Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Dragging Them Over the Finish Line

What do you do if a student is this close to finishing their graduate degree but they just can't get some parts of the thesis (papers) written, either because they can't write, won't write, don't know how to stop writing, or don't have time to write? How much help do you, the advisor, provide?

1 - none, except the usual advisorial encouragement. It's their thesis, and if they can't write it, they don't get the degree, even if they are so so so so so close to finishing.

2 - a moderate amount, but not to the point of actually writing text for them. You can 'outline' sections of text for them to fill in (thesis Mad Libs), and even sit next to them giving them suggestions of words and phrases to type and plying them with double espressos, but you don't actually do any writing.

3 - a lot, even to the point of writing significant amounts of text.

Option #3 might sound unethical, but this is not necessarily the case. For example, if you are a co-author on papers that comprise the thesis, it's reasonable for you to do some of the writing. Your contribution will be indicated in the thesis by your co-authorship of the constituent papers. The problem comes if a lot really means a lot.

Some students with many co-authored 'thesis chapters' (papers) may have a problem getting their thesis approved if 'too many' of their thesis chapter papers were primarily written by/with others, but if the student has taken the lead on most of the chapters/papers, it's not a problem to have co-authored some. The worst (and least ethical) situation is when the only way a thesis will get done is if the advisor ghost-writes the thesis.

I wish I could have a consistent policy regarding how much I help students with finishing a thesis, but that isn't possible. Situations vary depending on the urgency of the publication(s) resulting from thesis research, and the consequences (for me, for my other students) of not publishing thesis results and of not having a student get their degree.

A possible solution for MS students who can't write their own thesis would be to let them get a different type of degree -- e.g. one that requires only coursework and no thesis. Even if the original intention was that they write a thesis, if that's not going to happen but the student has spent years taking classes, they might as well have something to show for their time and efforts. If the advisor writes a paper based on the student's work, the student can be a co-author, or even first author, depending on the particular situation.

PhD student who can't or won't write are a much bigger problem. You would think that a PhD student nearing completion would smell the barn or see the light at the end of the tunnel or [insert similar analogy]. Alas, in my experience it is the rare student who accelerates across the finish line. Many have to be dragged, and some of that dragging may involve the advisor's doing various amounts of writing for the student.

It is disturbing how many professors I know who joke about how many MS and PhD theses they have written (for other people), but it is also understandable that this is a common situation. Most of us want our students to finish and not collapse in a desperate heap just short of the finish line, unable to get across without being dragged. Is it cheating to help them? Is it unfair to those who finish their thesis without help? Perhaps, but it's not really a race.

46 comments:

Alex said...

Is it cheating to help them? Is it unfair to those who finish their thesis without help? Perhaps, but it's not really a race.

There are no grades for dissertations, but letters of recommendation can speak to how independent is. The more glowing ones should be reserved for those who write their own dissertations, and the less glowing ones for those who need their hands held through the writing.

female Science Professor said...

Yes, exactly, that's what happens.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm in a Humanities field, where co-authored publications are extremely rare, so keep in mind that's where this is coming from:

Option 1. Always. Maybe 1.5, with that extra point-five being some intensive workshopping.

Part of it, for me, is that learning to work around, wait out, or push through blockages is part of the constant struggle of what we do, and so it's something that grad students need to develop strategies for.

The other, greater part for me is that the degree is supposed to signify some sort of personal achievement. And I really do believe that it's unfair that a student who writes their own work, and one who has work written for them that they then claim as their own don't merit the same degree.

Again, different field, so perhaps different standards. And I understand that work in the sciences is often collaborative by nature. But still -- I don't like it.

saxifraga said...

I am really surprised to hear that this happens at all. It seems unethical to me. I can't see how an advisor could write A LOT* of a thesis/dissertation and the student could still have it accepted. Maybe I'm more naive than I'm aware of.

*Except co-authored papers/chapters where the advisor or other collaborators are first authors. Such papers are commonly included in my field as well if they exist when the dissertation is submitted, but should come on top of the student's own work.

pumpkinesque said...

