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I am a 3rd year phd student in Europe, and my advisor told me that he has a neurological issue.

I believe that this is causing some terrible form of mental deterioration which is affecting my work. Among the things that happened with him:

  • He has always been forgetful, but lately, he cannot remember any of my explanations. This makes our meetings incredibly frustrating, since I spend all of our meeting time explaining to him the same ideas over and over again. I would be okay with never meeting him, but unfortunately since this semester I turned down one of his ideas and have been meeting with me less, he wrote that I have not been progressing this semester. Therefore I am bound to have these pointless meetings

  • he has been delaying editing a joint paper of ours for over a year and a half (I would be fine if he wouldn't edit it but he insists on doing this), and during that time his other student improved this result. He suggested that I improve his student's result and I refused to (partially since this is insulting and will not further me).

  • lately I feel like his memory is deteriorating very quickly. For example, I'm very pregnant and every time he sees me, he says "I totally forgot you are pregnant. When are you due?" But then forgets my answer.

  • he never checks our joint work and then blames it on me. I have written explanations for him and sent him explanations that others wrote and he never reads them.

  • if I send him any written text, he will ask to meet so I can make sure that he reads the text and he asks me questions while reading (the same ones I have answered 10000 times before). Then he tells me that it is not his role to read things that I write and is angry at me for wasting his time.

Besides telling me he has a neurological issue, I don't know for sure that it is degenerative, and therefore cannot report him. Since he forgot what I have done in the PhD and therefore is not sure when or if I can graduate (I should graduate next year and look for a postdoc this October).

I have spoken to him about this and he told me that there is nothing wrong extending my PhD. Honestly I want to graduate next year so I will not have to deal with him and so that he won't forget me by the time I graduate so he can write me a good letter.

What are my options if indeed there is a mental deterioration on his part? I don't have a committee or lab director to report to rather the system is built in a way that I report all issues to my advisor (who is my issue). Also, how do I protect myself in case he really loses his mind?

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    which country? are you the only phd/postdoc/collaborator of the advisor?
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 26, 2023 at 9:57
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    Also I could imagine STEM vs Humanities might get different answers, so which one you are in could be worthwhile information. I also believe it worth mentioning if he is your only advisor, or if you have a second advisor/unofficial supervisor Apr 26, 2023 at 9:59
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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Apr 26, 2023 at 15:31

8 Answers 8

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I was initially tempted to quip that all advisors are forgetful and need to get content from the last meeting re-explained in the current meeting, but given that they acknowledge that they have some neurological issue (and given that they seem to forget basic things such as that you are pregnant) I do agree that this is worrisome and should be addressed.

At the end of the day, I fully agree with user438383 in a comment - you need to raise this issue to the department level, which may include the chair of PhD studies and/or your department head. If you are uncomfortable with this you may also talk to a trusted colleague (ideally another professor) and ask them to raise these issues with the department (and rather ASAP than "at some point"). At the end of the day your supervision is only one of many tasks that your advisor will have serious troubles with, and it is certainly possible that they need immediate medical help (even if they are themselves not fully aware of it). If you are having a very good relationship with your advisor you can also bring it up with them (very, very carefully), but if you have a more traditional student/teacher relationship this is probably not really your place and should be done by your advisor's boss, colleagues, or a medical professional.

That said, when you raise this (to anybody), make very sure to stick to the facts as observed and do not dabble in diagnosing your advisor ("is uncharacteristically forgetful, to a fairly extreme degree" is a fact, "mental capacity has degenerated and cannot advise anybody anymore" is a diagnosis).

Edit: I should say, not so much for OP as for other readers of this question with advisors that are extraordinarily forgetful: usually, we advisors do not forget things because we are incompetent or mentally degrading, but rather because our jobs are very busy. If an advisor suddenly becomes noticeably more forgetful than usual, I would assume they are (over-)stressed rather than sick per se. I don't think that stress alone can explain forgetting multiple times that a close colleague is visibly pregnant, though.

