I'm a PhD student in my first year, co-supervising master students with a postdoc, and listed as the first supervisor. This is my first experience supervising a thesis. My previous experiences with students were mainly tutoring or conducting lab experiments with students.

The issues:

  • The students are not honest; they have experience with some tools, and it is in their curriculum, but when I asked them about the tools, they stated to me clearly that they don't have experience with it. In another meeting with the co-supervisor, they admitted the opposite; however, minimum experience.

  • I have sent many tasks since the beginning stating clearly why these tasks should be done now because they will need it in the future to do so and so. The tasks were ignored.

    The student neither thinks actively nor searches for the information, expecting everything to be spoon-fed. I stated many times that this is not how master theses work.

  • I thought maybe the topic was new to them, so I prepared a list of questions, including keywords with the required material to search within and learn. It was not taken seriously.

  • Also, they don't consider our time and that we have other responsibilities and expect an answer within a few minutes.

Since time is running out for them, they are playing some game (I don't know the proper term for that) like:

  • You are my mentor, and the time is running; if I didn't help them immediately, they would spend the time doing something wrong, which would be my fault.

  • Whenever I ask a question from the questions list I sent earlier; supposedly they did a literature review, and the answers are entirely wrong. Their excuse is the topic is new, and there is not enough literature, which is a lie.

  • They reached the stage where they complained to me that the server was down (where they should get the data), which is a national server and not my issue.

I don't know what to do anymore; I tried positive reinforcement, specific tasks, and specific tasks with deadlines, but all did not work. I don't want to be an "unsupportive supervisor"; I'm afraid I have already lost interest in the topic and am not interested in getting a good master thesis out of it.

The questions might be: How should I proceed, and how can I proceed objectively?

  • A good master thesis in my opinion is that the students understand the problem, review the relevant literature, approach the issue, develop a workflow to solve it, try that, and write all that in in their thesis.

  • The students received their topic/title, recommendation regarding literature, the tools that should be used in the thesis at the beginning. After, two or three consecutive meetings, it was clear that they need to be guided a little bit. That is why I or we started guiding them.

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    Have you discussed this with your post-doc and professor? If so, what did they say? Also: who decides whether these students pass or fail? I assume a professor -- but if you are "first supervisor," maybe this is your decision?
    – cag51
    Jun 9, 2022 at 18:56
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    Also: I don't understand your first bullet. What does "in their colloquium" mean? My read is that they are trying to avoid overstating their level of knowledge, which is minimal. Or?
    – cag51
    Jun 9, 2022 at 19:08
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    If you were my supervisor, I would kindly ask you to let me be freer. You are supposed to only guide them, not to tell them what do you. Note that, there is a difference between giving them suggestions and giving tasks. "[...] getting a good master thesis out of it.". That is not job. That won't affect your career. That is not your thesis. If you are interested in the subject, work on it yourself or give the project to someone else.
    – Our
    Jun 9, 2022 at 19:11
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    Please be patient; we're really just trying to understand the situation so that we can offer helpful advice. If I understand correctly, it sounds like you discussed this situation with your professor and they told you to offer additional "handholding." Is that correct? What I'm really trying to understand is: if you tell the students "do X or you or will fail," and they don't do X, will they indeed fail? Or will your professor swoop in and offer some alternative?
    – cag51
    Jun 9, 2022 at 20:59
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    How many such students? (Suggest the question be edited with that info.) Jun 9, 2022 at 21:16

1 Answer 1


You are trying to be helpful, but there is such a thing as too much handholding. The more helpful you are, the more likely students are to exploit this and to become a help vampire.

You do not owe your students any success. You owe them a fair chance at succeeding. But this chance is theirs to take. The thesis is solely their responsibility, especially since the purpose of a masters thesis also is to demonstrate the ability of doing independent academic work. By definition, success or failure of the thesis isn't your fault. Some students will throw their chance away, regardless of how much you help them.

Things that might help in the future include clearer boundaries, and focusing your assistance more on methodological aspects.

  • Your student currently expects responses within minutes. Matters are rarely so urgent that they need responses the same day.

    When supervising a thesis, it might be best to minimize such informal messages except for truly urgent issues, and instead have regular meetings for which the student can prepare questions. Depending on the kind of work, a cadence like one meeting every two weeks might work well. Then, you can defer any small issues that come up: “let's discuss this at our next meeting”.

  • You mentioned that you “sent many tasks”, provided material, and tried to set deadlines.

    This is fine when working with an intern or research assistant, but not for a student who is supposed to independently write a thesis. Firstly, because you're doing their work for them. Secondly, because it's their thesis and they should use whatever working style they believe works for them.

    Instead, it might be best to focus your assistance on methodological aspects, so that the student knows how to write a good thesis. For example, many students need an explanation about how to find useful literature, how to structure a thesis, and maybe where to find techniques that weren't covered during lectures. A master thesis is often the longest independent project done by the student, so sharing experience with time management can also help.

    But mostly, a Socratic approach is useful, where you ask the students about their plans for the thesis. What are their goals until the next meeting? Do they feel they are on schedule, if not how can they adapt their plans? Have they considered the connection with $related_topic? How to they intend to mitigate a certain risk you are concerned about? What challenges are they currently facing, and how do they intend to solve them? You can suggest things, but it will be the student's decision what they do with that suggestion.

    Added benefit: if you set out a plan and they fail, they will blame you, and perhaps rightly so. If they set out a plan and they fail despite knowing your concerns, that's clearly on them.

Since the thesis in question is already close to its end, it will be difficult to switch to clearer boundaries and to more passive support. But if at least two weeks or so are left, not impossible, if you are willing to put your foot down. For example, consider an email along the following lines:

It is great that you have these questions, but this is your thesis and working through such challenges is part of it. I don't have the time to discuss your progress right now, but I can offer a meeting $in_4_business_days. Please continue work on your thesis in the meanwhile, and we can discuss remaining issues then.

Is this impolite? Maybe, but so is bombarding you with endless requests for help.

What I find rather odd in all of this is that it's the first thesis you supervise, and already as the main supervisor. Supervision is a skill that can be learnt, but ideally by shadowing another supervisor for one or two theses. I'm still in that “apprenticeship” phase. So I think it's completely unsurprising that you're running into these kinds of problems, and I also ran into similar problems with the first students that I mentored. The good news for you is that you can learn from this experience, and can be a much better supervisor for the next student. The learning experience goes both ways.

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    I appreciate your answer! And I will keep your advices always in my mind :-)
    – Jupiter
    Jun 9, 2022 at 20:33

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