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I'm posting for a friend in the interest of anonymity.

For context, they're in the third year of a US mathematics PhD, and are currently without an advisor following the failure of an 18 month academic relationship with a highly prominent senior faculty member. What can be said of their academic relationship was that it often consisted of generally unhealthy behaviours (e.g. frequent extended yelling) from the advisor. The decision to terminate the relationship was taken by the advisor, and the official position is that the cause of its failure was personal incompatibility and diverging research interests. The advisor officially is available to provide strong recommendation letters to potential alternative advisors.

My friend intends to remain in the PhD program, but the problem is that there are no other professors with a similar research interest at their institution. They currently have a new internal co-advisor, and the department is generally on board with supporting an external arrangement. The alternative would be to start from scratch in a radically different research area at a somewhat late stage in their degree.

The question is, how should they go about cold-emailing potential advisors from other universities? Their interim advisor has suggested that the most important aspect of such an email would be addressing the double red flags associated with having an previous academic relationship fail and their stated research incompatibility with any of the many other members of their department. My friend believes that it is necessary to clearly address the situation (in neutral terms without negative language) in such an email, and that not accounting for their work over the past 18 months is not an option.

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    Halfway through third year is late to start with a new advisor, but it’s not that late. I’d be inclined to just find an advisor at the same university but in a different subfield. – Noah Snyder Nov 15 '20 at 2:48
  • Do the universities you're interested in applying to require you to have contacted a potential advisor before applying for their PhD program, or would you be able to just apply for a position there and then work out your advisor afterwards? – nick012000 Nov 15 '20 at 3:38
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    I think your friend is better off starting over in some other PhD program, in particular one where there are several potential advisors. – Alexander Woo Nov 15 '20 at 4:58
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    I don’t see how “cold-emailing” faculty you don’t know at all could work out. Off-hand, I see three options: (1) faculty at your current school contacts a friend/collaborator at another school and tries to get them interested in you, (2) you stay at your current school and work in a (slightly?) different field (as you say it would mean changing fields) which, being early in year 3, wouldn’t be the end of the world, or (3) you re-apply for a new Ph.D. elsewhere. – gnometorule Nov 15 '20 at 14:24
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(Written as if directly to your friend.) Depending on where you are, "starting over" may not mean starting at the beginning. In a new program you would likely be already more advanced than you once were. In particular, you may be much closer to passing any necessary comprehensive exams. And you have a more sophisticated view of research in the subject.

But, to remain where you are, with your current co-advisor, I'd suggest that you first try to work through that person rather than cold-emailing people and having to explain a difficult situation. While the blame for the current situation might lie completely with the former advisor, it won't necessarily be interpreted that way by people you contact yourself. "Why would I want to work with someone who ...?"

But your co-advisor has contacts, I hope, and they can contact others. The explanation of what is going on and your potential for success will be better believed coming from a third party.

Of course, there may be other faculty level advocates you can also use.

But at least you should explore this possibility with the co-advisor. Likewise, the possibility of moving can be discussed and the co-advisor can also help with that if necessary.

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  • Thank you for your response, my friend has found this and the other comments very helpful. – bluecat May 17 at 15:14

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