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I just finished my 2nd year of PhD, and my mom has been dying of cancer since the end of my 1st year. She nearly died in January but thankfully pulled through. She was just diagnosed again a few weeks ago and her prognosis is not good (resistant to chemo and can't get another surgery).

My cognitive abilities and general state of mind have suffered as a result of this situation. My research is very mathematical and being unable to stay focused for longer than 20 minutes really prevents me from making any progress. My emotional/mental state has also been seriously affected. I managed to pass my qual and aced my classes the past 6 months, but lately things are getting a lot worse.

I am hesitating if I should tell my advisor about my mom, but I feel that I'll just sound like I'm making excuses.

Quitting is NOT an option because I have never thought about it and I always wanted to do research since I was in high school.

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    Please refrain from posting comments and answers that might qualify as armchair psychology or medicine (e.g. comments about alternative diets as "cure" for cancer, for example, are not considered constructive here). (Also see: this meta post.) – ff524 Aug 28 '15 at 3:39
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    I'm very sorry to hear about your situation. I wish your mom and you both inner peace and strength, while you're going through such an extremely difficult period in life. As for your question, I agree with previous answers, especially one by @ff524 (+1) - you should definitely let your advisor know about the situation. – Aleksandr Blekh Aug 28 '15 at 6:47
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    Thank you guys.. I decided to tell my advisor. I hope it goes well. – anon Aug 28 '15 at 9:18
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    Perhaps you should take a 1 semester or 1 year leave of absence. They will hold your funding for you until you return. – confused Aug 28 '15 at 21:16
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    I lost someone very important to me a few years ago, and I can't imagine what I wouldn't give for one more day with her. There is no worse regret than time you should have spent with a loved one that you can never get back. Some people in their last days ask for support. The best among us ask to be left alone, thinking that by isolating they spare everyone else the pain. Nothing could be further from the truth. She may say she doesn't want you to go home, but from the deepest part of my heart I'm telling you not to listen. Don't walk, run to your adviser and ask for a semester off. – TheEnvironmentalist Aug 31 '15 at 1:31

15 Answers 15

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My deepest sympathies for what you are going through.

You should certainly tell your advisor. No reasonable person would believe that you are using this situation as an "excuse" for poor performance.

Understanding your situation will help your advisor do his/her job: advising you according to your current needs and circumstances.

Your advisor may be able to direct you to mental health and other support services at your university that can help you through this time. He/she can also make you aware of other options that are available under exceptional circumstances: for example, a short leave of absence if you feel it is necessary, or an option to delay a comprehensive exam, or other similar concessions that can take some of the academic pressure off you while you focus on regaining your mental and emotional health.

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    really appreciated it.. I don't want to take a leave of absence now though I will definitely consider it if my mom dies in the next few months.. – ghjdnkmttrasda Aug 28 '15 at 5:11
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    @dankmatter When faced with such a hard decision, I would ask myself might I later regret the choice I made. I try to imagine having made one decision, and what might happen moving forward. I then ask myself whether it is then likely that I will regret the decision I have made. I do the same for the other choice. My approach does not necessarily lead to better choices, but it has helped me understand my choices better and not make choices I would later regret. – kasperd Aug 28 '15 at 21:32
  • @dankmatter My condolences for what you're going through. I have never been in your situation, and I can't imagine what it would be like. However, I would consider taking a leave of absence, even a planned one between exams or responsibilities, before she passes, rather than after, just to see her and spend time with her. I had something similar with a family member at a critical point in my education and their health, and afterwards, not to be crass, but there was no point in taking time off because there was no one to see. – JFA Aug 30 '15 at 21:51
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My mother died shortly after I matriculated to my PhD program.

I actually could not finish all of my classes, and had to make up work the following semester.

Everyone involved (dept. head, advisor, etc.) would have given me even more time than I took to get back on track, after a few months I dove into work as a way to deal with some of parts of the loss.

Any reasonable university and advisor will give you time, most large universities even have formal bereavement policies for graduate students (in the US at least).

You should certainly tell your dean/dept. head about it as well as your advisor, and even take a leave of absence if you need to.

Don't be afraid to take some time, the work can wait.

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    I'm very sorry about your mom.. I don't think I should take a leave of absence now since me moving back home wouldn't help anything and my mom does not want that.. but I'll definitely consider it if my mom does die in the next few months. My advisor isn't happy about my slow progress, and I think that's why I'm scared of telling him about it.. I really appreciate your comment – ghjdnkmttrasda Aug 28 '15 at 5:08
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    @dankmatter If anything, your advisor's concern about your progress is a reason why you should tell him the reason. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 28 '15 at 6:47
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A student in our program took a year's leave to look after his mother while she died of cancer. I am sure that anyone who thought of it, thought more of him not less of him for it.

