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NOTE/EDIT:

I really, really appreciate all the advice and suggestions. I wanted to point out that some answers/comments incorrectly assumed that I was unable to provide an answer altogether. But that's not correct. I did provide an answer, but it wasn't coherent/articulate/precise. My main goal here was to get help from this community in crafting a short and articulate answer encompassing the key factors.

I struggled to put together a good answer (in that moment, in a matter of a few seconds) that focused on the outcome/learning rather than the problem. What my answer largely lacked was the learning part, that Mari-Lou, Mark, Chris T and others have pointed out. Also note that English isn't my first language, so it was a challenge to come up with a coherent answer like that on the spot.


I've been looking for a full-time job since August 2020, but I haven't been successful. I have had some interviews where I was told that I did very well, but for some reason they decided to go with someone else. Some community members here in The Workplace gave me a lot of helpful advice and suggestions on my resume. But even after refining my resume and cover letter multiple times, I am still without a job.

I came to country XZY to do my master's degree (economics) in Sept. 2016. It was supposed to be a two-year program with a combination of courses, thesis, and multiple co-op work terms. However, it took me 3 years and 10 months to finish my program. I graduated in July 2020. In short, it was partly my fault and partly that of my thesis supervisor's.

In one of my interviews, I was asked:

Economics master's degrees in country XYZ typically take about 1 to 1.5 years. I know a few people from your university who finished the same program as you in 1 year. Why did it take you so long to complete your degree?

In that moment, a thousand things went on in my mind. And I was not able to come up with a good, articulate answer.

In most economics/policy analyst/research-related jobs that I am applying to, there are at least 2-3 people in the team with advanced economics degrees who know the typical duration of an economics master's. And I am afraid this whole thing is somehow affecting their decisions, and that they are looking at my resume and thinking I am probably a failure. While there is nothing I can do if this is affecting their decision at the screening stages, I sure can go into interviews prepared for that question.

Question:

Given my reasons below, what would be a short, effective, and positive answer/reply to the question posted above? While I strongly feel that my supervisor neglected her duties and did nothing to help me (and as such is deserving of blame), I do understand that I could have done much more to help myself. I messed up big time as well. I want to be honest about the whole thing, and yet professional at the same time. I want to provide an answer where I don't come off as someone who is untrustworthy and who blames others for their failure, and neither as someone who is unreliable and lazy.


Context:

I completed 3 courses in my first term, and 5 in my second. With 5 graduate-level courses, I was under a lot of pressure and stress. Right after completing my courses, I went for my co-op work terms, and worked for a full year. Everything was going according to my planned timeline so far.

After finishing my co-ops, I returned to campus and started working on my thesis. But soon after that, my supervisor took a study leave and went to the United States for a full time job in the private sector. She was still supervising me officially, but in reality this was just a formality. She had no intentions of coming back to academia.

She did not really care about my progress since she wasn't really getting paid from the university. I tried communicating with her when I got stuck somewhere, but she never seemed to understand my concerns, and her feedback raised more problems. She is a great researcher and a very, very talented scholar. The problem was that she was too busy with her main job. You can’t really explain a statistical model or methodology without really reading a paper. So when I was stuck at something, I had to be the one to solve the problem. When I got stuck on a particular topic, I had to go back and then learn about that topic. This took a lot of time. I was alone working on my project. Going from working in a team environment to working on an independent project by myself was a difficult transition.

I reached out to my department advisor for help on how to move forward with my work. He said that if I "dumped" my supervisor, it would be my responsibility to find another one. And no one in the department was an expert in that field. One other professor who was an expert had his plate full. So I was stuck with my supervisor. We emailed once every 3-4 months, and I had to remind her what we had talked about before and what I was actually doing in my research. The whole thing was a mess.

