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I am currently doing my Masters in a program that has both a practicum component and a thesis component. My research supervisor and I had been working over the past few years on a thesis topic. The last time I spoke with her was at the end of March and we were close to defending a research proposal (I just needed to do a few edits to the proposal). Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and research was closed down for a few months during the summer. At the same time, I had to adjust to doing my practicum placement online. I didn’t hear anything from my supervisor during the summer and to be honest, I didn’t get in contact with her because I understood that her expectation was that I would get in touch once I had something to share.

In September, I tried to get in touch with my supervisor using her university email and I kept getting an error that it was “undeliverable”. I tried looking on the faculty listing and noticed that I could no longer find her there. I got in contact with one of the graduate student assistants in my program and told them about the situation and they told me to email my supervisor on her personal email. I finally received an email from her, and she informed me that she left the university at the end of June because her the funding for one of her programs was cut. She also mentioned that she had informed the head of the department with my name and thesis topic and asked them to check in with me. I was never informed about this change. My supervisor didn’t send me an email to inform me when this happened in June and I still haven’t been contacted by anyone from the department.

I have tried to get in contact with a professor at my department and they basically said that I need to get in contact with a different person who would set me up with a new supervisor. This prof informed me that depending on how that conversation goes and who the possible available supervisor would be, I would have the following two options:

  1. start working on a completely new research topic + proposal with a new research supervisor – which would mean that I would have to start my lit review all over again

  2. possibility of continuing my current proposal if someone is willing to take it but knowing that no one has any expertise in that area

Considering that there is no one else in my department that focuses on my topic and I was counting on my supervisor’s expertise to guide me, my only option is to start all over again. This means that I will have to delay my graduation by a year. I feel so burnt out and the thought of having to start all over again is excruciatingly painful.

So, my question is:

  1. Am I right to be upset that no one informed me that my supervisor was leaving/has left? I am not sure if I am justified in expecting the department to have gotten in contact with me by now? And expecting them to not have put the burden on me to figure out who to get in touch with to sort this situation? I feel like if I was informed in June, I could have started on literature review for a new topic much sooner rather than wasting time on my current topic.

  2. What are my options here? have you been in a similar situation? what should I do? Part of me wants to just push through and start the new project. Another part of me wants to give up on the thesis and just switch to an equivalent program without a thesis.

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    6 months and not even an email to your supervisor? – Solar Mike Sep 30 at 5:27
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    What field is this (roughly)? In humanities graduate students tend to be largely independent of their advisors; in sciences it would be extremely unusual for neither the student nor the advisor to contact the other for six months. The norms of your area are probably relevant to your question. – Raghu Parthasarathy Sep 30 at 5:35
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    Yes, you are very right to be upset (but it won't help you). – user111388 Sep 30 at 6:28
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    @SolarMike - So the professor has no obligation to even drop one of their students an email saying sorry, plans change, I'm out of here? The expectation of the OP to communicate with the professor when the research has hit a given point is fine. For the professor to leave without saying anything is, well, weird. But these are weird times. – Jon Custer Sep 30 at 20:02
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    "It is an MA in counselling psychology in a North American university," And it's widely believed (by the rest of the world) that Americans don't understand irony! – alephzero Oct 1 at 0:53
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  1. I think your advisor should have set you up with another advisor before she left. Also she should have informed you, a meeting would be nice. It really is the least she could do, and In my experience this is common (including setting up with another advisor part)

  2. Now, you can find an advisor on your own and defend to keep your topic. You will have to advise yourself a bit but if the new advisor is on board, why not?

  3. Don't you already have a committee for your thesis? Usually there is the advisor but also additional committee members whose topics are somewhat close. Well, pick the second one or the third.

  4. If you are very fond of your advisor, you can try to switch universities - you would be transferring credits (all or some at least), so you wouldn't start over a program per se but of course still you would lose time. And I wouldn't count on your relationship with your advisor considering you haven't been in contact often.

  5. Even if you would have to start over a thesis, can't you find a tangent that can make what you have so far useful?

  6. Check with your advisor more often in the future :)

  7. Also, if you have a good match, starting over might not be the worst idea. A thesis doesn't happen over time, mostly the time here and there you focused and got an insight matters most and makes up the most of the thesis. This time you can try to focus and stay in touch with your advisor and push through! A lot of time is spent procrastinating anyway, and be honest where you currently stand with your current thesis and evaluate your situation (not in semesters but in progress)

I have witnessed people having to switch advisors, topics, start over, change institutions. It happens.

