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I'm currently in a very unique situation and in need of advice. For context, I am a first year PhD student in the United States.

Basically, my advisor's wife accepted an academic job offer at another university in another state. There was no position made for my advisor, but he has decided to simply do his job remotely from his wife's new institution (teaching, advising, boring faculty meetings, etc.). He has already moved there and we have transitioned to having weekly meetings solely over Zoom.

Now, it's technically not necessary to have him present since we mainly do computational work, but I can't help but think that I'm receiving a worse PhD experience without my advisor present as compared to his previous students. I will never be able to pop into his office with a question, get to write on the same chalkboard or even attend social events together as my other grad student friends do with their advisors, and I'm beginning to think that my training is being hampered. I'm also worried that my progress has slowed down since we can only communicate by email and it takes much longer to get a response as compared to an in-person interaction.

Unfortunately, finding a new advisor at my current institution is very unlikely since my work is highly mathematical but my department (ecology) has nobody else with any substantial mathematical training besides my current advisor.

Is there anything I can do to help my situation? I've thought about moving institutions but I don't know if that's possible for graduate programs. It's also possible that I'm exaggerating the impact of being remotely advised, and I would really like to know if that's the case.

Thank you!

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    Can't you finc a co-supervisor at your host institution? You can partially join his group and I think (s)he would be happy to be co-author of good quality papers. Here, you should ask your supervisor first and discuss the problem with him.
    – Younes
    May 2 at 5:09
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    What is keeping you from joining a group in the Math department (or getting a Co-Advisor)? During my PhD there were lots of students from other departments in our lab. We were BioEng but had Math, ChemE, Biology, and even an EE student.
    – noslenkwah
    May 2 at 14:23
  • What did the current institution say about the advisor working remotely? I presume he did tell them! It seems that it should primarily be on them to be sure that the arrangements work. That said, if the advisor had left suddenly you'd be in a worse position anyway. May 2 at 15:23
  • @Younes Yes, I could be co-advised, but I currently don't know of anybody doing similar work. I suppose somebody doing pure mathematics could be useful to help with technical issues.
    – Nasser
    May 2 at 15:49
  • @GS-ApologisetoMonica , I'm not sure if he has told them -- it was quite sudden. You've now got me wondering whether this sort of thing is even allowed...
    – Nasser
    May 2 at 15:53

3 Answers 3

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First, yes it is possible to change institutions as a doctoral student. It will probably cost you some time and effort, though.

But, in the modern world the remote advising scenario is entirely possible, if a bit different. Other students, co-located with their advisor have frustrations also. Many can't, in fact, just "pop in", thought they wish they could.

Ultimately, the quality of your degree hinges on what you do, not what your advisor does. But, if your advisor is still getting paid by your institution he has obligations that include your progress.

You should think about your decision, using your own value structure. "Can I make this work?" If the answer is no, then the next questions are about alternatives. Co-advisors might work for some. Moving to a different institution can work for others.

Even changing the research to a different topic so that you have a local advisor can work for some. You can return to your current research later as opportunity permits. But if you make changes, rather than carrying on as is, there will be some time cost no matter what you do.

You can make it work somehow.

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    A first year student is likely more flexible since there is little sunk cost in their research, so a topic adjustment or a local math advisor seems fairly straightforward.
    – Jon Custer
    May 2 at 12:21
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I had a "remote advising" situation during my PhD in the 90s, as I followed my husband to a different city where he was offered a job. Although my advisor was a 5-hour drive away, I had much better conversations with him than many of my fellow students in the new city where I had a job at the university, but did my doctorate at a distance. I would write something, send it off by snail mail in order to have a few days rest, and then the fax machine would chugg out reams of paper with comments. My advisor was willing to use all communication available! It is not just a question of sharing a whiteboard (you can do that in Zoom, too, you know), but with the technology at hand after the Corona lockdowns, it should not be a problem.

Be willing to go to his new place on occasion to have a face-to-face chat, but other than that: carry on!

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    Thank you for sharing! I'm glad to know that others have succeeded with a remote advising experience.
    – Nasser
    May 2 at 15:53
  • "you can [share a whiteboard] in Zoom, too, you know" → oh, the pain! The experience is so bad that I use it only when I really have no choice and it would never be my first choice, except if I had a pad to draw on (and see what I am drawing). I ended up once flipping my camera to show a sheet of paper on which it was easier to draw (but the collaborative part was gone)
    – WoJ
    May 3 at 17:41
  • @WoJ, did you try the new whiteboard in Zoom? It is quite similar to Miro and can be prepared before class. The old one was indeed a pain :) May 4 at 23:15
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My advisor left to my PhD institution (on the US West Coast) when I was in my first year of my PhD to take a new position at a different university (on the US East Coast). My situation was somewhat different from yours because he took a new job and I had this option to go with him, but I think some of the situation is similar.

I tried to think carefully about whether or not I could be successful continuing to work with him remotely. I had done my master's with him so I knew how we worked together and could likely continue to do that remotely. I did not want to relocate so ended up staying where I was.

I tried to build my committee to include two local people that could support me for the office pop-in experience even though they didn't do the exact same research but because they understood the basics of the field and the ups and downs of graduate school. My initial advisor kept an affiliation at my university initially, but after two years, when his remaining grants there ended, he was no longer actually allowed to be my sole primary advisor and so the department head very kindly stepped in to ensure I could finish and succeed. Her lab sort of "adopted" me and even though we did completely different research. It was nice to have a lab "home" for social events, to celebrate finishing comprehensive exams, etc., and to have someone local who knows the department rules and requirements and timelines. I would suggest trying to find something similar even if it isn't exactly your research; my fellow graduate student support was so important to surviving grad school! It sounds like both within your ecology department and the math department might be good options, or to have some of each.

My advisor and I did maintain nearly weekly meetings over the years and that was really helpful, even if they sometimes were cancelled or very short. The regular opportunity to touch base was important for me.

In the end it was successful and I'm happy I made the decision I did, but there were some growing pains especially as my advisors new job was the head of a very large research group and so he became much more busy as time went on. Because I had great local support, again even though it wasn't from researchers that did exactly what I did, I was able to finish in a normal amount of time and I think with a solid dissertation :)

I would suggest talking maybe with the graduate advisor in your department or with the graduate school to make sure there are no issues with this set up from your end (e.g., in person exams or committee meetings requirements or getting proper paperwork signed along the way...some universities have these but many changed them in response to COVID).

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