I had a really hard time moving forward with my thesis without sufficient direction. I had no supervisor, goals, tests, or hard deadlines to motivate me. Over time, I lost interest and became unmotivated. I was stuck with the same problem for weeks at a time. I sat in front of my laptop for 10-12 hours a day, and ended up writing 2-3 sentences, sometimes even less. This is in addition to all the reading I had to do to understand various topics. Also note that I had no family or friends here, and I was having a difficult time coping with my personal issues. At that point, I had been away from my family, my girlfriend, and my friends for 2.5 years.

So I took some time off and I spent some time on my hobbies and interests. I joined a martial arts gym and started boxing. I was coming home all beaten up and didn't have the energy to work on my thesis. I didn't feel like doing anything, except for fighting.

In the end, it was a member of my supervisory committee (who my supervisor selected 5 months before my graduation) who actually got me up to speed, showed interest, gave me directions, read my paper, and gave me incredible feedback.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Oct 7, 2021 at 11:23

10 Answers 10

59

It seems you are laying all the blame in not passing job interviews on the length of time it took to earn a Master's. That is a dangerous position to take, unsuccessful job interviews do not normally hinge on a single aspect.

Instead, I would ask friends and recruiters about any other drawbacks they are able to identify in your resume, and maybe even record yourself doing mock interviews. Do you exude enthusiasm, competency and confidence or do you appear apologetic, hesitant or stubborn?

In an actual interview I would stress that despite several significant setbacks, some of which were not of your doing, some related to mental health issues, you were determined to complete the course, and in fact that is what you did. I would convey pride and emphasise how much you learnt about yourself and how that experience made you a better person. Hopefully, if you passed the Master's degree with flying colours it should reassure hiring managers. But if you didn't that could, ironically, be used to support the fact you finished the course despite all the odds.

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    I did finish the program with excellent grades, only problem is it took 2 years to finish my thesis. And I have had a lot of feedback on my interviews from interviewers themselves. I remember the manager from PwC called me and spoke to me for over 45 mins just giving me feedback and what I could have done better. So from all that, I can confidently say that I do exude enthusiasm and competency. But not sure about "confidence" or what that looks like for someone who can't speak fluently or coherently like a native speaker. Thanks for the answer!
    – AIQ
    Oct 6, 2021 at 6:12
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    +1. The key to discussing any issue like this in your background is to own it and, more importantly, explain what you learned from it and how you would apply that learning in the future. Oct 6, 2021 at 11:56
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    Also: Remember that "mental health issues" are a subset of "health issues" so that is how you should describe them. Nobody has the right to know the details unless they will in some way affect your ability to perform your job duties.
    – Theodore
    Oct 6, 2021 at 13:45
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    @Theodore it is the OP's choice whether to mention the stress they experienced and how that affected their mental health and self-worth. It is also true, however, that the OP sought “therapy” in the form of physical exercise, and pursuing activities which successfully diverted their feelings of low self-esteem. This is to be commended, as it demonstrates resilience and resourcefulness, traits which are welcomed in any employee. In the end the Master's took nearly four years to complete. If asked the OP should not dismiss their personal struggle but affirm the lessons learned.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 6, 2021 at 15:21
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    Maybe it's better where the OP is in Canada, but here in the US, "mental health" still carries a big (though often carefully unspoken) stigma. I would be extremely cautious about using that phrase. Even though a hiring manager probably can't reject a candidate based only on past mental health issue, as you said, "unsuccessful job interviews do not normally hinge on a single aspect" and there will be other excuses if the interviewer is looking for one. Also, calling it a "mental health issue" while saying they self-treated, may not give confidence that the issues will stay in the past.
    – Theodore
    Oct 6, 2021 at 15:40
28

what would be a short, effective, and positive answer/reply to the question posted above?

I was off to good start finishing the course work and my co-op on time but during my thesis, my supervisor took a study leave and a full time job in the private sector. Since she is the only expert in my field we still tried to make this work but after a few months it became clear that she was way to busy. That left me at a bit of a loss and it took me a while to figure out how to deal with is. Eventually I found someone on the supervisory committee to help and that finally worked out.