You should always give your advisor all relevant information regarding your performance. He/she has to assess your progress and will inevitably have a view regarding whether you are bright, stupid, lazy, hardworking, distractable, etc. Unless you truly think they are an ogre give them the full picture.

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    Thanks. It looks like you are a professor. I'm glad to see an answer from your perspective. Really appreciate it – ghjdnkmttrasda Aug 28 '15 at 9:10
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I had an experience pretty similar to yours, also in the second year of my PhD program. While my father thankfully survived, he was entering surgery with roughly 50/50 odds of survival. To compound things, I was the one with power of attorney that would have had to make any potentially life-threatening decisions on his behalf should he have been unable to. Needless to say, this all had me a bit flustered.

Here's what I did:

I knew the chair fairly well, and I also knew he was a really nice guy (he's jokingly called "The Nicest Man in the World" in the department), so I went to him first. This was at the beginning of the second year in the program and I still hadn't built up a close relationship with my advisor yet. He sat me down and shared stories, really tried to make me feel comfortable. He assured me that the department would be behind me and would support me in whatever way. Take however much time I needed, etc.

I did eventually tell my advisor who was quite sympathetic. but given that I was still in the coursework phase of my grad career, interaction with my advisor wasn't a huge part of my life yet. It was pretty clear what to do -- take the required courses and do well -- so his advice wasn't needed as often.

I only had one negative reaction, from the person I was TAing for. This professor was quite clearly irritated by my need to miss two weeks of classes, even though my co-TAs were covering my sections for me (the saints they were). But hey, 2/3 ain't bad.

Fortunately, my father's surgery went well and his recovery was quick. This enabled me to return to campus fairly quickly, in under two weeks -- and largely at my father's insistence. The whole situation, while terrible at the time, had very little lasting impact on my graduate career as far as I can tell.

My Advice to You:

Now, clearly your situation is quite different than mine was. It sounds like death is a near certainty here. I'm sorry for this. It also sounds like you might think you're having some worsening mental health issues. If it is available to you, I'd highly recommend seeking some sort of relevant medical help. Counseling or some sort of therapy may be appropriate, but I'm not a Doctor, so talk to one you trust.

On to the more plainly academic stuff: It seems likely that in order to deal with both your stress and family situation you're going to have to take some time off at some point. You would want to talk to the relevant person in your department and tell them as soon as you make a decision so that they can find someone to replace you if you, e.g., were assigned any teaching responsibilities that semester.

It seems reasonable to talk to your advisor so long as you have a moderately good relationship with them.

Who else should you tell? Tell anyone to whom you have obligations or responsibilities that you won't be able to fulfill. If you have a part-time tutoring gig, those need to be cancelled. Most things I'm thinking of can probably be cancelled without reason or the generic "family emergency". Only speak about your situation to the extent that you're comfortable to and that it helps you.

Assuming you do take a leave of absence, I would try to keep it as short as you reasonably can. If you can go back after one semester, great. If not, then try again at two. Always give advanced notice of your plans to return so there's a spot for you in whatever your research/teaching role might be.

If you're anything like me, after a while away from research you just have to do something. Do what you can on your own. Keep in correspondence with your professors. Don't let your time away be time when you're forgotten. This doesn't mean a daily correspondence, but check in every once in a while. As you're getting ready to come back you can let them know that.

Mostly? Don't worry too much about how others will respond and focus on yourself and your family. As many of the other answers have said, any reasonably decent person will understand and not hold your situation against you.

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    Thanks. Glad to hear that your father survived. I probably won't consider a leave of absence unless my mom really dies in the future.. Your advice on leave of absence is very insightful. It's very relieving to know that I'm not alone in this boat.. None of my friends/peers know about my mom yet except for 2 persons – ghjdnkmttrasda Aug 28 '15 at 9:16
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My father died of cancer earlier this year. I am trying to finish a math PhD thesis.

I informed my advisor almost immediately (by email) and told that I would not be available for some time. This was not questioned. I should have told of the situation earlier, but the end can come quickly. I did not have teaching duties at the moment. My relationship with my advisor is good. If you have a troubled relationship with your advisor, then things may be more complicated.

