Receiving a course grade of Incomplete as an undergraduate is very rare. Usually, this grade is only given to students who are unable to complete all the requirements of the course due to serious and unusual circumstances (e.g., a medical emergency).
Grades of Incomplete are far more common at the graduate level and are not reserved for accommodating students in dire circumstances. I have a fairly limited understanding of how often the typical graduate student actually takes Incompletes. I know some who took multiple Incompletes in almost every semester in which they took graduate courses; I know others who never took an Incomplete.
Aside from the general recommendation to avoid taking incompletes, I was never given much explicit advice about them, but I tried to abide by the following rules:
- Do not take an Incomplete in the Fall.
- Do not have multiple Incompletes on your record at once.
In my experience, it's extremely difficult to get substantial work done during Winter Break, and the Spring semester inundates graduate students with lots of new tasks and responsibilities. The result is that an Incomplete taken in the Fall will often not be cleared until the following summer, and by then, your knowledge of the material may have faded. You might have to reread extensive bits of the relevant literature to reignite your paper idea. Rule 1 was my way of avoiding this scenario.
Rule 2 stemmed from two considerations. First, it's psychologically distressing to have an Incomplete. It's a serious burden to have a big project lurking in the background that was supposed to already be done. (I've certainly never heard of a graduate student who was happy to have an Incomplete.) Having more than one is even more onerous. Eventually, the psychological weight of those to-be-completed tasks can become almost paralyzing. Or so it seems at least: I imagine that this is what happens when you hear horror stories of a grad student with 6 Incompletes. In any case, the psychological burden of Incompletes seemed like something that I ought to minimize.
The second reason for Rule 2 stems from my view that one of the central functions of progressing through graduate school in philosophy (at least for those who seek academic employment) is to cultivate the habits, skills, and dispositions that will translate to success as a professional academic philosopher. Taking Incompletes often, which involves a failure to meet a deadline for a particular task, did not strike me as a habit that I ought to be cultivating in myself, so Rule 2 was designed to reduce the frequency with which I took Incompletes.
Ultimately, I took 2 Incompletes as a graduate student: both were taken in Spring courses, and they were taken a year apart. I survived the coursework process without causing too many complications by taking Incompletes. However, I'm curious whether others were given similar advice about taking (or avoiding) Incompletes or whether they have advice to offer that differs from the two rules that I followed. What say you, fellow philosophers?