As the other answer mention: you are now unemployed for over a year. That is becoming more of a resume problem than the long master. You should prepare to talk about that as well.

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  • Thanks for providing me with what a good response to that question might look like. I am not exactly unemployed, I do have a part-time research assistant job at the university. And I am prepared to explain why it has been a challenge for me to find full-time work. But you are right, I should may be also focus on that.
    – AIQ
    Oct 6, 2021 at 13:10
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I agree with Mary-Lou that you shouldn't lay all the blame on the length it took to get your Masters. Part of the problem seems to be that you feel very insecure because of that, and don't have an answer ready for this question. This lack of confidence is likely more of a problem than the delay itself.

You need to own that delay, and be able to explain it. Any answer is better than silence, because no answer makes you look unprepared, indecisive and not confident.

Also, keep in mind, your program was a two-year program, so comments that people did it in one can be easily parried by saying it was a two-year program. In addition, you mention that you worked a full year, which to me seems quite long for a two-year Masters program, and I guess that is longer than would be normal for the program. And that one full year of working is relevant work experience. Own that.

As to the delay, describe the circumstances, that you were new in the country, that your supervisor moved to the States and left academia, and that this made things harder because of the distance and lack of direct interaction and feedback. Mention you couldn't find a replacement supervisor because of your topic. Own that you struggled to make progress, but especially own and focus on the fact that you completed with success! This is not a bad outcome, and you should view and tell it as an epic tale with you as the hero.

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It's a curious thing to me that a prospective employer would care how long it took you to finish your studies and earn your degree. Not everyone's journey is the same.

If I were interviewing you I wouldn't care how long it took you to earn your degree. The fact that you earned it is what is important to me.

If asked, why not simply say "I had to work through a number of challenges and obstacles, but I persevered and earned my degree after x years."

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  • I know, I think it just looks odd that it took me the same time to finish a master's as someone who's done a PhD.
    – AIQ
    Oct 6, 2021 at 13:11
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    Some people take decades to complete their studies and earn their degree. Life delays the process for many. Why a prospective employer would care is a bit of a mystery to me.
    – joeqwerty
    Oct 6, 2021 at 16:11
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    If asked, why not simply say "I had to work through a number of challenges and obstacles..." - The reason why not is that the next question from any half-competent interviewer will be "tell me about the challenges and how you overcame them." If the OP wasn't prepared for that, the outcome of the interview would probably not have changed much.
    – alephzero
    Oct 6, 2021 at 19:03
  • @alephzero - it's trivially easy to shut those down by mentioning that they relate to your health and that they are private.
    – Davor
    Oct 7, 2021 at 10:59
  • @joeqwerty Because if you take much longer than originally expected on a project you chose yourself, then you might also deliver slower than you expect in a new position. Oct 12, 2021 at 13:19
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As a hiring manager, I personally don't really care if you take one year or ten to complete an advanced degree. The big picture is you did some work to acquire knowledge and skills, and succeed. The amount of time it takes you to acquire a degree has no correlation how well you will do a job, unless that job is speed learning.

There are a lot of people in the world who are bad at interviewing candidates, and you cannot control if the interviewers are just asking the wrong questions, so don't sweat it if they are. Just focus on presenting your best qualities and if they don't pick you because of trivialities, c'est la vie.

If it is any minor consolation, you might not want to work in places that aren't very good at hiring. Consider that the quality of your potential co-workers will probably be very uneven...

6

It is often said that in an interview, you should turn a perceived weakness into a strength - and you can apply that principle here as well.

Instead of making this a story about how you took off to do something else and was 'at a loss' to find a new supervisor, phrase it in a more positive light like this:

After completing my Masters coursework, I took a full year of co-op work to complete my Masters requirement. When I returned to campus and began my thesis work, I learned that my thesis supervisor had left academia for the private sector. Since there were no other experts available in my field, I had to telecommute with her to complete my thesis. Despite this difficulty, I was still able to complete the thesis on an extended time frame.