I was away from the university for maybe two weeks - I don't recall exactly. After that performance has been spotty. The sorrow returns every now and then, even if it usually stays out of consciousness.

  • If you have a precise set of courses you should take at precise times, then you should try to negotiate them with whoever is appropriate. Ask for help freely and explain your situation honestly. This may involve crying.
  • Also try negotiating any teaching duties you may have. Around here the common way is to swap some teaching with someone else; you might want to arrange this before you are in hurry. Select someone who can replace you and whom you trust. Tell them what is going on and ask if they would teach in your place for some days on short notice, if necessary.
  • If possible, try to stop your research at a suitable point. You can write an introduction to an article without your full mental capacity. You can also submit a paper to arXiv and to journals and consider changes suggested by referees. Finding more references is also not terribly taxing. Try to have such easier, but still relevant, tasks to return to. Also, inform any co-authors about having personal problems and not doing anything with the paper for at least a month or two.

You may want to find out how a formal break from PhD studies works at your university.

At least in Finland there is a fair amount of paperwork to do (hopefully you are not doing them alone) after a death. If you need to sell a house or apartment, there will be even more. Do not underestimate the emotional side of dealing with your mother's possessions and home.

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    thanks. Sorry to hear about your father. I did cry a lot lately and back in January. I do have teaching duties in the fall but I'm probably gonna stick with it just so that I will have something to do so I won't be obsessed with sadness.. – ghjdnkmttrasda Aug 28 '15 at 9:06
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    I think it is useful to have a backup plan for the teaching - do it if you can and want to, but also have someone who can do the teaching for a couple of days and who knows the situation, or whichever is the conventional way to deal with sudden temporary absence from teaching. – Tommi Brander Aug 28 '15 at 9:14
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My mom died of cancer in the middle of my third year of post-graduate studies.

I'm female in a (heavily at the time) male-dominated field, and I did try to put up a strong front for that reason. Even so, I wouldn't have drempt of keeping such important information from my advisor, especially as I had to take lots of unexpected days off intermittently as she was in and out of the ICU (in a country about 11 hours from where I was.)

My best advice is that you do what you won't regret later. I tried to fulfill my obligations to my studies as well as to be there for my mother (who was close to death several times.) My biggest regret is that I waited too long before finally asking to take (and being immediately granted) a leave of absence. My mother died before I even left to go to her.

My deepest sympathy for what you are going through. As someone else said, think about yourself and your mother, and do what's best for the both of you. The rest will fall into place.

9

Clearly many people identify with this scenario. My mother died last year from kidney cancer and I was at the end of my first year in my PhD program. I was with my mother on the last night of her life. The next morning I had to attend my doctoral residency in another state. A few hours into my trip I received the call from my father that my mother died. I continued to the conference, informed my advisor about the situation, then returned to Atlanta, Georgia from Orlando, Flordia to attend the funeral. After the funeral, I returned to Orlando to continue my residency.

Like yourself, concentration was hard for me. I would advise you to tell your advisor and take some time off. You never get another mother. Spend as much time with her as you can. I hope the best for you and your family. May God guide you to what is best.

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Yes, tell your advisor and head of Dept. As someone who has been responsible for PhD students (physics), and has lost his mother, I can see it from both sides. Your life will change and you will have a very busy and jumpy mind for a long time, and find focusing difficult - but it will get better. Work on your organisational skills in order to keep on top of things - I found I let stuff get on top of me that ordinarily I would just have dealt with.

As a manager, I really want to know if anyone working with or for me is having any issues. It may explain otherwise odd actions or changes in performance and most managers and advisors will realise that you need time - this time of life happens to most of us.

lastly, good luck in your studies and my thoughts are with you.

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I was working on a Master's when I got news that my Mom had terminal cancer. After some deliberation my family made the decision to move back to be with her and help in anyway we could. My school gave me an interruption for a year with no issues whatsoever.

My Mom died within hours of our arrival. We made the decision to stay to get my Dad back on his feet. I ended up working in an area unrelated to my studies to be in the same place for a year and am just now restarting my Master's at a different institution closer to home.

Take a while to think about your situation. There will always be time to finish your studies. There is no likely penalty for delay but you will never get this time back with your Mom.

Life is more than academics and work.

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It's a different case but I was ill myself during a taught MSc at a British university. I was on a scholarship. Not only did the department give me a year off, they also gave me a complete new scholarship to start the whole course again.

It is always worth asking. If you are worried about your CV then you can explain that you took a year (or whatever period of time) out to look after a sick relative. Unless you are dealing with truly unreasonable people then you are likely to receive help and sympathy.

