Has your supervisor ever had a student fail to finish?

(And should you care?)

In discussions with my supervisor recently, it came up that he has had one student (a Masters student) who didn’t finish. I mention this, because it kind of startled me. Not that this has happened, my supervisor has supervised lots of students over multiple decades, and you would think it’d happen to most professors at some point. But because it had never crossed my mind to wonder about my supervisors supervising history.

Now that I know this, I’m still not sure it’s important or even matters. If my supervisor was a new prof (say less than 5 years) and had only supervised a few students before me and most of them didn’t finish, I’m sure I’d be more concerned. But one student, that was more than two decades ago, doesn’t concern me.

But is this something you should look at when choosing a supervisor? Like I say above, maybe if your supervisor is still fairly new to supervising. If you are concerned, I’m not even sure how you’d go about finding out this information. I suppose you might hear from other grads in the department. I don’t know of any professor who is going to list on their website all of their students along with a check for finished and x for those who didn’t. No one brags about their failures, and I’m sure profs feel like those are. I suppose you could also ask the professor, but that seems a bit like a sensitive question to ask.

When telling me about this student, my supervisor was quick to reassure me that he felt he’d done everything he could to try and help this student finish, but it just wasn’t going to happen. (This student tried again with a different supervisor and was still unable to finish – it just wasn’t meant to be.) I didn’t need the reassurance (it’s been a long time), but the fact that my supervisor still remembers the year this happened, and the other professors on the committee made me realize that this is something he still remembers clearly.

I know that I’m going to be one of the final students my supervisor ever has, as he reaches the end of his career. I hope when he looks back in another 10-20 years, he’ll be able to say he only ever had one student who didn’t make it.

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