A few important points in this explanation:

  • You don't blame your supervisor for this, or even imply it was her fault for the difficulty.
  • You take responsibility for the difficulty you faced, but de-emphasize any errors you may have made and focus on the steps you took to complete the thesis.
  • You turn the story from a mistake into a solution.

By shifting away any blame from the supervisor, you show that you do not hold a grudge for difficult situations you are put in - which is a good quality for an employee. By taking responsibility yourself and focusing on the steps you took to achieve your goal, you emphasize your own talents and mitigate any negative perception the interviewer might have for the choices you made. And by making it into a story about a solution, you show that you are problem-solver, which is exactly how you want the interviewer to see you.


Now, as several people have already mentioned, fixing your answer to this interview question will not necessarily guarantee you a job at your next interview - but it will help you have an idea in mind of what to say if an interviewer asks you this question again. And, generally, an idea of how you should answer questions about difficulties in your life - by changing them from difficulties into accomplishments.

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  • For me this is the 'correct' answer. OP needs to 'spin' the experience with how they independently had to find out things and initiate their own work without the aid of the supervisor, overcoming the obstacle even if it did take a little bit longer, but learning more in the process (skills not just degree-relevant knowledge) and demonstrating character traits like resilience and able to change direction quickly. Oct 7, 2021 at 19:16
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Let's clear one thing up straight away: anyone that claims they did or know people that did (implying it's common) a research master's including co-op work terms in 1-1.5 years is either getting confused with course-based master's or trying to test you to see how you react to a challenging question. It happens, but it's rare, and usually there are specific circumstances, such as:

  • Short or skipped co-op;
  • Having a thesis topic already lined up and worked on previously, e.g. something they worked on as an Undergrad Research Assistant, or an assignment during one of their courses that the teaching Professor wanted to pursue as a side-project;
  • Picking the "right" topic, focusing intensely on working on it, having a clear understanding of how much is expected/required/enough.

Anyway, be that as it may, I would frame this as follows:

After successfully completing your courses and yearlong co-op, you decided to switch to part-time studies for personal reasons, and on the advice of your supervisor as they had moved away to accept a job and weren't able to commit to regular correspondence. You were also very passionate about your research, and decided to do a deeper dive on the topic to explore other avenues of enquiry/inquiry and potential future work.

3

You broke two cardinal rules of interviewing:

  • Don't ever bring up something you see as a weakness, even in passing
  • If you break the previous rule, you'd better be ready to justify that weakness (i.e.: be prepared to talk about it)

The only way that an interviewer can know how long your degree took is if you made that information available to them - either in your CV, covering letter, or the interview itself. I'd guess your CV has a line like:

Master's Degree at University X (2xxx - 2xxx)

That immediately tells the interviewer how long your degree took, but that information is irrelevant to your job application. So why include it at all? Why not just have the following:

Master's Degree at University X (completed 2xxx)

That tells the interviewer all they need to know.

As to why the interviewer jumped on your degree duration, it's almost certainly because the position you're applying for has a high salary and high expectations (as I'd expect of someone with a master's degree). So the company needs to be sure that the person they choose is worthy of the job, therefore any interviewer is going to do due diligence by going over your application with a fine-toothed comb.

As such, one of the things such an interviewer will look for in a CV is discrepancies, because these could indicate an unsuitable candidate. And that interviewer is going to use any discrepancies they find as discussion points in the interview - because a discrepancy can indicate an untruth or a weakness, and seeing how you respond to being queried about such can tell the interviewer a lot.

By being unable to answer adequately what is, to my mind, a perfectly simple and innocuous question, you effectively told the interviewer that said discrepancy is not only a major weakness for you, but one that you cannot explain. That immediately demonstrates that you're an unsuitable candidate. The interview is the most important opportunity you have to impress, and you blew it by doing the opposite.

