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I'll try to be as brief as possible. I applied and was admitted to a MA program in philosophy in Canada. It's a 2-year MA program with coursework and a MA thesis with an oral defense. That was in 2010. It's now 2013 and I still have not graduated.

 

Here's why:

 

I finished my coursework in time. My thesis is the problem. Like all who have to write theses and dissertations, I wrote a proposal for my MA thesis. My supervisor read it over and said he could work with me on it. The proposed project, while ambitious in its scope and subject matter, was approved by my committee in May 2011. That summer I began doing research, taking notes, and writing. During my 2nd year, I was still writing and doing coursework, and that winter applied to various PhD programs, thinking I was going to finish in due time.

 

Boy, was I ever wrong!

I got accepted into the PhD program at the SAME Dept. where I am still doing my MA. I was thrilled, and I was looking forward with starting my PhD in the Fall of 2012. From Jan 2012 to August 2012 I was writing like crazy and sending drafts of my chapters to my supervisor to read and correct. A little bit about my advisor: he's a well-respected scholar and academic, he's a bit of a 'star' at my school, undergrads love his lectures. He has 6-8 MA and PhD students, including his own research - which ALWAYS takes priority over everything else. Suffice it to say that he barely shows any investment in his students, making it up to you to track him down and ask to meet with him face-to-face to discuss things. He's intimidating, has no patience for friendly chit-chat. In personal meetings, if you don't ask him direct questions about work, he isn't going to talk, he just stares you down. He is a very tough advisor, someone who can never manage a positive comment and has a tendency to be very harsh, rude, insulting, and downright mean in his 'constructive' comments. I tried to ignore his nasty words and just focus on the points he was attempting to get across. He made me re-write my 2nd chapter 3 times in the summer of 2012, which is fine because I thought I was in the right track. I met with him in August to talk about my plan to defend in the fall of 2012. In that meeting, he mentioned I would have to probably pay extra tuition for the fall term. Confused, I had to remind him that I was actually coming back in Fall 2012 as a PhD student. He has forgotten that I had been accepted and was returning as a student (even though he had written a letter on my behalf).


Fast forward to Sept. 2012. I had registered as a PhD student in my Dept. and was ready to start my program, however I hadn't defended my MA thesis yet. My advisor had not reminded me of the Sept. deadline that MA degrees need to be complete for students to advance to the PhD level. I had NO idea that this deadline existed, never mind that my advisor had forgotten that I was supposed to come back as a full-time student. So I panicked. The Chair of the Dept. informed me that if I didn't finish by the 26th, then my PhD offer was going to be void. I would lose it. So for the remaining 3-4 weeks, I was doing heavy editing, writing and revising. My draft needed to be approved by my supervisor, as well as my 2nd reader (who hadn't read a word of my thesis at this point). Barely getting any sleep, I managed to have a complete draft ready for my advisor to read over on Sept. 23rd.

 

E-mail from Hell:

Then I got what I've tentatively called 'The E-mail from Hell'. My advisor wrote a 6-10 paragraph e-mail, explaining that it was impossible for him to recommend my draft for defense. He said that I "had no idea what I was talking about", that it was so "blatantly obvious" that I was over my head, that I was "saying things just to sound knowledgeable without knowing them". In his many comments, he mentioned that there were areas of my thesis that were "agonizing to read and not at the graduate level". Never mind that he had READ those sections in the summer, but had somehow failed to mention their lack of sophistication. I felt like I had been duped somehow. I felt like he had deliberately set me up to fail. It was like he had opened the door for me, asked me to walk through it, only to trip me and kick me when I was down. He had rejected my thesis. He told me that he would not write me a letter of recommendation until he saw a defensible thesis, prolonging my application into the PhD program. The Dept. said that they needed me to formally re-apply into the program and that there is no guarantee that I will get accepted a second time. My original PhD offer was gone. I had a total breakdown.

 

The Dept.'s solution was to give me an extension to finish my thesis. I had a TAship from Sept. 2012-April 2013. But my advisor's nasty words, and that e-mail had left me paralyzed. Every time I opened my thesis on MS Word, I had an anxiety attack. I couldn't do any work, I couldn't write and edit. It took me about 5 months to finally get over the emotional trauma and get back to work.

