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TL;DR: How hard would it be to finish out a Ph.D. and have an effective early career (as a pure mathematician) after my adviser has unexpectedly passed away? My department does not have any tenure-track faculty able to take on students in my field at the time, but two postdocs in my field have offered to help, and the department has offered to fly me to visit researchers in my field. I am currently in my fourth year at a U.S. university.

I read this similar question, but it seemed to address practical plans for going forward more than the costs and benefits of doing so. What I'm looking for is advice on how difficult it would be to have a successful career and/or finish the Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time, in addition to talking about what options I have.

I am a pure mathematics Ph.D. student in my fourth year. My adviser recently passed away unexpectedly, and my department does not have anyone else in his field who is able to take on students. He was a great loss to all of us, as he was a deeply intuitive mentor as well as an excellent researcher. Before my adviser's passing, I had anticipated 1.5 to 2.5 more years to Ph.D.

In the next six months or so, my department has offered me the option of working with a couple of postdocs (in my field) at my current institution, as well as flying out to occasionally meet with more senior mathematicians at different institutions. It is unclear whether the department will hire another researcher in my field anytime soon, especially one who is not fresh out of a postdoc. The department is currently uncertain if there will be tenure-track faculty there who could advise me anytime before I graduate. The department tends to offer at least 6 years of funding to Ph.D. students.

I currently have enough material for roughly one paper, but I feel that I still need guidance to finish my Ph.D., and I felt like I was really benefiting from weekly/biweekly meetings with a single adviser. My adviser helped keep me confident and excited, as well as explaining difficult techniques and offering new approaches to proofs or counterexamples.

I have heard some people advise on transferring institutions at this point, though my department does not recommend that. In addition, some people have pointed out to me that an adviser is an important early-career research collaborator, to the extent that it is difficult to do good research early in a career without having them to collaborate with or ask questions of.

If my time to Ph.D. is going to be lengthened significantly, I would like to know that going forward, as it would help me make decisions about whether to transfer, etc. So my question is: how hard would it be to finish out a Ph.D. and have an effective early career without an adviser in the traditional sense?

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    This post is very relevant to my interests as well. My advisor is really getting up there in years and I'm slightly worried about this happening. His health isn't the best. – Cameron Williams Jan 15 '15 at 16:42
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    Where are you in the world, and how much more time would do you expect to need to complete your PhD? – Moriarty Jan 15 '15 at 17:11
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    I just feel like someone should say it: I'm sorry that your advisor died unexpectedly. He sounds like he was a great help to you, and I'm sure you are not the only one who misses him and is put in a worse situation by his untimely demise. – Pete L. Clark Jan 15 '15 at 17:18
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    Your department has offered to fly you to visit researchers in your field. Do you or the department have specific researchers in mind, perhaps co-authors of your supervisor, or others whom he spoke highly of? – Andreas Blass Jan 16 '15 at 19:24
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    @kitty, as I said, there are no advisors in the department in my field able to take me on at this time, and the department says they won't know for a while whether they'll hire someone able to take on students soon. – user7380 Jan 20 '15 at 15:58
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The unexpected death of someone close to you is a tough situation; more than that, it is one of the archetypical tough situations throughout human history. The obvious -- but not easy -- general answer is that you need to either become more self-reliant, find other people to satisfy the needs and desires that were being met by the departed party, or some of both: some of both sounds healthy to me.

It sounds like your department is trying to work with you to meet your needs, which is great. My first comment is that's an ongoing process, not a one-time decision or fix. How are you supposed to know right now what accommodations are needed or optimal? You can't. You should identify specific departmental personnel and make clear that you will be checking in with them periodically about the situation.

I have heard some people advise on transferring institutions at this point, though my department does not recommend that.

Whether they recommend it or not, you can leave at any time, and -- with a deceased thesis advisor -- an absolutely clear conscience. So if you know of a faculty member at another institution that you think would be an ideal advisor, feel free to explore that right away. It sounds to me like you don't, and I'll continue under that assumption.

Your department's recommendation may well be reasonable....but do you understand why they're making it? I would hope that by saying this to you they have some degree of planning for your successful completion of a PhD. You say a little bit about this, but not enough: they offered for you to work with postdocs, but you say that there are no faculty in your field. That's a bit ambiguous: are these postdocs in your field, enough to help you finish your thesis? I'm guessing they must be at least close, because if not you could get a tenure-track faculty member who is not in your field.

