PhD Failure - What next?
February 5, 2011 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Where next after failing my UK PhD at the viva stage?

I understood from my supervisors that though I should expect a tough viva, I would probably pass. At worse, I could expect a referral, which would mean 18 months of work, to resubmit a PhD thesis. Instead I was told that I could resubmit for an MPhil, in 12 months, and that the examiners did not think I could manage a PhD.
My viva was fair, and made me realise just how much supervision had been lacking over the last few years. My fears about my thesis were realised - what I thought was bad - but acceptable - turned out to be anything but. I don't know why I was allowed to submit.
What now?
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm really sorry this happened to you. This is the nightmare of every grad student. I can't imagine what you're going through.

I just came across this article recently, which advises you about possible avenues for appeals. But it sounds like you don't think this is appropriate in your case. Likewise I recall this topic occurring occasionally on the Chronicle and PhDComics forums, but have nothing specific to recommend. You could try asking your question over there and see if you can get some useful advise.

As for what now, it sounds like you have a choice between an MPhil in 12 months, or leaving with nothing. Maybe it's a good idea to aim for the MPhil so you at least get something -- or maybe it's better to just cut your losses. I don't know, this depends a lot on your circumstances and what you want and how valuable this degree is. It would probably be a good idea to take some time off to let this sink in and ponder your future. Make use of whatever resources you have in terms of advice and counseling. And try to keep in mind that this was not your failure, but your institution's -- save those who deliberately ignore or subvert their committee's advise, no student should experience this outcome.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:43 PM on February 5, 2011

PPaul just said a lot of what I was going to say.

You can go the appeal route, but be careful -- you might actually win the appeal, and then you could be in the not-great situation of having to redo your defense in front of an even more hostile committee.

Things might be different in the UK, but in the US one option in your situation, if you were to still be committed to the goal of a doctorate, would be to quickly apply to a different program while still enrolled in your current one. You'd probably need at least one reference from your current place, but that is far from impossible, especially if one faculty member was particularly sympathetic to your position.

If you don't want to apply elsewhere, and you don't appeal, then your choices are the Mphil (with presumably more classes and maybe a thesis?) or just walking away. Again, speaking for the US, a masters degree really helps when looking for jobs, and also serves as a really easy explanation for however many years you were in grad school. "Oh, 1997 to 2011? I was completing my masters!" works a lot better than you think it might -- the world is full of people who left grad school without a phd, and a lot of people don't have any clear idea how long different degrees are supposed to take, anyway.

And I want to emphasize that last point. Right now you are probably feeling crappy. But grad school in general isn't a good fit for everyone; individual programs and departments are even more not a good fit for many people; and many professors are incredibly bad at the advising and mentoring parts of their jobs. About half or more of the people I work with left graduate school without completing the degrees they came there to do, and they are a) happier for having left early, and b) very successful in their careers. There have been many other AskMes about the issue of leaving grad school pre-doctorate, and you have a lot of company here on MetaFilter as well as out there in the world.
posted by Forktine at 3:57 PM on February 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Your department probably has a faculty member who is the designated graduate adviser. Have you tried talking to them? It sounds like your supervisor really dropped the ball, so it would be good to talk to someone who is not on your committee about the situation. They might be able to mediate a bit between you and your committee, and find out what it would take to get you the doctorate.

You might try talking to the chair also. They probably have heard your supervisor's version of events, and it would be good to give them yours also.
posted by auto-correct at 3:57 PM on February 5, 2011

Froma MeFite who would prefer to remain anonymous:
You should check your university regulations on the submission of PhDs. Many UK institutions do not allow submission for an MPhil as a possible outcome of the first PhD viva examination. This may not be a strategy that will prove totally fruitful in the long term but you absolutely should act to stop 'recommended for MPhil' from goong on the form signed off by the examiners. It will at least stop you from being off a PhD track. And if your PhD supervisor has been asleep at the wheel (and if you get this recommendation at viva, then they have) its not totally imposible that if you can get him/her to set you up with a dolly of an examiner you might scrape through the next one.

Go to your Student's Union and ask to speak to an advisor if they have them, or the PG officer.

There might also be something called a visitor at your uni that might be able to give some protection to you, but I'm not sure how effective that route might be.
posted by jessamyn at 4:47 PM on February 5, 2011

My experience is in the U.S. system, but if I understand viva correctly, this was your thesis defense -- basically the end of the program? The key phrase in your question is, I don't know why I was allowed to submit.. While I agree with Forktine's points about grad school not being for everyone and that plenty of people leave early, part of the faculty's job is to help people figure that out sooner rather than later. If there is doubt about whether you are going to make it, leaving you in the program is a waste of department resources and a waste of your time. Besides being horrible for you, this is bad for your adviser, bad for your committee, and bad for your department. I'm sure my department wasn't unique in that there were a number of formal and informal gates to get through before making it to a thesis defense, such that it was inconceivable someone could make it to the defense without a very high likelihood of passing.

We don't have the whole story here, since by necessity you are compressing five plus years of your life into a one paragraph question. But I would n'th auto-correct's advice to try and find someone in the department who can tell you whether the thesis can be salvaged. There is no downside to asking. I'm also wondering what your adviser said after the failed defense. I'm sure you had a long heart-to-heart after that, right? What is he/she doing to try and fix this situation, and what is he/she advising you to do now? Is there anything we need to know about your relationship there? While failing a thesis defense is something I've never seen first hand, I certainly knew a few grad students that just didn't get along with their advisers and ended up switching to a new adviser partway through the program.
posted by kovacs at 4:58 PM on February 5, 2011

I'm so sorry this happened to you, and I reiterate what others said about this totally being your supervisor's fault.