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    I think the key point is to ask someone in e.g. HR to ask who the correct person to ask is, without mentioning any names, first. I assume there will be a protocol for such things, but it's important to not name any names as this could potentially be a very sensitive issue.
    – user438383
    Apr 26, 2023 at 10:47
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    @user438383 I agree with that, but in most universities it should be fairly clear who the "person above your supervisor" is. That you as a student usually don't interact much with them doesn't mean that this person does not exist.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 26, 2023 at 10:49
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    It's not clear to me that the person above the supervisor is the right person to speak to - perhaps they are - but it could just as well be someone in HR/occupational health/whatever and totally unrelated to the academic hierarchy, for example.
    – user438383
    Apr 26, 2023 at 10:52
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    @user438383 The "person above the advisor" almost certainly has the formal responsibility for the advisor's job performance as well as wellbeing. In a modern organisation everybody has a manager, even those that believe they do not. I am a low-level administrator, and I would definitely be the first person that a serious, work-impacting health issue of one of the professors I am responsible for would need to be reported to.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 26, 2023 at 10:54
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    I'd like to add student representatives as another option to talk to. Bug given the explanation of the OP I fear that no such person(s) exist Apr 26, 2023 at 11:39
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If you believe that this is affecting your graduation and, hence, your career, then you should take some action. The most appropriate, if you can't work it out with the advisor directly, is to ask for guidance from someone like the department head or a dean; someone with overall authority. You may get advised to find another (or co-) advisor to guarantee your timely completion.

But, don't make a complaint. Just ask for guidance. The institution has a responsibility to you.

It is probably too late for switching advisors to be a good move, but having someone else watch over your progress/process might be a solution.

However, there is at least one fairly common reason for the behavior you describe that doesn't involve any sort of deterioration. Some people go into a zone in their research where nothing else registers. Their mental process is so wrapped up in some problem that they just forget that the rest of the world exists at all.

There is one (apocryphal?) story of a famous mathematician(?) who was lost (in thought as well as location) on a street and asked a little girl on a nearby porch "Miss, can you help me find my way home?". The answer was "Yes, Daddy."

One other reason for being (extremely) forgetful is aging. Some people have recall problems with certain sorts of things as they age. This isn't (may not be) due to disease, I'm told.

I've "suffered" from both of these, though not to the degree you describe. I have trouble, now, recalling words, though I know the concept behind them. No trouble with faces, thankfully. And I've had some experience with zoning out also.

But, the important thing is to assure that your graduation isn't affected, no matter the cause.

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    The answer was "Yes, Daddy." -- I recall reading this (more than once) and my first thought was Norbert Wiener, but I wasn't sure whether the story goes with him. However, a few seconds of googling (besides the words "Norbert" and "Wiener", I included "girl" and "daddy") pretty much confirms this. For example, search-in-page for "daddy" here and here. (continued) Apr 27, 2023 at 9:08
  • However, my guess is that if something like this applies to the OP's adviser, then upon arrival the OP probably would have heard lots of stories about their adviser from the department's grapevine. Apr 27, 2023 at 9:09
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    @DaveLRenfro, yes, Norbert Wiener. And the fact that I couldn't dredge that up reinforces my point ;-)
    – Buffy
    Apr 27, 2023 at 10:27
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In some EU countries, there is the PhD tutor in addition to the advisor. I know for sure that the tutor figure exists in Italy, for example. The tutor is another professor selected by you at the beginning of your PhD course, which should be unrelated to your advisor (e.g., another lab, another research area, etc.). The tutor is almost useless for most of the PhD students, however, in case you experience any problem with your advisor during your PhD path, (s)he can try to mediate.

This is a good case to discuss with the tutor, who can then inform the PhD coordinator or the department head.

In case in your country does not have the tutor figure, you can try with another professor you know and you feel confident to discuss this issue.

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    In the UK this role would be played by the "second supervisor".
    – Mark Grant
    Apr 27, 2023 at 16:44
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I am a 3rd year phd student in Europe, (...) I don't have a committee or lab director to report to rather the system is built in a way that I report all issues to my advisor (who is my issue). Also, how do I protect myself in case he really loses his mind?

If you are in a "normal" institution in Europe (university, technical school, ...) then there is always an organizational structure. This may not be a managerial one but there is someone you can go and talk to.

You can start bottom-up (see who is listed as the head of the group your advisor is in), or from the top (you arrange for a meeting with the dean or president and go from there). The latter will be longer.

my advisor told me that he has a neurological issue.

Please keep in mind that this information may be legally personal, depending on where you are. In other words, you need to be careful mentioning that to other people, at least in written form.

I understand you are upset, this is normal. I will however try to address your points in a neutral way - because you need to talk to the people above and have clear and clean messages so that they can make decisions. Your opinion about the "why" is secondary, to say the least (and possibly counterproductive).

Please let me try to rephrase your points in something more "presentable" (as arguments)

I believe that this is causing some terrible form of mental deterioration which is affecting my work.

That you do not know. What you know is that there are some issues that were not there X years ago and you are worried.

