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.
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.
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.