What can you do about this? Be able to justify your weaknesses. You can amend your CV as I've suggested, but it's always possible that a prospective employer will go to the university to get your history, or even talk to someone who previously interviewed you. So you need to be ready to be questioned about those weaknesses, and you need to be able to justify them when asked.

Note how I specifically said justify, not explain. Explaining means detailing what happened, and that really is none of the interviewer's business - especially because it can make you look even weaker. All you need to do is give them a justification for that weakness - and the stronger the justification, the better. Honesty is important because it's easy to tell (especially in a high-stress situation like an interview) when someone's lying.

And finally, the interviewer doesn't know you, doesn't care about you. Likely you're just another person to interview in a busy day. Your story is something they honestly don't care very much about. Remember, if you don't pass the interview, that person will almost certainly never see you again, so their emotional investment is nil.

Instead of the full details of your struggles, just use a single sentence like:

"I encountered more difficulties than expected, but I was ultimately able to push through and achieve my master's."

Simple, concise, honest, tells exactly the same story - but doesn't show any weakness.

There's always a possibility they ask you to elaborate on that one-liner, and then you can go into detail of your advisor moving away. (Careful: don't complain, just detail - interviewers don't like complainers.) But don't ever, ever mention your mental health issues. Mental health is unfortunately a red flag for pretty much any interviewer, regardless of how applicable it is or not. Unless it affects your work, the interviewer doesn't need to know about it, hell the company and your coworkers probably don't need to know about it.

Finally, you really need to stop resenting your advisor and feeling sorry for yourself. I appreciate it's not as easy as that to let the past go, but there's honestly no reason for you to feel this way. Master's degrees are rare and achieving one is something to be proud of - it's time to stop dwelling on the toils and travails it took you to get there, and start looking forward to the doors that your hard work and effort have opened for you. Be confident in your successes and your abilities, and that attitude will surely help you to land the job you deserve.

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    I really appreciate the answer, there are some great takeaways here. But two things strike me as odd. First, why do you say "By being unable to answer what is, ... you effectively told the interviewer that said discrepancy is not only a major weakness for you, but one that you cannot explain."? In my post, I said "And I was not able to come up with a good, articulate answer." The main point of the post and the details was to get help from this community in crafting a short and articulate answer encompassing the key factors.
    – AIQ
    Oct 7, 2021 at 13:30
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    I also struggled to put together a good answer (in that moment, in a matter of a few seconds) that focused on the outcome/learning rather than the problem. What my answer largely lacked was the learning part, that Mari-Lou, Mark, Chris T and others have pointed out. Also note that English isn't my first language, so it is a challenge to come up with a coherent answer like that on the spot.
    – AIQ
    Oct 7, 2021 at 13:31
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    Second, I am a bit puzzled by this: "So instead of your long and boring (sorry, but it really is) sob story ... " The post isn't meant for anyone's entertainment. Something that seemed long and boring to you, is something that I have been struggling with, something that has caused me a great deal of stress. You fail to understand how important resolving this issue is to me, and I went to great lengths by adding as much details as possible. Imagine how long it took me to write this.
    – AIQ
    Oct 7, 2021 at 13:31
  • @AIQ Easy friend, I'm not writing there personally, I'm writing from the interviewer's perspective*. Will edit to clarify.
    – Ian Kemp
    Oct 7, 2021 at 13:50
  • There doesn't seem to be much point to removing the start date. People can just subtract the time you stopped your previous job/degree/whatever to come up with how long it took you, or they might assume that there is some gap in there that you're hiding and start questioning you about that. Oct 7, 2021 at 18:04
2

In conjunction with Roger Hill's answer, I agree this is bad interview question. To add to the responses above, I agree the confidence is what is stumping you, so maybe an analytical approach will be beneficial in challenging the insecurity that is holding you back.