 

Present Day:

I completely scrapped the 1st Chapter of my thesis and re-wrote the entire 30 pages from scratch. It still needs some revisions, but it is very close to being approved. I scrapped the last 10 pages of my 2nd chapter, and re-wrote it. adding an entire new section, making it into a 47 page chapter. It took me about 2 months to do heavy research and work on the 4th draft of my 2nd chapter. I finally was able to hand it in to my advisor last week and guess what? I got an e-mail from him saying that while there are 'improvements', I still need to substantially work on the main argument of in my chapter. The 2nd chapter, according to him, is still very rough. Oh I also have a 3rd chapter that I haven't had time to work on, because my advisor still hasn't approved the first 2 chapters. The Dept. has said that if I need to, I can request a formal extension on my degree from the Faculty Dean, but my advisor needs to sign off on this formal request. To make things worse, my advisor is going on leave from Sept. 2013-May 2014. He ONLY told me this last week. He's said that he'd rather have me finish in August. So he is essentially denying me an extension and is forcing me to finish this summer. What's frustrating is that I have no idea of knowing when my thesis will be ready for defense. I keep writing and writing, revising, editing, draft after draft, and he still makes me do more edits. So while I want to get this over with and fucking move on with my life, the uncertainty is killing me. I would love nothing more than do finish in August and not have to withdraw in good-standing. But every time I think I have written a strong chapter, he gives the copy back to me with hundreds of corrections, edits, and in the case my lengthy 2nd chapter, more heavy revisions.

 

This has been one of the most stressful, horrendous, anxiety-inducing 2-3 years of my life. It's my dream to continue onto a PhD, I love philosophy and want to teach. But this MA experience has been a very negative one. My hair is thinning and is going grey. I've started seeing a therapist to deal with my anxiety.

 

Here what I know I did wrong:

-I chose a very difficult project (it feels more like a dissertation than a thesis)
-I failed to do enough background checks on my advisor before I asked him to supervise my thesis. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

But I'm only half to blame, I think. My supervisor doesn't invest in his students at all. He merely writes comments on drafts, and unless you pester him about meetings and advice, he's happy to do his own thing. He had seen me struggling with my thesis in the summer of 2012, but never once did he suggest that I either: a) narrow my topic to make it manageable so that I can finish faster; or B) stop me and point out that it might be better for me to choose a different topic altogether. I'm frustrated, angry, stressed, miserable, depressed, anxious, fed up, and exhausted. I was burnt out in Sept 2012, and am STILL working on this thesis, making more revisions. But what choice do I have? I am going to aim to defend by August, but that all depends on my ability to satisfy my advisor. My 2nd reader is a much considerate person, but he still needs to read my draft, give comments, and they both have to approve my thesis before it can do to defense.

 

Had someone pulled me aside 3 years ago and warned me against pursuing such a difficult thesis topic, I would have gladly changed it. I would have been in the 2nd year of my PhD by now.

 

This has been the M.A. experience from hell. Ambitious thesis topic + terrible/difficult advisor = a nightmare.

 

Sorry, I said I would be brief but couldn't be. I welcome any comments, similar stories and experiences, advice, and general outbursts of rage in solidarity. 

 

Thank you for reading.

 

B.

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Sounds like a difficult situation to be in. 

 

I would definitely use it as a learning experience for a few things in grad school, though: 

 

1) Rarely, if ever, are graduate advisors responsible for informing you of degree deadlines. Most of them don't know when they are. 

2) Having to track down your advisor is often a way of life. Your work is way more important to you than it is to them, and it's up to you to make sure you're getting what you need from them to keep going. 

3) You can't let harsh criticism on a paper keep you from working on it for 5 months. I've gotten scathing critiques from reviewers, faculty, etc. It's part of academic life. 

4) Degrees often take longer than they should. I know a lot of 3rd & 4th years MS students, because their thesis research just wasn't working out like it should, or as fast as it should. 

 

Good luck finishing up the Thesis this summer!

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"My advisor wrote a 6-10 paragraph e-mail, explaining that it was impossible for him to recommend my draft for defense. He said that I "had no idea what I was talking about", that it was so "blatantly obvious" that I was over my head, that I was "saying things just to sound knowledgeable without knowing them". In his many comments, he mentioned that there were areas of my thesis that were "agonizing to read and not at the graduate level"."

Receiving this kind of feedback -- please know, you are not alone. I don't know why some advisors appear agreeable, and then not only have amnesia of that action later, but also criticize that anything that you've done to be "subpar," and not up to graduate snuff. (This is while other advisors are "spectacular." Whether it is pleasant news or not, those advisors will be upfront with you.)

In any event, it is difficult to keep up the motivation, especially when you are so close to finishing! Even in the best of times, after working on something so intensively, you do feel burn out and exhaustion. So just keep going, anyway! Once words come out, it's usually not as terrible as you dread; you can always edit, edit, edit.

With all my empathy here, I know that this may be difficult for you, but I urge you consider what Eigen wrote. From what I have read and understand, I believe Eigen's spot on in regard to the realities in grad school.......

Anyway, I hope that writing out your experience will serve a cathartic purpose for you, and all the best for the completion of your studies!

Edited by ArtHistoryandMuseum
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Wow. I am sincerely sorry to hear about this experience. I do want to point out a couple of things: first, as Eigen mentioned, some of this, unfortunately, is a fairly common experience in grad school. I have two advisors, and each of them is a hardass in their own manner: they always make me feel as if I'm barely skating by, even though I work my ass off day and night. They're also exceptionally stingy with praise. 

