What duty does an advisor have to advise a student on a reasonable workload for a thesis?


When I started my masters degree in Biology, my advisor quickly assigned me to three separate projects and told me that all three needed to be in my thesis. The plan had been that I would submit one of the three projects as a paper. The other two projects would be contributions to other papers.

I trusted his judgement, and worked on all three.

However, in my last semester, my advisor told me that I only needed one of the three projects for my thesis. He also expected me to continue working for him - unpaid - after my graduation for another year before he was OK with me submitting the paper.

I had accepted a different job and was not able to dedicate anymore time in the lab. He reassigned the project to another student and a paper was submitted 2 years later. The paper contains essentially everything I did, and my advisor justified the change in authors by saying it would be good for the other students career.

I feel upset, because if I had been allowed to only focus on one of the projects, I probably would have been able to publish before I graduated.

At best, I feel that he was trying to nudge me towards staying in the lab for a PhD and was loading me down with projects in preparation. At worst, I feel that he was trying to get as much work out of me as he could, including unpaid work after graduation.

  • 3
    There is a lot of extra information in this question and some definite academic misconduct, if your view of the events is accurate (be wary that everyone has their own biases and it is likely the truth is somewhere between what you are saying here and how your advisor would view the situation).
    – Bryan Krause
    May 17, 2017 at 18:43
  • 3
    Obviously, if you were someone's thesis advisor, you would do things differently than this person did. But there are many ways to screw up as an advisor (and many ways to shine as an advisor). // You may want to try to get your name added as co-author. Or you may decide this was a learning experience and let it go. (You'd have to do some thinking to decide what you learned about life, people, yourself, your advisor, and academia). // If it helps, I will tell you clearly: This shouldn't have happened. May 17, 2017 at 23:15

1 Answer 1


I would like to start by reinstating an already made comment: it is hard for anybody to look at this kind of mild conflicts without biases. The student who replaced you certainly had to replicate some of the work you have done, and most likely has been exploring and wandering in other research direction.

That being said...welcome to the academic world. Not all advisors are able to mediate their own best interest, with their students/postdocs best interests. Let me be more precise, and talk in economic behavioural terms: it is always the advisor's best interest to get as much work as possible from any person working for him. He/she lives in a highly competitive world battling with few resources to stay ahead of the competition. However, any supervisor needs to balance his/her need to get the most work out of his/her research group, with the need to build a positive reputation in offering a working environment that compromises reasonably between being treated fairly, and having the opportunity to grow in a career while working hard. Failure to do so will cut his/her stream of future students/postdocs into his/her group.

It seems like your advisor did not quite strike that balance - especially about the unpaid work. Unfortunately, that too is all quite common, especially in universities/countries where funds are lower than in the average US institution. Just take it as a learning experience, and try to learn the most out of it.

  • How are we supposed to find out if an advisor is going to just treat you like a workhorse? I've found it difficult to find students who are willing to speak to you honestly about professors, especially in schools I've never attended.
    – user124384
    Sep 11, 2017 at 20:58
  • 1
    Look if the professor highlights in her webpage the success of the PhD and postdocs she supervised - that's a great metric on how a mentor defines her own success. Look for papers authored by his students. That will tell you about whether hard work turns into rewards. Ask other students about work-life balance, even if you don't know them. Keep in mind that bad reputation travels faster and further than a good one: if you don't get bad notes, chances are there aren't.
    – famargar
    Sep 11, 2017 at 21:48
  • My current advisor ticked all those boxes but still manipulated me into working on an unpublishable project that he claimed was publishable.
    – user124384
    Sep 11, 2017 at 21:57
  • @user124384 i cannot know exactly what happened in your case. I am well aware though that research outcomes by definition can be unpredictable - maybe somebody publishes the same idea before you, or maybe you realise halfway of insormontabile challenges. There is no reason for your supervisor to work or have people work on unpublishable stuff.
    – famargar
    Sep 12, 2017 at 7:34
  • @farmargar Apparently there is a reason. My advisor wants to convince a government agency and companies in industry of something but his co-author doesn't think it's of enough academic value to publish.
    – user124384
    Sep 12, 2017 at 14:30

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