My supervisor keeps on delaying and postponing my defense date, taking long periods of time between revisions (1 month of "revision" where the document is in his hands). He has done this 2 times already, so I have been sitting here waiting for a total of 2 months now. This last "revision" he sent it back to me with six or seven nitpicky grammar errors, (ie places I had left out words such as "the" or "when"), and the content-related comments he had were extremely trivial.

I feel like he keeps on showstopping my defense date due to nitpicky grammar errors, and it is impacting my career (obviously, my Master's degree now has 3 years on it, instead of the expected 2). At this point I don't care about grammar errors (and I believe we must have found them all already) or clarity of expression or making perfectionist type improvements. I feel really angry and I feel like writing a letter of complaint to my graduate program director. Each term I have to stay bleeds more money out of my account, and the situation is making me really upset.

So far, I've been very polite and professional and have not "exploded". I've hidden my emotions and my anger and not complained about what I feel is getting quite ridiculous. Should I complain? Should I let him know how I feel? Or should I just keep on going with it and "grin and bear" until it's over?

  • 4
    Have you tried asking him directly, instead of going over his head directly to the department head. Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 6:17
  • I have tried to get a defense date since September. I have followed up weekly every week he has had the document in his hands (to responses of "I'm doing what I can"). He seems to fill his time with everything else but attention to me and helping me graduate.
    – bobobobo
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 6:19
  • But anyway, the question is, should I let him know I'm angry or not? How do you let him know you think the situation has become completely ridiculous (while he seems to be under the impression that everyone has got all the time in the world?)
    – bobobobo
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 6:23
  • That's the reason I asked, perhaps he doesn't feel he is doing you damage and that your wallet is getting thinner, and you should try to be sure he at least understands you are in a very thought situation that he could very easily solve by letting you defend. Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 6:25
  • 15
    I feel like you severely lack communication skills. For example, "should I let him know I'm angry or not". Also, "So far, I've ... not exploded ... Or should I keep on... "grin and bear"". It seems like the two options you know of are (i) pretending to be agreeable with what he's doing, (ii) getting angry/expressing anger. Have you considered (iii) Expressing your concerns in healthy dialogue, and discussing where to go from here given that he's now aware of these concerns? I feel like (ii) is the absolute worst thing you could do but it seems like you're seriously considering it.
    – Jase
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 15:50

3 Answers 3


The things you call "nitpicky grammar errors" are often (in my experience) symptoms of a deeper problem:

that the student has stopped caring about raising the thesis to a suitably high standard, and has not grasped what "completed" means in the context. An unfinished thesis simply can't be marked.

First, get your own proof-reader, and get help in getting all of these problems fixed - your supervisor is too busy to be a proof-reader, and it's an inefficient use of limited supervisory time.

Why is the grammar sloppy?

For different students, the underlying cause will differ; some won't be writing in their native language; some are careless; some have weak language skills; some haven't grasped the importance of good grammar and spelling to clear communication and to academic publishing. I've no idea which of these is true in your case, or if it's something else - that's between you and your supervisor.

Whose problem is it anyway?

You don't care about your grammar errors. That is your problem, not your supervisor's. You are angry. Again, that's your problem. Trying to make it your supervisor's problem, will make an enemy of someone who you need on your side. You think your supervisor's comments on content are trivial, and that is also your problem, not your supervisor's problem.

And now this post has maybe made you angry too. And that would also be your problem, not my problem.

I say all this, because accepting that they are your problems, is the first step to fixing them.

Collaboration not conflict

The problem that I am trying to help you fix, is that your supervisor is telling you what you need to finish, and you seem to resent doing it. Supervision has to be a collaborative partnership, not a battle. Now, in theory, it's your supervisor's job to make it such. However, in some cases, in academia as well as in the real world, you often need to manage your manager - and that can mean you taking responsibility for ensuring that it is is a collaborative relationship.

So, find out what incentivises your supervisor, and try to put those incentives in place. Is it publishing papers? Esteem within the department? Conference papers? Get your supervisor on your side.

The worst case

And (take a deep breath): sometimes, when a thesis is genuinely bad, it's not apparent at first. All one sees on the first couple of readings, are a few errors here, and a few errors there; but when they're corrected, new problems appear.

It gets to be like "Star Wars the Phantom Menace" - the East Coast of the US produced one homebrew re-edit of it, to fix some problems; the West Coast produced a different homebrew re-edit, to fix other problems; but in the end, both re-edits and the original are pretty awful films: fixing the most obvious problems just exposed other problems.

I really really hope that's not the case in your case; but as this answer will hopefully be read by many people in your shoes, then at some point, it will be true for one of them. And at that point, that person and their supervisor need to think about a radical rewrite, or walking away from it as a lost cause.

Where to go from here

But for almost all cases, it's just a matter of getting your supervisor onside, getting a definitive list of the problems, and then you doing what your supervisor says is required to fix them. With them, write a checklist, and then return the checklist to them, with a note next to each one, stating how and where you've fixed it, or how you're defending it.

And finally - this post will inevitably contain spelling and grammar errors - it's Muphry's law in action. But that doesn't invalidate the advice in any way. With language, context is everything. This post is not academic scholarship; your thesis is.

