How can I get my advisor to set my date?
May 13, 2013 2:10 PM   Subscribe

Not sure what to say to my M.S. thesis adviser (formerly my Ph.D advisor) or prospective interviewers on when I can leave academia and start a real job.

Background: I've been very unhappy in an engineering Ph.D program for almost 3 years now due to a hands-off advisor, bad projects and little-to-no funding for experiments. I fantasized about leaving for years, and this January I finally told my advisor that I wanted to quit. We didn't set an end-date, but agreed that I would be out by the end of my fellowship on July 20th, because the money was already coming to me.

In the past few months my primary advisor (and my co-advisor) have been pushing me to finish my main project and publish a paper, but it's slow-going. I am trying harder than I was when I was miserable in the Ph.D, but it's still just as horrible a project as it was when I was a Ph.D student, and I'm currently stalled with some modeling code that hasn't been working. It's my understanding though, that the bar for getting a Masters isn't as high as a Ph.D and doesn't necessarily require a publication. The girl in my lab a year above me hasn't published a paper yet (because all of her experiments have failed, just as mine did before I started working on modeling) and the person a year above her didn't publish anything until his 5th year of grad school, right before he graduated. It's a terrible lab.

My current situation:

I've been applying for jobs since I told my advisor in January, and got burned on one job where they told me explicitly that they wanted to hire me, but they needed someone that could start immediately and not a few months from now. I recently got a callback for an in-person interview (one of 3 candidates) for a job that I absolutely love and would be great at. The supervisor hiring for the position wants the person to start working by mid-July at latest. In a short phone interview I had with her, I told her the gist of my situation e.g. that I hadn't set a date yet, was shooting for around July 20th, but that my advisor was reasonable and it possibly could be pushed up. The problem is that I may have miscalculated on the reasonability of my advisor, as she won't let me set a defense date.

I told my advisor about this job opportunity that I'm up for, and she expressed that she was happy for me, but when I asked her if I could defend my thesis at the beginning of July, leaving a couple weeks for revisions, she was reticent. I told her that I wanted to set a date so that I could have something to tell the company if I got another interview, and she said that if they wanted to hire me, they wouldn't care about a couple weeks. She ended the conversation without actually setting a date with me and I haven't been able to get a meeting with her since because she constantly cancels (like always).


I'm worried about a couple things: 1) that MAYBE she is planning to not grant me a Masters if I don't publish a paper (this doesn't seem likely since she's never said anything to this effect, but if I really can't publish the paper I have no idea) and 2) that my lack of a true defense date will hurt me with respect to this specific jobs or other jobs.

What I'm asking are these two questions:

1) if you left a Ph.D with a Masters, what were your accomplishments? Had you published a paper? I know it's different from person to person and dept to dept, but I'm interested in this generally.
2) What kinds of things can I say to my advisor (who has a very strong personality and constantly steam-rolls over my opinions) about having a defense date by the time my funding runs out? What can I say to my prospective interviewers about my situation being slightly different from what I thought it was?
posted by permiechickie to Education (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I got an M.S. in mechanical engineering with several conference papers, but no journal paper (though several years later I did end up publishing the work in a journal). I don't think it's reasonable to require publication, though in some groups and some fields (modeling, for example) it might be reasonable to expect submission or a nearly-complete draft. I do think, however, that you must be ready to defend before you defend. You don't get a research degree because your funding ran out or because you left a PhD program or because you have a job or because you want a job. You get a research degree because you conducted research and presented the results. So I would get your thesis written on the results you have now. It's up to your advisor and your committee to judge whether you're ready to defend, and I wouldn't expect to convince them otherwise.
posted by Mapes at 2:29 PM on May 13, 2013

I have known masters students start jobs before completing their thesis defence. If these people will take you whether or not you actually get the degree, you may want to consider taking the job starting mid-July and defending your thesis whenever it is appropriate to do so.
posted by plonkee at 2:37 PM on May 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Do you need an MS to start this job? Call back and check with the hiring manager - what implications would it have if you started the job without a degree? (Maybe HR rules may result in a lower starting salary, for example?)

If you do start at a job, the power in the situation flips completely: you can finish writing up the results, or not - and it is in your advisor's interest to help you along so that they have something to show for it.