What I gather from reading your post is:

You entered a program where you were guaranteed to have a supervising scholar. That guaranteed supervising scholar abandoned their position, due to an external circumstance that you were at no fault for. You were told by your program that should you want this remedied, it would lie completely on your shoulders to do so, and after evaluating all your options available to you at your institution, determined that none would be suitable. So you tried to make it work and to parse through all of the questions that you had due to the fact that even though you could still technically contact your supervisor, they were not largely available or would not put in the effort needed to actually answer your question.

It does not sound like you did not try. It sounds like you experienced burnout and fell into a depression. The whole point of the program is for you to learn how to do xyz, and the reason you pay for the institution is so that they can teach you how to do xyz so that the time needed to learn how to do xyz is reduced. Learning these topics on your own is incredibly difficult, and could take massive amounts of time, as evidenced by the fact that you struggled for 2.5 years trying to learn it on your own. It took you so long to complete your degree because the institution was not doing what you paid it to do --actually provide you with resources(a supervisor) and materials to reduce your time needed to learn a subject. Then, after you struggled for 2.5 years, you took time to address your burnout and subsequently your mental health. Towards the end of your degree, your original supervisor took the responsibilities of the institution into their own hands and directed you to a faculty member that could help.

As for the reason you didn't bother finding a faculty member after your initial search, my deduction is thus:

In the beginning, you were likely able to answer your questions without allocating too much time to do so as they were basic compared to the middle or end of the program. Then, as the program continued on, you learned and did more, thus your questions became more niche and intricate, and the amount of energy and time required for you to answer them grew and grew. Your personal reserves for emotional, mental, and physical energy are not bottomless, and I'd imagine you had rigid deadlines to work with since you were studying at an institution and not on your own time, so time was another limiting factor. You still needed to answer the questions you had and address them regardless of how difficult they became, but now the energy reserves that you had available for doing anything outside of school were nearing total and complete depletion that even looking for a new supervisor would be the straw that broke the cammel's back.

It sounds like everything just kept pilling on until you burned out and your mental health reached an unbearable low. Then you took a step back, chose to address that, and your supervisor assisted you in finding a new supervisor.

If anything the fact that you kept trying and continued to work on your degree despite all these setbacks tells me that you are a tenacious person who experienced burnout. It happens. Sure, you could be chided for not recognizing this before it happened and not taking the steps to avoid/mitigate the damage, but given the info of your post, there would have been no logical reason for you to be expected to do so (since we don't know if you have experienced burnout to this degree before, or even at all. For all we know, your closest experience to your graduate schooling, say your undergraduate degree, could have been a piece of cake. So bottomline it's not fair for anyone to chide you given the info we are privy to). Taking this as a learning experience and using it to recognize the symptoms of future burnout/having a plan to address it I think is the most longterm valuable thing you can do, and the most valuable short term thing to do would be challenging/addressing the insecurity you have regarding the whole event.

I hope that seeing things from my perspective have/will aid you in challenging this insecurity. Because of my personality disorder, I am incapable of understanding social convention/empathy and as such have spent my life categorizing human behavior in order to be able to navigate the world which is, largely made up of neurotypical persons. That is the source, or "credibility" of my analysis.

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What's wrong with telling the truth? Putting a bit of your own spin on it, of course. Something like "I finished my coursework the first year, then I had to make a living, so did the co-op job for a year. When I'd done that, I discovered that my thesis advisor had left for the private sector, and since there was no other suitable faculty member, I had to complete everything on my own." (Leave out the lazy & unmotivated parts, of course :-))

I honestly wouldn't worry about the age thing. First, while I'm not a lawyer, of course, I think that anti-discrimination laws prevent potential employers from even asking your age. And at least in my experience, few if any will actually care. I didn't even get a BS until I was in my mid-30s, and an MS more than a decade later. Hasn't stopped me from being quite successful.

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