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I am a PhD student in mathematics, finishing up my 4th year. I am meeting with my advisor early next week, and we will discuss my plan for next year (my 5th year).

I see my plan as depending on whether or not I am staying for a 6th year. I would like to plan on a 6th year for now. I am wondering: how should I approach the idea of a 6th year with my advisor?

Why do I want to stay for a 6th year?

  1. Reason 1: The results I have do not feel noteworthy to me. I don't feel confident that I will have something sufficient for a dissertation come August, in part based on brief remarks my advisor has made. I would ideally like to come away from my efforts with a PhD, in part because I am interested in the idea of a university-level, all-teaching position.
  2. Reason 2: I'm a hell of a lot happier now. The pandemic plus some medical problems contributed to some depression, which time and improved health have alleviated substantially. My work has undoubtedly benefited.
  3. Reason 3: I feel that my problem-solving ability is improving, as is my understanding of the context of my research. I'm getting better at knowing when not to pursue an idea.
  4. Reason 4: Even if my advisor were to suggest that an essentially inconsequential result would be adequate for a "pre-teaching-job dissertation", I want more time to try for something better. I would ideally like to come away from my PhD with something I'm proud of.
  5. Reason 5: There is certainly a part of me that wants to ensure an uninterrupted source of income. I do indeed view my PhD as a job. (I'll admit I feel unsure if that's a detrimental way to think.)

I worry that my advisor will shut down the conversation, and defer this decision until later. In this case, I see them as expecting me to devote as much time as I can to my research, only to return to this conversation when it's absolutely too late for me to have any chance at dissertation-ready work by the requisite deadline. (Unfortunately, I don't know when that would be.)

Why do I want to have this conversation now?

  1. Reason 1: I want to know if a 6th year will be an option. I see this knowledge as informing my summer and fall plans. If I can't ensure a 6th year now, I want to spend some time this summer, and a lot of time this fall, exploring/applying for jobs. I have uncertainty around the substance of results I could produce in the next couple months. So I would explore both jobs that require a PhD, as well as jobs for which I only need a masters.
  2. Reason 2: I think that there are concrete things we could both improve on going forward. I have wanted to bring them up for a while, and I'm hoping this conversation provides a natural opportunity.
  3. Reason 3: I have to submit an annual department report which includes a plan for my activities next year. I see my plan as depending on whether or not I know my advisor would support a 6th year.
  4. Reason 4: I have an ongoing project I work on, which is adjacent to the research of another professor at my university. If my advisor were to decline the idea of me taking a 6th year, I would like to discuss with the other professor if there is potential for a dissertation-level result in what I'm thinking about. If so, would they support a 6th year?

What do I think I could improve on?

  1. Thing 1: Continue to grow my confidence in my problem-solving ability, and work on letting that confidence motivate me to keep explore ideas.
  2. Thing 2: More consistently text my advisor to meet (we primarily text to schedule meetings, at their request). Right now, I reach out every 3ish weeks (ranges from 2 to 4). I feel I could be a bit more consisent.
  3. Thing 3: I intend to drop a few of my "service" responsibilities (like helping to organize a grad student conference, and co-organizing a graduate student learning seminar in my research group). Other service responsibilites are extremely important to me, especially because I am interested in keeping the option of a university-level, all-teaching position open to me long-term.

TLDR; I am wanting opinions on: how should I approach a conversation with my PhD advisor about the idea of me taking a 6th year?

EDIT: What follows would be best in a separate post as it turns toward a different question. I am keeping it here for record-keeping only.

The other big question I have right now: should I discuss things that I think my advisor could be doing differently? I would of course approach this with "I" language, not "you" language.

