torsdag 30 juni 2011

Thesis crash

I will discuss a delicate matter in this blog post and I will therefore pick my words quite carefully and perhaps not tell exactly all there is to tell so as to soften and "anonymize" the issue and protect the specific persons involved. Here is the cast of characters in (order of importance to) the story to be told:

- X: student at our international masters education in media management.
- B: his thesis advisor/supervisor at Stockholm School of Economics (SSE).
- H: his thesis co-advisor/co-supervisor at SSE - the guy who actually did the work of supervising the thesis.
- J: the examiner at KTH/Media technology.
- D: the stand-in examiner at KTH/Media technology who actually read and queried the student at his master's thesis oral presentation/defense. -- This is me.
- T: the thesis administrator at our department who handles practical-administrative questions and routines around the master's theses.
- N: the examiner at KTH/Media technology until the end of 2010.
- BH, A, K, O, CL, CR: Miscellaneous persons who have been involved in trying to give advice and figure out what to do.

Act 1 - Prelude
- J is supposed to be the examiner of a master's thesis, but J is pressed for time as he has gotten tasks from the prefect that urgently needs to be handled. J sends a mail to D and two other persons, asking if someone else can take on the job of being the examiner of two master's theses during the coming week.
- D concurs and accepts the task. The two master's theses unfortunately arrive only on Monday, the day before the oral presentation, and the theses are hefty - around 150 pages to read altogether. D reads one thesis on Monday night and the other on Tuesday morning.
- The oral presentations are ok. The first thesis is ok, but the second thesis seems to have little to do with media technology and the master's degree program in media management in which the student X is enrolled.
- D goes home and ponders the thesis and its contents. The more he thinks about it, the more strange it seems to be presenting a thesis on such an odd (from a media technology perspective) topic. D feels he can not judge the quality of the thesis. Worse, there is no other person that he can hand the thesis over to, because we don't really know anything about the particular subject of the thesis as it has nothing to do with what we do at our department. Both the supervisor and the co-supervisor come from the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), department of marketing and strategy, and the thesis has a very SSE-feel to it. What to do?

∑ What is going on here???

Act 2 - confusion
- D realizes that there are two questions that need to be answered:
- How could this happen, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again?
- What do we do now - right here and right now with this master's thesis?
- D initiates a facts-finding mission and calls people left and right over the following week, discusses the matter with colleagues at the department and sends mail to others. A degree of partial understanding leads to a number of flawed hypotheses and misunderstandings:
- Supervisor B at SSE stated that "I don't know if we understood that this [was a thesis that] was to be presented at the KTH [Royal Institute of Technology]". Furthermore, even though B is the formal supervisor, it turns out the co-supervisor H has been the de-facto supervisor of the thesis. X has done his thesis in a project that H manages and where several other students have been involved. H is unreachable, away on a trip (relating to the project in question).
- D sends mail to former examiner N who retired during the spring. N would have been the person who saw and approved (?) of X's thesis specification sometime during the autumn. N can unfortunately not find any specification in his computer. Could it have been handed in on paper and got lost in the hustle and bustle of N cleaning out decades' worth of papers during the spring?
- D's hypothesis is that N either had approved of a specification, but that X then had done something that differed markedly from what examiner N approved of, or, that N in an episode of temporary confusion (?) had approved of a specification that actually was in line with the thesis later submitted.
- D talks to the thesis administrator T - who of course has no recollection of this specific student. Furthermore, T was pretty new to his job at the time as he took over the responsibility for these tasks last summer, a few months before student X turned up.

∑ We don't yet know what has happened but it's a mess.

Act 3 - Comprehension
- After having talked to all involved parties at least once and sometimes twice (including student X twice), D now knows what has happened:
- Student X studies for a master's degree in media management -- as part of that degree, all students take a compulsory course in media management at SSE -- students also have the possibility to take other courses at SSE and X studied a course on "Purchasing" -- X got hold of the thesis topic through that course and pursued it.
- While each step follows from the previous step, the whole process is short-circuited when X takes his thesis back to KTH. In this old-new context, the thesis is evaluated and judged as a thesis about media technology/media management and judged based on criteria from that area. It might (or might not) be a great thesis about purchasing and outsourcing but that is unfortunately besides the point at this point...
- It turns out that student X has actually never gotten his proposal accepted by examiner N or anyone else at KTH. No-one at KTH has seen his proposal and no-one at KTH has had any idea about what X has been up to during the previous 6 months. For all we knew, he might have been on vacation or something.

∑ This is a mess.

Act 4 - The innocent
- These are the cast of persons that have been involved but are in no way to blame for this royal screw-up:
- Formally co-, but de-facto main supervisor H has had no idea at any time during the process that student X is not an ordinary SSE student, but rather a student at KTH studying for a master's degree in media management.
- Examiner N has never seen and never approved of a thesis specification and neither has examiners J & D.

∑ Innocent by-standers

Act 4 - The blameworthy
- I know our webpages aren't very easy to find your way around, but here is the webpage where it states how the process of starting to write a thesis should look like.
- It is difficult to know what information thesis administrator T gave to student X back in October but it is clear that it wasn't sufficient. At that time T actually saw (and wrote down) the proposed title of the thesis (already then a strange title from a media technology/media management perspective). He could have reacted, but it's not really up to him to judge the suitability of a proposed thesis title - that is done by the examiner when the student sends in the specification.
- Thesis supervisor B at Handels claims to not know that it was a KTH thesis (see above), but he has willingly signed a paper with a large KTH logotype on it, stating that "he approves" of the thesis specification. However, not being a teacher at KTH, it seems strange that he willingly and without any questions signs important papers from another university...? Furthermore, any supervisor from "elsewhere" (for example from SSE) need to themselves be approved by us at KTH (together with the thesis specification) before they are allowed to supervise our students!
- Student X claims to believe that the thesis administrator's signature that he fulfilled the prerequisites, together with the SSE supervisor's signature that he approved of the specification made him believe that everything was ok with his thesis. Student X has obviously worked very hard with his thesis, but has unfortunately at no point stopped and asked himself if his thesis topic is suitable for fulfilling the requirements for his degree in media management. He has not read official information about the thesis course he is taking or about writing theses in general at CSC/Media technology. He has furthermore not compared or talked (enough) with friends of his who also study for a masters in media management etc. but rather (probably unknowingly) gone out on a limb.

∑ These persons need to get their act together

That's about it, or at least the main events. We now know what has happened and some about how to improve the chances of preventing this from ever happening again. What we don't know is what to do about this thesis right here and right now. Since I (examiner D) am not a regular examiner in the course, I have handed over the matter to someone else who has more authority to take a decision (but who is probably equally confused about what to do at this point). I'm thankful it's not on my table any longer, but I am still very interested in how this all will turn out in the end.

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