I am a Ph.D. student in my fifth year of the program. I have a lot of work to finish within a few months to wrap up my work and submit my thesis before the start of the sixth year; otherwise, I have to go through a gruelling and laborious process to get an extension which I am not interested in.

The university has a master's program also. The students often come to some Ph.D. students (happy to be one of them) for help (which I am not obliged to do officially) without putting in any effort to solve the problem themselves. How can I tell them that I am too busy to help them in a cool way to keep them away till I submit my thesis?

I often tell them about my workload and its challenge. Sometimes I even ask them to meet me later because I am meeting some deadline to finish my work, but they still want my help.

  • 3
    What makes you afraid just using your words won't work? What have you already tried, and do you have any idea/thoughts on why it isn't working? You're not obliged to help officially, but unofficially? Is everyone else doing it anyway? Why would saying no be difficult/impolite in this case?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Mar 22, 2018 at 14:21
  • @Tinkeringbell I don't want them to feel helpless and at the same time I have no time to offer help.
    – Agaz Wani
    Mar 22, 2018 at 14:47
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    Are you a lecturer / teaching assistant, or only a student? Is there any particular reason they are coming to you instead of their professors or different PhD students?
    – Em C
    Mar 22, 2018 at 16:21
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    So you've never tried saying no, why not? What are you afraid may go wrong? Is it a cultural thing? What makes you afraid just using your words won't work? Do you have any idea/thoughts on why your current indirect approach isn't working?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Mar 22, 2018 at 16:33
  • 1
    Psychologically, if you give them hope that you might help ("can we talk later, please") they will come back again and again. "No, I'm not going to help you" means they know there won't be help from you, so they will try something else that might work instead.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 2, 2023 at 18:36

4 Answers 4


Set an appointment with them.

I'm in my PhD as well and I have to assist two master students with their thesis. They used to ask for my help for every little problem in every moment, thus hindering my work. So I decided to schedule a fixed time during the week to help them.

Right now I'm very busy, shall we meet on Tuesday at 11? So you can work on your problem some more time, and if you don't find a solution by that day, you can show me what you have tried so far and we'll work a way out of it.

It's important to underline that you want to see their work on the subject they're asking your help for. You have to make clear that you aren't a "solution cow", so to speak; you don't solve problems in their place, you help them figuring out their solution.

Redirect them.

I assume you're not the only person that can help them. As far as I know, a professor must have scheduled office hours to help students. You can note down the office hours of those that may help the students that come to you, and while explaining that you can't help them because you're busy, you show them the sheet with the office hours.

Alternatively, you can probably suggest them a book or a chapter on the subject.

Sorry, I'd like to help you but I'm too busy to do it. But yeah, I remember this kind of problems. You will find what you're looking for in book A, it has a very good section about solving {X}.

Hang a "Do not disturb" sign on your door.

That is, if you don't share your office with anybody. If you can do so, make sure that your supervisor and your colleagues know that's just for students.

Just say no.

Sorry guys, I'd like to help you, but I'm too busy. You know, PhD life is hell. I'm sure you can solve it on your own!

There's nothing wrong in saying no to these student. You're busy and they haven't tried anything to solve their problems on their own. Let them just do their work and ask them to let you do yours.

When you tell them you're sorry, remember that it's your right to not help them. Right now, your priority is your PhD. You're going out of your way to help them, it's not even required from you. If you want to work from home for a week and during this week they can't find you, what will they do? They won't file a complain to the university as they would do with a professor, that's for sure. So, while telling them that you're sorry, remember that you're not depriving them of a right they have; instead, you're telling them that you can't do them a favour anymore.


This is where boundaries come in to play. They want more from you than you want to give, but they don't have the right to get more from you than you are willing to give.

First if you just want them to stay away until you are done with your thesis then just let people know say something like "Right now I don't have any free time to help you with that but you can...." and point them in the right direction. That way they get some help and you don't waste time doing their work. It's really unhealthy for them if you just do their work for them it sets them up to think all they have to do is find somebody to unload their problems on in life and they can float through life.

If you don't want to do that you could help them but set a limit. You could set up a time and place where you help people, say every Thursday at from 2 - 3 at a specific place. If someone comes to you for help tell them your time is limited and give them the time and place then say "I will help whoever I can during that hour but that is all the time I have." That way you have set a limit on the time you will give.

If you need more help on setting boundaries in any area of you life I highly recommend reading Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend it's a great book.


If you don't have time to help somebody who believes that he or she needs your help, and you do want to help them, consider this approach:

Wow you're right, this is a difficult thing to understand. Why don't you do practice problems 1 through 10 and check your work against the answers in the back? Let me know how it goes!

If a person insists on your explanation for something, doesn't seem to want to do the work, or just wants to talk about it with you, I suggest giving them a lead to another resource:

Did you know that the prof is required by the University to hold 10 office hours a week just to help students with these kinds of questions? Also, www.biopharma100.com/history has a really good explanation of this.

This way, you have given them what they need to get the answer themselves. You aren't saying "No, I won't", you're saying, "Yes, and here's how. Good luck!"

I often tell them about my work load and its challenge.

Don't do this! You are falsely admitting that you should do more for them--- if this were a negotiation, this would be where you lose.

Since these folks haven't done anything at all to solve the problem themselves (as you said), in order to learn what they need to hear is "No, try harder. You'll get it!"


Your PhD advisor can also help you set and enforce boundaries. Part of their role as your advisor is to help you manage time. Your advisor may be able to tell the master's students or make an announcement at a lab meeting (or whatever system of communication they use), that you're currently in a time crunch and need to dedicate all of your time to your dissertation project.

My advisor would do this for me as needed and he did this for everyone in his lab. "So-and-so is not working on X because they need to focus on Y right now." Or even "Don't ask so-and-so for help right now because they're working on Y." Of course, the reception depends partially on your advisor's approach. Hopefully, the master's students would respect the advisor's authority and recognize that the request is not personal but merely a statement of fact.

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