Things To Consider Before Taking an “Incomplete” in Graduate School

I belong to an online forum that comprises a variety of educators at every step of the game, from veteran tenured professors to new graduate teaching assistants. Recently, the discussion turned to the question of taking incompletes in graduate classes, particularly on final essays. The general consensus was: this is usually not a good idea, especially for graduate students.

Obviously, if you really need an incomplete–if you or family members are having ongoing medical issues, or if you are involved in an accident requiring a hospitalization or resulting in severe physical or mental injuries, or if there is a death in your immediate family, or some similar unexpected emergency arises–then you should certainly request the incomplete. Everyone is in agreement on that point. Such emergencies are why universities have policies concerning incompletes in the first place.

However, many graduate students seem to take incompletes not because of any particular emergency, but rather because they are overwhelmed. Taking two or three classes a term, sometimes also teaching or acting as a research assistant, acutely aware that the writing they are doing at this level is under greater scrutiny and matters more, graduate students–usually folks used to doing very well and being at the top of their game–often show a distinct, patterned tendency to over-research and prepare or to procrastinate because the assignment matters so much, and then stress out because the assignment matters so much and they’re not making progress. In a panic, they petition the professor for an extension or an incomplete: “Just an extra week.” “Just a few extra weeks.” “Just until the beginning of next term….”

What’s the big deal, after all? It’s just a week (two weeks; a few weeks; a month, a term). It’s just one paper. Surely that’s not a problem?

In no particular order, here are the myriad reasons that were offered during the discussion for why the incomplete could be a problem for you (and/or for your professor, which can ultimately become a problem for you, particularly if s/he is a potential letter-writer):

  • With the immediate urgency gone, the tendency is to relax a bit…. and then to have trouble getting back into the assignment you were already struggling with. Better to just soldier through and get it finished while you still have a strong desire to finish it.
  • Just because you are granted an extension/ incomplete on an assignment does not mean everything else is going to go on hold so you can finish it. What happens if (when) more piles on your plate and you can’t get to it even with the extension? Better to get it done and move on.
  • You’re feeding your own anxieties about the quality a term paper must evince. It doesn’t have to be publishable; it has to be a cogent, well-argued, well-supported essay demonstrating original thought that you can turn around and revise into publishable quality if you so desire. When you make it into more, you’re hamstringing your own ability to learn what it feels like to work on a document as an initial foray into a question. Better to lean into it and get it done, teaching yourself how to develop a project incrementally within specific time frames–the work you’ll need to be able to do going forward.
  • If you are not working on the paper because you are overwhelmed, and then you are overwhelmed because you are not working on the paper, you’re creating a stress-circle that only you can break. An extension may or may not help you accomplish the shift in thinking you need to move on with the project. Getting the assignment done, on the other hand, helps to instill the confidence you need to break that pattern.
  • In many cases, the last-minute need for an extension can signal an underlying problem with the paper you are trying to produce–you realize that you don’t have a clear line of argumentation, or you are trying to do too much in the assignment, or you don’t have the theoretical background you need in order to make it work. If you meet with your professor when you realize you are having trouble, you can usually resolve this early enough to make sure the essay gets done on time.
  • What if your professor is leaving the university/ going on sabbatical/ has an upcoming research trip out of the country/ falls into a serious illness and/or dies him or herself, and cannot resolve the incomplete on his or her end? It’s rare, but it does happen, and then you are relying on the university to first, be aware of your arrangement with the professor and then, to have someone else honor it for you. Better to have the original professor whose assignment it was looking over your work.
  • If you are done with the term and looking ahead to the next one, your professor is also done with the term and looking ahead to the next one. There is not likely to be a lot of time and energy placed into reading and commenting on the paper of a student from a former term when you’re prepping lectures or staring down a stack of drafts for a current one. Better to have it done and in while the professor is still thinking about the class it was written for.
  • The comments (should you receive comments on it at all ) that you receive on an essay you turn in several months or even up to a year after the class for which you wrote it will not be as valuable to the development of your thinking and scholarly training as they would be while you  are still actively engaged in the research and writing towards that essay. This undermines the value of such an assignment.

If you should choose (or need) to request an incomplete on an essay for a graduate seminar, here are a few things you need to consider:

  • Make sure you are aware of and understand both the university policy for incompletes, and your professor’s policy for incompletes. Be very aware of the terms of your particular incomplete, and make sure you adhere to the specified time limit granted to you.
  • If you have not met with the professor during office hours to discuss any issues or concerns you are having about the essay, it seems that you have not been proactive in the work; you are less likely to receive an extension in such cases. Make sure you are communicating regularly with your professor, which can head the need for an extension off at the pass.
  • This is not a “turn it in whenever you get around to it, no biggie” situation; it is an opportunity for you to demonstrate professionalism by not taking advantage of the extension. Get the essay done and turned in as quickly as possible.
  • Don’t expect a rapid turnaround on the grade. Your professor is probably not going to drop everything s/he is currently doing to grade a late paper, even if s/he granted an extension on it.
  • Don’t demand comments and feedback on an extension. If you want critical feedback on the work, you should make every effort to get it turned in on time as a working draft.
  • If you do want critical feedback on a late paper/ one that has received an extension, make sure you specify that when you turn it in, give the professor a generous window for those comments (up to two months is appreciated), and make arrangements to meet with the professor during his or her office hours to go over those comments with you, rather than asking they simply be sent to you via email. Demonstrate that it really matters to you, rather than that you have more expectations of your professor than of yourself.

Be aware that if you do ask for an extension or an incomplete, your professor may simply not be able or willing to write comments on a late essay. Remember that professorial workloads are cyclical in nature, and that professors are generally swamped with more work than they can handle. A late essay–no matter how valid the reason for its lateness or how well-written it is as a result of the extension–is not part of the current workload and often will not be given the same priority as current student work, the professor’s own ongoing research, or other current responsibilities. This is not a reflection on whether or not the professor cares about your progress or your scholarship, it is the reality of a career that requires both continous, year-round research and writing and semester- or quarter-long cycles of teaching and university and professional service, and in which extra materials to read (articles advisees want to submit; dissertation or thesis chapter drafts; job market search materials; tenure and promotion files; and similar) crop up regularly throughout the academic year, particularly for professors who are conscientious in their duties. Because of this, while from a student’s end an incomplete or extension seems like not too much extra work, from a professor’s standpoint it often goes to the bottom of a very long pile not because the professor doesn’t care, but because there are twenty-four hours in a day.

Therefore, if you turn an assignment in late, you are likely to receive the basic response–a grade assessing how well it meets the assignment requirements. If you need more feedback than that, you should be proactive and make sure your assignments are turned in on or before their due date, or that you have been meeting regularly with the professor to address ongoing concerns and s/he is aware of the work already put into the assignment and can speak to it from that angle.

Finally, if you find yourself asking for extensions or multiple assignments, or if you are asking for incompletes during several terms, you should be in contact with your advisor or a trusted university official about it, because this behavior signals an ongoing issue. This might be related to anxiety or depression; it might be that you need extra coaching or further training; it might signal an undiagnosed or untreated learning disability; or it might be something else altogether. Regardless, you should not find yourself need extensions and taking incompletes regularly in graduate school if you are organized and proactive in your approach to coursework, and if you do, you should definitely be reaching out for help.

Do you have any other advice or experience with incompleted in graduate school? share in the comments below!


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in Coursework, General Graduate Student Advice, Research and Scholarship, Time Management, writing in graduate school and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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