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I am a Master's student two years into my degree and am planning to defend in the next few months. My supervisor is generally condescending and discouraging which unfortunately seems to be quite common for student-supervisor relationship. Until now, I've taken things in stride and have kept my head down, but as I get closer to the date that I'm hoping to finish, it seems he is continually putting up more and more barriers to actually finishing. When I push back or gently suggest alternatives he gets more and more difficult to work with.

Without going into too much detail, I now have a complete draft of my thesis that I would like to have him read for feedback and edits but instead of going through the whole thesis, he wants to go through each section back and forth until it's "as good as possible" and then move on to the next.

As he tends to take a week or two to make edits and he refuses to look at other sections while I'm working on his edits, it seems as though he wants this to take as long as possible. He has recently lost funding and I am no longer receiving funding from him so I'm wondering if it's in his best interest to have me around as long as possible. I understand two weeks can actually be a good turn-over for edits, but in context with other issues we've had, this just another in a growing resistance to any progress being made.

How can I best address this situation to ensure I can defend in a timely matter? I'd rather not go to the department head because I think she'll be obligated to take action as he has had other formal complaints made against him recently.

I've spoken with a committee member who has suggested I reiterate my goals and timeline for defense but this is something I do regularly and I don't think it will help in this instance.

Edit to add information from comments:

We have made numerous calendars and schedules that seem to go by the wayside the minute they're made. I suspect that having me on as a student is an advantage for him at this point, as he has no funding to secure new students and no longer has to fund me. The longer he holds onto me, the longer he can avoid pressure from the department to take on new students, projects, etc.

  • It could be helpful to buy a large wall calendar, and pencil some milestones in it, working backwards from your approximate defense date. You could erase those milestones, bring it to a meeting with your advisor, and ask for some help in filling things in. Perhaps you could put the target defense date two weeks earlier than what you really have in mind, for safety. You could say that you have travel plans for the following month (some family situation that will require you to be out of town for a month), and you would like to defend before you go. // Try to get some overlap in the... – aparente001 May 16 '17 at 5:08
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    calendar, where polishing Chapter 1 is happening concurrently with rough editing of Chapter 2. You could use color coding. My idea is to involve your advisor in this planning so he'll get on board with your needed timeframe. (No guarantee this will work, though.) – aparente001 May 16 '17 at 5:10
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    State you are done with the work and are now only going to improve your writing. If he does not give you any funding, he cannot force you to work more for him. Then iterating over the write-up only takes up his time that he could use to secure more funding, your time is nothing that gives him any advantage. – skymningen May 16 '17 at 9:27
  • @aparente001 That is a good idea but we have made numerous calendars and schedules that seem to go by the wayside the minute they're made. I also do have travel plans in 4 months; I'm moving to the other side of the country. The problem with presenting this information to him is that he will end up with him viewing the time pressure as 'my fault' or 'my choice'. Of course it is my choice, but I shouldn't need a reason to want to finish my thesis in 2.5 years. That's plenty of time for an M.Sc. – hamilthj May 18 '17 at 3:46
  • @skymningen I think that having me on as a student is an advantage for him at this point as he has no funding to secure new students and no longer has to fund me. The longer he holds onto me, the longer he can avoid pressure from the department to take on new students, project etc. – hamilthj May 18 '17 at 3:47
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It sounds like it may be time for you to lay all this out to the director of graduate studies in your department. Here are some suggestions in case you decide to do so:

  • You can take a friend with you for moral support if you wish.

  • Make an appointment. If someone asks you for a reason, you can say something brief, such as "ask advice about my graduation timeline." (That's to get you a foot in the door.)

  • Speak calmly. Just explain your experience so far, and leave out the part about your fears and how long you've been working on it. Leave out your conjectures about your advisor's possible motivations.

  • The administrator may ask you some questions about your timeline and you may, of course, answer them.

  • If the administrator makes a suggestion or advises you to do something you've already tried, don't nod and say you'll try that. Tell him or her calmly what has occurred when you have tried that.

  • Ask him or her if s/he can get back to you by (name the date that comes up in 6 days). That way, if you have to go up the chain of command, you'll be able to say, "I met with Prof. YY a week ago."

  • Document the conversation by sending a thank-you email that same day. E.g. "Thank you for meeting with me today to discuss etc." and include a bulleted list of the points covered in the meeting.

  • If the administrator does not commit to getting back to you, you may jump to the next level without waiting.

I think that in most departments a five or ten-minute conversation with the director of grad studies will do the trick and either your advisor will start moving, or the department will find some other way of getting you out the door.

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    @hamilthj - You can, but that might put the administrator's guard up. Could you stop by the department office in person and talk either to the administrator or a secretary, to request an appointment (in a casual tone)? If they ask you for a reason for the meeting, you might want to say something more innocuous than what I suggested in my answer. For example, "academic planning." If the secretary asks you to explain, you can say, "It will be easier to explain when I meet with Prof. YY." If they press you again, just repeat yourself in a pleasant, firm voice. Look, typically, students... – aparente001 May 19 '17 at 21:10
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    talk with the director of grad studies all the time. I've probably made it sound much more complicated than it is likely to be. – aparente001 May 19 '17 at 21:11
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    @hamilthj - Your concern is understandable, but since you have an existing relationship with the DGS (sorry, I just made that up), I think that if you share your concern with her, the two of you will be in a position to agree together on the approach to be taken. // I hope you will post an update when you have some news. – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 22:57
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    @hamilthj - good work, and thanks for the update. Could you maybe cc the DGS when you email your supervisor this time? – aparente001 Jun 5 '17 at 23:19
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    We talked about that and a few other actions she could take if this didn't work but we're trying a last ditch effort at a conflict-free approach and taking it from there. – hamilthj Jun 6 '17 at 23:19

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