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"Prependum" clarification:

Strictly speaking, the supervisor has no actual authority in this decision (I think)-- it is between myself and the course convenor. However, I feel that `overruling' my supervisor by appealing to the convenor is unprofessional, and would inevitably affect the working relationship. This could be very counterproductive, and make an extension somehow pointless without the willing agreement of my supervisor. More importantly, they are the only potential academic referee (who knows me well) for use in a PhD application.


I know there is a similar question here, but I am looking for advice in my particular hairy circumstance.


The Issue

I am currently writing an Honours Thesis in an Australian university due in less than a month. Since the end of last year, I have suffered from severe depression (been to hospital; self-harm; seeing a psychiatrist; etc) and have made this known to the Honours convenor who has pre-approved any reasonable extension I might ask for.

The problem is with my thesis supervisor. They are highly averse to extending the project, as they are a very busy person. I understand this; it is not their responsibility. However, they also believe that obtaining an extension would be inequitable for other Honours students. I have made them fully aware of my condition, and stressed to them the magnitude of the impact it has on my studies. For instance, I (conservatively) estimated that I work less than half of the amount of time I would be able to if not afflicted. I also have had a meeting with them with several visible cuts on my arm.

Their response to my concerns is that regardless of my condition, I have made significant progress. They believe I am capable of obtaining a High Distinction with my current progress. It is apparent from their other comments that they do not understand what depression truly is (i.e. "everyone gets nervous at the end of an Honours thesis").

At this point, I feel very pressured by my supervisor into submitting my thesis on time, but I do not think this is fair. I think that regardless of their perception of my academic performance, I have had dramatically less opportunity than other students due to my severe condition. However, it seems that mental illness is so poorly understood in this situation that what I think is a reasonable and fair extension (i.e. 6 months onto a 6 month thesis) is probably never going to happen in my institution, despite my gathering of evidence over the last six months in the form of letters from a psychologist.

On one hand, I recognize that it's not fair to ask my supervisor to continue supervising for the duration of an extension (and neither do I think they will willingly). On the other hand, I have been open and clear about the possibility of this happening from the very beginning of my project, and I believe they are seriously wrong about what they deem equitable. Their claim that an extension would be inequitable makes it clear to me that they are judging my condition based on my academic performance rather than on the actual opportunity I have had.


The Question

I'm really unsure what to do in this situation and would appreciate advice. Here are options I've considered:

  • With the aid of my psychologist, push for a significant extension that I believe to be equitable. This is problematic, as it is difficult even for me to judge how long that should be. Furthermore, my supervisor probably won't be available. If they are, they will be so reluctantly and perhaps begrudgingly.

  • Concede to my supervisor's wish for me to finish on time, and possibly end up with ~HD anyway.

  • Obtain a short extension (~1-2 months) and spend that time refining my thesis without the aid of my supervisor.

  • 2
    What country are you in? Depending on the location, you may have some legal protections. If you edit your post to specify, someone may be able to offer some more specific advice. – ff524 Oct 6 '16 at 15:54
  • @ff524 Okay, I did originally say the country but I edited it out for increased confidentiality. Oh well, I'll put it back in. – Sudo Oct 6 '16 at 15:57
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    The answer to this is to approach the department chair, dean, or whatever office deals with disabilities. They have the answers as to what university policy will or will not allow, and generally universities don't particularly like individual professors making such decisions (because each one may interpret it differently). – Jon Custer Oct 6 '16 at 20:06
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    In the US at least, there will be an office that deals with implementing university policy in this area. The supervisor's reluctance to cooperate can and will be fixed by them if they determine that your disability warrants it. Disobeying federal law tends not to be in professor's self-interest. This depends if the appropriate university office determines that you qualify, and then what the policy remedy is. – Jon Custer Oct 6 '16 at 21:48
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    This is in UK (and probably US) not at the discretion of the supervisor. In these countries, there is a dedicated office to deal with the issue and they issue directives as to how you are to be treated. Alas, if you are in a country which does not provide this protection, then you should see whether there is the analogue of such protection or some student union, ombudsman or similar. – Captain Emacs Oct 6 '16 at 23:31
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As you say, it sounds like your supervisor does not understand depression at all. Or at the very least, he or she doesn't realise that what you're experiencing is depression and not just typical thesis stress. That's very unfortunate, but all too common (in the general population, not just supervisors). You have every right to an extension.