I find it quite shocking to read that advisors write parts of their students thesis. I can understand how this might happen it it was a paper that the student was first author on and had written, and hence could include as a thesis chapter and maybe a paragraph or two was changed by the advisor. In my experience (recently graduating in the physical sciences) relying on my advisor to actually read all my thesis chapters turned out to be a bit much to ask...and this was common with my office mates experienes as well. Is phenomenon of advisors writing students thesis something common to a) your field or b) your country? or do you think it is wide-spread across science in general?
Maybe I have been just living under a rock...

FPP said...

Another solution, of course, is for a postdoc to help the student instead of you. If you arrange for a kind-hearted postdoc to oversee a lot of the student's work, they will often take on responsibility for making sure the student's thesis gets done even if it means writing lots of it themselves. I have seen this happen several times. For what it's worth, I got a job, wrote my whole thesis myself, and got out of grad school probably slightly before I deserved to. It used to make me angry that some students seemed to get a lot of unfair help. Then I realized that everyone's PhD is different, everyone's goals are different, and you aren't going to be a successful scientist just because you have a PhD.

Anonymous said...

At my university, there are support groups available for students having trouble writing their dissertation. These support groups have a leader, in the form of a guidance counselor. It seems very helpful to grad students.

Anonymous said...

I wrote up papers during my PhD time - my advisor obviously did a lot of editing/brainstorming help then (although I wrote the first draft after we discussed the plan). When it came to the actual thesis - adding the intro/background and the concluding thoughts I was all on my own. To me this seems appropriate. I don't understand why students freeze up rather than writing the thesis (although I have seen this happen). Fear of the next stage of life?

What about as a post-doc? No thesis to hold over their head, but I've seen a lot of post-doc work go unfinished because they rush out the door for jobs.

Tiny Cerebellum said...

But what about other students in the lab who writes their works independently? In Europe you have grades for the thesis itself. And I'm very proud that I wrote, draw and layout my thesis alone. All what I received from my boss was "extend here" or "shrink there"… For this work I received "summa cum laude". But I feel angry (is it a right word here to express my feelings?), when he is helping other student to write. This is not fair to me and since he can also get the same grade.

franglais said...

Complicated issues, in terms of ethics. We have a responsibility to funding agencies, our research community, and ultimately the taxpayer, to publish research results. This is commonly in the form of papers that are more and more commonly part of students theses. What is least ethical? To help students write papers, or to ignore our responsibility to see research results published?

Lynne said...

I imagine this is stated differently at different places, but my school stipulates that the student must write at least 50% of the thesis and must have done at least 50% of the research work towards it. For co-authored chapters (and most of the chapters are, ideally, at least submitted, co-authored papers) students need to submit supporting statements from co-authors stating that this was the case for each paper.

So with that in mind, suggesting an outline, or even moving from revision suggestions to actual rewriting of SOME of the thesis, seems allowable.

I do feel that a there is a maybe subtle underlying tone of bewilderment? that students aren't rushing to cross the finish line in this post. How could they not want to finish?? But I haven't met a single grad student, ever, who did not experience some burnout at the end, even if they didn't show it much outwardly. There's only so many weeks or months you can work 18+ hour days on the same thing, with no weekends, before it starts to become impossible to look at the damn thing and concentrate anymore. It's really not a lack of willpower. Brains just stop tolerating that kind of treatment by the end, for most of us. It's recent enough for me that I remember it well. :)

The History Enthusiast said...

This is so different than how things work in history! Option #1 is the only viable one for us; there would be some serious ethical problems with #3, and if a student can't write by themselves (as with #2) they would be kicked out of the program. I've seen it happen. Our culture embraces the "sink or swim" mentality.

I've never seen anyone co-author a thesis or dissertation, either. Part of me thinks that might be nice--and I certainly understand why that happens in the hard sciences--but another part of me wonders if that isn't almost more stressful. Anytime I've ever had to work on a group project I always ended up doing more of the work.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting post! I like to learn about how other fields work.

Anonymous said...

