Sunday, May 19, 2013

Iskander Cannot Launch. A Weekend Thirsty.

To keep things reasonably vague and anonymous, I am an advanced graduate student at a decent-but-not-great Rodentology program. However, I cannot seem to escape. My dissertation advisor and committee appear to operate with a not-so-benign form of neglect, and as a result the completion of my degree has been delayed for at least a year, to provide a conservative estimate.

No level of cajoling or begging seems adequate to get feedback or progress towards the end of this hellish process, despite assurances that my research is fine and poses no problem to a successful defense. It has definitely had an economic effect on myself and my family, and probably contributed to a less-than-satisfactory result from my first year on the job market. It has also increased the appeal of bourbon (though what doesn't, these days?)

I should note that I am not a troubled student barely scraping through nor a needy student desiring to be led by hand through graduate school. I am not the brightest star in the academic firmament, but I am fairly competent at both teaching and getting research done.

The question I have for the CM community is this:

Q: Am I well and truly screwed? Am I completely dependent on my committee eventually getting around to doing their thing? Or are there other options that I may not have explored or thought of?


  1. If I understand you correctly, your committee says that your "research is fine and poses no problem to a successful defense."

    It is at least possible that that is exactly the case. You are fine; they just have a million other things to do and are waiting for you to take the initiative. Just schedule a defense and get on with it.

    You aren't going to get into a top-tier program, but I suspect you didn't plan on that anyway or, for that matter, particularly want it.

    You can do this. Grab the situation by the balls and go forward. By the following year, you will have a job that suits you, and all this BS will just be a bad memory.

  2. talk to your advisor about the papers you look forward to publishing from your dissertation (crediting them as co-author), and state how keen you are to get these started, as soon as you've got the pesky defense out of the way. Perhaps this will give your advisor an incentive to move things along.

  3. You're going to have to take the initiative and, if necessary, kick your supervisor out of the way.

    If that person was anything like mine, you won't get anything done unless you push ahead on your own. My Ph. D. supervisor wasn't particularly interested in my project and admitted it 4 years after I started and 2 years before the university's completion deadline.

    I think he was hoping that I'd either quit or throw in the towel and beg to work on what he was interested in. What he didn't count on was that I had been in similar situations in industry and knew that if I didn't push ahead on my own, my thesis wouldn't get finished.

    Those last 2 years were more like a running brawl than a collaboration between "partners in research", as the university calendar put it. But, I did get it done (with next to no help from him), I got my degree, and I'm glad I won't have to go through that again.

  4. As others have suggested, you should push the issue. Take the steps to schedule a defense. If your advisor doesn't support it, ask him why. Keep at it. Make your problems their problems.

  5. I could have written this post myself. Other than the fact that I'm specializing in hamsterological artifacts rather than rodentology, and prefer wine to bourbon, this is basically my story. Which is to say: I have no advice, just sympathy.

  6. At my graduate institution, directors of graduate studies, department chairs, and sometimes even the graduate dean were known to step in in these situations. But their first question was always "what have you done to work this out with your advisor?" So, yes, that's where to start (tout de suite, before he/she/they disappear(s) for the summer, if you're in a disappear-for-the-summer sort of field, or can claim that the summer is already booked, if you're in a hunker-down-in-the-lab-for-the-summer sort of field). On the other hand, a lot of schools have an early-fall graduation date to facilitate those who finish over the summer and are going on the market, so now might be a good time to check out the deadlines for said date -- or, failing that, a Dec./Jan one -- and talk to your advisors about making that an explicit goal.

    Failing all of the above, some universities have ombudsmen.

    But yes, you need to start speaking up, now, so that you'll be in better shape for the job market next fall (and so that, if you find there are, in fact, real obstacles, you can make plans to deal with them in time for graduation by this time next year).

    1. While it's nice to know that there are university officials who can step in if necessary, the grad student is at the mercy of the system.

      In the department where I started grad studies many years ago, one of my fellow students was well into his Ph. D. when his supervisor quit to take a job in industry. Apparently, nobody wanted to take over the student's project, so he decided to quit and go back to his home country with his family. His other choice would have been to scrap everything he had worked on and start over again, including, I suspect, passing another candidacy exam. That would have meant several more years as a student and, since he had become a father just before that happened, getting an income would likely have been a priority for him.

      I seriously considered firing my own Ph. D. supervisor because of his negligence, but
      the university's ombudsman told me much the same thing. I figured that since the deadline was rapidly approaching, I would have been better off keeping my supervisor and finishing my thesis while keeping him at arm's length. That wasn't much of a problem for me as I often faced similar situations in industry, so I knew what to do.

    2. The story that NLA shares about the foreign student is certainly no fluke. It happened in my department. While it sounds mean for faculty to refuse taking a student, it also prevents the administration from forcing us to mentor students who are unqualified.

  7. I say schedule the defense, say brightly to said advisor that the defense date has been set, and ask what needs to be done to get there. When proffie says X, Y, and Z, table that out as a set of deadlines for submitting and receiving things back, and send it to proffie for comments. If proffie says no, ask for another firm date. If proffie still says no, off to the chair you go -- then the dean of grad studies, then the dean of the division, and on up.

    1. My Ph. D. supervisor was always reluctant to schedule meetings with my committee, claiming that it took him "several months" to set them up. (Yeah, right.)

      He was equally lazy when it came to my defence. He had a number of excuses as to why he didn't want to set a date, so, once again, I took charge. I didn't have much choice as the university's deadline was weeks away and there was a policy clamping down on extensions.

      I contacted the committee members and the external examiner from the university either by telephone or e-mail and, in less than a week, I had a time and date that everyone could agree on.

      My supervisor retired a year and a half later. Personally, I think he retired on the job long before that.

  8. Thanks for the advice, folks. I'll start leaning on my advisor and see what happens. I was somewhat loathe to force the issue since I have heard defense horror stories that I want to avoid myself, but I am certain that two of my committee members are not likely to spring such things on me, so it's just a matter of getting the last person fully on board.

    Gone Grad: Sorry to hear you're in the same position. Hope it works out for you.

    Cassandra: My school has the early Fall graduation date, and that is my current target. Fortunately, I believe that my committee members will all be reasonably available over the summmer. So hopefully by October this will just be a bad memory.

    However, I hadn't seriously considered going to some authority figure, whether a Chair or dean or ombudsman. My school has a formal process for this kind of thing, but I'd been led to believe that using said process as a grad student was tantamount to career suicide. Or at least a substantial delay, as per NLAA's comment. Perhaps I was mistaken?

    1. By all means get your supervisor to earn his or her keep. After all, you paid for that person's services.

      By the way, when I started grad studies many years ago, filing complaints against one's supervisor or requesting another one was the kiss of death to one's degree prospects. Such thing simply weren't done back in those days. I heard some interesting stories about what happened if a grad student took such actions.

    2. I wouldn't file a formal complaint until/unless you've been obstructed from finishing your degree, or unless it's clear that your adviser has really dropped the ball in some damning, obvious way. At least this is what I've been told. It's a scorch-the-earth/burn-your-bridges move. Unless you can safely switch advisers (I can't), then I'd hold off on a formal complaint.

      However, you might make others aware of your problems. I have quietly talked to my DGS about the matter. I wanted to make sure that he knew about the situation so that my "failure" to finish my degree next year won't come as a surprise.

    3. I agree with Gone Grad: what you want are quiet talks, up the chain if necessary, with appropriate pauses and attempts at follow-up before you go to the next person. Formal complaints are a last resort. If you've got two supportive committee members, then start with them (whether before or more or less concurrently with talking to the less-cooperative one, depending on when you had your last conversations with each; one last attempt to get the less-cooperative one on board through your own persuasive powers definitely needs to be at least part of step one). Frame your inquiries as asking advice, not making a complaint (formal or informal), and try to stay in that mode as long as possible. Even ombudsmen can be approached that way.

  9. Well, I can tell you my story. At some point around year four of my working under his direction, my advisor got a job at another, more prestigious place. I was close enough to finishing up (working entirely on my own anyway) that I decided the possible benefits of following him did not justify the cost. So I stayed where I was, working on my own. At some point I felt I had a thesis-worthy result, wrote it up and called him to schedule an interview. I then flew to meet him (at my expense, of course) and spent a few hours explaining the work. He agreed that, indeed, I had a thesis. So I told my department, somebody called him to check and a defense was scheduled (to which he did not come). He did write me a LOR that was good enough for a number of desirable postdoc offers.

    I'm lucky that in my field, for the two institutions and the people involved, formalities are kept at the bare minimum. If you have a solid, original, independent result, you're done. Out the door; everybody happier. So, as others have said, just do it (assuming that's possible in your field). Finish up on your own, don't count on anybody helping, and when you think you're done force the issue.

  10. I'll echo the support for taking this bull by the horns yourself, and letting your adviser and committee follow your lead. If your supervisor isn't blatantly lying about the quality of your work, and if your department is at all concerned about attrition vs. completion numbers (which my department clearly was), they will all kick into Git 'Er Done mode as soon as they hear the word "finished" pass your lips with confidence.

    It took literally a few phone calls for me to get my committee's approval for an earlier defense than I had originally planned, and dates and travel plans were set within a fortnight thereafter. I think the grad director nearly dropped the phone with delight when I told hir I could be done even earlier than anticipated.

    If you pull out your calendar and start throwing around dates like you mean it, your people should hear the dog whistle and fall in line. Otherwise, as F&T says, go up the chain of command until someone takes you seriously, and then inform the necessary participants of the schedule.

    Good luck & godspeed!


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