  1. For example, my advisor regularly checks/uses/texts with their phone during our meetings. I have considered discussing this with them: "I often feel unimportant in our meetings because I interpret phone use as a sign of disinterest. I tend to dread our meetings because of how they make me feel." I haven't done this yet because I worry about this creating resentment, and coming across as rude/unprofessional/whiney.
  2. As another example, when I email my advisor questions or (short, < 3 page, in LateX) updates, I almost never receive a response. Then, in our meetings, it usually seems to me that they read my emails only in passing, if at all. On one hand, they are extremely busy and I don't want to take up too much of their time. On the other hand, I often feel I have no one to turn to when I need help. Again, I haven't brought this up because I'm not sure if it's an appropriate subject.
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    How are you funded, and how is funding generally handled in your department or research group? That's a huge variable in such things. If the department and/or adviser operate funding on the expectation that students take 5 years, a 6th year may not be practical for them (or for other current or prospective students they expect to spend the 6th year of funding on). Commented May 4 at 3:49
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    Welcome to Academia.SE. Too late for this time, since you already have a very comprehensive answer, but in future please remember that posts should (1) contain a single question (your "other big question" should be in a separate post), and (2) be general enough that others could potentially have the same question in future (i.e., try to "boil down" the wall of text into something more modular). Good luck!
    – cag51
    Commented May 4 at 5:14

2 Answers 2

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Generally speaking, staying for a sixth year is common during a math PhD. I did so myself. Most advisors would be happier to have you stay an extra year vs. a new first-year PhD student, because of all the training that has already gone into your development. At this point, you can add much more to the research group, analogous to what a postdoc brings. It will not take much effort to convince your advisor, if you already have a good relationship. The question has so many parts, I feel an answer must respond one by one. Nevertheless, let's consider your reasons for wanting to stay.

Reason 1: The results I have do not feel noteworthy to me. I don't feel confident that I will have something sufficient for a dissertation come August, in part based on brief remarks my advisor has made. I would ideally like to come away from my efforts with a PhD, in part because I am interested in the idea of a university-level, all-teaching position.

Whenever you ask for funding, don't lead with the negative. Say "I feel like with one more year, I can prove much better results."

Reason 2: I'm a hell of a lot happier now. The pandemic plus some medical problems contributed to some depression, which time and improved health have alleviated substantially. My work has undoubtedly benefited.

That's great, but probably not necessary to say. Anyway, your advisor will be in charge of making the argument to the department about funding for one extra year.

Reason 3: I feel that my problem-solving ability is improving, as is my understanding of the context of my research. I'm getting better at knowing when not to pursue an idea.

Again, not necessary to say. For sure you are better at all grad student skills than the alternative of a brand new first-year PhD student.

Reason 4: Even if my advisor were to suggest that an essentially inconsequential result would be adequate for a "pre-teaching-job dissertation", I want more time to try for something better. I would ideally like to come away from my PhD with something I'm proud of.

Your advisor will probably argue to the department that you need an extra year, due to the pandemic disruption. And that's fine. But I'd give your advisor the impression that, along with finishing your PhD, you could start some new and exciting research, too.

Reason 5: There is certainly a part of me that wants to ensure an uninterrupted source of income. I do indeed view my PhD as a job. (I'll admit I feel unsure if that's a detrimental way to think.)

It's better to embrace an abundance mindset if possible. There are lots of jobs. Surely you'll get one. Most pay better than being a grad student. If you choose to stay for a sixth year, it's because of all the exciting ideas and the chance to work them out with your advisor, who you already know and have a good relationship with.

I worry that my advisor will shut down the conversation, and defer this decision until later. In this case, I see them as expecting me to devote as much time as I can to my research, only to return to this conversation when it's absolutely too late for me to have any chance at dissertation-ready work by the requisite deadline. (Unfortunately, I don't know when that would be.)

Generally speaking, it's best to bring it up early, so your advisor has more time to make the argument to the department, and certainly before it's time to start accepting new students for what will be your sixth year. Try to have more confidence in yourself and what you bring. On to "why do I want to have this conversation now?"

Reason 1: I want to know if a 6th year will be an option. I see this knowledge as informing my summer and fall plans. If I can't ensure a 6th year now, I want to spend some time this summer, and a lot of time this fall, exploring/applying for jobs. I have uncertainty around the substance of results I could produce in the next couple months. So I would explore both jobs that require a PhD, as well as jobs for which I only need a masters.

Yes, clearly you need this info. If a sixth year is not an option you need to gear up for the job market.

