What do you do when your advisor leaves?

Wendy Gordon
(Ph.D. Botany, 2003; Norma Fowler and Jay Famiglietti, Supervisors)
Research Associate, Integrative Biology
University of Texas at Austin

In some sense, I experienced the worst graduate-school nightmare. My advisor left UT after I had been admitted to candidacy and had started my research (at the end of my third year). Because I was not interested in following him to his new institution, and because my research was intricately linked to his, I knew my choices were to find a new advisor and a new project or to quit my program. The latter was not an appealing option even though I knew the former would be a huge challenge.

The challenge turned out to be greater than I initially assumed because no one in my department was doing the type of research that matched my interests and therefore could serve as a suitable advisor. I started querying professors in other departments with overlapping research programs. Ultimately I hooked up with someone with complementary research objectives. In order to salvage my existing coursework and candidacy status, I remained in my department but arranged for co-chairmanship of my doctoral committee with the co-chairs coming from my existing department (I "promoted" an existing committee member) and the new department.

The next hurdle was developing a new research proposal. I knew time was of the essence; after all, I was losing a year or more of progress to the upheaval. I got lucky. In the tangled world of academia it turned out that he and I shared acquaintances, even though we were coming from different disciplines, and there was an opening on a project team for someone to do the type of research I wanted to do. From there I wrote a new research proposal, got four years of external funding, and did indeed graduate, albeit a little later than I had initially planned. An irony of this story is that my second advisor also left UT. There were important differences in the two situations, however. One is advisor number two and I got along much better than advisor number one and I had. In retrospect, I may have been fortunate that my first advisor left because I am uncertain whether I would have finished my program under his direction. Secondly, I was far enough along that advisor number two's physical presence on campus did not matter that much.

I would like to offer some practical advice based on my experience:

1. It is important to have a "can do" attitude. I led my committee through most of this. Seeing that I was taking responsibility in this situation made them responsive to my needs and willing to offer help. There may not be precedents for the situation you find yourself in, so do not be afraid of creating them.

2. Networking is important. The fact that I had made contacts in various departments in prior years meant that I could call on people to help me. Contacts also helped me land my new research project.

3. Be prepared to prove yourself. One realization I came to early in my relationship with advisor number 2 was that he had no stake in my success or failure. Since he had volunteered to serve as my mentor through extra-ordinary channels, if nothing came of my work he would not be tarnished. Once I made it clear that I had the "right stuff" he made significant contributions to my success.

4. Make sure committee co-chairs are compatible. Fortunately, the committee member whom I elevated to co-chairmanship deferred to my new advisor. This made a great deal of sense since my new advisor was well-versed in my new research project, much more so than anyone else on my committee.

5. You may find yourself alone. After advisor number two left (and his students with him), I was lonely. Suddenly, there was not anyone else with similar research interests with whom I could align myself. Again, it helped that I regularly attended seminars in several departments and cultivated my contacts. Maintaining ties to related disciplines helped keep my research alive.

6. Finally, if you find yourself far removed from your advisor, communication becomes paramount. For the first year after advisor number two left, I often felt frustrated because my e-mails were not returned in a timely manner or because of other communication snafus. Out of sight really is out of mind. In year two I tackled this problem by arranging for weekly phone calls at a pre-determined time and place. One or the other of us could not always participate due to other commitments, but connecting once a week or so made a huge difference. It kept my morale up when I was slogging through those final months, and most importantly, it kept me focused. There is nothing worse than having to tell someone that you have not accomplished anything in the week just past.

To summarize, the departure of your academic advisor can mean the death knell for pursuit of a graduate degree, or it can translate into new opportunities. It most likely will mean postponement of your anticipated graduation. However, with perseverance, creativity, and leadership, you can overcome this significant obstacle and succeed.