This post provided a interesting perpective. I teach at an undergraduate instutition, so I don't have to drag students over the thesis finish line. However, I distinctly rememeber that my peers and I felt like we were the ones dragging our advisors over the finish line.

chall said...

It's tough. I think since lot of people (at least in my experience) depend on the papers from a PhD student the papers might not be written by the actual student if they made the research.

The thesis? I have not heard of many professors claiming to have writtten PhDthesises. Although I guess there have been extensive "editing" and "outline" suggestions followed by "you will do it this way and give it bac kto me in five days so wecan move on with it".

And as Alex said, it will all show in the letter of recommendation how "independent" and how "well someone writes and put together the papers".

MS thesises are for me more of a dragged out thing. If they don't want to finish it, well - then they don't get a degree. Most often the MS student will not have been working as long as the PhD student and there isn't as much of a mutual descision (prof hireing PhD student) ...

again though, I am not a prof so what do I know?!

Anonymous said...

Wow, this was completely not an issue where I went to graduate school. I wonder how much this varies across fields and schools.

Anonymous said...

I resonate with your post. I am close to finishing PhD, and I would appreciate if my advisor shows the "moderate" support you mentioned once in a while, at times when I am not moving forward. I don't expect neither mine nor any advisors to write the thesis though, that's not fair.

estraven said...

I think #3 is not an option. On the other hand, #2 is common in my field, and takes both the form of a large number of revisions, correcting mistakes (This letter changed from r to n back to r in two pages!) as well as presentation issues and of helping the student on with proving the last remaining lemmas, or filling in a gap.
More generally, the whole topic is usually the advisor's idea: typically, an advisor gives up writing one or more papers for the student's benefit (and works as hard).
The advisor doesn't sign the paper in the end.
And the few students who are really independent get stratospheric letters. I wrote one yesterday :-).

Anonymous said...

A while ago, I would have been shocked by the idea of the advisor writing the thesis for a student, and I've never heard of this. However, as a untenured faculty, I would definitely do #3 if need be, since I must graduate a Ph.D. before tenure. I held the hand of my Ph.D. student while writing her document for the preliminary exam by having her sit in my office everyday writing for 2 hours. When I received the results of the writing from this graduate student, I did extensive editing, I didn't just make "suggestions". Not sure I'll do the same after tenure, I'll let you know. Not sure either if it's ethical or not, but this is how it is.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Me again, with another comment, this one an anecdote from my own grad student days: While writing my M.A. thesis, I had an advisor who was more hands-on than I was comfortable. The worst point came during one of our meetings when he felt that, although I was cranking out 20 pages a week, I wasn't "getting" a particular background point, so he dictated an entire page and a half to me and told me to insert it into my chapter.

I did, but I felt humiliated.

Jennie said...

This is an interesting post. I agree with the comments stating that it's easy for a PhD student to feel burnt out towards the end and need encouragement. I also resonate with the students who need to push their advisers towards the finish line. What no one commented on is that it's really easy to loose track of what you have written and what your advisers have written. I think it's important for the student to write the skeleton of the work and the extent of the advisers comments is both a combination of the adviser and the student (much like a publication) writing styles, nitpicking-ness and deadlines.

Anonymous said...

I don't really understand why someone would feel anger or resentment when their advisor does more work for another student than for them. Presumably you had a choice---do it all yourself or ask for help---and you chose to do it yourself. Even if you end up with the same grade or whatever, you can take pride in the fact that you did that, and surely it will be reflected in recommendation letters.

My thesis was my idea, and I did all the work. I worked very hard at it, much harder than some of my cohort worked on theirs, but that was my choice. I knew the minimum I had to do, I knew what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was far above the minimum. (My advisor would probably put me in the "can't stop writing" category.) I made it happen. And guess what? I got a better job than any of them (IMHO). But even if I didn't, I can't imagine feeling any resentment about it.

Now that I'm a junior faculty, I can certainly see reasons for taking option #3. Having a Ph.D. student graduated at tenure evaluation time is huge. On the other hand I want my students to be successful, and being independent and being able to write is a big part of success, whether in industry, teaching colleges, or research universities.

