy with COVID-19 related matters. If you think you cannot help with this, could you please at least reply with a quick acknowledgement and/or suggest some other people or resources I could use to be able to complete the project? I would greatly appreciate it.

Thanks,

aspire94

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    That's close to perfect. Maybe add an 'if I don't hear from you I'll be doing X' type of comment? – user2705196 Mar 19 at 1:53
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    ...and if OP is willing/interested, an offer to help with the COVID-19 work. – WBT Mar 19 at 18:14
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    -1 because while the suggested email would work well in most situations, this is not a normal situation. The professor is literally working round the clock to save lives. This is no time to ask for "acknowledgment" or suggestions. You either help the firefighting or step out of the way. The thesis can wait. – Sam Mar 21 at 14:52
  • @Sam thanks for the comment. We don’t know that the co-adviser is “literally working round the clock to save lives”, that’s your own interpretation. What we were told is that “she is working with the government to create models to predict the trajectory of the disease”. I’m guessing she still has time to eat, read the news, and do other mundane things, including attend to a few non-COVID-19-related work matters here and there. The situation is certainly not normal, but there isn’t anything offensive about the email. And if she truly doesn’t have time to read or answer it, obviously she won’t. – Dan Romik Mar 21 at 17:16
  • +1. I am not a native English speaker so I may be wrong, but "See attachments" sound imperative to me. I would recommend to set up some cloud service (Dropbox,...) or a github repository and write something like "I will put [work] in [service]. When the situation is back to normal, you can use it to check my progress." – Taladris Mar 22 at 2:25
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I don't see any harm in sending this co-adviser the work you've completed, provided you include a cover message saying that you're aware how busy she is with the high-priority work on the COVID-19 epidemic but you'd really appreciate it if she could find time to suggest what you should do next.

That was assuming that, when you wrote "she tells me what to do next", you meant that you really have no idea what to do next without being told. If, on the other hand, you do have an idea, you might mention it in your cover message. Something like "Might it be reasonable to look into X next?" could make it easier for her to either just say yes or suggest an alternative.

By the way, although things may be very different in your field, my experience has been that the students who always need to be told exactly what to do tend to be the weaker students. You (and in particular your letters of recommendation) might benefit if you can produce, on your own, some ideas about how to continue.

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    I wouldn't call myself a weak student... I am actually one of the stronger students in the program. It depends on which project I am working on. My first project (which I am in the editing stages of now), I did that very independently. I had guidance at the beginning to set the project up, and of course I had questions during my weekly meetings, but in general I always knew what to do next. That was the project where my primary advisor was in charge of. My co-advisor just does things a bit differently. That being said, I could definitely suggest something to look into next. That's a good idea – aspire94 Mar 18 at 17:04
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    I would +1 except for the last paragraph. It's not exactly false, but what it seems to insinuate is that the OP is a weak student, and that doesn't seem fair here. – 6005 Mar 18 at 18:01
  • @aspire94 I'm glad you did an earlier project very independently. That's what I was hoping would happen when I wrote the last part of my answer, and it's good that it had already happened. Encourage your first adviser to mention your independence in the letter of recommendation. – Andreas Blass Mar 18 at 23:12
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    I actually think the last (third) paragraph is an important piece of information, and thoughtfully delivered. – Daniel R. Collins Mar 19 at 1:48
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    The third paragraph is poorly considered because it gives causative weight where it isn't warranted. If you are a strong student and you come up with independent ideas, that's great and people will take notice. If you are any kind of student and you let your advisor come up with ideas, that's probably fine. If you are a weak student and you come up with independent ideas, you're sunk. Going your own way is not going to make you strong if you're not already; it merely highlights your existing strength. – Xerxes Mar 19 at 14:04
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Can you adapt your model to deal with the problem that is interesting everyone else? You don't have to come up with a magical solution to modeling the COVID outbreak, just use your knowledge to say something interesting and relevant. Help your co-advisor with the collection and synthesis of data, do your bit of modeling and write it all up. The level of interest in the topic will out-weigh the downsides of having to change tack at this late stage of your studies.

You need to discuss this (or any other option) with your primary advisor first.

Keep the material you have already completed, and try to discuss it with your co-advisor in if and when the COVID outbreak is under control.

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  • I can't really do that. My second project (current one) has to be somewhat related to my first one. And my first one is completely unrelated to COVID or even viruses (I am looking at a bacteria). My model cannot be adapted to COVID. It just won't work, what I am studying and COVID are completely different things. I have contacted my primary advisor who is asking what my other advisor is doing with regards to student feedback – aspire94 Mar 20 at 16:44
  • OK, I can see that the idea of adapting your model was misplaced. Offering to help out with managing data might still be a good move ... though I don't know how this works in your field. Otherwise, I support the suggestions above that a polite email would be worthwhile. – M Juckes Mar 20 at 21:53
  • @aspire94 All disease modeling projects are "somewhat related" - if there's an option to help with the modeling that your coadvisor is doing, you might do something of immediate practical use, and get coauthorship on a decent paper that's relevant right now, which iwould IMHO just as (or even more) useful for a final thesis than another bacteria-related modeling project. – Peteris Mar 21 at 14:55
  • @Peteris My first project is not a disease modelling project, so the topics have to be related. In this department, your topics need to be related. So if my results from my first project showed something, I have to somehow implement those findings into my second project. We can't do 2 completely distinct modelling projects. But I will ask my advisor if there is anything I can help with, and hopefully there is something (because I do really want to work on COVID-19) – aspire94 Mar 23 at 16:06
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I would go with

Dear Co-Advisor,
last week we agreed on ...
Of course, all our previous plans are now obsolete.
Please let me know if I can be of any help. 
If not, as I want to continue my work withouth putting any burden on you, 
I appreciate if you point me towards someone I could get in touch with. 
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