As a new university professor, I have been informally tasked with making sure the MSc students in my program are prepared for their dissertations, by prepping them in my research methods course. My students are generally very motivated but they are from academically diverse backgrounds and, frankly, many are ill-prepared to undertake a dissertation and have been struggling with the material and assignments.

I have been trying to help them as much as possible, but it feels like the more helpful I am, the more they ask for help!

I have students who express extreme distress and confusion, which I try to allay with more explanation. Then they send me their work in progress, asking me if they are on the right track.

I want the students to do well, and to feel like they are progressing, but the constant emails and meetings are completely taking over my life. On the other hand, I can see that many of them are just not getting it, and that make me feel like they really do need help.

Is there, in any of your experience, a good point at which to tell students that I cannot help them further and do you have suggestions for wording this without seeming like a bad educator? I appreciate their motivation and I sympathize with their frustration, but at what point do I stop helping and how do I communicate this?

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    This may be helpful. Feb 6, 2015 at 15:32
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    I would definitely say that evaluating work-in-progress for a course is not normal. These are MSc students. They should be near adults by now. If they can't hack a simple postgrad course by attending the regular lectures, doing the work, and using regular office hours, then they need to start facing the possibility that they are not going to succeed. Graduate studies require students who have a functioning aptitude for self-learning and independent work. If they can't succeed without continuous mollycoddling then they probably should not graduate.
    – J...
    Feb 7, 2015 at 11:24
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    I have been trying to help them as much as possible, but it feels like the more helpful I am, the more they ask for help! — It sounds like you're not actually helping them, but rather doing their work for them.
    – JeffE
    Feb 7, 2015 at 19:17

5 Answers 5


As a new university professor, I have been informally tasked with making sure the MSc students in my program are prepared for their dissertations, by prepping them in my research methods course.

There is a lot going on in this first sentence!

First of all I see that you are new, which makes things especially difficult for you: you don't really know how the department or the MSc program works yet, but you are trying to guide students through it. Trying to do everything exactly right the first time around seems unrealistic: I think you should concentrate on making a good effort and showing the students and your colleagues that you take the job seriously, bring a lot of skills to the table, but are also open to advice and adjustment in terms of this particular service situation. This may end up resulting in your spending more time and effort the first time around than you will in the long run, un/fortunately.

(Let me also say that, based only on this sentence, I am not thrilled with your department for placing you in this situation. If the newest member of the pantheon is immediately signed up for something so critical and complex, one has to wonder how functional the pantheon was before the new arrival.)

Second of all you mentioned an informal task but then also a formal task: you are teaching a research methods course. The latter sounds good to me, and you should certainly be having office hours in this course, and setting more as needed if the students seem to be struggling as a group. But the task of being single-handedly responsible for the preparedness of all the MSc students in your department for their dissertations sounds like a lot to hang on your head, if by that you mean much more than successfully teaching the research methods course. Expecting every student to be prepared to write a dissertation after completing one course doesn't sound very realistic to me. Also I hope that each student has, or will have, an advisor for their dissertation other than you (at least in most cases), and that these advisors will take on more of the responsibility of their preparedness/progress than you. You simply can't carry an entire master's program on your back in your first semester. So I would try to create a distinction between the amorphous informal task and the reasonable formal task, and set yourself up for success in the latter.

In terms of helping the students more versus coming to a point where you can't help them: unfortunately the setting discussed above makes this an especially open-ended and intense version of that. I think the other answers have given you good advice nevertheless.

  • You do need to limit your total amount of involvement: set aside a certain number of office hours per week, including extra office hours for drop-in appointments. You can help the students a great deal, but not infinitely, and not "as much as they need".

  • If the students seem far from the mark, have an assessment meeting with each student (yes, this is very time-consuming...). At that meeting you can learn from the student their background, their progress and their current position, and then you can make an individualized plan to help the student move forward. It is not realistic for the goal for every student to be the same, but it is a reasonable (though still ambitious) goal to help every student make clear forward progress during the course of the semester.

  • Make sure that your plans for the student give them plenty of things to do, and things that they can do: i.e., you want them to be doing most of the work, and you can help them with it at key moments. If you ask them to do something that they simply don't know how to do, then you're either going to fail them or spend way too much time doing it for them. But in a research methods class every student should be able to start somewhere. Make sure that the ground that they start on is relatively solid: I think that's much more important than how far they get by the end of the course.

