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I'm supervising an undergrad student. STEM, if that's relevant.

Due to Corona, his contract ending and me leaving this job we haven't spoken in quite some time. He has now worked at home and has written his thesis. I am currently proof-reading his (pretty much) completed thesis which he send to me on 4 days ago.

In his thesis, and obviously last time he spoke, he didn't know why there was a bump in his results. Neither did I. In his thesis he writes something along the lines of "as of now it is unknown...". So far, so normal.

Two days ago I more or less coincidentally found out why. It turns out it is somewhat obvious once you know why. What should I do now?

I could write him a mail explaining why. But this wouldn't be his work. It also can't be solved. It is just a "quirk" of the method he used.

I could just say nothing: "as of now it's unknown" is perfectly acceptable, but I feel in this case it's also unnecessary. After all he COULD know why.

I thought about not saying anything and just be happy about a question I already have for the oral examn. But I am afraid it might be a little too difficult for the exam and he doesn't do too well with pressure.


Thank you all for your input. You helped shaping my thought process in a great deal.

I ended up writing a detailed email telling him which dots to connect and leaving the rest to figure out for himself with some pointers.

I did so for a simple reason: His statistical analysis is wrong. Furthermore I don't understand from his thesis what he did. And after all I KNOW what he wanted to do. And I know for a fact: Somewhere something went wrong. And that I can't "let slide". Incompletion is one thing, errors another.

And in order to provide an explanation I needed to show him why his data doesn't make any sense which is easiest to explain with the underlying mechaism and so on.

I will, however, use this specific topic in the oral exam. I specifically told him to make sure he knows what's happening at this particular point and I feel this is more of a warning than he probably deserves.

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    What is your goal? – Anonymous Physicist Jun 14 at 9:10
  • I want to help but I don't want to do his work for him. I myself have a LOT of work that I still have to get done in my last two weeks, but this is not an issue, neither of these approaches take up a lot of time. (Ironically this right now does...) So my goal is likely to get "this over with" as smoothly as possible while being the best supervisor I can. I am not opposed to him succeeding at all. – Stefan Jun 14 at 9:16
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    Why don't you want to tell him? This is how science works. He can mention the source (i.e. you) if it's not a trivial insight (trivial in the sense that he should have seen it himself, in which case it would be encompassed in the acknowledgements). I would really loathe to see someone presenting work that is not - to the best of his and his supervisors/collaborator's knowledge - most complete in its conclusions and up-to-date if this is feasible in the allocated time. If it's an issue of time to prove this is the case, he could still formulate a hypothesis. – Captain Emacs Jun 14 at 9:24
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    Well, as you say he ignores suggestions from you, then perhaps you go ahead and ask at the oral exam. – Solar Mike Jun 14 at 9:40
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    @Stefan Students that simply do not listen? Yes, that exists. There is nothing you can do about it. If you think it will not outright founder him, you can use this as a point of discussion during the exam, but if he is a nervous person, it's perhaps too much to expect this to work under pressure and it can derail him. You could suggest this to be added to the thesis with a (private communication) notice. – Captain Emacs Jun 14 at 10:38
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This sounds like an easy solution. You can give a couple of suggestions while stressing one as more likely to yield an answer, or even a single suggestion that "may or may not work but could be an improvement on existing work". This is valid supervisory guidance, as it does not hold the student's hand but provides a direction to be explored and you are not providing a ready answer. The fact that you already know the answer is irrelevant. If the student is unable or unwilling to do so, this is not up to you. In fact, I think is it poorer supervision if you do not point out the weakness but simply let it pass.

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