I think you should talk to these postdocs and get a sense of whether they could help you finish your thesis. If so, that sounds like a good option for your situation: basically they become your new thesis advisor, and the fact that they are not tenure-track at that institution is not so directly relevant, so long as they will stay there until you graduate. (Look into that!)

For the majority of students in pure mathematics that are not in the home stretch of their program, being without a designated advisor at their home institution would leave them terribly adrift: a few plane trips here and there will not cut it. Recently I was on the committee of a student whose advisor left the department soon after she started working in earnest on her thesis topic. They kept in close contact through weekly skype appointments and a faculty member in a related field stepped up to become her official thesis advisor. I watched this happen and would say that it set her back a full year. In the end she did graduate, get a good visiting position, and now seems to be doing extremely well. The moral is that ultimately it is all about the student: this was a real test of her character, and she passed with flying colors, but gosh it was hard, even hard for me to watch. (And I must tip my hat to my departed colleague as well: he was still closely involved with the student the whole time, infinitely more so than he was obliged to be.)

I would say that you in particular sound like you really need a new advisor. Don't stick around at your home institution without someone stepping up to that role. (And certainly don't wait around for them to hire someone else! Unless they can tell you right now who they want to hire next year, in which case you should ask to spend the intervening time at the present institution of this person.)

You ask about how academia works without having an advisor to mentor you post-PhD. To be frank: by asking for a quantification of the marginal difficulty of the deceased advisor and in other ways as well, your question is telegraphing that you have an uncertain commitment to a post-PhD academic career.

An academic career in pure mathematics is hard for everyone, and thinking that the key to success is close post-PhD contact with your advisor sounds closer to wrong than right to me. I will admit that I had a fairly extreme situation: my former PhD advisor is one of the great mathematical luminaries of our time. He gave me the help and guidance I needed as a PhD student. But I have never collaborated with him, and since graduation I haven't asked him any mathematical questions. We remain on perfectly good terms (I have his phone number) and have professional interactions like two mathematicians in the same field, but once I got my PhD he became my former advisor (though that is still a critical role: e.g. it involved writing a lot of letters on my behalf!), if you take my meaning. One of my oldest friends got a math PhD. A few years later, his advisor died in a tragic bicycle accident. So that meant the end of the mentorship, and I remember discussing the awkardness of the situation with him for several years after. My friend is now the chair of the math department at his university. Again: ultimately it is all about the student.

To sum up: as others have said, this may well be a traumatic situation for you. Take it as such, give yourself some time to grieve and to let things sink in. While you're doing that, involve your department in your plans to complete your PhD there or elsewhere and to find at least one new mentor. When you do find a new mentor, see if you can regain mojo you might have lost during this tough setback. But if you really think of mathematical research as something that you need someone else's guidance and energy to pull off, I would recommend that you complete your PhD and then look elsewhere for a career: either a teaching-intensive job or something else entirely. The main benefit of a research career in mathematics is that mathematics is frickin' awesome and spending your life doing it makes you a rock star. There are other benefits, but none that stack up against the sizable costs.

Added: You speak as if you might not even finish your PhD. For someone who's four years into a math PhD program and already has enough results for a paper, I think not finishing the degree ought not even to be an option on the table. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if your natural emotional reaction to your advisor's death is playing a role in your thinking. Trust me on this: everyone wants you to finish your PhD. It's a cliche to say "That's what your advisor would have wanted", but it's probably true, right?

  • Thank you for the answer! I think that emotional reaction is certainly playing a role in my uncertainty; I also have heard some "doom and gloom" forecasts about the ability of students to succeed after their advisor's death, which probably played the largest role in my fears. I definitely don't think of mathematics as something I need someone else's guidance to do forever; I just currently feel like I need some guidance to complete my thesis, and I have heard from others that many people collaborate with their advisors significantly after graduation. – user7380 Jan 20 '15 at 16:04
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In academia, as everywhere, life happens. Fortunately, a lot of people understand this.

It will definitely be harder to succeed when your advisor has passed away than if your advisor had lived. I suspect, however, that it will be much easier than if you had a falling out with your advisor, which has been addressed in a number of different questions on this site.

It sounds like your institution is doing the best it can to offer you options for getting new advising, and that those options are not so bad. It is also the case that you are reaching the point in your program where you would in any case need to start reaching out to build strong relationships outside of your home institution. Where your advisor might once have helped bootstrap your connections, you have instead your institution's offer to help you meet with other mathematicians. This is a big juncture in your life and career, and everything changes. Despite the fact that the original quote is false, a crisis really is both danger and opportunity.