If you can't start without an MS, or are unwilling to face the prospect of coming sooooo close and possibly not getting a degree, then alas, it looks like you have to suck it up and write up those results. (Because honestly, once you start a real job, the odds of finishing your degree go way down. But for good reasons - you have a real life! Discretionary income!)
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:42 PM on May 13, 2013

Response by poster: I don't personally see it as an option to leave without a Masters, or to act expressly against my advisor's wishes, as I'd like to have her as a reference and she has agreed to this. The kind of job I want usually does require a Masters or BS + 2 years of experience. I have lots of results (X did not work, Y did not work) that can be written up and presented, but are generally not publishable, although what I'm working on now might be publishable. In the worst case scenario, I could see going to my department head and seeing if I could get a non-thesis masters.
posted by permiechickie at 2:49 PM on May 13, 2013

I realize my answer wasn't responsive to your specific questions, sorry. What I said above is good advice, based on being a grad student and then working with many grad students in a variety of capacities. But:

(1) I have known people to get MS degrees with no publications beyond the thesis (bound volume handed in to the University). Publication frequency varies by field, of course, but I've never heard of it being a requirement for an MS.

(2a) For your advisor, there's not much to say. The degree is her major point of leverage over you, and as long as there's a chance that you'll write up your work (thus adding a publication to her CV / research outputs / tenure materials) she would be interested in pushing as hard as possible for that to happen. If you start a job, this flips - her interest is now to not have a late drop-out. (Sorry, this is overly cynical. But probably true.)

(2b) "ABD" is a very common situation in industry. "My experiments didn't work out, and I wanted to do more hands-on work instead of ivory tower stuff" should be fine...
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:51 PM on May 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Most advisers want unhappy students out as quick as possible. One thing you may not be factoring in is that summer defence dates are difficult to setup. You need to coordinate several peoples' schedules during the summer break which alone is difficult enough. Then add that your adviser also may not trust you to hit your target for completing your thesis.
posted by srboisvert at 3:09 PM on May 13, 2013

Best answer: I think the problem here is that a defense is supposed to be mostly a formality once the thesis is in acceptable shape, and it's therefore irresponsible to agree to schedule a defense until the thesis is most of the way there. Often writing up takes way longer than planned, exposes major issues that need to be worked through, and so on. If you are "shooting for" July 20 I would expect you to end up somewhere in September. That happened to me and it happens to everyone. Also, there will most likely have to be other committee members present at the defense, and it will be hard to find a date when everyone can be in the room at once, especially in summer when people are off visiting places or taking vacations. And following the defense you may have revisions to do, hopefully minor, and then hoops to jump through with the university. You should familiarize yourself with this process, and talk to your department head. With that said, the bar for an acceptable master's degree is probably lower than you think. In my department, master's students usually made original research contributions, but this is not actually a requirement for a passing thesis.

Given there are a lot of things you can't control in this process I would suggest taking ownership of that which you do have control over. Inform prospective employer that you can commit to starting in mid-July, but that you expect the procedures and paperwork for your degree may still be ongoing after you start employment. Inform your advisor that you intend to start work in mid July whether you have defended or not. Then start writing chapters and sending them to her for feedback and approval. Once your departure becomes real in this way, both you and she will shift priorities towards salvaging the best of the situation for both of you, which is a completed degree. You may be forced to work evenings and weekends for a while, in the worst case, if this overhangs past your job start date. It will be terrible, but you'll get it done, and it will be over.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:11 PM on May 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

This really depends on your field and your school. At some schools a master's thesis is a mere formality. If you're not sure whether this is your school or your adviser, you might try talking to the Director of Graduate Studies or whomever is in charge of the masters program. You could also talk to the faculty on your committee to try and gauge whether your adviser's expectations are out of line with the departmental expectations for a masters (and note that expectations for a phd student dropping out can be different than for a regular master's).
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 4:46 PM on May 13, 2013

Have you talked to the grad program assistant, and the grad program chair? If this lab is so dysfunctional, they also need to know that there are issues happening in the lab.

Don't forget that you probably also have an ombudsman/ombudsperson for this kind of issue.
posted by wenat at 7:18 PM on May 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

My suggestion is to try to clearly establish a 'what is expected of me before I graduate?' checklist. Then see if you can get her to agree to a timeline. In the meantime, hopefully you've been writing up your thesis and it's almost ready to go. (Particularly if you want a July graduation). Ideally you could get her to agree to a checklist and you'd have most of the points already done.

If your funding runs out on July 20, will she fund you? If your fellowship runs out and she won't fund you, hopefully she understands that you will need some source of income.

There's a strange dynamic that happens around graduation, where professors tend to think that the student will graduate and then never talk to them ever again and all this work won't get done. This can lead to some stickiness over graduation dates. Your best bet is probably to write up what can be written up and if you can't complete it, write it well enough that the next student can take over pretty easily.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:18 PM on May 13, 2013

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