14

I'm a fifth year PhD student, which is the average year a student in my department graduates. For the majority of my time in my PhD program I've had an absentee advisor. He doesn't respond to emails about 90% of the time and is very difficult to reach otherwise, because he doesn't appear in the department in person very often and makes himself scarce when he is. I'm not his only student and the other students have had similar issues to mine, though perhaps not quite as bad. My issue is what I should do with regard to defending my thesis. I'm sort of at a loss as to what I'm supposed to be doing if I can't talk to my advisor. I have written a thesis, but I just can't reach the guy.

I have written two fairly substantial papers (to be clear in my field this is a pretty normal amount of papers to have when one earns their phd), one of which was a solo paper, after taking a long time to find my footing in research. Part of what took me so long to find was that I was a very unproductive student during the pandemic, there were personal issues but I could've worked harder. My advisor also did meet with me for basically the entirety of the time my institution was not holding in person classes, and I emailed him consistently every few weeks and he didn't respond for a year. I told other faculty in my department about this situation but nothing was ever made of it. If I have a major regret with graduate school it's that I did not change advisors then and there. I did not, though, so I am where I am.

I have good relationships with other faculty (both at my institution and outside), and many of them have recognized the issues of my advisor's conduct both through my situation and the situation of his other students. The problem I face now is that my advisor seems to really dislike me, and seems to be apathetic at best to my progress, actively obstructionist at worst.

To summarize what happened last semester, I spent much of the time away from my institution giving talks at other universities on my recent work. The entire time I had been trying to meet with my advisor regarding grants and job applications. When I was finally able to meet with him (essentially by cornering him, because, of course, he responded to none of my emails or my requests in his student seminar to meet with me), he told me it would be inappropriate to recommend me either for grants or jobs, because I was not productive enough, and that my behavior was inappropriate, for having gone ahead and tried to apply for things without his permission, and in this meeting I was met with a lot of hostility that I had never seen before. We had never been anything but polite and congenial, though my advisor is very taciturn and has never given me any advice I'd consider "helpful". Whether or not my work is to the level he deems appropriate to support, that is not for me to say. But I was taken aback at the idea that my behavior had been inappropriate. Later he found I had made a pretty serious mistake in my second paper, which left me deeply embarrassed, but I think I handled it with some dignity and I did correct the error.

That was the last time I was able to reach him at all. I don't really know what to do. Whether I should reach out to other faculty in my department, or the department coordinator, or someone else in the University. I'm really just at a loss and I feel totally abandoned. I decided sometime after that meeting in the Fall that I just didn't want an academic job, and I have had a lot of offers outside academia, so that I have a lot of things I could choose to do when I'm finished. At this point that's all I want, to walk out of here with a degree, but I don't know what exactly I'm supposed to do to get that when my advisor won't even talk to me.

3 Answers 3

27

I would reach out to someone who has a role in overseeing or administrating the graduate program - you could probably start with the "department coordinator" you mention. It's not clear to me whether this is an administrative or faculty person. If they are an administrator then probably they can advise you on next steps, which might involve a department chair getting involved.

Assuming you have a thesis committee, you can also reach out to other committee members for guidance and advice; it sounds like you've already done a bit of this, but I would press for specific next steps that you should do; make clear you aren't just venting or looking for sympathy, you just need to graduate.

Your graduate program and department do not want to see graduate students fall through the cracks like this, it doesn't do anything good for the department. Hopefully they can at least help get you through the steps that you need to complete to graduate. Given your career plans, that's all you need to do so I think you're in pretty good shape.