Anonymous said...

What about things being the other way around -- is it ok for an advisor to use a student's writing in his/her grant proposals?

Tiny Cerebellum said...

Anonymous, I'm angry because the person who is doing everything independently is getting exactly the same credit as someone who did less. This is the major point. Is it fair when you start for future employment, you have to compete with someone who put less efforts? You think this is how it should be?
My boss did not help me because he was too busy securing his tenure track position.
The thing is that writing thesis is a part of student's work. PhD supervisor should outline, encourage, correct (style and size), and provide general comments.
I understand well when you are saying that "...having a Ph.D. student graduated at tenure evaluation time". But isn't it care about yourself but not a student? For me this is another problem why supervisors use number 3. Not to lose their face in front of the department, approving committee and so on…

American at Oxbridge said...

None to little on the thesis, plenty on the papers. If the student balks at finishing the thesis you can help them make a plan for writing, but not actually allow them to pass off your words as theirs. The last time someone tried to do this with me I found that much of the intro of the thesis was also plagiarized from technical reviews in the field--willingness to pass off others' words as your own is a downward spiral. If they don't want to write the thesis you can push the papers through, but the finish line for the thesis has to be crossed solely by the students. Otherwise it just downgrades what it means to have a PhD!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that someone's advisor would write something for them- its kind of mind boggling. I had many theoretical discussions about my thesis with my advisor, but every scrap of writing on every part of it (and every paper I have) was from me. I don't know anyone who had text written for them.

On the note of unfairness, I once complained to my advisor because I was getting stuck with all of these administrative tasks (organizing data, etc) that other people never seemed to have to do, and I thought it was unfair. He basically told me that I shouldn't worry, and that the people who need extra help or time are not the people who are going to "beat" the people who can do everything very well without help or while they also have extra demands on their time. Not that it is a competition, but if it was, getting extra help because you can't do it without the help wouldn't be the thing that would make you 'win'. Also there is the whole 'life isn't fair' thing.

saxifraga said...

I would add that I don't see it as the advisor's role to outline the papers/thesis for the student either. I think a PhD level student should be able to do their own outline. The advisor should provide feedback to such an outline, not be doing it. The same goes for papers/chapters/thesis in my opinion. The role of the advisor is to provide feedback on pieces of writing for the student to be able to improve the text. In some cases feedback will include suggesting rewording of sentences, but not actually writing the text.

Hope said...

I don't understand how #3 could ever be considered ethical. As a science grad student, even #2 makes me a little uncomfortable. Shouldn't the hand-holding occur only at the beginning of a grad student's career? Otherwise, what meaning does the awarding of a PhD have?

Joint pubs are one thing, and I can see how an advisor may be justified in writing part of these. But does the advisor appear as co-author on the dissertation? Giving the impression that someone else's words are your own is plagiarism, pure and simple.

And Anonymous 1:04, you're willing to throw ethics out the window in your pursuit of tenure? Nice example you're setting there.

Hope said...

American at Oxbridge: didn't see your comment before I submitted mine. Obviously, I share your point of view.

Anonymous said...

I'm working on my PhD and have written some of my dissertation, I outlined and wrote it all myself. My advisor is constantly saying well this is your document, so put what you want in it. Which means I'm independent but sometimes a few tips would be nice. I get the feeling she doesn't care because her name isn't on it. When I go to pull out these chapters for pubs it may be another story, with back and forth over style and word choice.

Диана said...

I'm not nearly as outraged by this as many of the commentors seem to be, mainly because I feel that the point of graduate work is the actual research. THAT is what graduate students are being trained to do. Yes, writing about and presenting that research are certainly important, but for me, the actual written thesis is far less important (and far less a reflection on the individual) than the research they have conducted over the previous 5+ years.

Silver Fox said...

I'm with American at Oxbridge and Saxifraga on this, for M.S. and PhD's. And trust me, if you've ever hired anyone with a Master's degree, it is quite disconcerting, even annoying to find out they can't write much of anything.

