I'm on my last month before the deadline to hand in my dissertation.

I found a severe problem with the work that renders it pretty much pointless and I pointed out to my advisor that I would need some extra time to fix the problem and at least achieve the objective of the work. He basically told me to keep writing the dissertation in order to meet the deadline, without trying to fix the problem. My advisor is also going on a sabbatical, so it feels like he's pushing me towards handing in my dissertation regardless if the work is complete or not. This would pretty much guarantee that I'd have to provide bleak explanations to the committee that will discuss the work with me (because telling them that my advisor rushed me isn't an option).

I really don't want to create a conflict with my advisor. Plus, I'm having a terrible time trying to meet the deadline and my motivation is pretty much gone. I'm considering quitting the program without handing in my dissertation and pursue other career options.

Should I hand in the dissertation even though there's this problem that renders it useless? Or should I try to convince my advisor to get me more time to fix the problem (even though he seems reluctant)? Should I not do any of this and just simply quit the program?

  • 11
    The committee isn't a firing squad. Talk to a sympa member of your committee. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 2:13
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    Depende on the deadline - the university I am with gives people a 4 year dedline for a PhD (target is 3 years but you need a well working research group for that....). - If you do not submit, the university considers you to have failed. (Yes, stupid I know, it is what happens when you commericalise academia.) - In this case, submitting is really your only choice if you don't want to fail. Without the details of your university's terms I don't think there is a lot people can advise. In contrast, many places in Germany have no formal deadline but depend on your advisor's availability.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 11:24
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    @J.Harris In this case, if you think you can definietly fix the issue you identified within a year I would look at going into overtime to improve the thesis. But the discussion would be between you and your supervisor really. It may also be that he does not want to leave you to work on the topic alone when he takes his sabbatical and does not want work to intrudde on it.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 13:44
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    @J.Harris I would still stick to my previous statement - if you can fix your mistake within a year I think it shoud be fixed before the thesis is submitted I would say it should be. However the final decision is between you and your supervisor.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 18:49
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    telling them that my advisor rushed me isn't an option — [citation needed]
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 3:16

7 Answers 7


The following is based on my experience in neuroscience. Not sure if this generalizes to other fields.

I think you have two ways to work here, and each is equally "right".

First, you can do exactly as your advisor suggests, working towards completing the thesis even though there's a major flaw. This happens probably more often than you think; I learned halfway through my own thesis that the work I was doing was not generalizable at all due to bad design, and overall was pretty bad science. Oops. The thing is, it's a dissertation, not a peer-reviewed publication. The goal of your dissertation is for you to demonstrate to your committee that you know how to perform research, not for you to contribute overall to science. Your advisor's pushing you to complete your thesis may be him espousing this very idea; namely, your fixing everything up should be saved for your peer-reviewed publications, not for your thesis. Given that (in neuroscience) it is a pretty rare event for someone to refer back to a dissertation thesis when performing a literature search, the fact that your thesis document may be rendered moot isn't such a big deal; mention it in the introduction, results, and conclusion sections and just publish as is. Fix the problem in the journal articles.

The second approach is that, if it has your name on it, it should be publication-worth, and dang if you're going to let something with this obvious an error be in the public record.

Honestly, I don't think either one is wrong. The first one can save you valuable time and advance your career by months/years, and if you're in a field where your thesis doesn't mean much then it's probably the right choice. The second one may make you look better overall, and may be a requirement if your field places more weight on the thesis document itself.

Not sure if that helps, but it may give you some perspective.

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    "No research is ever useless. At worst, it documents something that didn't work."
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 4:29
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    +1 For finishing the thesis first and being open about the flaws in it, and then fixing the flaws when you turn it into a paper. You could even write in the thesis a paragraph about future work you plan to do in order to fix the issues. If you have decent publications, your thesis becomes less important. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 6:11
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    Science? What if OP is a humanities person? Seems unlikely but still :P
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 8:05
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    Since when does that apply? "The goal of your dissertation is for you to demonstrate to your committee that you know how to perform research, not for you to contribute overall to science." Since academia became a business? - A PhD was always (!!) about making a novel (albeit today often small) contribution to science.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 11:27
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    @DetlevCM The question is tagged masters, so I'm assuming that it's a masters thesis. In my neck of the academic woods, masters thesis often have a stricter time limit than a PhD thesis, but the expectation of contributing something novel to science is not that high. A small contribution like I tried this and it didn't work because X is good enough for a masters. If this was a PhD question and the fixing does not take too long, then I'd be all for fixing it. Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 6:30

I will begin by offering my sympathies on what sounds like a tough situation.

