My PhD supervisor left me

This post is of a more personal nature than most, but I would still like to write about this. Last September I took a course called ‘Achieving your goals and performing more successfully in your PhD‘ (a serious contender for the longest-course-name-ever-awards). Among other things, the course had us thinking of potential threats to getting our PhD-degree in the given time. The first thing that came to my mind was the thought of my supervisor leaving me. And guess what, that totally happened: my PhD supervisor left me!


I met my supervisor, Charl Botha, in my second year of my Computer Science studies. I was torn between wanting to become a game developer (because I was gaming so much) and doing something with my medical background, so my three years of hospital work wouldn’t go to waste. I made an appointment with him and he showed me some of the medical visualization projects he was working on with his PhD-students at the time. I was amazed by the beautiful images and the implications of this research for patient’s lives. From that moment on it was clear, no more game development dreams for me and a full focus on medical visualization.

Later on, Charl became my supervisor for my BSc-project ‘Computer-Assisted Surgical Anatomy Mapping (CASAM)‘ in collaboration with the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam. Good times were had by all in this group project and my medvis passion grew stronger. In my MSc curriculum, things really became interesting in the Data Visualization and Medical Visualization courses. When it was MSc-thesis time, Charl once again supervised me. I had never really considered doing a PhD before, but the medvis field, cool projects and Charl by then had convinced me otherwise. So exactly one year ago, I started my PhD, with Charl as my daily supervisor for the third time.


The first year of my PhD was pretty much smooth sailing. Implementing, publications, conferences, project meetings: everything was going exactly like I hoped it would. That is, until November, where the dreaded ‘We need to talk’-conversation happened. Of course I fully understand his reasons and respect his decision, but for me personally, this news hit me like an arrow to the knees (here’s what that looked like 😉 ). He was still around for one day a week for a couple of months, but last week I had my last project meeting ever with him.


Since he’s leaving academia entirely, there’s no chance of following him to another university and my only other option is to quit my PhD: do not want! Why is this such a big deal for me anyway? I guess I accepted the PhD-position under the assumption that I would be able to continue my work under his supervision. This news of course isn’t the end of the world and in time I will have a new advisor. Until then however, I will be a bit of a PhD orphan. This could potentially be a good thing and a chance for me to work more independently, but at the same time this thought also scares me. If there’s one thing I like to do at times like this, it’s planning. My plan for now:

  • I’ll just keep going with my research and will try to stick to the research plan as well as I can. I wrote this document just before Charl left and now is a good time to keep the future vision for the project and milestones in mind. The alternative, quitting, is really not an option for me. I love this project far too much for that.
  • Since I won’t be having weekly progress meetings for a while, my lab journal is even more important to maintain. I won’t be able to discuss my progress, but at least I’ll keep myself accountable in that way.
  • I’ll ask others for feedback when needed. Just because I’m supervisor-less for now, doesn’t mean I am completely on my own. I still have my lovely co-workers, project partners and doctoral advisor when I need feedback on my work or writing.

I would like to thank my ex-supervisor for all the inspiration, motivation, advice, teaching and his relentless enthusiasm. I wish him all the best in future endeavors.


  1. I wonder if there exists a doctor in this world who obtained a PhD degree smoothly and without any trouble with his/her supervisor… Another remark is that you have been brought up to the level of a self-actualized researcher with publications and proper experience, which means you don’t need a daily supervisor that much any more.

  2. Hi Noeska,
    What happen to you research then? Because it’s happened to me. My PhD supervisor suddenly left me in my first year. Moved to another country.

    1. Hi Fifi,

      Luckily for me my project still continues and our department has a new Medical Visualization associate professor. So I continue my work on the same project as planned with her as my new supervisor. Did they give you any options?

      1. My project in business performance also still continue, with my second supervisor. My school doesn’t have any new associate professor yet. They told me that some new academic staff members will come at the beginning of next year. I hope so… 🙂

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