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The question: is it appropriate or helpful to bring up life-impacting personal problems with your academic advisor?

I know that details are typically required here, but for obvious reasons I'm being concise. Assume anything negative is being extremely understated.

My fiance left me, but before they did they made sure to do everything possible to make it as painful as it could be. All-in-all it was quite sudden, dramatic, and has affected the quality of my work. For the last two weeks, I have done the bare minimum to keep up the appearance of work (attended some presentations, made a couple slides, and whatnot).

My advisor is genuinely a nice person and has gone out of their way to help students before with health and housing problems, but I'm not sure this is the kind of problem that should be brought up in an academic environment. However, the impact on my ability to do research is great and I've even considered leaving the university.

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    I'm genuinely sorry that you're going through something so painful and difficult. Regarding its impact on your work, hopefully this is encouraging: if something impacted one of my students for several weeks, I would consider that barely a hiccup compared to their overall degree program. It's when it starts getting to be months that it feels like a serious academic issue. Oct 21, 2022 at 7:39
  • Some context would be useful for a more precise assessment of your options. If you're in a modern city, same gender and similar age as your supervisor, it's one thing, if you're in some remote place and your supervisor is the old-fashioned religious type, quite another.
    – PatrickT
    Oct 22, 2022 at 2:22
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    It's not the question you asked. But, the best revenge is to have a beautiful life after they've gone. Keep the possibility of Good Things in mind. It helps.
    – BillOnne
    Oct 22, 2022 at 16:28
  • Completely depends on how well you get on with them.
    – Tom
    Oct 23, 2022 at 10:58
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    It's unquestionably wise to tell them "I just had a major shock in my personal life, and I may be struggling with that for a while. I don't want it to impact our project, but if I'm distracted, or if I need to take some time off, please make allowances. I'll try to give you some warning if I do need to go away for a while." Help them make space for you to recover.
    – keshlam
    Oct 23, 2022 at 15:51

6 Answers 6

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I do think it's okay to bring it up with your advisor particularly if you trust them and if you are bringing it up to see if your advisor can help you with finding resources to help you during this tough time.

I used to be an advisor and students would share what was going on with them and if they needed resources. Know that if you share something that is out of your academic advisor's area of expertise they may refer you to a different resource on campus. If a student disclosed something to me that was more appropriate for someone in Student Health Services to discuss that I'd let the student know that. I'd often help them with setting up an appointment or even walking them over during walk-in hours if the student wasn't familiar with where the center was located or wanted someone they trusted to walk over to a new office with them.

Depending on your degree/program and where you are at in the semester your academic advisor might be able to help you in terms of extensions, if the drop deadline hasn't passed and you need to lighten your load this term, or see if it's possible to switch to pass/fail vs a letter grade for a course. These are all things I've helped students with when I was in academia. Good luck to you.

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    Welcome to Academia.SE. Note that the term "advisor" is a bit overloaded -- undergraduates have advisors that help them choose courses and so forth, while grad student researchers have advisors who are essentially their boss. Given OP's reference to research and research-like work, I assume they are asking about the second -- in which case, they are probably not taking courses, are not being graded in a meaningful way, do not have a drop deadline, etc. And relations with PhD advisors are quite different than with undergraduate advisors (though I still agree with your first paragraph).
    – cag51
    Oct 20, 2022 at 18:36
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    @cag51 In STEM, people absolutely do research and classes at the same time in grad school, and in fact the overwhelming majority of students begin research almost immediately upon starting. The idea of waiting until one finishes two years of classes to begin research is an unthinkable proposition. Be careful not to generalize non-STEM norms to all grad students.
    – Jerome
    Oct 20, 2022 at 19:14
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    @Jerome - I don't think I said the things that you claim I said. On the contrary, I commented specifically because it seems likely that OP's primary job is research, and the answer might be assuming that OP's primary/only job is taking classes....so to the extent I understand your comment, it seems like we agree.
    – cag51
    Oct 20, 2022 at 19:38
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    Thanks @cag51. I do understand that and that it's different depending on if you are in a grad program vs an undergrad program and even if you are in a Masters vs PhD program. It's why I included "depending on your degree/program" but let me know if you feel I could make that clearer in my answer. I'm happy to edit if that helps others.
    – Rosie
    Oct 21, 2022 at 14:50
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That depends on your general relationship with them. My relationship with mine was rather formal, so it probably wouldn't have been a good idea. We weren't "friendly". There were other members of the faculty that I interacted with, however, that I'd have been comfortable sharing personal details with.

So, if your relationship is strictly professional rather than personal, perhaps not. But if you, say, lunch together or baby-sit their kids (my experience) then I don't see any issues.

However, if this is affecting you so much that you are considering leaving, then you need two kinds of advice. One is from a personal counsellor who can perhaps help you over the issue. But it might also be necessary to talk to the advisor about the possibility of leaving and the reasons for this will probably come up naturally in any conversation. They are not likely, however, to have the skill to give you the first sort of advice, but might be able to provide you some space and time to sort it out. Good luck.

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There was a funny article about how much detail to provide in an excuse, including a two dimensional scale of excuses from "I don't feel well" to "it's coming out both ends".

That was for physical illness but in this case it's the same idea. Your choices aren't just tell your advisor every gory detail or say nothing. There is a lot of middle ground there: in this case you can tell your advisor that you're going through an emotionally rough time because a long-term relationship has ended and that you realize it is impacting your work but it is very recent and you are processing it as best you can. And depending on how they react to that you can include more detail or not.

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  • You don't have a link to that article, do you?
    – WoJ
    Oct 21, 2022 at 21:30
  • @WoJ I can't find it, sorry, it was a long time ago (like early 2000s internet) and Google is not my friend today. If it helps, I remember the axises of the graph were details and plausibility. Oct 24, 2022 at 13:28
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I'm very sorry about your experience.

I think that this is helpful for the advisor to know, and I for sure don't think it's inappropriate to tell them, so I'm generally positive, although I also think it depends on the personality of your advisor and your exact work relationship whether it's a good idea. There are some people I wouldn't tell something like this, but these are rather exceptions than the rule, and I think that an advisor should generally be open for such information.

Note however that such things are only acceptable as excuses to a limited amount. Everybody should understand that your work can be affected by such things, however it is ultimately your responsibility to pick yourself up from this and to hopefully return to full work energy as soon as you can. It is one thing to inform your advisor and maybe have a chat with them about it; it is quite another thing to not do many things that you are meant to do and to try to get away with it based on this reason. Obviously I have no indication that you intend to do this, and in fact such things may harm your work energy a lot, so there may be some understanding indeed. Still, the probability that the advisor will react positively is much higher if you tell them this as information (and let it open to them to what extent this means they will accept a temporary lack of commitment to work) rather than as excuse in advance.

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I think the previous answers have covered the Should I tell my advisor... portion of your question. I want to address the ...considered leaving the university bit.

When we're wounded in one part of our life, it is normal to withdraw from everything, so wanting to leave the university is a completely natural response. However, this is not the time to make such a big decision.

You have just experienced a loss that was beyond your control. Staying at/leaving the university is your choice, and it is a decision you should make after you've recovered from this trauma.

Give yourself some time; the right answers will come if you just stay still.

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If there are specific protocols in your College's constitution, please follow them.

Failing that, doesn't this seem to be something you should first tell your doctor, or other counsellor?

If you get a medical certificate yes, take that to your Advisor.

If not, why bother your advisor with a purely personal problem?

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