 

My second point is that I'm impressed by the calm, systematic, and thorough way in which you've described this situation, and I think it reflects well on your ability to persevere and push through. Yes, this shit sucks and many of us want to jump off the roof. But you sound like you have your shit together and know what it is you need to do to finish up in August. 

 

Onward! 

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Thank you all for the advice and kind words! Yes, I have been often told that graduate life (and academia in general) is full of this kind of pressure - and while at times it feels as if I'm suffering from Impostor Syndrome, most grads are having similar experiences. I'm not sure about other graduate programs and students, but rarely, if ever, do students in my Dept. voice their distress and concerns. If we're all jumping through similar hoops, why not talk about it and support one another? I'm glad I came upon this website. Thanks again!

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My second point is that I'm impressed by the calm, systematic, and thorough way in which you've described this situation, and I think it reflects well on your ability to persevere and push through. Yes, this shit sucks and many of us want to jump off the roof. But you sound like you have your shit together and know what it is you need to do to finish up in August. 

 

Onward! 

 

I agree! You are a very good writer! I hope in my response I can give you some hope and encourage you to fulfil your dreams! (I hope I come across as clear as I mean!)

 

That said, I also agree with Eigen, there are many things that you have learned.

 

1) To cope with stress, identify it and seek help. 

2) You know what you want. No one can take that from you. You know what to do and what not to do in your PhD.

3) Ambition is good so long you know your own boundaries. Clearly, the topic was too much for an MA thesis but maybe you can continue this path in your PhD?

4) You have dealt with very harsh comments on your work. There is no way you can't take that personal, and yet, in spite everything, you are still writing. You have used this in your favour. 

 

Now, here's my humble advice:

 

* SEIZE THE DAY :) do not think in "I'd be in 2nd year in PhD by now". Well, you are not. And probably for the best. Embrace this unexpected change of plans. If you keep on thinking what you were supposed to be doing, you would probably get depressed. So, this is your reality today. You have done extensive work on your thesis, squeeze it and write papers!!! 

 

* Do not allow this to happen again. It is a bad experience but it does not mean it is going to happen again. You have gained this experience, do not forget that. 

 

* Take advantage of minor drawbacks. Now, easy said than done, I know. However, it seems to me that your advisor "forcing" you to finish before he leaves is actually a good thing, right?

 

All the best, really!!! 

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I experienced the same situation when i was an MA student. I chose a topic that was beyond an MA thesis as described by the others, and i finished my studies after 4 years. I completely know how you feel, and this experience made me be stronger than before. I'm now in my 30s, but i decided to apply for PhD programs in the US with a GPA of 3.5. It made me be more ambitious than before. Don't let that experience depress you in any shape or form. Good Luck!

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Have you tried approaching senior PhD students & postdocs of this advisor and asking for their help? If they've been in the group longer than you they may have picked up some "tips and tricks" for writing dissertations in a way that meets the advisor's approval. Ask if they'd be willing to read & comment on a chapter/short extract of your thesis - repay as necessary. 

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I experienced the same situation when i was an MA student. I chose a topic that was beyond an MA thesis as described by the others, and i finished my studies after 4 years. I completely know how you feel, and this experience made me be stronger than before. I'm now in my 30s, but i decided to apply for PhD programs in the US with a GPA of 3.5. It made me be more ambitious than before. Don't let that experience depress you in any shape or form. Good Luck!

 

Thanks for sharing your experience. I do feel that if I can get through this, I will feel reinvigorated and revitalized  To use an old cliché: it's the journey that counts, not the destination, right? 

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I am almost finished my MA thesis, but am now nervous about having to re-apply to the same PhD program. A recent PhD grad from my same program mentioned that because it has taken me an extra year to finish my MA degree, that does not look favourably on me in terms of getting strong LOR. In my defence, I said that I had chosen a very difficult MA topic, and that it was too ambitious (the scope was that of a dissertation, not a thesis), so naturally it has taken me longer to complete.

But I'm still worried that the fact that it's taken me longer to finish my thesis has 'underwhelmed' my supervisor, and that when I do ask him to write on my behalf for the PhD program (for a second time), his letter won't be as strong as it could have been.

Am I paranoid, here? Or does my friend (the PhD) have a point? Have I tarnished my chances of being re-admitted into the program (given that I was offered admission once already)?

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I must also echo, thanks for sharing!

 

My advisor in my MA program also told me that I had to prove to her with my thesis that I could write at an academic level before she would write my recommendation. This was after she told me that I was a nice person but didn't seem fit to pursue a PhD program ::shrugs:: I also showed her a list of schools I wante to apply to which she glanced at and said they were too competitive...and began to ramble the names of other schools I should apply to...none that fit my interests (but she didnt ask).

 

Who can know what our advisors are thinking? I will start a PhD program in a different school than my MA though...but I don't think your chances are tarnished because your advisors peers probably know his attitude better than you, and he won't be the only one sitting on a committee, right?

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