As for what to do, it really depends on why you were doing the PhD in the first place. If you need it professionally, perhaps the MPhil would be an okay substitute? If you were doing it out of interest, maybe now is the time to cut your losses and do something else, at least for a while. Keep all your documents: the thesis draft, notes, etc, in a format you can easily access in the future.

Depending on how fast moving your field is, it may be possible to re-enroll in a PhDSm later and salvage some of your work from now to form the foundation of a new PhD. I know someone who did this: she wrote a PhD in the 1980s in Germany, but never submitted it, due to a shitty supervisory situation. Dropped out, and now she is just finishing up in Australia, 25 years later. She was able to count her coursework as equivalent to ours, and used a couple of chapters from the original thesis, rewritten, which saved her a ton of time and effort.

The possibility of doing something like that may depend on how you leave. If you can avoid having the recommendation to switch to MPhil on your record, that might help. One possibility to consider might be to appeal, and then drop out, either while the appeal is pending, or afterwards if you succeed in the appeal but don't feel that retaking the viva is going to work out.

(Of course if you did appeal and succeed, I bet you would be able to make some changes to the line-up of examiners at the viva - maybe not your main supervisor, but perhaps replace the others?)
posted by lollusc at 5:03 PM on February 5, 2011

Having spent time in both the American and British academic systems, I would caution you to take everything said here about the US system with a huge grain of salt. The two systems are very, very different. In particular, what constitutes a Masters varies to a rather extreme level.

In the humanities, a US Masters is probably worth more than a UK Masters (which is roughly equivalent to an American BA w/ Honors from what I remember)

In the sciences, a UK Bachelors degree may very well be more comprehensive than an American MS. (Also, IIRC, the various Masters degree classifications can vary somewhat heavily within the UK too)

In any event, if you put in the work for a PhD, I'd fight this one to the death. I'm so sorry this happened, and good luck!
posted by schmod at 5:41 PM on February 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Friend of mine had this happen, she took the MPhil and moved on. Hugely disappointing at the time, but she has ended up working in a research station in Africa which allows her to focus on her interests and is very happy 2 years later. I'll see if I can get some info on the mechanics from her.
posted by arcticseal at 6:43 PM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

(The UK PhD system works quite differently to the US one, and that affects the position Anonymous is in here. Since we don't have PhD 'programs' in the same way, he/she wouldn't easily be able to switch to another institution; also, his/her supervisor wouldn't have been among the examiners, one of whom would have been from another university and the other someone whose input into Anonymous's work pre-viva would have been either non-existent or minimal. Sounds like Anonymous had a second or joint supervisor with some influence on the PhD, but the main figure responsible for making sure the thesis only went to viva in a passable state was the main supervisor. The decision to pass/fail isn't made by Anonymous's own institution, and if the problem is with the supervision rather than with the viva, as it sounds, appealing the viva verdict won't change anything.)

Anonymous, I am so sorry this happened to you. It shouldn't have done, and I mean that in the sense of the academic system that got you to this point as well as in a universal justice sense.

You would be totally justified in making a formal complaint about this. People do fail PhDs, but it's your supervisor's job to know when your thesis was passable. There shouldn't ever be a discrepancy this huge between what happened and what they expected, and your comments about lack of supervision make the situation even worse. Your head of department will already be asking your supervisor what happened, I bet; if you want to make your PoV about your supervision clear, they're a good place to start. Your department's postgraduate officer is also worth speaking to about where to go from here.

I know one person who failed the viva. He went the Masters route and is now a well-respected author. This doesn't have to be a bad thing for your future!
posted by Catseye at 1:24 AM on February 6, 2011

It is generally the case that the best advice AskMe can give is that the questioners hill is not one worth dying on and that you should give up whatever you are currently attached to. That is not the case here. This is that hill, this is your hill, and there are things you can do to make it very difficult for anyone to take it from you so long as you are defending it.

Fight like hell. The head of your department will be very interested to hear from you, make sure they do, but first speak to your post graduate officer (IIRC British universities have someone designated as a post graduate officer specifically to protect you). Is it possible to improve your thesis? Are there other members of the department who might be able to pick up some of your supervisors slack should you get another chance?
posted by Blasdelb at 8:42 AM on February 6, 2011

It would help to have a better understanding of what went wrong. If the problem was mainly lack of good supervision, is there any prospect of that improving? Is there anyone around who would be prepared and able to advise you about whether you're on the right track if you aim for completing the MPhil? Not necessarily in a formal supervisor relationship, but someone who is familiar with the standard expected and can tell you if you aren't meeting it. If there were other obstacles in your research, can they be resolved? If not I would be concerned that you could spend another 12 months without moving forward enough to get the MPhil.

Given the standard system in the UK, I assume you've comitted 3.5 years to this already. That's a long period to have on your CV with nothing to show. The MPhil isn't that common a qualification, so outside of academia, a lot of people won't have much idea of how long it would take, so I think it's better to leave with something than nothing. But only if you can improve the situation so that you can be confident of actually getting the MPhil.

Finally: remember that everyone is rooting for you. I totally messed up my degree, and the examining comittee, (whiile fair and not giving away anything they should have) were very sympathetic. They didn't want me to fail, they wanted me to prove I was worthy of passing, and given a second chance, I did. At the time it seemed like the worst disaster in the world, now it's a dim memory. Good luck and I hope that in 9 years this is a distant memory for you too.
posted by *becca* at 7:30 PM on February 6, 2011

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