EcoGeoFemme said...

My thesis will be a reformatted compilation of my papers, which will all have my advisors as coauthors. So it is reasonable for them to make changes or even supply some text and thus their text will become part of my thesis. I think that's how #2 and #3 happen. However, as the lead author I will do the lion's share of the writing. Certainly what I have so far feels like my work.

FSP, I hope you are planning to discuss the professor side of getting over the thesis finish line tomorrow. I still have a few months to go, but I'm sure that it will be my advisors dragging their feet reviewing my work rather than me puttering out before I finish. Do you have suggestions for how students can encourage their advisors to review their work? Besides giving them deadlines?

female Science Professor said...

The lack of writing ability in an MS student can be dealt with in reference letters (which are not always as frank as they should be, but that's another issue) or by asking a former advisor specifically if their ex-student can and did write.

Jen said...

My perspective: it will be a cold day in hell that I put my name on something someone else wrote.

It never occurred to me that my advisor would write for me - though she has certainly done that on grant applications while I am still an undergrad: I invariably go back and rewrite it using her guidance but never her words.

I appreciate the obligation to funding agencies and the rest of the lab. For me though, there is no way I could live with that.

mudphudder said...

I know a guy who did graduate school with my father, finished his research and took a job at the university as an instructor while writing his dissertation. He never wrote the dissertation (did I mention he had finished his research?) and is still an instructor at the university with a masters degree 30 years later.

female Science Professor said...

I had a student once who couldn't write, wouldn't write, didn't write, and after much time/effort/cajoling/advice/despair, I would write something and then he would say "Yeah, that's exactly what I would have written" and then he seemed to believe that he had written it. When delusion is involved, authorship is a fuzzy concept.

Ms.PhD said...

I guess I can see how you might have students who won't write and don't want to leave.

Just stop paying them. That usually works wonders. Tell them they can have the money they've earned when they hand in the thesis.

I think the general concept of jumping in and writing something because it's not getting done fast enough or well enough is particular to science, and it's one of the things I hate the most.

Scientists generally suck at writing and/or editing, and don't understand how to teach either one.

Teaching someone to write is NOT THE SAME as making sure their stuff gets written. As a PI, you should be doing BOTH the teaching AND supervising.

I'm appalled that PIs would write for their students, the same way I think it's unbelievably #$%#@! that PIs write postdoc fellowships for their postdocs.

I think this all leads to a bunch of idiots running the system years down the line. Suddenly one day they have a job and no idea how to do anything themselves.

And then you know what those people end up doing? Hiring postdocs who actually know how to do the work, but not giving them any credit.

Please, FSP, fight the frustration with creativity. There are lots of other solutions, the support group idea being a very good one. Get the student to dictate into a microphone. Anything, just don't feed the system with future idiots-in-charge. You never know where your students are going to end up. Take some responsibility for that possibility.

Lynne said...

I'm confused by the outrage by some of the commenters on here. Where is the boundary, to you, between small edits and large edits, or large edits and rewriting, when you're using track changes on an MS Word document? That's a serious question. To me, if an advisor rewords a sentence to suggest a clearer wording, that's technically "rewriting," and if it's not every sentence of the thesis I can handle that.

Maybe some of the commenters who think this is unethical aren't at institutions where the thesis is encouraged (strongly!) to have a published paper for each chapter, plus an intro to tie it together. Co-authored papers are written by the first author and edited by co-authors (in principle - sometimes the co-authors suggest revisions that amount to minor rewriting). There is no way anyone's thesis in geosciences would remain untouched and unedited by advisors in any of the departments where I was a student or faculty - every single thesis was basically rewritten by the students over and over again (with suggestions or dictates from faculty and students implementing all the changes). It's a back-and-forth process. Why is that unethical?

Some advisors do sincerely want the student to do all the writing... but most want the student to write what they would write. It's really hard to divorce yourself from your student's paper, and it's something most of us can afford to work on. I try not to wrest papers from students, but my PhD advisor had a rough time letting go - he wanted it done right, because he cared about me and the project, and "right" was the way he would write it. So I can see how both sides of this would happen.