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  • -1 University leadership is responsible for this mess, not the supervisor who left. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 3 at 1:18
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    Not at all, university never arranges who is advising who, you and your advisor decide together, fill required forms. It is always between you and the advisor. If the advisor can't even take 2 minutes to write an email, it tells a lot about them. Any decent person would have contact their grad student to let them know at least. – dusa Oct 5 at 6:44
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Am I right to be upset that no one informed me that my supervisor was leaving/has left?

While it sounds like your subject (counselling psychology) is much closer than mine (mathematics) to understanding human emotions, I would suggest that it may not be productive to think of emotions in terms of "right" and "wrong". I don't know what your personal relationship with your advisor was, or what the norms/expectations are in your field/department with respect to supervisor relationships. While in most instances, I would expect a supervisor to let their students know personally if they are leaving the institution, it sounds like this may have been a sudden leave and supervisory expectations for masters theses can be quite different than for PhD theses. (In math in the US, the former is quite rare.) To continue...

she had informed the head of the department with my name and thesis topic and asked them to check in with me. I was never informed about this change. My supervisor didn’t send me an email to inform me when this happened in June and I still haven’t been contacted by anyone from the department

With the pandemic and other disasters, I would guess that someone accidentally dropped the ball, so you could be upset, or be understanding, or some combination of both, but I don't think that any particular "choice" of these emotions is "right."

Anyway, after you learned this, did you contact the head of the department? If not, try this and/or the graduate student director if your department has one. Presumably your former supervisor's goal was that the head of the department would try to find you a new supervisor under which you can continue your current project. I don't know how it is in your field/department, but in mine if your thesis was essentially done, we would just have someone else formally complete the supervision even if we don't have an expert in the area.

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    This right does not mean the right of right and wrong rather means is it reasonable. – user2617804 Oct 1 at 23:27
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    @user2617804 Maybe, maybe not. I don't know what the OP was thinking, but to my ears it is phrased like "am I correct to be upset" or "should I be upset". In any case, the point it you can think about this from multiple points of view and have mixed feelings about the situation. – Kimball Oct 2 at 22:45
  • This answer is much too generous to the university. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 3 at 1:16
  • This is a decent answer, but honestly I gave it the upvote mainly for this line: “ While it sounds like your subject (counselling psychology) is much closer than mine (mathematics) to understanding human emotions...” – Damila Oct 4 at 4:34
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Is your supervisor out of academia or does she simply switch the university?

Is there some possibility at your university, that someone external be a second supervisor of a thesis?

If not:

Maybe it will be fine for her if you find some "official" supervisor at your university, without the expertise, but she will be for you there to answer some questions you have? It can be that at the end the work will be published, so this would be also beneficial for her.

I would contact her if such a possibility exists, if yes, I would then start to look for some supervisor at your university who is fine with this.

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    I also think this is worth while exploring. At some European universities where I have been, the officers doing the administration of student exams (such as theses) very often very helpful and resourceful helping students in unusual circumstances. OTOH, see comment at question... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Sep 30 at 20:17
  • If your supervisor switched university, you may want to elaborate ways to finish your thesis there. – Alexander Oct 1 at 7:52
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This was something I dealt with more than once as steward and executive officer for my Graduate employees union.

First of all, your feelings on the matter are completely valid. I know it's a scary place to be, and I'm really surprised that Universities don't have better established protocols for dealing with this. Try not to panic, and don't worry if you don't have a representative. There wasn't much the union could do in these cases except act as an official witness during some meetings.

Secondly, in the cases I encountered, the graduate students were always able to have another faculty member step in and take over as primary advisor. I'm pretty sure they all were able to defend on the same thesis topic they were already working on, mostly on-time. Your thesis is about the work you have done, so it should all still apply, even if the new advisor isn't necessarily specializing in that field. Some academic departments have faculty committees for student welfare or sometimes a graduate student advisory committee. Those might be helpful resources, if they are available. You could also try reaching to any committee members (assuming you have one), department chair's, or any other faculty you've worked with. I find that most faculty are willing and able to help students in their department succeed.

I'll caveat some of this by saying that I only dealt with cases in the sciences where most students were on some form of assistantship funding (either teaching or research). I know that not all departments work the same.

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Am I right to be upset that no one informed me that my supervisor was leaving/has left?

Yes. University leadership has an obligation to ensure thesis research is adequately supervised. Part of that obligation is to promptly inform students that a supervisor has left the university. This should have happened within 24 hours of departure, if not before departure. The pandemic is not a valid excuse for a mistake this bad.

You ought to be receiving an official apology and a refund of any tuition or fees you paid for the period you were not supervised. However, my guess is the university does not have any money with which to make refunds.

what should I do?

I would recommend continuing your current thesis with a new supervisor. Most academics will be very sympathetic to students in this situation and will want to help you. If your new supervisor is not an expert in the topic, they should attempt to get you help from other universities.

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