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I am a doctorate student in mathematics, having returned to finish my Ph.D after a long absence. Four years after my initial departure, I returned after gaining maturity in the working world and rekindling a personal interest in higher-level math, and to become competitive for work nearer to home.

Since I was restarting with a long-tarnished reputation, but since my advisor was very forgiving and gracious, I was allowed to conditionally resume my degree under extremely stringent conditions, which I met - I passed tough qualifiers and I completed my coursework in a short frame of time on my own dime while maintaining full-time work.

Following completing my qual and degree program requirements, I began to focus strongly on my research in order to complete the dissertation. I recently passed my preliminary oral exam for my dissertation in May, spent the first half of the summer reviewing additional papers for my writing, and commenced writing my dissertation formally in July with hopes on a December graduation.

The trouble began anew when my advisor retired suddenly in August. Although I had been updating him on my progress and asking him for advice while writing, finding time to meet with him became problematic, as he started to become absent and increasingly difficult to reach and schedule with. However, his "hands off" approach had me still writing, and I had a substantial amount of work to review and share with him, and he agreed to meet with me yesterday.

That meeting yesterday was when disaster happened. I noticed that he had become very temperamental; he was highly critical of what little he let me present to him, and overtly stated that he was not going to waste his time and read what I had written. The solutions that I was able to present to him were dismissed out of hand without any further explanation, and his first statement was to tell me to trash everything I had written and start from scratch (even though he didn't read it or hear anything but a small portion of it).

As the (heated) four hour conversation progressed, he jumped from clear and reasonable critique to complete incoherency, which I found unusual and hard to incorporate moving forward.

When the conversation concluded, I realized that he had in mind a different dissertation problem for me to solve, one that wasn't even covered in my preliminary exam in May.

He stated that I had until the end of the weekend to clean up my writing, make it presentable, and incorporate the new problem he presented, adding three extra tasks to boot (one of which he had never required me to research before). I am to send the writing to my committee at the end of the weekend and have them evaluate its status.

I mentioned that while my work has substance and progress, it was not complete and organized (that's why I visited him in person), and that my final oral exam was supposed to be the point of my committee's evaluation, not when the writing is still in media res. Without his confidence, my committee will not grant scheduling my final oral, and will likely not take the time to read what I send until they hear the word from my advisor anyway. He didn't care.

In short, this unexpected, sudden, and strange conflict with my advisor has suddenly put my graduation in heavy jeopardy with respect to the stringent deadlines imposed by the Grad College for December graduation (due to my long absence), has put new my job at risk (since obtaining a Ph.D was part of the hiring requirements for contract renewal next year), invalidates three years of hard work to rebuild my formerly tarnished status after my long absence, wastes the tens of thousands of dollars I paid out of pocket to do this, and permanently ends my twenty-year dream of obtaining a Ph.D.

Thank you for listening and for offering whatever advice you offer. I am at the end of my rope and feel powerless, worthless, and hopeless.

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    Have you discussed this with any of the other committee members? Given your advisor's retirement, would it be possible for one of them to step in as advisor? – Patricia Shanahan Sep 29 '16 at 22:42
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    Holy wall of text, Batman! I think you should consider shortening the question down a lot. We don't need your entire background, just the facts needed to figure out what your question is. – Ric Sep 29 '16 at 22:43
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    Advisor retired suddenly; was hard to reach; is behaving unusually; spoke incoherently. Have you considered the possibility that he is suffering a medical problem, possibly involving cognitive impairment? This is a potentially sensitive subject, but if he retired suddenly, it's quite possible that others in the department were aware of the issue. I think bringing up the issue with your committee, and raising this specific concern, is called for. In this case your feelings of worthlessness, etc, are certainly unwarranted. – Nate Eldredge Sep 30 '16 at 1:18
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    Nate, yes, there is quite a bit of self-doubt involved after the heavy criticism. There is no known health condition with my advisor himself, but there is conjecture (just conjecture) that the sudden retirement is intimately personal, which I will not explain out of respect for his privacy. I do not blame him personally for this, but with time running out, and no positive feedback coming in on my writing, I am feeling out to sea. I will have to carefully figure out a way to bring this up to my committee, who have reason to be critical of me in light of my character during my previous stay. – Thomas Rasberry Sep 30 '16 at 1:36
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    Well, I think you better do it quick. – Nate Eldredge Sep 30 '16 at 2:24
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The most promising strategy is to work with at least one committee member other than your advisor. The first choice may be the one that is a potential advisor, but you really need someone who is both approachable and good at academic politics.

Anyone like that is going to be very busy, and you need most of the meeting to be about them advising you and thinking of ways to improve the situation. You must strip your wall of text down to a few key points:

  • You are on a tight academic deadline, because credits will disappear if you do not graduate this year, and you will not be able to finish your PhD if you cannot meet the deadline.
  • Finishing the PhD is personally and financially important to you.
  • You proceeded with the research presented at your preliminary oral exam, which you thought had been approved.
  • You have been having trouble getting feedback from your advisor.
  • At your recent meeting, you had trouble communicating with him, and he seemed to be requiring a change in research line that would make completing the PhD impossible.

