I have a student who sends me emails twice a week showing me his updated dissertation. At first I supported him a lot. But he literally does what I say word by word and never goes beyond what I tell him in doing further research. I have been clear to him that his limits are the sky. But when he adds a small detail he sends me an email again asking me if that was okay or not.

I think he assumes that he will take a very high mark if I did not tell him exactly what he needs to do for his dissertation. I am a bit worried about how to reply to this student. As I am trying to be polite and nice and I do not want him to fail, but at the same time I need to be genuine.

Please give me advice on how to reply to such kind of students so that I do not offend them. I want to convey that I encourage them to do further research and it is okay to say something I disagree with as long as they support it with proofs and evidence.

  • 12
    What dissertation is this? PhD? Masters? Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 13:31
  • 7
    @CaptainEmacs It is a Master student dissertation but also I get the same from Students who are doing a coursework question that is graded.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 14:43
  • 20
    Does he know that he is judged on his work and not your work? You might want to make this clear. Another idea is to give him less precise instructions and maybe set boundaries for how often you'll look at his thesis. While I think it's reasonable to meet once a week to discuss progress, I'm not sure I'd read a thesis once a week.
    – Kimball
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 15:04
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    Why is the student so insecure about his/her work? what is the root cause? Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 21:08
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    I strongly suggest to listen to @Kimball 's first sentence. I have been on the other end of this situation during my master's. I struggled hard, so I needed and received frequent help from my very patient advisor. In the end I was disappointed by my grade because "I did everything exactly as my advisor told me, so why is he not happy?" I wish he made clear that he expected me to do more than expand on his advice. (Yes, this should be obvious and yes, this is no answer to your question. This just emphasizes that expectations should be made clear.)
    – Piwi
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 21:48

4 Answers 4


I'll assume you already have language that indicates your support. Don't give up on that.

But, ask him for two things. First, that he only asks for feedback once a week (or whatever you are comfortable with) and add a report on changes and why they were made.

Second, ask him to specify in the report things he is unsure about and to detail why he is unsure.

The goal is to get him to think more deeply about why he is doing things and to separate the simpler from the deeper things.

  • 13
    +1 Socratic method, aka the Tom Sawyer turnaround. Make them work for the help.
    – J...
    Commented Sep 20, 2020 at 9:43

I think the key here is your insistence on “trying to be polite and nice” and telling the student “politely”. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing your desire to be polite is getting in the way of clear communication. I’ve seen this happen with people who are so afraid of upsetting others that a lot of the time when they want to communicate something it comes out all muddled because of the insistence on passing everything through a kind of “politeness encoder”. Usually the way this happens is the person who does this tends to think that the listener knows all about this encoding scheme and can decipher the message easily by applying the inverse “politeness decoder”. But this is simply not true, and the message is lost.

Be polite if you want, but first of all be clear. Have a frank talk with the student, explain the problem as you perceive it (with the politeness encoder dialed down to a minimum or turned off altogether), and brainstorm with the student some plan to get past this obstacle in his approach. Once the student understands what the problem is, he will be well-positioned to address it.

  • 20
    (+1) passing everything through a kind of “politeness encoder” --- This often happens when my wife wants me to do something, but it's phrased in such a manner that to me it comes across as "only do this if you really want to". I've mostly learned over the last 30 years which things I need to filter out the words "only" and "if you really want to". I'm also reminded of this book, which we saw at a bookstore and bought, and then read, shortly after it appeared. Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 21:02
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    @DaveLRenfro Reminds me of the short video "It's Not About the Nail" youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg
    – shoover
    Commented Sep 20, 2020 at 15:29
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    Could be a culture issue, too. German feedback may sound rude to an American and vague to a Russian. Commented Sep 20, 2020 at 19:46
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    @henning--reinstateMonica true. Reminds me of this discussion.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 13:59

I want to convey that I encourage them to do further research and it is okay to say something I disagree with as long as they support it with proofs and evidence.

Then that is what you should say! Precisely that.

Dear X

I appreciate your desire to get things right but always relying on others may be counterproductive. I encourage you to do further research. It is okay to say something I disagree with as long as you support it with proofs and evidence.


I usually set weekly or so meeting to discuss progress of my students. They are free to contact me in between if something important/urgent comes up.

I'd handle a situation like the above with a short answer, if needed, or just "take another look, we'll talk about it next time".

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