Reason 2: I think that there are concrete things we could both improve on going forward. I have wanted to bring them up for a while, and I'm hoping this conversation provides a natural opportunity.

This is vague. I'd just focus on the exciting new research and not interpersonal dynamics.

Reason 3: I have to submit an annual department report which includes a plan for my activities next year. I see my plan as depending on whether or not I know my advisor would support a 6th year.

Again, good you are bringing this up early.

Reason 4: I have an ongoing project I work on, which is adjacent to the research of another professor at my university. If my advisor were to decline the idea of me taking a 6th year, I would like to discuss with the other professor if there is potential for a dissertation-level result in what I'm thinking about. If so, would they support a 6th year?

No, probably not. Once you have enough for a PhD, the expectation is that you will finish and make room for the next cohort. A postdoc might be possible (and might pay more) but it's rather uncommon to get a postdoc at the same place you got your PhD. Best to let your advisor argue to the department that a 6th year is necessary in your case. On to "What do I think I could improve on?"

Thing 1: Continue to grow my confidence in my problem-solving ability, and work on letting that confidence motivate me to keep explore ideas.

Give the impression that you already have strong problem-solving abilities. But yes, do try to increase your confidence, before this conversation and before the job market.

Thing 2: More consistently text my advisor to meet (we primarily text to schedule meetings, at their request). Right now, I reach out every 3ish weeks (ranges from 2 to 4). I feel I could be a bit more consisent.

Yeah, I think meeting more often would be good. I met my advisor once per week, and we made steady progress. You want your advisor to want you to still be around for that sixth year.

Thing 3: I intend to drop a few of my "service" responsibilities (like helping to organize a grad student conference, and co-organizing a graduate student learning seminar in my research group). Other service responsibilites are extremely important to me, especially because I am interested in keeping the option of a university-level, all-teaching position open to me long-term.

Be careful here because you want a teaching job long-term. The service might help. Your advisor can tell you.

The other big question I have right now: should I discuss things that I think my advisor could be doing differently? I would of course approach this with "I" language, not "you" language.

No, I would not do that. By now you know your advisor well. You either want a sixth year or you don't. This is not the time to try to change their behavior. If you don't like it, just graduate at the end of the fifth year.

For example, my advisor regularly checks/uses/texts with their phone during our meetings. I have considered discussing this with them: "I often feel unimportant in our meetings because I interpret phone use as a sign of disinterest. I tend to dread our meetings because of how they make me feel." I haven't done this yet because I worry about this creating resentment, and coming across as rude/unprofessional/whiney.

I think this might come off as whiney in the context of a meeting where you are asking for funding for a sixth year. Instead, maybe try to come to the point faster. The question was insanely long. If meetings are the same, it's kinda natural for one's attention to wander. It is a good skill to be able to get to the point fast.

As another example, when I email my advisor questions or (short, < 3 page, in LateX) updates, I almost never receive a response. Then, in our meetings, it usually seems to me that they read my emails only in passing, if at all. On one hand, they are extremely busy and I don't want to take up too much of his time. On the other hand, I often feel I have no one to turn to when I need help. Again, I haven't brought this up because I'm not sure if it's an appropriate subject.

Three pages is not short, especially if you are dancing around the point or "organizing your thoughts" like in the very long question. Your advisor's time is valuable. I advise you to first organize your thoughts (perhaps in the form of an email you don't send) then write a short, direct, to-the-point message that will be less likely to overwhelm your advisor with a giant wall of text. This is a valuable skill that will help you long term.

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    Thank you for this extremely thorough and thoughtful response! In particular, the focus on research excitement rather than interpersonal dynamics.
    – xion3582
    Commented May 4 at 13:13
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Finish up and leave in your fifth year. No one cares about what happened during the PhD, and if you're not making groundbreaking research, your dissertation will go onto a dusty shelf that will only be read by family and maybe the committee. Pull your boots up, start applying for jobs, get a job, go to your advisor, and say you are defending this semester (or the next if it's past deadlines to submit your dissertation), and get out. It's been four years, and if you are just now getting progress, then what is an additional year or two going to do? Nothing. Just get out. You'll be much happier.

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