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I am in my first PhD year and have some teaching duties -- assisting my supervisor with his lectures and also advising students. At the beginning of the semester, a student started working on his Bachelor's thesis and initially everything was fine.

However, for several weeks now I have not received any response from him. I wrote him mails on a weekly basis asking for a status update and inquiring whether he was stuck. Now the deadline is getting closer and while he could make some progress during the first weeks, I am afraid it is too little to pass. On the other hand, I saw a quite familiar post on SE recently and I believe it is actually him, as the topic is quite specific. Therefore I assume he actually is still working on his thesis.

I already have escalated the issue to my supervisor and he told me to let it student fail if required. I am not too satisfied with this way of dealing with the situation. Are there other options for me?

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    Did you reply to the SE post? Did he reply to you? – Solar Mike Jul 24 at 21:25
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    Just reply to the post... don’t add a huge amount of questions about thesis, family or social life like has he received your emails... – Solar Mike Jul 24 at 22:00
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    Are you sure he/she can see your mails ? Just talking from experience, I once had a teacher that gmail considered as 'spam'. That did lead to a quiproquo that was solved only when luckily, we met in a corridor and realized what the issue was. – m.raynal Jul 25 at 11:00
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    Sometimes during the writing of my thesis, I did the same thing as your advisee. I was behind my schedule, and that I would disappoint my advisor. In my head the plan was: "I'll work extra hard on the next wkd and get up to speed, then contact him". I was mostly ashamed. It would go as far as actually hiding form his field of view if I saw him on campus. Although not an answer, if you think your advisee may be in such situation, you could try to approach him with this in mind. Maybe tell him it's okay if he's got issues, remind him it's not the end of the world, and you're there to help. – Vinícius M Jul 25 at 14:29
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    As per Buffy's answer. I was struggling with personal mental-health, and it was such a relief when he was very understanding and told me 'it's okay, happens to anyone' and such. After that I made a new commitment, and my work turned out great and highly praised at the end. Just an idea =] – Vinícius M Jul 25 at 14:34
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I wrote him mails on a weekly basis asking for a status update and inquiring whether he was stuck.

It seems that you are completing your duties as an advisor well. You can and should continue to offer help and suggestions in accordance with your duties. Perhaps this student is too busy or too anxious to respond to your emails. In that case, you could provide links to resources that might benefit them without the necessity of responding (if you feel that they need more advising).

While I personally try to respond to emails in a timely fashion, I often work better independently and only reach out when I am in need of assistance; this student might function the same way.

I already have escalated the issue to my supervisor

Great, this means that your supervisor is aware of the issue and is likely to be understanding in the event that your student does not do well.

he told me to let it student fail if required

This is also fine. If the student does not adequately complete their work, this is the expected outcome. If you are concerned that the student is unaware of this, you could send an email letting them know (or possibly reminding them of policies in the syllabus regarding this).

Are there other options for me?

You cannot force the student to respond or work on their project. You should continue to advise this student to the best of your ability, but beyond that it is their responsibility to follow through.

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    Great answer (+1), but I disagree with the last sentence of your third point. No student is unaware that you fail if you don't complete the work. The assessment structure and requirements of the thesis should already be set out clearly in their course outline (even for the thesis). It is not necessary to warn the student of the obvious, and doing so sets a bad precedent by adding an additional warning to a process where it is not needed. Take this as a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent answer. – Reinstate Monica Jul 25 at 0:08
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    @Ben: Risking infinite regress, a minor quibble to your minor quibble: Where I am, I've had to deal with students surprised that failing for not doing work is possible, multiple times (some instructors in other departments guarantee passing simply for attendance, setting the expectation). I agree that assuming the syllabus is coherent, further warning/notifications shouldn't be needed. – Daniel R. Collins Jul 25 at 0:20
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    @DanielR.Collins: I'm trying to find a spelling error in your comment, so that I can make a minor quibble to your minor quibble to my minor quibble. But everything you've said is sensible, and spelled correctly, so I guess our regress ends here! – Reinstate Monica Jul 25 at 0:23
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    To aid in your squabble about quibbles, let me remark that the assumption that students read and fully understand the syllabus is a bold one. – Dirk Jul 25 at 9:18
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    I think the idea that it's a bad assumption that students read the syllabus is right but misses the mark - it's really more about the overall learning experience of the student. Will they learn that it's okay to skim the syllabus and miss things, or will they learn that inattention to detail leads to failure? They'll learn that sooner or later, hopefully, but will it be from failing a class or losing a job? They're a student to learn, not just the material, but how to achieve successful outcomes when there's no one there to hold their hand. – Don Branson Jul 25 at 15:03
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Your supervisor is correct. Let the student fail.

