Should I tell my supervisor the reason my proposal is late?
August 13, 2013 5:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm a grad student working on a thesis proposal. Said thesis proposal was due about a week ago. The work was going pretty well until it got sidelined by an unexpected and devastating breakup with my SO, who I'd been living with. Between the moving-out and the emotional exhaustion I've neglected to update my supervisor, who's just emailed me asking why she hasn't seen the finished product yet. I'm nearly done at this point (I anticipate getting it to her by tomorrow), but I'm unsure about how to explain the delay. Is it appropriate to tell my supervisor that I'm late because of the breakup, or should I just say sorry and leave it at that?
posted by tealsocks to Human Relations (21 answers total)
I would say tell her. You're human and life happens. If you say nothing, she may assume you were just slacking.
posted by gnutron at 5:27 PM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Meet with your advisor, tell her what's going on, and come up with a new, feasible timeline. She's accountable for your progress to the department, and she needs to know what's going on with you and that it's not a problem where it's going to keep happening indefinitely.
posted by gingerest at 5:28 PM on August 13, 2013

If this had happened to me during grad school, I would have let my supervisor know what was going on. In fact, I can't think of a single prof in my department who wouldn't have responded kindly. They're people too.

Is it possible to send her what you have, even if it's not totally polished? It shows you're working.
posted by futureisunwritten at 5:29 PM on August 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

You don't have to detail the specifics of your breakup; just tell your advisor that you're having personal problems and while you've recently been sidetracked by these problems, you expect to be able to give her the completed proposal by [specific date].
posted by sciencegeek at 5:30 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

It probably depends on your supervisor and the overall relationships people in your department have, but if it were me, I'd tell my supervisor the basics. In your case, maybe just that you had to move suddenly which was what took a lot of your time.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 5:42 PM on August 13, 2013

I would say it was due to personal problems that resulted in you unexpectedly having to move out and/or find a new place to live. It will be enough that she'll understand that you're not just dicking around, but it leaves out the personal details that probably shouldn't be shared.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:43 PM on August 13, 2013 [16 favorites]

I would say it was due to personal problems that resulted in you unexpectedly having to move out and/or find a new place to live. It will be enough that she'll understand that you're not just dicking around, but it leaves out the personal details that probably shouldn't be shared.

Yes, what AppleTurnover said. People who use the excuse "personal problems" without specifying seem a little flaky. If you had to move out, it's obviously a big deal, and no one really needs to know what caused that.
posted by grouse at 5:45 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

It really depends on the person. There are supervisors I wouldn't tell and supervisors I would, as far as the specifics of what's happening. But I think I'd wind up gambling that it's not going to make things any worse to say what people have recommended -- "I've had some fairly serious personal issues arise, including a change in my living situation, but I'm on track to have it to you by X day" -- and hope for the best. It's always possible the supervisor will be a jerkface, but if that happens, it's probably going to happen anyway. All other things being equal, I try to bet on at least some humanity.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:12 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Believe me - thesis proposals and all manner of other thinks are regularly delayed by FAR more than one week, and it all turns out okay. I would not go into the nitty gritty of the break up with your supervisor unless you have an unusually close relationship, especially if you are a woman. (This isn't really fair, but it's certainly been my experience as a grad student that female students are perceived much differently than male students with things like romantic relationships, by both male and female profs.) So, unless you're 100% on telling the prof (which since you're asking this question, you likely aren't), I would stick with something neutral. It sounds like you can get this to her tomorrow? Send her an email tomorrow with the finished document, saying "I apologize for not getting this to you sooner - I had to move unexpectedly and lost some prep time on the project."
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:19 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, I told my supervisor when this happened with my honours thesis. I may have actually cried in his office a little bit (not recommended!).

He could tell something was up, as we were still meeting relatively regularly, and I think my waxy, haunted face and general demeanour gave it away.

He was very kind and sympathetic and helpful. If you have a good relationship, I would tell.
posted by smoke at 6:30 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Life and gradschool tend to occur simultaneously, and at the most inconvenient times imaginable. If your advisor is a normal human, something similar will have likely happened to her as well.
For right now, you do owe her an explanation, so be as honest, but vague, as you're comfortable with.
In the future, you'll save a lot of face, (and self-recrimination) if the second you realize you're not going to make a deadline, even if it's a week away, you immediately let the proper people know.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:36 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

AppleTurnover has it. Even if you are close to your supervisor, I would not go into details for now, if ever.

