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Question:

How to explain to potential employers why it took so long to complete my master's degree without partially blaming my thesis supervisor?


I just completed my master's degree in North America. It usually takes the average grad student in my department 8 months to 1 year to finish their thesis. It took me two years to finish mine.

Supervisor and procrastination:

After the first four months of my thesis registration (when I was still searching for the right topic), my supervisor took a study leave and went to a different country for a full time job with the private sector. He was still supervising me officially, but in reality this was a formality. He had no intentions of coming back to academia any time in the next 3 years. Over the year, I lost interest and got lazy. And then I had some personal issues. I was unmotivated, and I did not know what to do. At that point, I had been away from my family, my girlfriend, and my best friends for 2.5 years. I was alone here in this foreign country and I had no friends. I joined a martial arts gym and started boxing. I was coming home all beaten up and didn't have the energy to work on my thesis. I didn't feel like doing anything, except for fighting.

My supervisor did not really care about my progress since he wasn't really getting paid from the university. I tried communicating with him when I got stuck somewhere, but he never seemed to understand my concerns, and his feedback raised more problems. He is a great researcher and a very, very talented scholar. The problem was that he was too busy with his work. And it is hard to ask technical questions over email, because he can't really accurately answer them without looking at the full journal article. I reached out to my department advisor for tips on how to move forward with my work. They suggested that if I dumped my supervisor, it would be my responsibility to find another one. And no one in the department was an expert in that field. One other professor who was an expert had his plate full. So I was stuck with my supervisor. We emailed once every 3-4 months, and I had to remind him what we had talked about before and what I was actually doing in my research.

In the end, it was a member of my supervisory committee (who my supervisor selected in the last 6 months) who actually got me up to speed, showed interest, gave me directions, read my paper, and gave me incredible feedback. Without her I would not have been able to finish my thesis. My relationship with my supervisor is professional, and I would say he was helpful at the end during my defense and with all the paper work. He did look at my paper for the final revision. But he was an awful supervisor most of the time. It was my fault for choosing him.

Some of my other professors (who I have very good relationship with, and who I have talked to about my case), think that my supervisor did something unfair, particularly because something like this hasn't happened before in the department. He could have dumped me as a student and arranged for a different supervisor for me. Or told me at the very beginning to find someone else. I don't blame him for all of it, it is partly my fault. But some of the time I wasted is due to him not helping me out.

How do I explain this to my potential employers during job interviews? Two of my professors I am close with told me that I need to prepare for "Why did it take you 3 years and 8 months to finish your master's degree?" (3 years 8 months = 8 months or two terms of courses, 1 year of co-op work terms, and 2 years thesis) And that no matter what happened, I should not blame it on my supervisor during the job interviews.


Background:

I was always very competitive. I finished my bachelor's (in my country) in 3.5 years where the average completion time was 4.5 - 5 years. I finished in the top 1% of my entire graduating batch and not just my program. I had a 98.75% CGPA over all, and no I was not a nerd. In the final year of my college, I was the president of the Finance club, and I was also the captain of the university's basketball team for the last 1.5 years of my study. I was also actively involved in the university's art club. I worked hard, really hard. Those are the only things I did back then. No TV, no wasting time here and there, no sleeping around, no drugs, nothing.

In grad school, I finished all 8 courses in the first two terms. I took five difficult graduate level courses in the second term just to prove a point to my classmates (in short, they underestimated me). No one had ever taken 5 graduate level courses in my department before; my graduate advisor and one of my professors had called me stupid for this. And they were right. Anyways, I made the point, I finished with excellent grades. Then I went on to do co-op work terms for a full year with the provincial government. After my co-ops, all I had to do was to finish my master's thesis. It usually takes an average student 8 months to finish the thesis. But for reasons mentioned above, it took me two years.

  • Can the downvoter tell me how I can improve this question? I tried giving as much detail as possible. I don't know where else to ask this question. I apologize if this is off-topic, it didn't seem that way to me. – knightandthebishop May 29 at 9:55
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    Too long, I started reading and stopped. Could you condense the message? [I didn't downvote] – Captain Emacs May 29 at 10:19
  • What is coop work? Volunteering? – user111388 May 29 at 16:38
  • @user111388 No, it's paid full-time work. Cooperative education – knightandthebishop May 29 at 17:23
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First: Hey! You finished! Congratulations! There are a lot of people who would have given up for various reasons along such a bumpy road. No need to beat yourself up about it. Maybe you would like to have gotten finished "faster" but all that means is you would have to have been working at a job for an extra 2 years, maybe in 10 years you'll look back fondly on your time spent boxing ;)

Second: Regarding what to tell employers, you don't need to lay everything at the feet of your advisor, but the fact that they were on sabbatical was clearly a contributing factor. Once you had someone "in your corner" to help you on your project you made progress and finished! You can talk to employers honestly about that without having to necessarily give the gory details you mention above. A script might be something like: "Well, my advisor was on leave for large parts of my thesis work. Being alone on the project was difficult for me at first. I had a bit of a hard time adjusting to work without grades, a boss, or hard deadlines motivating me. However, I eventually learned how to overcome those issues and make progress on my own. Even if it took a bit longer, I feel that I learned a lot about myself and how to work independently."

Others may have different opinions, and I'm sure each hiring manager would similarly be different in how they judge things, but in my personal opinion there's not going to be any "glossing over" the fact that you took 2 years where others take 8 months. So best to just address it as directly and honestly as you can, while still putting the positives forward as much as possible.

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  • Thanks! I really like how you suggest addressing the issue while keeping it positive and focusing on what I learnt. I can't upvote your answer as I don't have enough rep points. – knightandthebishop May 29 at 9:47

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