Also, make sure to take care of yourself. You just had somebody close to you die, and that might affect you in a lot of ways, including interfering with your ability to work. If you aren't already doing so, I would suggest proactively starting to see a counselor to help you navigate any psychological challenges that may come up: even if you don't feel you are having troubles now, they may start and it is better to catch them early, rather than having troubles that you might attribute to your new advising and then realizing six months down the road that it was actually your reaction to the death.

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    This is a good answer. Also, +1 for "make sure to take care of yourself." That's very important advice. – Alex A. Jan 15 '15 at 17:04
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    Totally agree with this. The question doesn't sound like you're/he's to shocked (this is not meant offensive in any way), but this could come later on. Don't let your PhD be ruined by this, it seems the university is okay with it if you take your time. – Sebb Jan 15 '15 at 17:46
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    Thank you for the tips, especially the psychological ones. I'm currently seeing a counselor and have techniques for dealing. It has been somewhat difficult to proceed with research, but I'm able to kind of just slip into it and forget for some time. – user7380 Jan 15 '15 at 19:02
  • @user7380 I'm glad that you're getting support: there's going to be no easy path through, but there's no reason that you can't make it with sufficient effort and good support. – jakebeal Jan 15 '15 at 19:09
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First off, I am so sorry for your loss.

Disclaimer, my field is not mathematics.

That being said, adviser plays a dual role, expert and mentor. In their technical expert role, he or she works closely with you to guide you through the difficult problems. In their mentoring role, they take care of you being motivated, dealing with the stress, advise on how to be a member of research community, how to present yourself etc... Ideally, and most often, one person full-fills both roles. But not always.

So, maybe the postdocs plus an external expert, can fulfill the technical advisement role. But then also, ask the department for a faculty mentor. This person might not be as familiar with your work, but can offer you general and close support. Huge part of being a successful researcher is to be able to explain your work to someone not very familiar with your area. The sooner you start practicing that, the better. This is also a time of opportunity for your personal growth, on taking more responsibilities under unfortunate circumstances.

As far as your future goes, remember that the postdocs will become more experienced, and will be able to give you letters or references, along with the your mentor. All of them witnessing your resilience in overcoming this major setback at this hard time will speak volumes of you, and how you tackle problems.

But then, my field is not mathematics.

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    Your advice is 100% on point for a student of math. – Pete L. Clark Jan 16 '15 at 1:32
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It's an unfortunate situation, but it sounds like your department is trying to do what it can to accommodate you. If one of the postdocs is willing and able to take on the role of advisor, that might be the best solution. Of course, a lot depends on factors that we can't know from this distance.

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The first question that I would ask of the department (in particular the head of the graduate program or the department chair) is whether or not there is some faculty member who would be willing to act as your formal supervisor (perhaps in conjunction with another research advisor from outside the university) on your current topic. It may take some time (weeks) to get an answer.

If the answer is something like "Yes, professor X has volunteered to take you on.", then you should talk to professor X to see how it would work. Professor X might be willing to do his best to advise you on this topic even though it's outside of his area of expertise, and that would be a very fair offer. Of course you would have to decide whether you'd be willing to work with an advisor who wasn't as well qualified as your previous advisor. If professor X is only willing to advise you as you start over on a topic in his area of interest that would be a very different situation and you would have to decide whether to change topics or move to a different program. If the department has difficulty finding a faculty member willing to act as your advisor, then I'd say that it's definitely time to move on.

Our department had a similar situation a few years ago with a faculty member who was supervising an MS student in cryptography. The student was only a few months from completing his MS thesis when the faculty member died. Although this was far outside of my area of expertise, I stepped in and together with the other committee members, we got the student through. It was hard for both me and the student but the student was clearly better off finishing the thesis in this way than picking a new topic and starting over from scratch.

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It is definitely a setback, but should not be disastrous if your are flexible. I see two major issues. If you follow the path they are setting you on with postdocs providing your primary supervision a infrequent meetings with a more senior person, I would worry that you will not get the support you need and will result in a serious setback. My guess is that at 4 years in and having a paper worth of results, that finding a new supervisor at another university might be possible. This would set you back in you would need to physically move and change research directions a bit, but apart from the lost time, my guess is your thesis might actually come out stronger.

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