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Mark Hopwood

My grad school addressed this problem with a financial incentive: if you didn't have a certain number of courses completed by a certain point, you missed out on part of your funding. I don't know whether other schools do similar things, but it was certainly an effective incentive in my case (although it may not have worked equally well for everyone).

Michel X.

It's quite common here for students to take incompletes. In fact, until recent years, there was a running joke in the department to the effect that we ought to give out an award to students who make it through coursework without taking any incompletes.

Generally speaking, we're offered advice basically along the same lines as the (1) and (2) you suggest. I never felt the need to take an incomplete, but most of my colleagues did. For many, I think it was because they felt some supervisory pressure to submit far more detailed work. Speaking more generally, I suspect that impostor syndrome plays a role. My own attitude is that the returns diminish pretty quickly, and that it's better just to get the work out of the way on time. That way, if you really want or need to, you can fix it later, at your leisure.


I wasn't offered any advice about incompletes as a grad student, though most of my prof's weren't thrilled to grant them. I never had a really good reason for requesting one.

I think Trevor's point about the psychological weight of incompletes is right. This certainly matches my experience.

In one grad program, I took 3 incompletes. I left that program without getting a Ph.D. (my goal) though I did earn a Master's. After a while, one prof became a bit of a jerk about the paper for his class. The other two profs eventually just asked if I ever planned to finish them. In the end, I told them all "no" and never finished the papers. The incompletes aren't why I left -- maybe more a symptom -- but they didn't help.

I took one incomplete in my last grad program. I took it in fall. I wrote the paper over winter break and turned it in on the first day of spring classes. The prof had said he'd have to lower the paper grade as a penalty, but he didn't end up doing it. He said he really liked the paper. I worked harder on that paper than I had on many others.

Still, I agree with Michel about diminishing returns. Best to just get it over with.

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