I am a PhD student working with a professor I do not know very well, as a proposed supervisor, on several postdoctoral applications. The professor's mother passed away several weeks ago. Since that point, I have been working on these applications independently, but I have determined that one of these applications will no longer be feasible, given some of the application requirements.

I am unsure whether I should very briefly update (and emphasize that no response/action is needed) this professor via e-mail so that they know that their workload is reduced during the coming months, or whether I should wait until they've reached out to me asking for an update. For context, we did not establish a date at which we would resume communication.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  • I don't understand what the professor's role is. Are they helping you write the apps, or providing LOR? Jul 6, 2020 at 17:28
  • @AzorAhai--hehim Apologies! Lack of clarity on my part. The professor is the proposed supervisor for the postdoctoral fellowship.
    – user125706
    Jul 6, 2020 at 17:33
  • But there are multiple fellowships that you are applying to have them supervise you on? Jul 6, 2020 at 17:39
  • Also several weeks is quite some time. I am not rigid here, and I went through that immense loss right finishing my PhD. I know the pain. But it is irrelevant, somehow.
    – Alchimista
    Jul 8, 2020 at 11:40

2 Answers 2


Receiving an email starting with "No action needed, just an update" adds an infinitesimal amount to ones workload.

Wondering about whether some project is still going on, if its time yet to check in on the junior people involved and writing a request for information does take mental energy and a bit more time.

  • yes, especially if you put the "no action needed, just an updated" comment at the top of the e-mail (and/or indicate it in the subject line), before adding any other detail that might be useful if the professor does want more information about what's going on.
    – Ben Bolker
    Jul 6, 2020 at 17:59

A polite yet brief e-mail should be totally fine, especially given that you say the loss occurred "several" weeks ago. You didn't say your location, but in the US bereavement leave is usually much shorter than that, so it is reasonable in that case to expect that the proposed advisor is probably slowly returning to work.

I agree that prefacing the title of your e-mail with something like [brief update, no action needed] is a good idea. BUT, you are updating them with the news that you plan to stop work on one of your proposed applications, due to your determination that the application requirements make it a bad fit. However, the advisor may have a different opinion. If I were in their shoes, I would want the ability to examine a decision like that and make sure I agree, rather than being flatly told after the fact.

I would then take the cue for how soon you should return to normal communication patterns based on their response to this e-mail. If they write you a detailed response ASAP you can assume that you can write to them nearly as usual. If they take several days, they are still processing their loss. If they respond with anger, you might reconsider working with them.

  • Thank you so much for your insights, particularly that there is a possibility the advisor may have a different opinion on the feasibility of the application. I'm afraid I sent the e-mail before seeing this note. I do think/hope that in this particular context, my taking the decision may be at least somewhat acceptable. The initial plan had been to make just one application and that is the application I am proceeding with. The proposed supervisor had also not begun work on any of the applications. We shall see, in any case, fingers crossed.
    – user125706
    Jul 7, 2020 at 8:57

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