The Infinite Thesis: Interview with Professor B
Author(s): Todd Riggs
Professor B certainly thought something wrong had happened. She didn't want to speculate too much regarding the source of the misunderstanding without being given Professor Z's point of view. She did comment that the "slave-driver" rumor may well have prejudiced the student's perspective, making him a little more sensitive than might otherwise be the case.
Much of the emphasis of the interview was on the thesis committee, both as a safeguard before the fact and an option afterwards. "With a committee, this sort of thing is less likely to happen, or least not without being known to others that Z is doing that...This way, there are additional faculty who are knowledgeable about what [the student is] doing...It's not totally just on faith or verbal agreement." She felt strongly that it should be the first option considered, that "it can be a very effective one, because they should be in on exactly what his progress is, what the expectations are... That way, it's not just his opinion vs. Professor Z." She also mentioned without undue elaboration many of the options that Prof. A did: speaking to various department heads, the dean of graduate students or other deans, as well as the ombuds office (which has to her knowledge been in existence for at least the last three or four years). She additionally mentioned other professors, that "some students certainly have gotten into a mess like this; it's up to faculty and others to help them out of it." Her reply when asked if her colleagues discuss these issues among themselves was "Yes, some of us." Regrettably, given the torrent of information spewed at entering graduate students, she said that more than a few students are essentially unaware of many of their options in these situations. Another route for those seeking support and/or information is graduate student support groups.
Even if apparently Professor Z had something of a history of this sort of thing, "to be honest, he would probably have a lot of difficulty getting any person [who it had happened to in the past] to come forward" because "a Ph.D. student can be tied to an advisor for a long time afterwards." She felt it probably wouldn't make any difference in the situation now unless that person had earlier filed or could be convinced to file a formal complaint.
Prof B stressed again and again the importance of setting up the thesis committee and keeping it well-informed. Although it has been a requirement for as long as she knows about, its past usefulness had often been reduced. This was because its centrality as "a key safeguard" had not been adequately emphasized until recently; she commended Professor Ain Sonin, a Graduate Officer in Mechanical Engineering, for attempting to remedy this. Particularly if its worth a protective measure is not adequately communicated to the students, "some [students] will delay forever in forming a committee." In the rush of student life; "they see it as just another bothersome task to attend to...they say 'but that'll take me time to do.'"6
Much like Prof A, she felt that a Master's thesis should be limited: "I don't think it should take more than two years for a Master's thesis." She was a little more leery of establishing any limit to Ph.D. theses, saying "I also know that sometimes there are students who take that long through no fault of the professor - the student just wasn't performing." She also spoke about the open-ended nature of doctoral-level research and how it should not be time-limit oriented. One has to earn one's thesis; it might take another year for the student to get to the point where it "measures up."7
While Prof B did know of "a couple" episodes essentially similar to this scenario, both as a student and as a faculty member, she didn't care to elaborate on their specifics.
Cite this page:
"The Infinite Thesis: Interview with Professor B"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Sunday, May 19, 2013