On the other hand, FSP, the student you describe in your last comment shouldn't be catered-to. I know it's hard when funding sources expect publications, but a student who refuses to write probably shouldn't get the degree!

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

This is a funny thread. Most blog posts I've read from faculty members emphasize their despair at getting a publication-ready manuscript out of a student. DrdrA at one point wrote that she had thought that she would have less work to do on papers since the students were writing the first drafts, and oh how wrong she was.

So presuming a thesis made up of chapters of published or not-yet-published manuscripts, the advisor has probably already devoted a lot of time to shaping up the writing. If your name is on the manuscript, it's your right to rewrite.

Thesis intro and conclusions, though--let the student hang in the breeze. Stop paying them if need be.

saxifraga said...

It is not the back and forth process that Lynne describes I think is unenthical. this is exactly what should happen. the student should learn how to write scientific papers through lots of constructive comments from advisors and lots of rewrites done by the student. That the rewriting is eventually done by the student is key here. To me the difference lies between a final products that is actually a result of the students own ability to integrate those comments and end up with a meaningful text, and a final product where large parts were essentially whipped together by the advisor, who didn't have the patience to let the student do the work or the nerve to risk the publications. I completely agree with Ms.PhD. Taking on a Phd student intails a responsibility to teach that student the skills of a scientist and that includes to write one's own things. Often after comments from others (peer review anyone), but nevertheless to own the end product.

Thomas Joseph said...

All of my manuscripts (which meant my thesis indirectly) had serious amounts of red ink spent on them. My advisor definitely put a lot of work into my manuscripts/thesis, and though he didn't write any large chunks he certainly gave me direction on how they should best be written. With another student in the lab he spent similar amounts of time on helping my lab-mate cut down on his verbosity.

Now, as a government employee I don't have to deal with students, so I really can't say what I would/would not, other than I would NOT write large sections for a student if they simply DID NOT WANT to do it. If they're expending effort, and not making significant process (for whatever reason), I'd certainly pitch in and give guidance.

Diane Harms said...

As a freelance science editor, who specializes in academic editing, I feel especially uncomfortable when approached by graduate students to review thesis manuscripts for anything more extensive than a copyedit. The Editor's Association of Canada has developed guidelines for our membership regarding the ethics of thesis editing (http://www.editors.ca/hire/theses.html).

Thomas Joseph said...

Tiny Cerebellum: I'm angry because the person who is doing everything independently is getting exactly the same credit as someone who did less.

Welcome to life, where nothing is ever seen as "fair" by all parties involved. Some advisers are fairly "hands on" and wouldn't think of not making corrections to style (and the like), corrections which most often suit their own tastes. Other advisers can't be bothered and the final product looks like crap, even though it might be technically adept.

In the end, you control your own product. Focus on what YOU ARE DOING, and don't give a rats ass what anyone else is doing. Life is simpler (and happier IMNSHO) that way.

Julia Elaine said...

Is there a way of helping a foot-dragging grad student that does not involve writing the thing for him or her? Like, positive feedback, discussion, suggestions? That would be more helpful than doing it for the student.

female Science Professor said...

I don't know anyone who would resort to doing writing for a student without first trying other options first.

Anonymous said...

It was interesting to so many variations for a single cause of graduation.

One thing I had observed is, Professors have their mind set on some thing i.e. how to project the dissertation writing in a particular way.

Well if the professors gives you an idea of what to write that will help the student.

Well if the professor does not provide the idea and just keeps things beating around the bush and asking student to come up with some thing that back and forth till the student gets it correct. This outrageous, due to the fact they are in fact two different human beings with different thoughts.

Well if the second case comes into picture it is indirect mental harrasment for the student and eventually the professor will write the thesis for student after trying to get some thing out of student 3-4 months.

I had seen students in this situation and can any one suggest what the student should do if he is in a situation where the professor does not tell what exactly to write and still he expects the student to come up with some thing in the direction fo what he is thinking?