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How to handle a supervisor’s sudden departure

Empty Science Lab“I don’t want to be here, and I can’t get out,” says a geosciences student who started her PhD programme in 2015 and has no clear end in sight. “I want to find a postdoc and get the mentorship experience I’m not getting currently, but I can’t finish my dissertation.”

During her first year, she found out from several graduate students that her adviser had taken a position at a new university. When she asked him about the transition, she says, he assured her that everything would be fine and that she could either change institutions with him or be mentored from afar. She was in the process of buying a home with her partner, so she decided to stay and be advised remotely. Now, seven years later, she is still struggling to find the support that she needs to complete her dissertation and secure a job — nearly two years after she should have graduated.

Principal investigators (PIs) can depart their institutions for many reasons while they are actively advising PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. Students must then work out whether they can move with their PIs, switch advisers or transition to remote supervision, or devise another solution to complete their degrees. “We want PIs to be able to move,” says Jennifer Polk, a career coach for PhD students, based in Toronto, Canada. “But the impacts of that move on PhD students can range from none at all to them not finishing their degrees, depending on what happens next.” According to Polk, PIs need to tell their students about their plans as soon as possible and be transparent about what their students’ options are.

Nature spoke to junior researchers, a PI, a career consultant and a dean about the impacts of an absent PI and what PhD students and postdocs can do to stay on track. Three interviewees, including the geoscientist mentioned above, requested anonymity owing to concerns that sharing their experiences could harm their careers.

Read the full article on the Nature Careers Website – https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-01116-0 [1]

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