I'm shocked the existing answers are so lenient. You have given the student an amazing opportunity to work with your group, and from the tone of your question, I assume you have been providing adequate guidance and support. In response, the student has "ghosted" you. This is unacceptable.

If you have not already done so, I would send a much more blunt message to the student. "Regular check-ins with me are required for all undergraduates in the lab. Please schedule an appointment for within the next week. If I do not hear from you, I will assume you are not interested in continuing with your thesis."

After that, the ball is in the student's court:

  • If they do make an appointment, I would have a discussion about what happened. Based on the student's tone in this discussion, I would decide whether to proceed (in consultation with the advisor, in your case).
  • Otherwise, no further action is needed from you. Either they'll show up with a completed thesis -- which your advisor will have to deal with -- or they'll never be heard from again.
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    Judging by the tone of the original questions, regular check-ins were not part of the policy in the lucky_luke's institution. Is it reasonable to introduce them, aiming at a very specific student because he went missing? – svavil Jul 25 at 7:27
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    All research positions have implicit or explicit policies such as "don't ignore multiple mails from your supervisor" and "don't disappear for months at a time." But my point was just that lucky_luke should be crystal clear about requirements and possible consequences (if he hasn't already) and then wash his hands of the matter. – cag51 Jul 25 at 13:48
  • Doing more hand-holding is the opposite of letting the student fail (on their own). In a sense, this is one of the most lenient answer, because you're asking the OP go beyond their own responsibility and take responsibility for the student's issue. Granted, this may be the most effective way to actually help the student in the short term. – jpaugh Jul 25 at 20:52
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    I think you're conflating two separate issues. Novice researchers are usually on a pretty short leash, and the real responsibility lies with a grad student. So yes, I would expect OP to regularly do quite a bit of hand-holding. I guess you might say that's lenient, but that's how it goes with undergraduates. The issue in question, however, is separate -- this student has vanished and is not responding to e-mails. OP has already made several attempts to reach out and gotten nowhere. So, I would not be lenient here at all -- OP should probably cut this student loose. – cag51 Jul 25 at 21:24
  • @cag51 You are now in the different era: you are OLD-SCHOOLED in academia and thereby thick-skinned, while most young adults today are new-schooled and so are entirely different from you. They lack your old-schooled ways of thinking & doing things. New schooling has thin-skinned many people today and that thus explains your shock at their leniency in responses. – Rita Geraghty Nov 28 at 16:20
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An alternate approach, not of the "sink or swim" school, is to see what office in your university provides student services. In the US, a college or university will normally have a Dean of Students, part of whose job is to look after student interests and well-being.

There may or may not be anything they can do, but if you have any suspicion that the student is suffering from depression, you can contact them. They may be limited in their ability to approach a student, but it might be worth talking to that office.

There is, by the way, the concept of self-defeating behavior and even self-defeating personality behavior that might require professional assistance.

You and your department head or supervisor are not the right people to deal with such situations, of course.

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    Yes, at many schools all students have an academic advisor. When a student isn't making progress or there are other red flags, that person is a point of contact. This is pretty important as seemingly minor issues in several classes can signal a substantial issue in the student's life. – jerlich Jul 25 at 12:45
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Put this in perspective: if you stick with an academic career, you will interact with many students who fail one of your courses. Likely hundreds, possibly thousands. You need to set some boundaries for how much time (and emotional energy) you spend on each, so it doesn't interfere with your ability to get other work done.

I think many faculty would say that you've done your job at the point when you wrote that first email that went unanswered; at that point it's in the student's court to respond. You won't have time to chase after every student who ghosts you in the future.

There are some tools built into online course management software (e.g., Blackboard's "Retention Center") to attempt assisting with this. However, in my experience the lowest-performing students don't respond to more requests for discussions or to get extra help.

(You may run into some administrators who either don't teach, or teach a single course per year, who will argue it is legitimate to chase after all failing students without limit. Easy to say, but not feasible to do in practice.)

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At my university, the supervisor should contact student affairs. Student affairs will perform a welfare check to make sure the student is okay.

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Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist nor am I trained in psychology.

Preface: I write this not necessarily for the benefit of the student described in the question, but for a general audience of academics and students, who may encounter such social situations in the course of their studies or careers, in the hopes that it may lead to an improved understanding and ability to prevent such problems from escalating.


Many students, at some point in their academic careers, engage in avoidant behavior in response to academic stress. This of course is not productive in the long term, but in the short term, it provides some measure of relief from what they feel is an overwhelming burden they perceive they cannot overcome no matter the amount of effort spent. This eventually can lead to fatalistic attitudes toward academics and the self-fulfillment of failure.