  • 4
    I like this answer very much. However, I personally think getting a check list is also the student's responsibility. He should write down everything when the supervisor nit-picks the errors(both contents and grammar) and then either correct them or defend them. This is why defense is called defense. What if somebody else nit-picks those errors in the oral defense? Are you going to say the issues are extremely trivial and ignore them? Do you think you will pass the defense this way?
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 8:40
  • @scaaahu thanks for the feedback - I've updated the last bit re checklist accordingly
    – 410 gone
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 8:49
  • FTR, it's not bad. It's a master's thesis, he avoids the deep technical parts, and he doesn't seem to understand the meat of it. New things to nitpick seem to surface all the time, and he takes arbitrarily long to get things done.
    – bobobobo
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 12:43
  • 5
    @bobobobo Your comment "he doesn't seem to understand the meat of it" does not sound extremely trivial to me at all.
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 13:04
  • 7
    @bobobobo the thesis author is never the best-placed person to judge whether or not it's a bad thesis. I've yet to met an author of a bad thesis who realised of their own accord that it was bad. That lack of insight is one of the things that contributes to a bad thesis. I am not saying that yours is bad: I'm saying that you couldn't be in a position to know it, if it was.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 16:17

I am going to take a slightly narrower perspective than EnergyNumbers here, and focus on the specific facts of your situation, as you have mentioned them. Note that my conclusions will be derived from this, so if the facts as stated in your question are not correct (either by ellipsis or exaggeration, most likely), my advice would be different.

taking long periods of time between revisions (1 month of "revision" where the document is in his hands). He has done this 2 times already, so I have been sitting here waiting for a total of 2 months now. This last "revision" he sent it back to me with six or seven nitpicky grammar errors, (ie places I had left out words such as "the" or "when"), and the content-related comments he had were extremely trivial.

Note that I can't consider “nitpicky” and “extremely trivial” as facts, but as statements of your opinion on the validity and scope of these comments. Also, I assume that your thesis is somewhere between 50 and 100 pages in length (if it's 10 or 500 pages, the problem is different).

The busy supervisor hypothesis

This assumes that:

  • you did in fact correct the grammar mistakes pointed out to you (and I'd say that 7 such errors in what I assume is a 50–100 page thesis cannot really be considered sloppy writing);
  • the content-related comments were few, easily fixed (order of presentation, showing additional data or removing some overly detailed graphs, etc.), and you actually fixed them quickly;
  • no further comment was made to you on the overall quality or suitability of your thesis.

Then, you should have a calm and professional discussion with your supervisor, highlighting the difficulty of your current situation and the necessity of working together to reach an outcome satisfactory to both of you. Say explicitly that:

  • you understand that a necessary standard has to be met by your thesis,
  • you are ready to hear that it is not yet met,
  • however, you need more specific guidance to reach this goal, since you have fixed in a timely manner everything that was pointed out to you, and yet you can't defend.

Stay courteous, base your questions (and answers) on facts, and ask for him to do the same. Reading a thesis and commenting on it shouldn't take one month, and if the modifications to be made are as you indicated, no further work on it would be necessary once they have been discussed and integrated.

If that doesn't succeed, and your supervisor seems to busy to devote to you the time necessary or simply doesn't care about it now that the scientific part of the work is over (it happens!), go ask the graduate program director for help. Maybe not by a formal written letter at first, just ask for his advice in a given situation. See what comes out of it.

In all cases, whatever you do, stay professional. You should highlight the harshness of the situation for you, whether when talking to your supervisor or to others, without letting your emotions dominate the discussion. (Yes, it can be hard.)


Your goal is to graduate, i.e. to get the masters degree awarded to you.

You have a roadblock which prevents you from reaching the goal - your supervisor keeps on delaying and postponing your defense date. The reason you stated is that he is taking long periods of time between revisions due to nit-picky grammars errors on the draft of your master thesis. You are asking this question on this board to seek advices on what to do. One of your questions is: should you let him know you're angry or not?

I'll answer your questions by asking you a question first, do you think letting him know you're angry will work? Do you think he will sign on your thesis after you tell him you are angry? Or the situation will become even worse after you express your anger?

I think the answer is the latter - the situation will be even worse. The supervisor is responsible for the quality of the student's thesis. You said in one of your comments, "he doesn't seem to understand the meat of it." No supervisor would put his signature on a thesis he does not understand.

After reading your question a couple of times, I think your English writing is not bad. I cannot say how good the writing of your thesis is because I never read it. If there are any grammar errors, it would take you only days to fix them, not months.

So, what is the problem? I think there is obviously a communication issue. You said you sent him many e-mails(in one of your comments). No avail. You think he did not give you enough time. I believe there should be ways to talk to him. For example, make an appointment on his calendar and say you need to talk to him to address your concerns. He is your supervisor after all. He would have to give you some time no matter how busy he is.

However, what are you going to say in that meeting? Are you going to say you want to graduate, your bank account will dry out, you already spent three years for your masters degree, etc.? Those are your personal issues, not his concern. He is not your parent. He does not care how much money is left in your bank. What he does care is the quality of the thesis. I do believe that he will sign off on your thesis once he is convinced that your thesis is of good quality. Now, we are coming back to your question, why he keeps nit-picking the grammar errors? I think there is something between you and him. I, as an outsider, can only guess. A supervisor/advisor is more like a coach. Every coach has his own style. Some would not directly tell you what to do. Instead, he would make you re-read and re-write the thesis to make it more understandable and better. Is he that kind of supervisor? I don't know. What I do believe is, he wants a good thesis. Hope this helps.

Update after seeing OP's comment The OP put in a comment in response to Jase's question So how does your supervisor respond to those e-mails?, OP says With progress reports and updates, like, "I'm halfway through this chapter", but I find he basically skimmed it when I get it back.

My suggestion is, have a presentation for him. It can be just half hour to an hour long. Pretend you're having a defense. Give him the meat of your thesis. So that he won't need to spend that much time to find them in the thesis draft.

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