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About two years ago I finished my master thesis. At our university we can only choose the topic to work on and mostly it is part of a Phd program.

My topic was a mess because the faulty study design did not allow me to draw any firm conclusions, i.e. I could not answer the research questions directly.

However I discovered other interesting facts which are directly related to these questions.

Two things happened: My advisor did not want me to include these other interesting facts, presumably because one finding was a critic of a method he often used, and probably because I openly criticized the study design. My advisor gave me the lowest grade which still passes for the thesis even though I incorporated all of the advice he gave me -- with the exception that I did not want to exclude the critique of the method he suggested. He told me that I focused too much on the details and he had a hard time seeing the big picture. However I could not answer the research questions directly (i.e. the big picture) because of the faulty design. (Which I told him repetitively.)

A Phd colleague of mine read my thesis and thought it was great. Other students also had problems with this advisor and one phd student even quit partly due to this advisor.

I personally do not dislike this professor but he is grossly overworked to the point where he is not even able to thoroughly plan a scientific study, causing much disappointment and headache.

Should I inform the department administration on this matter even If I am not at this university anymore?

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    Is it a news professors are overworked? Or that students think they are much smarter than the professor? What would you inform the department administration beside a rather opinion based rant about him?
    – Greg
    Feb 16, 2017 at 18:18
  • When I said faulty design I meant: No sample replicates for large parts of the study, only one control in a longitudinal design, sample series somehow got lost and magically reappeared, pooling of sample material, no standardized unit of measurement and so on.... Feb 17, 2017 at 15:18
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    As an overworked professor myself, I may not have time to tell you why I ignored X nor plan every thing out so that you have a smooth ride. Most of the time I do not believe what a student says because they are usually lost. Also asking a PhD colleague for opinion can lead to the blind leading the blind. The fact that you focused too much on the details is quite standard among students. It's your job to tell an audience in the simplest terms what your research is about. If your professor, who is in the area, can't understand you, you have a real problem.
    – VitaminE
    Apr 16 at 23:05
  • @VitaminE What would be a valid reason not to collect a control sample in a longitudinal design investigating the effects deadwood on different parameters of soil samples? Apr 18 at 9:40

3 Answers 3

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I don't think there's anything wrong with voicing your concerns, but if you're going to you need to find a way to do it constructively while sticking to the facts. "Much disappointment and headache" might be entirely correct, but this is more of an emotional comment.

Also: are there other students you can get to join you in voicing this concern? Maybe you could all approach the problem together.

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My answer would be yes, you can and should contact the university about your concerns. From personal experience, I've discovered that (both good and bad) things students notice about professors are either (a) not noticed by his/her colleagues or supervisors, or (b) noticed but ignored. If you do not voice a concern, it's possible no one ever will and this professor will continue to treat students as he treated you. It's also possible that he doesn't realize the extent of his disrespect as he is so stressed out.

In the personal experience I had, a group of students (including myself) realized after several years that we all had the same problems within our department. Individually, we each tried to raise those issues directly with our individual supervisors AND the department's graduate coordinator, to no avail. We finally wrote a letter to the graduate faculty and our dean expressing our concerns. In our case, the deans and associate deans we got involved were "sort of" aware something was amiss in our department, but they didn't have any specific examples as no one had approached them before. They were very concerned about how we were treated and completely understood that we would be frustrated about raising the issue again and again within the department.

Two important things came out of my personal experience. One, it's not a quick process. You've already left the university. Your experience may be used to help current students, but you may never hear of a final resolution. Two, there is probably nothing they can do for your personally since you've already completed your program. Two of my fellow students had already graduated when we wrote our letter, and there wasn't much that could be done for them after-the-fact. It was us on-campus students that attended meetings and met with the deans/associate deans in person. It was also us on-campus students that could benefit from any changes made within our department.

Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself, especially if you've been treated disrespectfully. As students, we hold professors and supervisors in very high regard, but they aren't perfect, and some of them are just plain awful at supervising students. You shouldn't be 'punished' for your supervisor's behaviour (if you have a legitimate claim).

p.s. If you do decide to approach your administration, do so using the same type of preparation you would use for a big paper or for an important exam. Make notes. Be calm and respectful. Revise, revise, revise. Act out the conversation with a friend if needed. Be professional. Don't get angry.

p.p.s. If your school has a graduate students' association of some kind, you might want to run the situation by them first. They may be able to provide you with some advice on how to handle the situation within the context of your specific university.

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My topic was a mess because the faulty study design

When did you discover the study design faults?

For a PhD program of about 3 years, it is normally expected that students familiarise themselves with the methodology during the first years, obtain the bulk of results in the second year, leaving the third year for the write-up. It is also advised to run some preliminary analysis during the first year (some say, first months) to reassure yourself that the chosen methodology is clear to you and produces sensible results. If you've done this, then surely there was enough time to correct the methodology or to choose a new one. If not -- why haven't you done this?

PhD project is an evidence of students' ability to perform independent academic research. Ultimately, it is the students' responsibility to choose the methodology, to plan, to conduct and to manage their study. Your supervisor is here to help and navigate you, but the responsibility for the project remains your own. As a sole author of the PhD thesis, you can always make a choice to adopt or ignore your advisor's suggestions. Ultimately, you can change your supervisor or ask your university to assign a co-supervisor to help.

He told me that I focused too much on the details and he had a hard time seeing the big picture

Having said the above, I tend to agree with most if not all of your supervisor's suggestions. As a student, you do need to have a clear vision of your project and the ability to tell it without burdening your reader with unnecessary technical details. There is no reason to believe that your colleague's opinion about your thesis is more valid than your professor's. There is no reason to suggest that the low mark for your project was due to the critique -- it might be due to poor argument to support the critique, or due to unclear writing, or messy execution. Normally, a grade comes with textual feedback explaining how your work can be improved --- did you read it? what does it say?

To summarise, with all due respect, from information in your question, there is not enough detail to suggest that your professor is particularly disorganised, unprofessional, and in any way more responsible for the poor outcome of your PhD project than yourself.

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  • "When did you discover the study design faults?" It was a Master thesis not a phd which should normally be completed in 1 year. I spent the first 1/2 year analyzing samples in the lab during the daytime and reading up on statistical theory during the evening/night. So it was a gradual process. Apr 18 at 8:52
  • "If you've done this, then surely there was enough time to correct the methodology or to choose a new one." I was given these samples and basically told to analyze them with method x &y which both required intense laborious preparations. I wasn't given any control samples in a longitudinal design, which after I started writing up the thesis appeared to me as a big red flag..Since these have never been collected there was no way to retractively collect a control. Apr 18 at 8:56
  • Sorry, I misread your question then. Have you received any textual feedback on your MSc work? Apr 18 at 9:07
  • No only oral feedback was given. The feedback basically was: "Why did you do all this statistical analysis while I explicitly told you to only investigate these 5 relationships." and "Next time type this up in Latex so it looks more readable." Point 2 is definitely correct, but I already spent more than double the amount of time to write the thesis, mainly because I had to look at all possible relationships between variables to get a decent finding. (bonferroni correction was applied so no spurious findings due to multiple comparisons). Apr 18 at 9:14
  • With oral feedback students have an opportunity to ask additional questions to clarify how the grade was calculated. But generally it feels that standards of assessment in your University are a bit lower than in the places I worked at. Only 1 person marked the thesis? Apr 18 at 9:20

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