I think that you need to have a frank talk with your advisor ASAP. What he's telling you to do might or might not be good advice. Which one it is depends, in particular, on how serious the problem really is and/or what the prospects are for fixing it by the deadline. Practically speaking, the first is something that will be primarily determined by your thesis committee. If you think the work is without value but the committee disagrees, then you will still end up with a master's degree, which is what you presumably want. Of course it would be better to turn in a thesis that you feel better about and/or is actually better / not flawed but...is that option still on the table? If you have no motivation, are not enjoying your program and are seriously considering quitting right now, then it may not be. From a rational perspective it's hard for me to see what advantage there is to quitting a program and getting no master's degree versus getting a master's degree with a thesis that is (either apparently or objectively) rather poor. You shouldn't try to hide the flaws from your committee -- that would be a form of academic dishonesty -- but it's hard to see why it shouldn't be grudgingly acceptable to you if it's grudgingly acceptable to them.

The worst case, it seems to me, is that you are headed for a thesis that is not going to be acceptable to the committee and your advisor somehow doesn't care to get involved enough to avoid this. That's what you want to find out.

I really don't want to create a conflict with my advisor.

No one wants to create a conflict with their advisor, but in your situation your aversion to conflict seems not to be what an objective, outside observer would regard as rational behavior. Always assuming that you behave civilly and that your advisor has no extra-professional leverage on you....what's the worst thing that can happen if you have a real professional falling out with your advisor? You might get kicked out of the program without a degree? That's what you're contemplating anyway, so this seems to be a situation where if you can't get what you want without rocking the boat, then go ahead and rock it. (This could be bad advice if you want to start up a different master's program elsewhere and you need your advisor's recommendation. But that doesn't sound like it's the case.)

From the vantage point of someone who does not know you or your situation but has seen some pretty shaky work be awarded a master's degree, I would encourage you to avoid the impulse of bailing out on your degree unless there is no other reasonable alternative. I think it's very likely that N years down the line it will be strongly in your best interest to have the credential in your pocket. I think most people who don't continue on in academia forget mostly to entirely about their thesis work whether it's good or bad, and I don't know of many mechanisms that would dredge up this past work.

Hang in there, and good luck.

  • 1
    As far as mechanisms to dredge up past works go: random internet schmucks tend to suffice these days. Depending on the university, your thesis may be made available online. If so, anyone who, for whatever (potentially random) reason, decides they want to see it can look it up, give or take a paywall. I don't imagine this would be a problem, unless there are serious ethical violations (such as plagiarism) involved with the thesis. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 1:04
  • @zibadawa No plagiarism involved. But, if I have the option to get an extra month and finish it (given that my advisor approves), why shouldn't I be allowed use that time to fix the problem and hand in a dissertation in which the work actually achieves the main goal? For reference: I haven't asked for any extra time until now.
    – J. Harris
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 1:11
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    @J.Harris That's definitely something you should have an honest discussion with your advisor about. Unless you're one of your advisor's first students, they may very well have experience that tells them what is in your best interest: getting a not-so-great thesis done now, or getting a better thesis done later. One month more may mean a large number of post-graduation employment doors are closed because they started their hiring process already, for example. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 1:24
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    @J. Harris: You should definitely feel free to ask for extra time if you want to use it and if it seems like that could be helpful. That sounds like a good idea to me. Somehow I took from the tone of your message that both you and your advisor want to be finished with this one way or the other in one month's time. It would be better if that were not the case... Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 1:38
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    @J. Harris: Again, sympathy for your situation, but...in what sense would you be "ahead" if you quit now? Rather you should find out whether you can get from where you are to a master's degree in one month. Your advisor sounds like he is a bit of a knucklehead if none of his four other students finished their degree on time, which makes me think that it could be more effective than usual for you to take the bull by the horns and have a frank conversation with him about this. What's the downside to doing that? (You can talk to the other committee members too, and perhaps you should...) Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 1:48

You aren't doing the thesis for the benefit of your supervisor. And if they are going on a sabattical, it may make no difference if they are unhappy, because they won't be there anyway.

