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I'm a 4th year PhD Student in engineering in the US. I'm in school #19 (ranking). My advisor is moving to #4, and wants me to go with him (promises no delay on time to graduation.) There are no other suitable advisors in #19, but I love the University and the city, and my partner is tied here for 4 more years (another PhD student). Any advice? I might want to consider academic positions in the future.

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    how much more time would you need to finish? To move for e.g. a year to the other city to finish the PhD and then moving would be possibility. Or, is it possible to do some or most of the work remote? So that you would only have to be in the other place for weeks at a time?
    – Sursula
    Apr 12, 2022 at 7:33
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    does your phd involves lab work?
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 12, 2022 at 9:50
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    With respect to your two-body problem, what were you planning to do for the 2-3 years after you got your PhD but before they completed theirs?
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 12, 2022 at 14:08
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    A note of solidarity here, I was in a similar position. Both were serious top universities, but my switch would have included a country change (back to my home country). I stayed put despite having no supervisor who understood my work. My fellow PhD left with the supervisor. Over 15 years later, I'm gainfully academically employed, I have a spectacular continuing research relationship with my original supervisor, and I don't regret my decision at all. That's me, not you, but I am an example of not moving being just fine. Apr 12, 2022 at 18:52
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    It would help to know the field. Remote work in math is easy enough. High energy physics maybe not so much.
    – Buffy
    Apr 12, 2022 at 20:04

7 Answers 7

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A few points:

Rated #4'th, rated #19'th - whatever; who cares.

Many people seem to have a bit of a fetish for these numeric rankings. Forget about them.

  • If your advisor was moving from a decent university to a poor one, or the other way around;
  • If he were moving to a department where the facilities you would enjoy are inferior or superior to what you have now;
  • If he were moving to a department with more people working on subjects relevant to your own work, or less such people;

... that would be worth mentioning. Otherwise, it's not relevant.

"Graduation"

It's not "graduation", mostly. It's the conclusion of your research work and your recognition as a Doctor of Philosophy. You're not a pupil going to school; you're a junior researcher, and don't you forget it! :-)

Anyway, Your advisor can probably not really promise you will complete your Ph.D. at the original planned time. Unless you've already done enough bankable research to just write-and-graduate (and even then it might not be so trivial - requirements may involve different coursework, for example; I wonder if he really checked.)

But the more important question is whether you expect to be able to conclude your research work successfully. If this is your fourth year, you probably have a subject and some directions you're pursuing. Would you be able to go on with him physically not there? How much do you actually collaborate?

Lots of possible arrangements

You could, quite possibly:

  • Get a second advisor, with your original one remaining as the co-advisor, or vise versa.

  • Stay registered at your university, but physically spend some of your time with him, as a visitor. I'm guessing this can be arranged in terms of your stipend/employment conditions (but do check).

  • Be registered at the new university, but still spend most of your time at your current city and perhaps even your university as a visiting scholar.

So think flexibly.

Of course, if you don't care for your current advisor much, then - the spouse excuse works very well, and he is not very likely (I think) to hold it against you if you use it to part ways with him somewhat.

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    Really really nice answer, 'think flexibly' and the postives may outweigh the negative. Co-supervision with extensive visits to the 'new' university gives anon-eng and the partner time to locate and cultivate post-doc leads on the same campus.
    – Michael_A
    Apr 14, 2022 at 6:00
  • Yeah great answer. Covered the option of using supervisor's departure as way of dropping him to stay with current department and inspiration.
    – Trunk
    Apr 15, 2022 at 1:32
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Talk to your PhD advisor about this. There might be options were you complete your PhD mostly remotely at the new university or your advisor advising you remotely at the old university.

Your advisor is most likely aware that his move negatively impacts his students. If he is a decent human being, he will work with his students to find the optimal solution for them.

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If you have a good relation with the advisor, I suggest you to follow him.

You are so far in the program that this does not mean necessarily to follow the advisor 100% "physically" (i.e. as long as you do not do lab research and you have no other courses). You have some bartering power, you may propose to be affiliated with the new institution and doing a 6-months visit to your current institution.

As long as the supervisor can fund your position there, you can get the affiliation ... and probably get the work done remotely (actually if you have lab work to be done, it is even an advantage, your advisor must find an agreement for you to finish your lab work at the current institution, while being affiliated with the new institution).

Despite your advisor reassurances, you have to expect some delay (3/6 months) because of all the bureaucracy/hiccups/pandemic stuff potentially involved in the transition: stand your ground, make it clear there will be some minimal delay in the transition and that you need support when (not if) there will be such issues.

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My advisor left the #1 ranked school to go to a lesser school where he would be the big fish. My advisor was kind enough to tell me honestly (and bluntly) that I'd have to re-do my qualifying exams and re-take some classes if I followed him, though I was 3+ years along. I stayed, and started my research over, with a new, well-regarded advisor. No hard feelings on either side. We both did what we thought was best. I'm skeptical that your advisor is in a position to promise you there will be no delays, though he may indeed believe that to be true. As crass as it may seem, I suggest you get some things in writing, because vague claims can cost you years of your life. And if you are apart from the one you love for several years, they will be long and difficult years.

Edit for emphasis: The point of mentioning school rankings is this: if a lower-ranked school is unwilling to accept transfer of classes/research from a more prestigious university, then the transition from a lower to a higher-ranked school is not likely to be easier. A big fish going to a small pond has more leverage than the advisor in the OP's situation. It does depend on how much capital the advisor is willing to spend on behalf of his student's interest.

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    You had to start over? With three years under your belt you ought to have been able to pretty much finish your PhD by yourself. Clearly, you need an academic who is not moving to step in and help you with admin issues, access to consumables etc., but this can be arranged w/o having to completely rejig your research to suit the replacement supervisor. This sort of thing can be arranged even at schools that are not number 1.
    – Deipatrous
    Apr 13, 2022 at 8:33
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I have seen these "moving alongs" pan out very badly, especially when the supervisor makes the move in order to become a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

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    This is probably the opposite case, since the old pond is #19 while the new one is #4. Apr 13, 2022 at 14:11
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    @RichardHardy According to the student. The supervisor might have a different point of view. We also don't know if this "ranking" is for the whole universities, for the individual departments... The "#19 university" might very well have the "#1 department in XYZ engineering".
    – N.I.
    Apr 14, 2022 at 20:25
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The right path for you depends on a variety of factors.

For example, will you remain a student at your current university and get your degree from there, or would you transfer? Both pathways may be an option. It might well be possible to remain a student where you are, especially if the school is willing to give your advisor an adjunct position while all their students finish up. If you're planning to transfer, then you need to find out what the requirements are at your destination, what requirements are waivable, how long will it take to graduate, ....

Also, if you need access to a functioning lab, that isn't something that magically appears at the destination. It can take months to set up a lab, especially if it involves major purchases. You should make sure things are set up for you to hit the ground running when you get to your new place.

If you have no more lab work to do, my inclination is that you might be better of staying where you are and finishing up ASAP -- but this is really your choice to make. Your advisor may need to arrange an adjunct position in this scenario, as well as for the scenario described earlier.

Lastly, your advisor likely wants you around because they feel they'll be more productive with you around. If you can hang where you are and graduate in short order, but you're still interested in moving, see if your deal can be sweetened. Maybe you can bump your stipend, or arrange a job, or some such.

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Moving to another university is a lot of work. Although a good advisor is very important in your academic life, don't risk your future by following one person. Things might change between you two and turn your last year of PhD to a hell. Happened to me, might happen to you as well. Stay where you are and get a new advisor/co-advisor.

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