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.
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.