This type of response, avoidance coping, is also associated with depression, low self-esteem, and impostor syndrome, both as causes and as effect; however, addressing such a relationship is not in the scope of this discussion. More importantly for the advisor to understand is that avoidance coping frequently occurs on a spectrum of degrees and not only at the extreme: students may continue to make some effort, such as seeking help from peers, but a sense of embarrassment or shame over struggling or feeling as if they have let their advisors and mentors down, may be precisely the reason why they do not seek help from those who are objectively the most qualified and able to provide it. Advisors are often perplexed by what they observe as sudden loss of communication ("ghosting" in the parlance of the day), and may attempt to compensate by what they believe is the most logical response, which is to confront the student and try to reopen a dialogue. However, once this pattern of avoidance emerges, such efforts can actually be counterproductive, because it not only serves as a reminder of the stressors the student is trying to avoid, but it now compounds the stress because the student is interpreting the advisor's inquiry as a demand for contact, rather than an offer for help. As a result, the student merely digs in further, feeling as if they have doubly failed--academically and interpersonally.

With this context in mind, sometimes it is not possible for advisors or mentors to "rescue" the student, especially if this avoidance behavior builds up prior to an important milestone, such as a thesis defense. In my experience, what seems to work best is showing that the student's perceptions of futility and incompetence are distorted, and that success remains within reach--if accommodations can be made to make it so. Relieving the perceived burden, breaking it down into smaller, more manageable tasks, and reinforcing positive, approaching behaviors through rewards and encouragement, is necessary in order to build a student's self-confidence.

So, what does an advisor or mentor do? First, I believe it is crucial to identify early signs of avoidance coping before it becomes entrenched, and to keep students motivated by reminding them that they are making progress. If the coursework or research is too copious or difficult, help them break it down into smaller problems. Explain to them that this is an essential life skill to learn, more so than the actual work itself.

If, however, a student has already "ghosted" you, then you need to step back a bit in your role as advisor. Rather than trying to remind them of their academic duties, you might ask them to come see you during office hours, and have a face-to-face interaction in which you would ask about how they feel about their academic situation. If they acknowledge being overwhelmed, suggest they look into student counseling. If you are able, offer to postpone upcoming due dates or modify the structure of their curriculum or research, or terms of their academic progress, but only conditional upon their agreement to recommit themselves. They need to be able to speak to someone with the power to make such adjustments. If the institution is not willing or able to do so, then the intervention was already too late.

Again, not all students behave this way, and not all students who do behave this way are doing so for the reasons I described. And not all students can be "rescued," nor is it anyone's obligation to do so. But for some, it is absolutely worthwhile, because they can and do respond remarkably well once they are given the right framework to learn how to apply positive coping mechanisms. Some students never learned how to cope with overwhelming pressure, and if they are not taught, they merely grow up into adults who still do not know how, and in my mind, that is far worse an outcome than not completing a degree.

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    "The student merely digs in further, feeling as if they have doubly failed--academically and interpersonally" - I mean, that's simply what happened. Failing from time to time is fine, but how do you plan on arranging a face to face meeting if they don't respond, or if they are to "recoil" further because of the request? – lucasgcb Jul 26 at 8:34
  • @lucasgcb: As someone prone to such avoidant behaviour, I’ve certainly had times when I had great difficulty responding to emails asking for a status update on work, but had no trouble replying to an email saying “Hey, could we meet to talk about things?” instead, and then was quite able to discuss problems frankly at the meeting. This answer makes an excellent and important point — the OP should consider the psychology of why the student may be not responding, and based on that, can try to write emails that are more likely to get the student to respond. – PLL Jul 27 at 11:20
  • [cont’d] Of course, one can’t predict human behaviour and know exactly what will work — but thinking about this point seems significantly more likely to help than being unaware or ignoring it. – PLL Jul 27 at 11:21
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Your question seems to include the most important points for an answer:

  • You offer support, when needed
  • He seems to be still working on the thesis
  • Your supervisor said let him fail, when he does not complete the thesis

So you should continue to be available and maybe mail from time to time (not too often!), so you fulfill your duties.

When the student has questions, he can ask. When he prefers to work quietly and submit his thesis without your help, he may do it. When he stopped working on it (maybe he even left university and you do not know it?), he will fail.

I do not see any problem for you here and you seem motivated to help, when needed.

Side note: He may have things in his personal life, that require his attention. It would be good, when he would tell his supervisor and the university office, so they may for example redact the thesis and allow him to write another one, when it is sorted out, but these things are nothing of your business, as long as he does not talk about it himself.

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