And as Cold Lurkey pointed out, in the future, let folks know before you're going to miss a deadline/break a commitment/what have you, not after the fact.

Finally, thesis proposals suck major butt so kudos to you for being thisclose to finishing.
posted by sm1tten at 7:02 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

At the very least, check in. Radio silence is not OK.
posted by advicepig at 7:02 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you tell her, use the words "separation" from my "partner" that resulted in having to find a new apartment and move.

She will understand, but that lends more gravity to the situation than a "break-up" from a "boyfriend." Since you are living together, those words are totally appropriate.
posted by amaire at 7:04 PM on August 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

If your advisor is a somewhat sane person:
Email as soon as possible with "Yes, I am sorry, I split up with my significant other and had to move out on short notice. I have been working on the proposal and expect to have it for you by tomorrow at x:xx." Give yourself definitely enough time here, don't push your luck. Then send in the proposal by tomorrow at x:xx.

Next time you see her in person, be even more vague if you feel you need to apologize more, just "I am sorry my personal problems affected my work" with possibly a "if there is anything more I need to do let me know."

Be factual and direct, and move on to the next topic (what I can do in the future) immediately.

And second Cold Lurkey, let her know earlier next time, I'd even argue if there's a good chance you won't be able to make a deadline, say so right away. Better to get lucky and still manage to finish in time then to run over because you hoped it would all be ok.

However... not all advisors are sane or reasonable. Since every unreasonable advisor is unreasonable in a different way, I can't offer much useful advice if that's your case.
posted by nat at 7:12 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're having a hard time. It's good that you're almost finished. Is she someone you feel that you can trust, and who respects you? If so, then I think you could meet with her and tell her and she would possibly give you her support. If she is sympathetic she will want to support you.

If you think it might be harmful, then I think you could tell her it just took longer than you anticipated and you had an unexpected event that came up. If you're almost done anyway that will probably be sufficient.
posted by mermily at 7:24 PM on August 13, 2013

If your advisor has had students before you, chances are pretty high that they've encountered this sort of thing before, and they will probably be understanding about it. You don't have to give a lot of specific details - you can just say that you've had some personal issues to deal with and that's why your proposal is late, but you're working on it now, and it will be finished soon.
posted by number9dream at 10:48 PM on August 13, 2013

I say tell her. Moving is a great stressor, as is a break up. These things don't happen in a vacuum.

This came up in my most recent undergraduate program. I had a bad test grade on Friday, made an appointment to follow up with my advisor on Monday. Friday night, my partner and I split up and I decided I had to move and he could keep our townhouse. Monday morning, I burst into tears immediately upon greeting my advisor. She was incredibly kind about it, but that's just the kind of person my advisor is.
posted by RainyJay at 5:59 AM on August 14, 2013

Respond to her e-mail with something along the lines of what sciencegeek, AppleTurnover or nat said. I don't think you need to apologize for life events derailing your schedule, but it might be helpful to apologize for not letting her know in advance that you were going to miss the deadline. Then deliver the proposal when you say you will.

This sucks, and I'm sorry. My whole thesis got derailed for a couple months by life events outside my control, and my supervisor was very good about working with me to ensure it wasn't delayed too severely in the end. I think its likely that yours will be understanding about a delay in finishing your proposal.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:05 AM on August 14, 2013

Without knowing whether you are a man or a woman and what your supervisor is like as a person:
I would not tell the supervisor about the breakup. I would say that I have some unexpected personal life event that I need to take care of, which has affected my performance and I am trying my best to meet the deadlines.


Generally, given what I have seen happen and interpreted, I'd personally stick to the following regarding non-divorce breakups-

* If you are a woman student, don't say anything.

* If you are a man with a male supervisor, its okay to say this. (Heck, it might even be okay to drink too much, not work too much and get away with it.)

* If you are a man with a female supervisor, don't say anything.

Sad but often true. YMMV.
posted by xm at 11:36 AM on August 15, 2013

Oh, and if you are a woman:

* Do NOT apologize.

* Stop apologizing in general. For anything.

* Recognize a mistake, say you regret it - or some version of this, say it won't happen again- or some version of this but do NOT EVER say I am sorry- or any version of this. Especially if you have a habit of starting and ending sentences with some version of I Am Sorry as if it were similar to chit chat about the weather or such small talk.
posted by xm at 11:40 AM on August 15, 2013

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