There are many reasons why students request change in advisors. I was aware that another professor was his advisor at the time and it was natural that I asked the student why he intended to change advisors. What I heard behooved me! I could not have imagined the interactions that led the student to totally reject the advisor. How can it be? I wondered. I had to pull myself back and think whether all the things that were said could be true. It was hard to believe that a colleague as portrayed by the student is the same individual that I know for the past few years. No way, I thought. It can't be true!
But one thing I do know to be true is that the student is very bright, full of new ideas, friendly, highly diligent, very meticulous and is among the most dedicated individuals one can find at the graduate level! I asked him repeatedly why he wishes to walk away from his previous work. His response was: "I came here to obtain my Phd. I cannot relive the experience by telling you the details. I am sorry I cannot share with you everything that happened, but one thing is clear that I do not wish to work with my current advisor. I only seek something useful after four years as a graduate student that give me the necessary qualifications for my future academic aspirations. I am happy if I can obtain a Master's degree and move on".
When asked why he wishes to change his advisor, the student showed me a doctor's certificate describing his frequent breakdowns both physically and mentally requiring therapeutic treatments and medication to decrease the effects of anxiety attacks. The discomfort he expressed made me feel sad as I tried hard to bear with his pain and suffering. As i listened, I felt there must be something I can do that transform the state of mind, which the student was experiencing, and to make him think positive.
Knowing his capabilities, I felt certain that he had the motivation, the inspiration, and the creative ability to conceive and develop an advanced optimization technique I had been thinking about recently -- (all in light of World affairs, global threats, identifying terrorist network, ...). I needed some student to take on the challenge of addressing real-time threats in terms of optimal sensor placement knowing that threats evolve, spread and must, therefore, be tracked. Hence, the optimization required a fair knowledge of Kalman filtering, an algorithm used for control and navigation. The student was extremely knowledgeable in optimization approaches and convinced me of his commitment to achieve a targeted outcome.
Cheers of joy sparkled around the student the moment I acknowledged to help him achieve his goal. He was elated, exuberant, excited, energetic and emotional about his ability to graduate with a Master's degree under my guidance and advisorship. His demeanor transformed from one who appeared to have lost his way, to one who had just found the way! He was just overjoyed!
The student blew my mind away by developing an algorithm for optimal sensor placement in power systems operation and control. An area that is intimate to me, I saw the development as revolutionary. A power system is highly nonlinear and serves as a testbed to examine disturbance propagation. Naturally, sensor placement is a critical issue. The student had shown me that there could be a better way to analyze, interpret, and track terror threats. All of the above happened over a period of three months during the summer of 2017.
Did I do the right thing by accepting the student's request to be his advisor? Not so, says the former advisor!
An email I received from the student's former advisor said: "I just came to know that my PhD student completed a MS Thesis option with you. I was not even aware of this, since he told me he was sick and gave me a doctor's certificate that said he cannot work for an extended period of time. I am wondering if you knew I had funded him for 4 years, and if a change of advisor form was filled out. Thanks,"
My response: "I believe the student filled out a form. Department should have a copy."
Former Advisor: "I think you should have asked me before consenting to take away a student I had funded for 4 years. I do see your signature on the form that says I was his advisor."
My response: "There was no malicious intent on anybody's part, certainly not me, and I can vouch for the student's sincerity and forthrightness with me as well. The student was on the verge of a breakdown. When someone is at that point, it is only proper to provide the necessary moral support so the person does not fall apart! It was the student's decision to change advisors due to all the reasons, which only he knows. I accepted his request based on things which he said he can accomplish towards a Master's degree. I am happy that he recovered to pursue his dreams elsewhere! If you wish to talk in person, I will stop by your office on Monday."
Former Advisor: "I don't want to get into intent; let us leave that part to our conscience. Let us talk common courtesy between colleagues and departmental policy. When a student makes a request to change advisors for whatever reasons, the previous advisor must be kept in the loop, so the other part of the story can come to light. I can't imagine this not being done by my colleague or by the department head.
The response completely blew me away. For a few moments, I could only say Wow! I can't believe what I am reading! How could someone show their ego so vividly? Whatever happened to the compassion and empathy that one must have towards others? I felt that everything the student mentioned to me about his advisor beginning to unfold.
(Sidebar) Truth exists. One must find it.
After some pondering on how to respond I felt I can share a similar instance when one of my Ph.D.. students abruptly decided to quit. I could not provide the details of my discussion with the student for obvious reasons.
My response: "I can easily relate to your frustrations and anguish by referring to my Ph.D. student who left after 2 years of funded support and obtained his Master's degree in Industrial Engineering. I suppose the department policy must enforce that students seeking a change of advisor must obtain the consent of his/her advisor first on the "Change of Advisor" form. This would guarantee that a discussion has taken place and the reasons for the change is acceptable and can be well-documented.
Former Advisor: "Let us forget it; you were not the only person who signed that form. I will make sure the form is changed and the procedure is enforced. Best regards".
The last response from the former advisor is an example to distinguish between one's ego and the feelings of empathy towards others. When one's ego kicks in, the individual has lost the feelings of compassion towards others. The loss of a Ph.D. student due to the advisor's own lack of empathy and mindfulness must be understood.
Advisors don't have ownership of students!
Students have every right to choose whomever they want as Advisor to guide them through their academic goals.
Advisors must self-assess why a student might consider change in advisors and accept the change without any hesitation, or hold a grudge against the student.
WOW! I can't believe I had to write this. But, writing has made me learn and understand what it takes to be an advisor -- to be tolerant, mindful, compassionate, and caring.