However, given that you are depressed, you may not be the best judge of your own progress right now. Even students who aren't depressed have difficulty accurately assessing the progress of their research and thesis. Your supervisor has a lot of confidence in you, and seems to think you're "almost done". I'm reading between the lines a bit, but it sounds like your supervisor is a good supervisor apart from being clueless about mental health.

I think it might be worthwhile to have a meeting with your supervisor, and with someone who will be in your corner on the mental health issue (the Honours convenor, perhaps?). The three of you can then put together a plan to finish your thesis. Try to keep an open mind. I don't mean that you should let yourself be pressured into taking on more than you can handle right now. I just mean that there may not be as much work remaining as you thought.

  • 2
    This answer almost sounds like it was written by my supervisor, haha. Yes, apart from an apparent lack of understanding of mental illness, they are a superb supervisor. The Honours convenor is also clueless (by their own humble admission), but arrangements with them were made at the beginning of the project. There is nobody at the university 'in my corner' I'm afraid, although I'm investigating an "Access & Inclusion" department at this time. This is what I find worrying: even if I am ready to submit a good thesis, I do not think it fair that I don't get the time to exemplify it. – Sudo Oct 6 '16 at 23:24
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The answer from @mhwombat is very good and I have upvoted it, but I wanted to share some thoughts that won't fit in a comment.

My son has Tourette Syndrome, OCD, ADHD and anxiety. We had the experience last May that his accommodation for extra time to turn in assignments was suddenly and arbitrarily removed from his accommodation plan. Overnight, his anxiety went sky-high. He got so nervous about the turning in of the homework assignments, that he couldn't think straight any more.

Two weeks of this, and mercifully, the principal (director of the school) notified me that the teachers were going to continue to allow him to turn things in late, on an informal basis. As soon as I conveyed this to my son, he relaxed and started to be able to do good work again.

So, based on this experience, I would advise you to negotiate a reasonable extension, enough to take the edge off the anxiety. Of course, even with the extension, you will probably have some anxiety. But it would be best to keep your anxiety to where you can still function and do good work.

You may find that having the extension in place gives you the peace of mind you need, and you are able to complete your project without actually using the extension after all. You never know!

Work with your therapist during this time, to check whether a sense of perfectionism is perhaps getting in your way. This is something that I have seen in my son. I have seen him not turn in homework assignments because he had skipped a couple of the problems. You may want to share your draft with your therapist, in fact.

Regarding your concern about maintaining a good relationship with your thesis supervisor --

(a) What are your mid and long-range goals in terms of continued collaboration with this person? If you do not plan to continue the collaboration beyond the Honors Thesis, then it might be helpful for you to start detaching emotionally. Are there some other people in your life whose good opinion of you is important to you?

(b) The beauty of working with a Student Disability office is that they can help the professor understand what adjustments may be needed. I was glad to read that you are looking into Access & Inclusion. Please let us know what you find out. Also, try to find a support group for students, or people, with disabilities.

(c) Don't assume your supervisor noticed your injuries or understood them. Take the time to explain things to him or her. (In general, it is, in my opinion, better to explain your condition and how it affects your studies, with words rather than by displaying your injuries. I'm not saying you have to use long-sleeved shirts. You don't have to hide injuries or scars. But at the same time I wouldn't want you to fall into exhibitionism. I wasn't sure from what you wrote, whether there might have been an element of this. Also, keep in mind that a person can have a handicapping condition, without there necessarily being any self-harm going on. In other words, please don't ever feel that you need to harm yourself in order to get people to take your difficulties seriously.)

(d) Don't take it personally if someone doesn't "get" it.

  • This is a very compassionate answer and I appreciate it. I feel you are correct about your observation regarding an extension relieving anxiety: in the past, extensions have allowed me to work more effectively even without having to actually invoke them. The relationship with the supervisor: we seem to work very well together; it is possible I will work with them in the future. They are also a close colleague of a relation of mine, so there is a small personal aspect to it. I am not an exhibitionist in the sense you describe; short sleeves were incidental. I will think upon your answer... – Sudo Oct 8 '16 at 5:17
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It depends a lot on the university's policies. I know of one Australian university where extension decisions are not in the academics' hands. Find out the extension process for your university, get medical certificates and make sure you follow the process. If you miss deadlines for applying for extensions, you can get into difficult situations.

  • I already have the official go-ahead for an extension if I desire. My concern is whether it is in my best interest taking into consideration supervisor relations/availability. – Sudo Oct 7 '16 at 1:41

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