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Not telling about this problem will cause additional stress as you must then keep the real reasons why you aren't performing well hidden, you'll end up seeking unnatural remedies (e.g. trying to work harder when your mind and body tells you that you really can't do that anymore). Taking the initial step to start to talk about this with your advisor may be difficult, especially if you never have talked about other personal matters before, but as mentioned in all the other answers, it's something that you should do to prevent getting into trouble later.

As long as you don't talk about this, you could just as well have been at some university run by machines that have no understanding of this sort of a problem. But now your brain has adapted to this hypothetical situation as if it is reality. It is reserving a lot more energy than it would actually need to do.

So, just talk about it, your brain will then change the way it flags work related information. This will take away quite a bit of the stress you are experiencing and you may then find that you actually have a lot more energy than you thought you had. You can then decide a lot better on how much work you can do while taking care of your mother.

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Deepest sympathies to hear of your families' troubles.

I was in my 5th year, ready to graduate (i was getting my PhD in Chemistry) and go on to my new postdoc at Caltech when my father was suddenly diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He had very little time and I left immediately. It was not a choice since there was no time whatsoever. However, mulling it over and worrying about really affected my work and everything thing else...yet I didn't have the inclination to discuss it with my colleagues and friends...and I certainly wasn't sure whether I should've told my adviser. I haven't read the other posts..even though I let my slide down in unproductive misery which helped nothing at all. I had one of the most enlightened, professional, and dedicated advisors in the country..without a doubt, he was and is till a hero of mine

In a weird way, I didn't have the heart to tell him i need to leave so I just kept performing sub-par work with no explanation at all.

After the funeral...it was too late to go back and say...this is why my work has suffered...I didn't have the guts to tell you". Regardless of how he would respond to that explanation...if you talk to your advisor, especially you committee members IN ADVANCE...then maybe her health with return, or after some time, you will be able to return.

I warn you...if you hide something this important from your advisor you are just damaging your psychology, performance, and emotions--and reputation..But being forthright NOW can not hurt you. It simply may make him disappointed, but he should also empathize and then you will have the option to return someday if you so choose

Do not hide important personal life events from your advisor. A little bit of bear about him getting upset is nothing compared to when everything comes to pass, he is told after the fact and no longer trusts you or thinks you are making excuses....by that point not only his anger, but your reputation among the entire faculty will be forever damaged.

That was my experience. Are you afraid of being "fired"? Are you thinking ignoring it will make it go away? You will do total damage to yourself and you will regret for many many years if not the rest of your life.

  • Thanks. I didn't have the heart of telling my advisor I wasn't sure what I was worrying about.. Anyway earlier I was mostly taking classes so we didn't interact much until about 3 months ago.. I hope it is not too late – ghjdnkmttrasda Aug 29 '15 at 23:42
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As a PhD supervisor myself I always make it a point to know what is going on in my students' lives (at least as much as they are willing to share with me; I would never pry for information they would be unwilling to divulge), as I well know that family and personal matters can heavily influence one's ability to concentrate on research.

I can't speak for the relationship you have with your supervisor, but it seems to me that to make a PhD work you need to be able to be fairly open with your supervisor. If he or she is stand-offish, too busy to see you except only briefly and occasionally, then look for another supervisor. I have no truck with supervisors who are too self-important to spend time with their students.

I'm very sorry about your troubles, but as I say to students and lecturers in my area: family must come first.

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You should make sure your PhD adviser knows what is going on in your life. Part of their job is to direct you to relevant resources and understand the process. You may need to take a break from your studies to spend time with your mother and potentially, to grieve. many schools offer ways to do this without harming your academic standing. While the need to perform is important in Academia, the world is not so heartless. Turn to the people around you for help, while you can.

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One point I'd like to add: you may want to think about some discrete way of proving that your mother is indeed ill. It would be nice to live in a world where that would not be necessary of course, but alas we do not live in that world. People may have doubts, and worse may not express them to avoid hurting your feelings, while it may still influence their opinion.

Perhaps it would be good to anticipate that eventuality by having, for instance, a letter from her oncologist or something like that which you could subtly use in your communication with your advisor and others. You could attach it without even referencing it at all, or just lightly refer to it with something like: "as you can see in the attached letter, my mother...".

It may seem tasteless and to be honest I think this is by no means essential, but it's something which could potentially smooth a painful process and therefore something you might consider, although it is also an entirely valid position to take that it should not be necessary.

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