My dissertation advisor (committee chair) just informed me that he is severely ill and will leave the program very soon. His physical condition does not allow him to continue with any kind of advisory work, and that's happening all of a sudden.

We have been on this dissertation topic for almost 10 months, and I have drafted the proposal. The data has been collected and transcribed (not like we collected the data before the proposal but the data was already there and I transcribed them for partial sample analysis in the proposal). The original plan is to propose on April or May and do the defense by the end of summer.

Now I am still in the middle of shock and I don't know what to do next.


Add: My department is a relatively small one, with a limited number of faculty members and each having really their own expertise. This makes the situation even more complicated as if I am going to switch to another advisor within the department-which I ultimately will have to-their expertise will not be a match to my advisor's and mine. This worries me a lot.

  • 8
    Time for a meeting with the department chair or graduate advisor to discuss the path forward. Ideally this should not negatively impact you since you have no fault here.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 15:22
  • @JonCuster, I think that is a good answer, actually. I was about to write it.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 15:24
  • @JonCuster I have scheduled a meeting with the department chair but it'll take a few days cause the chair is on vacation (spring break) while I am seeking for external help to see if there's anything I can do. We are a small department with a limited number of faculties, so it will definitely impact me to some extent.
    – Katie
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 15:24
  • "but it'll take a few days" This might be a good thing. You have some time to cool down and can then seek the best solution together with the department chair. Are there other students in a similar situation? You might be able to team up and evaluate possible ways out together. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 16:56
  • @Snijderfrey There are a number of students who are in the similar situation, but we are at different stages of finishing the degree. Some were doing qualifying projects towards candidacy with my advisor, and some are still forming up the dissertation idea. To be honest, they are more flexible than I am since I am almost at the proposal stage and on a tighter schedule than anyone else. Teaming up with people in the department will not help me out to some extent.
    – Katie
    Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 1:59

3 Answers 3


This is a question for your director of graduate studies (DGS) or chair.

I would not anticipate any poor outcomes for you with regard to the defense specifically. In other words, you aren't going to be asked to come up with a new proposal that aligns with your "new advisor"'s line of work.

Of course, losing your advisor is a different story, but I'm sure the department will try their best to keep you on your schedule. (Although only a few months between proposal and defense? Is that usual in your department?)

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer! To have a short period between proposal and defense is not usual in my department, and it's a special case with the data set I am dealing with. I have to test out the models to make sure they work and therefore I transcribed all the data already. The usual path people take is to propose and collect data, then the defense, but for my case, the data collection has been done, so anything between the proposal (preliminarily approved by my advisor) and the defense is to analyze the rest part of the data if the proposal is approved.
    – Katie
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 15:34

If you have some close collaborators, it might also be possible to have them as your advisor. I know a few students who have scientists from national labs as their advisor.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 20:51
  • thanks for the comment, but I guess the grad school requires faculty from the department to take the committee chair so collaborators are not an option as of committee chair issue.
    – Katie
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:10

Compatibility with research scholar and research supervisor is important for a successful research career. As you say that you work in a small department, see the available choices of supervisors, and choose the one who best matches with your research interests. Then discuss the research proposal with the new supervisor and either keep it or polish it or change it to an altogether new proposal as suggested by the new thesis supervisor. I was blessed with a great thesis supervisor in US and he allowed me to choose my own problem in control engineering, which was an open problem.

  • Thanks for the really practical suggestion!
    – Katie
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 15:40

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