He has always been forgetful, but lately, he cannot remember any of my explanations. This makes our meetings incredibly frustrating since I spend all of our meeting time explaining to him the same ideas over and over again. I would be okay with never meeting him, but unfortunately since this semester I turned down one of his ideas and have been meeting with me less, he wrote that I have not been progressing this semester. Therefore I am bound to have these pointless meetings

You are usually expected to have meetings with your advisor (at least some, where you cross-check how it is going). Your problem is that the quality has been strangely lowering with time, with more time passed to discuss the past than the current state (and the future).

he has been delaying editing a joint paper of ours for over a year and a half (I would be fine if he wouldn't edit it but he insists on doing this), and during that time his other student improved this result. He suggested that I improve his student's result and I refused to (partially since this is insulting and will not further me).

Your work on a paper has been delayed and will soon be void because of progress by others. It is still time to salvage that but the paper needs to go.

lately I feel like his memory is deteriorating very quickly. For example, I'm very pregnant and every time he sees me, he says "I totally forgot you are pregnant. When are you due?" But then forgets my answer.

That one is a good point. No matter what I can hardly imagine forgetting that one of my students was very pregnant.

he never checks our joint work and then blames it on me. I have written explanations for him and sent him explanations that others wrote and he never reads them.

if I send him any written text, he will ask to meet so I can make sure that he reads the text and he asks me questions while reading (the same ones I have answered 10000 times before). Then he tells me that it is not his role to read things that I write and is angry at me for wasting his time.

You are having a hard time setting up a working routine that is efficient. Your proposal to send memos about your progress is met with requests to meet, during which you are told not to write anything (at least this is how I understand what you wrote in that point)

Besides telling me he has a neurological issue, I don't know for sure that it is degenerative, and therefore cannot report him.

It is not your job to "report" someone who has a medical problem. You should report the issues you are faced with and let the other side make up their mind (possibly by carefully hinting them about a possible reason, but again be careful here).

Since your advisor is part of a group, it is likely that you are not the only one noticing the symptoms.

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Perhaps authorities should be informed, however: I would say that if the University takes action and removes the professor, this could significantly delay your graduation as a PhD. Typically, switching advisors usually requires starting over on the dissertation and so forth, at least here in the U.S. You may wish to check with another professor who is eligible to potentially be your advisor to see if they are willing so to do, and if so, if they would accept most of your research and progress toward your dissertation.

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I think that even an adviser who doesn't know, or maybe doesn't have a neurological problem, can behave like this. There are about two solutions:

  • either find another adviser (but in some institutions, it is not possible without the current one agrees),
  • or find another adviser, informally consult with him/her and do it according to him/her. It might be a friend, someone online, or just a smart fellow student. In extreme case you can become a supervisor to yourself, learning everything from literature and the Internet. But it is not so good as you can reflect your thought with a partner. When your supervisor sends something back to you for revision, don't react to it and move on. It rarely happens that a supervisor "sinks" the good work of his own doctoral student.
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Find another advisor, seriously. I was in a similar position and it was hell. It severely impacted my quality of life and in the end, it seriously hurt my career choices (he'd often forget to send letters of rec for internships and jobs even with frequent reminders).

Hell, even sharing a document for publication was miserable. Everytime he made (various) typos that would prevent the document from compiling, I'd have to debug it for hours, only for him to go and reintroduce the same errors afterwards. Progressively, every aspect of the experience was orders of magnitude more difficult than it needed to be, and for no good reason. Though I was heavily ambitious, I hardly got any publications despite working significantly more than my cohorts. I could rant for hours about it and other details, but honestly the only thing I can think back on is how much I wish I'd had switched, even at the cost of being delayed a year or so. Good luck.

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I am loath to say this, but if I were a misogynistic academic (of which there are unfortunately many) and I wanted to subtly punish my pregnant student out of a lack of respect, I might do exactly what your advisor is doing.

People are correct that you need to raise this with the dean. You should start documenting everything, because if you're lucky, this is "just" dementia and you can work around it by finding another person to advise you. I have a bad feeling you might not be so lucky.

"the system is built in a way that I report all issues to my advisor"

Somehow, I doubt that's fully the case. There's always an ombudsperson and/or a dean. Single-point-of-failure systems do exist, but they're rare.

You should simultaneously also verify that other students are having the exact same issues with your advisor that you are. If they are not, well, sorry, but there you go. If they are, then great and you should follow the advice others here have given you.

Really hope things turn out well - that's an obnoxious situation to be in.

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  • Downvoted. You're essentially proposing a conspiracy theory here. Ironically, given that you are imagining all these other academics out there being disrespectful towards women by pretending to have severe memory issues, the premise of your own theory is that the OP (a first-person participant in the situation) is less competent than you (a random internet person) to distinguish between serious mental deterioration and misogyny. May 16, 2023 at 11:53

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