Two topics to not discuss: Your prior performance, and the advisor's personal issues. The professors should be dealing with the person you are now. What matters is your current difficulty with your advisor, not the reasons behind it.

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    Agreed. I am to talk with the new graduate committee head in my department next week; by pure luck, this person is on my own program of study committee. He agreed to look at everything objectively when I produce the edited paper this week and have the whole committee chip in thoughts, and then he will present a full picture to me about my timeline for current progress and whether (as a result) my graduation would still be on time. – Thomas Rasberry Oct 1 '16 at 4:08
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I am sorry to hear that you are feeling stressed. As a fellow math PhD, let me try to say a few things that will put your mind somewhat at ease.

My advisor (who is the most considerate, caring, and brilliant person that I could have hoped for) was also very hands-off, and when I had solved my first problem and excitedly went to him to try to get him to understand the main idea behind the proof, he did not understand a word of what I was saying. I graduated from something like a top 5 private university in math, so we're talking about a brilliant mathematician here. He sent me off, telling me that I needed to write up everything before he could check whether I have done everything correctly (he might also have said that he did not want to waste time on what little I had written).

The next week, I actually wrote out everything in a more coherent way, and he spent maybe an hour criticizing the first few pages, then sent me off again, telling me to make all the corrections that he suggested, then to apply the same standards to the rest of the paper. Looking back, even the slightest change of a single word can make a notation incoherent. Now that I have matured considerably from the graduate student that I was, I am no longer sure if my advisor actually didn't understand, or if he sent me away because it was an educational opportunity.

Finally, a few weeks later, after painstakingly fixing everything so that my advisor couldn't criticize me on minor points, I just sent it to him via email. A few weeks later, he sent me a corrected copy back and told me that the solution was nice and that it was a lot more subtle than what he had in mind!

What your advisor is doing reminds me a lot of what my advisor did to me. If he gave you a specific deadline and he is willing to meet with you again, it is most likely an issue on your exposition (and don't feel bad; most graduate students really need to work on how to clearly write things). And believe me, if you are staring at a poorly written piece of mathematics for hours, you really get cranky.

And the fact that he gave you a very short amount of time to incorporate a new problem into your thesis makes me suspect that the problem is well within your reaches. No reasonable advisor will demand that a student solve a completely new problem in a week!

So I think that your first course of action should be to calm down, and carefully evaluate what you have written. Just do your best in cleaning up everything and presenting your advisor with a new copy. Think about the new problem that your advisor suggested as well, and see if it is easily solvable with what you know already.

Once you have calmed down, I would send an email to your advisor, asking if he thinks that you can still graduate by December, and whether if there is anything that you can do to make that happen. Just calmly and politely lay out your concerns in an email, and suggest that you could meet to talk about it.

That is step one. You need to make sure that your advisor isn't just saying these things so that you can learn something from these interactions.

If your advisor continues to be difficult, I would talk to the chair of graduate studies in your department. Especially because your advisor has retired, I would think that you need an active advisor (even if it's just on paper) in the department, so it should be relatively easy to find someone who is willing to proofread your thesis and help you graduate.

Finally, I just want to add that you want to try to maintain a good relationship with your advisor regardless, because your advisor's letter counts the most when you look for academic positions. You did not say whether you want an academic position, but it is something to keep in mind. Because we don't have a lab culture, I do think that most mathematicians are reasonable when it comes to dealing with graduate students, so instead of reacting quickly against the hurtful comments, try to see if your advisor had a point (even though it seems that at the best scenario, he conveyed that badly).

  • These were some of my thoughts, as well. There have been some breakdowns in understandings, and the conversation this past week was indeed heated, but no animosity seems to have continued, and it looks like my work will be given a chance to be read. It seems, more than anything, that my major prof may be too tied up in very personal issues to recall everything we're doing on the spot and the goals we set forth in the preliminary, and I think everyone, me included, is coming to realize this fact. – Thomas Rasberry Oct 1 '16 at 4:11
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My first instinct would be to go to a trusted third party who is responsible for providing guidance or even mediating disputes between students and their advisors. If no such person exists, then try to find one.

In my department the director of the graduate program also serves as a confidential and neutral third party to whom advisors and students can approach about exactly these kinds of issues. He is sworn to confidentiality (will not inform your advisor of the discussion) unless you specifically request that he mediate between you. If your department has no such designated person then you could try requesting a meeting with a reasonable proxy such as the chair or graduate program director. If none of these people are willing or able to serve in this role, it might be worthwhile to go to the dean of graduate studies, but this would be an option of last resort, as it would look bad for you, your advisor, your chair, and your department.

Going outside of your advisor to another trusted committee member could be a solution, be be warned that you do not want your committee to feel like they have to pick sides between you and your advisor.

  • Talking to the dean of the Graduate College was actually part of the resolution I had today, because that person is both intimately familiar with my case and has the final say on extending overage courses. I only mentioned a "possible extenuating circumstance outside my control" to him, making sure to not go into details (and complementing that my department was working on them, too) but that I needed assurance that if I was forced to graduate in Spring, the extension could go until then. He gladly gave me that assurance, so that improved everything dramatically. – Thomas Rasberry Oct 1 '16 at 4:05

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