  • I agree that I am tasked with undue pressure. I was not aware before arriving that I was in part hired as a replacement for someone who did not do a good job and I am definitely expected to make sure that the students can at least understand basic research. It is interesting considering I have never taught before and this the core class for the program. I do appreciate your advice, though with 150 students it might be hard for me to visit with each one! Instead I have been having them work in groups and uploading work each week which I then give them feedback on. Still a lot of work.
    – Skunkness
    Feb 9, 2015 at 0:08
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    Whoa: never taught before? 150 students?!? The core class in the program?!?!?!? Holy crow. Look, just do your best. If you succeed in any sense, let us know, and we'll arrange for a medal to be sent to you. Good luck. Feb 9, 2015 at 0:17
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    Haha thanks. And no TA's. I teach two hour lectures followed by five hours of seminars/labs of aprox 25 students each. And supposedly I am on a research track (not happening this year, ha). I award myself a medal (usually a few glasses of wine) every time I get through one of those days. I am definitely learning a lot though :)
    – Skunkness
    Feb 9, 2015 at 0:22
  • @Skunkness: Keep up the good work. Feb 9, 2015 at 0:39

One of the solutions for limiting / demarcating the time you spend on MA students is to set aside specific office hours for that purpose.

For example, you could dedicate Fridays 1p - 5p for the purpose of answering MA questions on theses. If they have questions or if they want to show you revisions of their thesis, then they need to sign up and come to your office hours in person and you would be happy to walk them through things. You need to make clear that the only e-mails you will accept regarding the theses are for signups (or use an online signup system in your course management system), otherwise you'll defeat the purpose of this.

This serves a dual purpose.

First, it allows you to schedule your life (and balance your e-mail queue).

Second, it sets up a small but perceptible cost to see you in the eyes of the students. If they know they only have a 15/30/50 minute slot once a week, they will see your time with them as a limited resource in contention with others and try to use it more efficiently by preparing their questions and materials to review ahead of time. In the process, they may answer their own questions.

Of course, you'll want to select time/times that will work for you and your students, but when you chart out your week you should try to set a top limit for student contact hours (and e-mail hours) until you get tenure.

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    p.s. You should also look into tutoring referral services for the students who are really struggling with basic questions. Your Director of Grad Studies (or Chair or Dean) may be able to help, especially if the students are an underrepresented population in your field.
    – RoboKaren
    Feb 6, 2015 at 18:34
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    Excellent answer. Give feedback in person (for many reasons). Email is for scheduling appointments and short answers.
    – earthling
    Feb 7, 2015 at 14:28

When teaching graduate students, I've found that lowering the bar on the level of difficulty of a course tends to lower the amount of effort they are willing to put in. Conversely, raising the bar (lowering the amount of help I give) tends to increase the amount of effort they put in.

The students appear to get better outcomes when their level of effort matches the level of effort required for the course material.

Obviously the extremes of this don't work for anyone, but I'd suggest that you ease off on the amount you are doing to "help" them.

Each student is different, and some will require different levels of support, in different areas. The best thing you can do for them is to help them identify and address their weaknesses.

That doesn't mean you have to fix their weaknesses.


A significant facet of being a professor, which is to say, a large part of your raison d'etre is to educate graduate students. So you should be prepared to make time to meet the needs of the students you are involved with.

You should certainly exercise some judgment about when and in what form you provide help to your students, but you should really try to avoid this mindset where you tell yourself "I cannot help them further." I can certainly sympathize with your sentiment about "constant emails and meetings." I think it is perfectly reasonable (and necessary) to set limits on your availability so that you can fulfill your other obligations ... but that comes down to you setting some boundaries and managing your time more effectively.

Part of the problem may stem from providing too much help, or help that is too specific, so the student is sheltered from the (often frustrating) trials of a learning process. Graduate students need to develop their ability to take initiative, try different approaches, and explore things. They need to be able to fail, to identify when things aren't working, and to seek help when they have exhausted their own efforts.

Note that "making demands" is a two-way street. The students demand your time and attention ... for your part, you should be demanding that they apply themselves to these problems they need help with. This can also be used as a tool to moderate students that demand constant attention (a way to put on the brakes, so to speak). Just make sure your demands are helpful, and don't abuse it.

The fact is that learning takes time and effort on the part of the student. An instructor can help, but you cannot learn something for someone else. What you want to do as an instructor/advisor is to enable your students. Keep them on track, and help them avoid getting stuck or distracted by unnecessary details. Warn them about pitfalls they're about to encounter, and point them at good resources.


First of all, tell them to take it easy and do their best of preparing their works while considering your instructions.

I feel there is nothing wrong with both the lecturer and the students; however make them understand that you are going to teach them how to research and you are NOT going to do their researches for them. State that there is not just a single correct way of doing things; while following some basic rules every person has it's own way and style of doing researches.

To sum up, there are some basics that you as the lecturer have to teach them and rest of the things primarily depends on the person himself/herself.

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