4
  • 3
    Quite possible that another professor would take them on at the last minute to get them graduated.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 8 at 20:26
  • 7
    @JonCuster Yep, that's one possibility; I assume the department/program will want to nudge the professor first. But it's very unlikely (at least from my experience) that they would ever respond "sucks to be you, we have no answers."
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 8 at 20:29
  • 9
    Last minute advisor changes are generally the nuclear option in these cases, often playing out against a background of gnashing of teeth and general angst within the department politics. But the student escapes.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 8 at 20:31
  • 1
    in the US, many universities have a "graduate school" that owns all the rules around Committees and graduation and it is appropriate to ask them what the formal options are. You still have to work with your department faculty to enact any possible changes so they are most important, but there may be ways like the "graduate school" to be informed.
    – Mike M
    Mar 10 at 11:06
7

Consider-- and I do mean "consider," weighing the pros and cons-- of talking to your advisor's other advisees, with the possibility of presenting a unified front.

The obvious benefit is that if your fellow students are all in the same/similar situation, and all on the same page, and all mutually supporting each other, you become much harder to ignore or to write off as just a weird individual personality conflict.

One possible con is that you run the risk of someone blabbing. Another is that if they're not all in the same "need to graduate, already!" state as you, it might sidetrack your meeting a little bit.

You might also, as preparation for meeting with someone, try to find out how many PhD Candidates your advisor has had overall, vs how many he has successfully graduated over some arbitrary length of time. (Like ten years, if he's been there that long.)

Who to meet with?

  1. If there is a faculty member in your department or college officially tasked with looking after graduate students, I would start there.
  2. Your department chair.
  3. If your institute has a graduate college separate from your department, there should be someone there like a dean, or an ombudsman.

I would look for people in that order, but that's just me-- the order is "from people who know most about how your department treats grad students, to the least."

I would focus as much as possible on the near total lack of communication and advise. A lot of the other details can be waved away as personality conflicts. (I'm not saying they WILL be, just that they CAN be.) And if possible, bring receipts. If you've got a solid year of regular e-mails going to the correct address with no response, that says something about him. If you've published two papers with little or no guidance, that says something about you.

As a side note:

If I have a major regret with graduate school it's that I did not change advisors then and there. I did not, though, so I am where I am.

I have been in a position similar to yours. I understand your regret; it's natural in a situation like this. But keep your chin up, and focus on how to go forward now, instead of what you should have done. (Which it sounds like you're doing.) I'm sorry you have to deal with this.

-1

Here is a concrete plan of action:

  1. Diarise everything now. At a minimum, download all emails with him to an offline archive. If you have more energy create a calendar record of all meetings you actually had, and the number of emails and waiting time needed for each one to happen. (Modern AI should be quite competent at summarising those emails, for example by feeding a PDF to Perplexity.ai.)

  2. Write down all steps needed to graduate, and:

    a. Arrange all steps that don't explicitly require your advisor's approval on your own, or with your department coordinator's help.

    b. Document your advisor's unhelpfulness and get another academic to sign off on all steps that do in theory need your advisor's direct signature.

Communicate (with email records) with your departmental graduate liaison until there is a clear written set of actions for step 2 and clear understanding of who will be filling in for your supervisor.

For a typical PhD completion, the processes in step 2 might look like:

  1. Write your thesis draft.

  2. Collect advisor's feedback and edit draft to advisor's satisfaction.

  3. Arrange academic panel for oral thesis defense.

  4. Organise date, time and venue for thesis defense, including ensuring oral panel's availability.

  5. Arrange external examiners for written thesis.

  6. Collect revisions from examiners and edit thesis to their satisfaction.

  7. Get advisor's final sign off.

  8. Graduate!

Only the italicised items absolutely require your advisor's signature. Work out your backup plan for those. Every other step would be easier with your advisor networking and asking on your behalf, but it's not impossible for you to do them in your own (especially if a step-in academic or your department liaison can lend their name on your behalf).

All the best!

1
  • From personal experience, your "sunk cost" is gone. Sorry. What you can do is (1) remove the requirement for your advisors formal approval. (2) ensure that your advisor is not permitted to accept future PhD students. This is where you can use a Step-In, Liaison, Support Services, and Academic Petition.
    – david
    Mar 10 at 0:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .