Wanda wonders: what would other proffies do?

Folks, we’ve got another “Dear Historiann” letter that is really a request for ideas and advice from you, the wise and experienced commentariat at Historiann.com.  Tenured Professor Wanda wonders what the heck should she do on a master’s committee when the student’s thesis is literally indefensable, but the student’s advisor won’t admit it.

Dear Historiann,

In a few days’ time I will sit on the exam committee for a master’s thesis that is not ready to be defended.  I stopped the defense once already because the document was not comprehensible. This time it is comprehensible and it turns out the work is, in my opinion, no good. I got a second opinion on this from a colleague with relevant expertise and ze agrees.  We are on a tight timeline.  The revised thesis was given to me with only a few weeks to spare before the last day to defend this term and I didn’t have time to read it until a few days ago.

It is not surprising that the thesis is poor because the adviser knows very close to nothing about the subject area of the work. I actually know more about the topic area and I would not have agreed to advise it.  The problems with the thesis come in many flavors, from basic knowledge flaws, to methodological errors, to unsupported conclusions. I have talked with the student about some of these issues in the past but ze disagrees with my concerns.  It did not ever seem an option to steer hir toward a better analysis.  This is, in my opinion, the fault of the adviser.

Recognizing the impending train wreck–considerable work is required before I will consider signing off on the thesis–I tried to get off the committee.  I knew we could find somebody who would sign it and I could still give the student all of my comments.  I presented this idea to the adviser and ze refused, threatening to cancel the defense again, which would in all likelihood cause the student to resign.  There was also some melodramatic stuff about how ze (the adviser) would never take another graduate student again because clearly ze does not know how to advise students.  Also, the faculty are out of control with high expectations and an MS thesis is about the experience.  The only reply I had for this was that I thought the point of an MS thesis was to do something the right way.  That is, the outcome is not so important but how you get there is important.

What a mess!  I don’t have it to do over again but if I did, I get that I should not have signed on in the first place but I was the obvious choice because I’m closer to the subject than anyone else in the department and it’s hard to say no when a student asks. I could have pushed some other work aside (say, that of my own students) to read this thesis sooner but still, there would have been drama and  anyway, isn’t it the responsibility of the adviser to ensure that a sound document goes to the committee?

I’m wondering if anybody here has been in a situation like this and if so, what they did (if they are willing to write about it).  What would other folks do if they were in my shoes?



Wow–I’ve never faced this problem myself, but I wonder why you didn’t just let advisor cancel the defense and let the student resign?  Would that have been so unthinkable, given the problems with the thesis?  You tried to alert the student to problems with the work, but ze remained inflexible.  It sounds like you got played by your colleague, who resorted to melodramatic manipulation to get what ze wanted.  In the future, if asked to be a mere committee member for a student whose research interests indicate that you should be the advisor, I’d ask a lot of questions and proceed with caution.  If someone is interested in doing research in your field but doesn’t want to work with you, I’d ask why.

But–that’s just my two cents.  Readers–take it away.

0 thoughts on “Wanda wonders: what would other proffies do?

  1. It seems to me that there are two issues here that have converged: 1) differing expectations among the faculty about what an MS degree/thesis “means” and 2) a student who, for whatever reason, is failing to meet the expectations of Wanda. So really, there isn’t one answer, because one issue is a short-term issue (this specific student), and the other one is long-term and systemic in scope (the issue of departmental values and standards).

    So first, the short-term issue. My initial reaction was what Historiann said. But that does Wanda no good now. I think what I would do, especially given that I’d not gotten around to reading the thesis sooner, is go through with the defense, insisting that the student only pass with *major revisions*. You can’t deal with the systemic problem through this individual student, and while I do feel like the student gamed the system through choice of adviser, etc., I also feel like the adviser and committee have been complicit in how this all has gone down. So, it seems to me that Wanda’s best option is to stick to her guns on the kind of pass that it will be, which will shut up the adviser (who would probably be melodramatic and blustery if you refused to pass the thesis) and which will maybe force the student to bring the work up to some sort of standard. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s probably the best one for the short term.

    The bigger issue, it seems to me, is departmental norms and standards for thesis work. Going after one particular colleague on this will only make enemies for Wanda. Instead, a better way would be to get a coalition of colleagues who’s willing to serve on an ad hoc committee to “review” the thesis guidelines for the department, and to “update” those guidelines to “reflect the current standards of the discipline and the current strengths of the department.” I’d recommend even having a grad student who’s really good serve on that committee. This could help clarify when it’s appropriate to say no to a request, when it’s appropriate to resign from a committee, etc., for faculty, but also it can illuminate for students what they are expected to produce in terms of methodology and format – no matter their choice of adviser/committee. At any rate, that’s what I would do if I wanted to address the broader and underlying issue in play in this situation. Or, if you don’t want to invest that time, you can just do nothing, but be less accommodating in future situations that arise (because, if those underlying problems aren’t addressed, this WILL keep coming up).


  2. Eeeew. What a mess. I’m inclined to agree with Dr. C’s second paragraph, though I’m guessing a demand for major revision will not be greeted kindly by either the obdurate student or the dramatic, thin-skinned advisor. You’ve made your reservations known. If they are not willing to defer the defense and the student isn’t willing to follow your recommendations for revision, you go to the defense and do what your conscience tells you to do. If it isn’t up to snuff and the student won’t revise, you refuse to sign. Period. The world won’t end if s/he doesn’t graduate this term.


  3. I was once in a similar situation and signed off on the project only after expressing to my colleagues that I would be willing to be “outvoted” if they insisted upon passing the project. My thinking was simply that there were three people involved in determining whether departmental standards had been met, and while I was pretty sure I didn’t feel they’d been met, two of my colleagues clearly felt they had been met. I could have stuck to my guns, but doing so would have meant using this student as the occasion to fight the standards issue out with my colleagues. I wasn’t certain that my moral high ground was required to over-rule their strength in numbers.


  4. I think Dr. Crazy and Roxie are on the right track here. I think voting “pass, but with substantive revisions” is a legitimate position in this case. It pulls the rug out from underneath the advisor and it holds the student partially accountable to the standards of the discipline.

    My PhD dissertation was a pass with revisions. I was given a ‘heads up’ by my advisor of the major concerns of the committee and then they asked me about them in the defense. I think it was a more useful exercise to go through the defense and actually address the concerns of the committee verbally. While the defense was a little unnerving, the committee kindly pointed out the flaws and suggested specific ways for me to fix them. I think it was a most useful example of scholarly behavior. I wish I had more experiences like that.

    I think that if Wanda can ‘triage’ the major problems with the thesis using the three categories of errors she lists in the letter above (basic knowledge flaws, to methodological errors, to unsupported conclusions) then she could ask the student to address these flaws in the defense and subsequent revisions. It would be a great way of pointing out the standards without rebuking the advisor or student.


  5. Some of you really want Wanda to do *more* work? Sheesh. It seems pretty clear that neither the adviser nor the student actually want her input–just a pass. So long as she follows her conscience, I’d say she’s more than done her duty already.

    Dr. Crazy’s idea of initiating a conversation about goals and standards for the Master’s degree is idealistic–but Wanda will have to judge for herself whether or not it’s worth it. It could be overly defensive or reactive to think that one crazzy adviser and one sub-par student mean that the whole system needs to be re-hashed in public. Having worked with jerks I can tell you: some people are just jerks, and it’s usually a waste of everyone else’s time to bring them to meetings that will never change the minds or behavior of the jerks.

    Never agreeing to serve as a second reader on any of that faculty member’s students’ committees seems like a more efficient way of avoiding this problem in the future. My bet is that she’s not the only person in her department who don’t want to work with this colleague. (That’s how these things tend to go–and it’s a harsh lesson that new faculty usually have to learn for themselves through troublesome experience.)


  6. I have been both Tom and Wanda – the one sole committee member “dedicated to upholding standards,” and the committee member urging my colleagues (or a single hold-out colleague) to let the student pass. In reaction to this I have to say that Dr. Crazy is absolutely correct, and efforts to personalize the interactions (colleague is a jerk) won’t help the situation much. These situations arise because departmental members don’t have a shared understanding of what goals and standards are proper to M.A. theses, so the best response would be to ask your chair – or DGS – to initiate a conversation pronto. A conversation like this now can prevent years of future conflict and save a lot of time. [note: such conversations can also keep people from acting like jerks in public – I agree with Historiann that a jerk is always likely to remain a jerk, but even the biggest jerk will mitigate said jerkiness when he/she realizes that one does not get rewarded for acting like a jerk!].

    That being said, what about the short term? Let me say that I can see why the adviser responded negatively to the suggestion that he/she find another faculty member to replace Wanda, while Wanda gives comments to the student. Depending on the situation and personalities involved I can imagine that that might come off as a bit passive aggressive. Of course, the adviser also seems very passive aggressive. I can’t tell how defenses work at Wanda’s institutions, but I like Matt L’s advice. Wanda can present her comments politely at the defense (telling both student and adviser that she will do so) and asking for responses – can Wanda then simply be outvoted? That way Wanda can maintain her standards without having to take sole responsibility for kicking the student out of the program [which is really unfair of the adviser to suggest].

    Finally – and this won’t help Wanda – I signed off on an M.A. thesis last year that was completely not ready for a defense. I get along quite well with the two other committee members, so there was no passive-aggressive drama. Obviously, I cannot tell you how I would feel if I would have refused to sign (therefore kicking the student out of the program – an external time limit set by our graduate school), but I must say that I do not feel right about my decision. In fact, I feel like garbage – I sold my standards down the river, cheapened the value of our M.A. degree, and can’t speak to the student anymore anyway.


  7. “Never agreeing to serve as a second reader on any of that faculty member’s students’ committees seems like a more efficient way of avoiding this problem in the future.”

    I see what you’re saying, H., but from my perspective, that approach is something that will be a constant pain for years, whereas doing something more public and systematic, while annoying for a few months, will mean that I don’t have to say no over and over and over again, addressing the problem over and over and over again with each new batch of students. (To me, that would be really exhausting and not efficient at all, even though it might take less time in the moment of actually saying no.) I think it’s a question of picking your poison – would you rather be poisoned slowly over time or have a lethal dose all at once? I’m a lethal dose all at once sort of a gal.


  8. Story Then a Comment on Dr. Crazy’s solution:

    A big part of my job is to serve as the academic-co-chair on thesis committees for students getting terminal degrees other than PhDs. This means the student has two advisers, and I’m in charge of the written document.

    Since I’m tenure track, I gave everyone a heads up about the forthcoming train wreck. Thankfully (for me) the presentation of the research AND the oral defense were wretched. No retaliation. Immediately afterward everyone was like: we cannot give this person a degree. But a colleague in my degree program (PhDs) talked the rest of them into a revision plan. If you’re going to require students unprepared to write this kind of thesis, then that is your fault. Give him his degree.

    In the end, like Dr. Crazy, I feel like the expectations have never been spelled out to me. I never saw other people’s theses in grad school. Some people passed who were wretched scholars because they were well like. (Another problem, sure.) A lot my colleagues seem to reference some standard of their own not necessarily reflected in their advising standards. The whole thing is AAAAAAARGH inducing.


  9. sorry, Historiann… I didn’t think that Wanda should do more work. From the letter it sounded like she had already found the main problems. It seems to me that if she can point out two specific changes in in each category then her conscience and the defense process would be well served. Coming up with the six most significant changes, or heck even three changes that the committee could agree to shouldn’t be that much more work.

    The point is not to make the student fix everything, but to address the errors that are most problematic. The student would learn why their work was not up to snuff and how to fix at least part of it. The student would have a “punch list” of things to accomplish, rather than an open ended series consultations.


  10. I’ve been Wanda myself–the very first thesis committee I ever served on was for a thesis that was so very badly done I thought that there was no way I could pass it. Unlike Wanda, I had a good relationship with the chair of the thesis committee, and I ended up finding some revisions that were done BEFORE the defense that made the thesis somewhat more palatable to me.

    In my case, the problem was something that never should proceeded to a thesis: the student was writing on a brand-new topic for hir thesis, and I realized then what should have been obvious to all in the first place: the thesis is not the place for first exposure to body of material (new method applied to old info, fine; new data used with old method, also fine; new method + new data = train wreck).

    My response was something like Dr. Crazy’s procedural suggestion, which was to get involved with the conversation about how to get thesis proposals approved in our then-new MA program.

    The question I had at the time–and have now, reading this post–is what obligation does a program have to a student it has moved along through the thesis? Flawed methods and poor knowledge base can’t be easily corrected, but if the thesis chair has never pointed this out, and the graduate advising permitted the student to move forward to this point, is there some kind of implied consent to the project? I don’t mean to dismiss the serious intellectual problems with the thesis, but it is a challenge when what is a department problem comes down on a student who is (I assume) unaware that there might be objections to the work.


  11. Good points, everyone. To be clear: When I said that the other faculty member was a “jerk,” that was not meant to “personalize” it, as Lucia commented. Rather, my intention was the opposite: sometimes recognizing that people are jerks no matter who they work with is helpful, because then one doesn’t spend time worrying about his or her feelings or what it was that we might have said or done that made this person respond in such a jerky fashion.

    In short, I was suggesting to Wanda that this other adviser’s emotionalism was not her fault, nor is it her problem to solve.

    I think in some cases department-wide discussions about the expectations of Master’s thesis can be helpful–but that launching a big conversation about this on the basis of one messed-up thesis defense seems overly reactive. I say this mostly because I wouldn’t credit the adviser’s comment that “faculty are out of control with high expectations and an MS thesis is about the experience.” That’s one angry faculty member who badly advised a student talking–so I wouldn’t assume that ze speaks for a majority or even a plurality of the department.

    Susan’s question is an important one: “what obligation does a program have to a student it has moved along through the thesis?” In many cases, I’d be inclined to take the student’s side and give hir another chance to let hir finish the degree. But as Wanda tells it, she presented her objections to the student, “but ze disagrees with my concerns.” I don’t know abou the rest of you, but if a committee member of mine told me he had serious problems with my thesis or dissertation, I would take notes and hop to, not just reject them out of hand.

    So given the fact that Wanda was clear about her objections to this student’s work and the student chose not to follow the advice of the expert in hir research field yet also still wanted her vote to pass, I would say that this department didn’t really owe this student anything. Not only does the student seem unclear about the purpose of a Master’s thesis, ze seems pretty clueless about the learning process in grad school. Grad school is about accepting the challenges the faculty set and meeting the bar wherever it’s raised. It’s not snuggles and cookies and slankets for everyone.


  12. True, Historiann, but who knows what said masters’ student is being told by the advisor about Wanda’s objections. It could be that the advisor has said expressly to discount Wanda’s feedback or that the advisor’s feedback is what’s most essential. I’m with you in that the jerkiness of some people knows no bounds but we’re not clear just how astray this advisor is leading this student.

    One thing Wanda could do if she decides to allow this student to pass (either by acquiescing or being outvoted) is refuse to write recommendations of any sort, whether it be to PhD programs or opportunities outside academia. Especially if this student is planning to continue on in this field, not having a recommendation from Wanda could signal volumes.


  13. I think that’s right, frogprincess. Credentialing someone won’t get them far unless they’re capable of the work. And if it’s true that the adviser has been shielding the student from their mutual incompetence, then I think the student should get another chance to fix it. But just going by Wanda’s description, it sounds like she’s been in direct contact with this student.

    The whole thing just stinks for everyone except maybe the jerk adviser. I hope new graduate students read this and think about it. If you want to work in field X but you don’t want to work with Professor Y, who’s the recognized expert in that field, you should change fields rather than try to work in that field under someone else’s direction. Agreeing to work with Profesor Jerk was a bad idea, and may have left this student open to hir manipulations and covert agendas. (It doesn’t sound like Professor Jerk has a lot of students hirself–which is why ze’s so defensive about this one.)


  14. I wonder what the OTHER reader thinks of this thesis. If both the readers agree that this isn’t up to par, you can usually lean on the supervisor to at least get the major revisions laid out in extreme detail.

    I have seen a case where a student insisted on going to defense despite the committee’s advice. The external agreed. They were forced to redo the entire thesis as the committee had advised in the first place.

    In my department, if the professor who specializes in a subject declines to take on your thesis, you’re not doing a thesis in that subject. You may still be admitted, but you will have to work on something in the field of another professor. That saves the embarrassment of having a student working against the field expert. (And, yes, we have had to deal with crises of retirement, moving or death. Those exceptions shouldn’t trump a rule that makes sure few students end up writing a thesis that won’t be defensible.)


  15. I guess I am wondering what the field is. Is this thesis going to send this person out there as a therapist, or as a science teacher with a slightly higher salary who would continue in hir career as mediocre but at a lower salary? Those would be very different ethical positions for Wanda to be in, and very different circumstances under which holding one’s nose and signing off might be relevant or irrelevant. It would also matter whether, in Wanda’s judgment, her department is kind of a diploma mill anyway and this is just a bridge too far.

    Honestly? As in many academic situations, no one comes out smelling like roses here: not the adviser; not Wanda (who might have looked at the thing immediately to see if earlier criticisms had been met); not the candidate; not the department who is allowing an incapable person to advise graduate work; not the university who has been collecting fees from a person who cannot or will not do the work.


  16. This discussion brings to my mind my former dysfunctional department, in which every student was considered by some faculty members as a vote for them or for their side. And students are sometimes savvy enough to know that they can get through on poor work by working the faculty members who see having students as an endorsement of their work, their side, themselves. One student in my former department wrote a MA thesis on a colonial topic but worked with all 20th-century faculty–that’s the way the factionalism worked. The thesis is an unholy mess: outdated historiography, egregious historical errors, etc. (I saw a draft because the student was working with me on something else. I told the student what I saw had major problems, and I shared this with her advisor. He shrugged.) But said student was still accepted into another doctoral program seeking students, any students! And so it continues. That’s what I worry about the most in these cases.

    And it’s why I left the department. Personal politics and departmental factionalism trumped professionalism. I refused to pass poor work and resigned from the directorship of a committee rather than be forced to work with a very poor student. Many a defense required revision before final approval, and I think it is very useful for certain students (still learning what the field and profession standards are) and in certain situations (especially because my former university required an external committee member and defense chair).


  17. Thanks everybody for weighing in on my dilemma. The defense has now taken place and I signed on the oral part but not on the document. The student has months of work ahead of hir to produce something I will sign (and so do I). I was too full of dread to realize it but CPP is right–I got rolled.

    I really dreaded going into the defense. The other committee member from my department did step down and I was able to insist that ze be replaced by a prof from another department on campus who I thought would have useful experience. I found hir by searching the university website. The adviser squawked about it but gave in. I had never met the new committee member but hoped for the best. It was a good thing that ze was willing to read the document on short notice.

    The new committee member turned out to have concerns nearly identical to mine. There was not much the adviser could do once that became apparent. Ze tried early on in the closed part of the defense to undermine me on a trivial point but ze was easily refuted and once that happened, I was out in front and went on to run the defense for the remainder of the time.

    The student was more receptive than I had expected hir to be during the closed part. Thefrogprincess made an important point about this. I didn’t have a good read on the student’s place in the drama until we were there in the room and the adviser realized that I was not just a self-important b*tch causing trouble. I’m not sure how I could have figured that out without suggesting to the student that not all was right with hir adviser. That’s a line I’m not willing to cross although I came close when I my concerns caused the first intended defense date to be cancelled.

    Amplifying on the “I got rolled” theme, at the end of the defense the adviser went all Blanche DuBois about relying on the expertise of others to “make something like this work.” Could ze really think this was some great collaborative success? Who knows but I think this speaks to Dr. C’s thoughts about departmental review of thesis objectives. In fact, we have that discussion every year, when the faculty reviews new thesis proposals. There are two camps. Some feel that thesis content should all be at the discretion of the major adviser while others of us think that a set of well-defined standards should be applied across the board. In the moment, the latter camp wins out because there are more of us but it comes up again year after year.

    I wish I had some wise way to wrap this all up but I don’t.


  18. @Wanda – do you just have the conversation informally, or do you actually vote on a document about standards and expectations that ends up in, say, a department handbook or graduate handbook? If your department does the former, it might be worth pushing the conversation further to include the latter. While doing so might irritate some in the short term, it will give a clear guideline to students and to faculty, to which either party could point in the midst of a sticky situation….


  19. What’s so strange is that your colleague assumed you were “just a self-important b*tch causing trouble,” Wanda. Ze has never heard of good faith? It not only greases the wheels of both personal and professional interactions, it’s free! (Call me terminally naive or pollyanna, but this kind of attitude just leaves me with my jaw agape, although I can’t say it really surprises me any longer.) As History Maven suggests, Jerk Adviser’s attitude toward you may well have rubbed off on the student, if J.A. indicated in any way that your opinions weren’t to be credited.

    Hooray for the outside committee member. My uni requires that the third person on a Master’s committee must be from outside the degree-granting department, so as to ensure that departments don’t start granting degrees without any oversight or quality control. Those outside committee members keep us all honest, I think, and I’ve been both in the shoes of the major adviser, the second reader, and the third committee member for the English department.

    Although I remain skeptical that Jerk Adviser can ever be reached, Dr. Crazy’s suggestion might be worth pursuing. Putting it in the manual would certainly benefit the majority of you who share the same view of the role of Master’s theses.


  20. My uni requires that the third person on a Master’s committee must be from outside the degree-granting department

    I’m a big believer in the outside rep. We have it at the PhD level (with mandatory training) but no longer at the masters’ level. Perhaps too much to manage in the Excellence Without Money era.


  21. It happens frequently. Advisers and committees don’t necessarily match. Unless all students are great and all advisor are bright and knowledgeable it’s a systematic problem (frequency notwithstanding).

    The best solution is local and normalized to the department. Local politics matter.

    Even if I do my best, I fail once in a while. I admit it ahead of time to the committee; at least it’s in the open.


  22. To be clear, I don’t think Jerk Adviser can be reached or that he’s going to change. People like that don’t. The most I’d hope for would be that he’d be neutralized through procedure – so still a Jerk on a one-on-one level, but a Jerk Without a Leg to Stand on, when push comes to shove, in any situation that counts.


  23. Way-late arriving at this session, so I’ll just subscribe to TR’s points. (And many of the others). With this extra question: What’s a slanket? Never got one at my old place, and if we’re giving them out here, I’m even more clueless than I thought.


  24. A slanket is a blanket with sleeves! For extra snuggleability, I guess. It’s a brand name–you can Google it.

    I remember my mother received something similar to this back during the energy crisis of the 1970s. I think it was called a snuggle sack or something like that. It was basically a sleeping bag with sleeves, so you could turn the heat down in your house to just above pipe-freezing levels and yet not get hypothermic.


  25. Also late, but FWIW, I too once had a similar situation, in which the entire committee agreed about the suckitude, but the student had a job riding on finishing by a certain date. We (all tenured) applied Dr Crazy’s suggestion of insisting on substantive revisions, with a real possibility of failure, though we could certify that the actual defense took place on a particular date.

    In retrospect, I regret this decision, though it seemed like the best option at the time. I wish I had told the student that the job situation was of stu’s own creation, against committee advice, and that it was time to reap the whirlwind.

    The student in question was particularly bullheaded and resistant to all advice-requests-demands (as they escalated) for revision. If someone like that ever comes along again, I will resign from the committee, even if I’m chair.


  26. Also late, but pretty much in agreement with TR here. Last year, I supervised our UG thesis seminar, where students met with me and each other for peer review and progress reports and general help, but individual faculty with expertise were *supposed* to be the major advisors. This was a new model, and one colleague did not like it. Ze thought it was better to just come in in the last couple of weeks as a reader. The problem was that I am a medievalist (still with a wider knowledge of history than any of my Americanist colleagues, but not the kind of precise information students need when writing a thesis), and I could see major issues, but the faculty member did not see that there was a need to communicate back to me what the student was supposed to be working on. So the built-in safety net didn’t work. Two students, both supposedly working with this faculty member, did not pass. At the end, Ze also objected to using the F grade, because they had done something, but not enough. Meanwhile, I had the chance to review some of the colleague’s comments, and they were effusive, but not at all helpful for students at an undergrad (or even graduate — or faculty, IMHO) level.

    I was not in a position to fix things, because I was not the expert. But one of the things this taught me is that a lack of communication throughout the process can really lead to everybody getting on the failboat together. And one colleague who won’t play well with others can prevent everybody else from doing a good job.


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