I would suggest two things you need to do:

  1. Check the rules of your institution about late submission. There may be something you have to do, such as re-registering for another year. Don't miss out on a degree because of some minor procedural error.
  2. Discuss the problem with someone more senior, such a head of department or faculty. They make be able to produce a way forward, perhaps with another supervisor.

It's not possible to directly answer without knowing exactly what the problems with the work are. That said, having problems does not necessarily make the work useless. If nothing else, the work you've done to date has uncovered a problem, which has value. There may be a disconnect between how bad you think the problem is and how bad your adviser thinks it is. It may well be that its not as serious as you think.

If you choose to go ahead and write/defend, covering up the problem and hoping the committee doesn't see it SHOULD NOT be an option. Be frank in your discussion, and in the dissertation fairly evaluate the impact the issue has on the interpretation of your data. Put the best slant on it that you can, and work with your adviser and committee to do so, but a less than stellar experiment is not a reason to put your integrity on the line.


Talk to an expert that is on the committee/advisory. Chances are it's too late to do serious rework, but as a scientist/student your job is to learn and identity such faults in research (as you now know, the sooner the better) so "operation cover up" is asking for a bit of trouble if you don't say anything. But going against your advisor is not good so seeking independent help, _since_they_are_leaving_and_cant_help_you_, puts you in the situation of having to act. A thesis isn't the end of world despite all the work, but it does have to handled professionally, and with academical ethics. If it were peer-review then the answer would be different, as would the goal. If you were doing corporate sponsored work, your boss would want to know (even though they would probably say, budget constraints fill in what you can - but that's their risk). Today you have to show you are professional and can do the work.

But don't go off empty heads on the 'net.

  • If my advisor doesn't give me the extra time to fix the issue, I'm definitely going to point out the problem in the dissertation.
    – J. Harris
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 15:05

I think you may need to adjust your perspective on what the requirements of your program is. You are trying to obtain your master's degree, not produce a publishable work of pure art. If your adviser's advice helps you to obtain the degree, then they are doing their job. If you're afraid that their advice will result in failure to obtain the degree, then seek out better advice. If you don't fully understand the requirements enough to understand whether a flawed "dissertation" will satisfy the program requirements, then seek understanding.

For instance, you have tagged the question "masters" but then mention "dissertation" several times rather than thesis. What exactly does your program require? Does it merely require you to show that you are capable of Master's level research? It often doesn't involve novel research - some master's degrees only require that you review the existing research, explore it, and show that you've gained a certain level of mastery over the subject and current research. If you are in such a program and have performed additional novel research, it may not matter that the research is flawed - you've already exceeded the standard.

It's also possible that this is the best way to obtain a needed extension. Meet the deadline with the work you have, demonstrate that you've gained enough mastery over the subject to realize that it needs more work, and the committee may simply send you back to work on it more without failing to meet the deadline. This may seem odd, but the process isn't uncommon.

Regardless, try to understand the bar that is set for obtaining the degree you are pursuing. If you understand what is required, then seek to understand the process. If you truly believe that your adviser doesn't understand the requirements and/or process, then educate them and try to understand why they are mis-advising you. You may learn something new, or they may learn something new. Either way, focus on what you have to do to get the degree, and try to work with the adviser.


Switch advisors !!! Sure, he's going on a sabbatical, and as above, maybe find a sympathetic committee member to explain the problem as to why you can't get more time.

  • 1
    Switching advisors at this stage is likely to be a LOT more difficult and problematic than requesting an extension. This does not seem like good advice.
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 5:13

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