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Phd Dissertation Rejected

The experiences I share in this post will be an eye-opener for many readers. Anyone who has been a university professor for more than a few years, on the other hand, probably won’t be too surprised. In fact, I’ll bet some experienced academics will remember having witnessed similar shenanigans from time to time during their own careers.

My main goal here, as it has been in my last few posts, is to bring to light certain realities of higher education, which might in some way help the reader become a better-informed consumer. My secondary goal is admittedly personal, and a bit cathartic. Some of the events I recount here still trouble me. The events all took place within the same academic department, within a very highly regarded university, somewhere in North America. These events make certain individuals look bad, so I will be vague about details that could easily trace a route to identifying the university, department, or any of the involved persons. I have no doubt that similar events occur from time to time at most universities, so this is not really intended as a commentary about a particular institution or group of people. All I will say is that the university in the story is not Concordia University (my employer), but that is not to say that similar events could never happen at Concordia.

The good and the bad

Over the past 20 years, I have attended dozens of Ph.D. defenses, either as a member of the doctoral candidate’s examination committee, or as a member of the audience. I have seen a great range of quality, which is not surprising. Of course, some people are really great and truly impressive, whereas others are not quite as good, but still deserving of the doctoral degree. These two categories of deserving individuals make up a vast majority of doctoral candidates.

It may seem incredible, but the truth is, if you want a Ph.D. from an accredited university, you might not have to earn it the ‘old-fashioned’ way… you know, the way people used to earn doctorate degrees from any respectable university — by doing original research, making a contribution to knowledge, and demonstrating that one is somewhat expert, or at least highly knowledgeable, within some particular domain. Today, that hard work and established competence is no longer absolutely necessary in all circumstances. Of course, most Ph.D.s are still obtained in the traditional and honorable way. But, if you automatically assume that someone with a Ph.D. from a high-profile university must have earned it on the basis of merit, you are mistaken. A person can get a Ph.D. from even the most highly regarded universities despite being only mediocre, even if they are utterly incompetent and worse than mediocre. It does not happen often, but it does happen.

Fast-track to a Ph.D.

Believe it or not, some people have actually managed to obtain a Ph.D. simply by annoying or aggravating their graduate supervisors so much that the latter wants to get rid of the student as quickly as possible. Luckily, it’s difficult to kick someone out of graduate school just because that person has some disagreeable aspects to the their character or behavior. Understandably, some faculty members will take a prudent approach to such an uncomfortable situation and do what they can to facilitate the student’s completion of the Ph.D. program.

In most Ph.D. programs, the final critical step toward completion occurs when the student’s examination committee approves the quality and quantity of the candidate’s research, and the quality of the written dissertation. If it all passes muster, the candidate will get the doctoral degree.

Most of the time, when a faculty member wants to hasten the graduation of one of his or her Ph.D. students, this is at least partly accomplished by accepting some minor compromises in terms of the standard expectations. For example, maybe that one last experiment or chapter that was planned is not really needed for an acceptable dissertation. I don’t think it’s a problem, in most cases, when a doctoral student’s supervisor orchestrates these types of omissions, as long as there is input from the other faculty members on the student’s Ph.D. committee. It might not seem fair to all the other doctoral students who will be held up to the normal standard expectations, but what usually happens is that the unfairness or inequity, if we want to call it that, is somewhat corrected when the person becomes an ex-student and finally joins the workforce. By that, I mean that most employers who have to hire people with Ph.D.s look far beyond whether or not a job applicant has the academic credentials. They know that just because someone has the necessary degree for the job that does not mean the person can do the job. When applying for jobs in one’s field, recent recipients of a doctorate will still have to furnish references and letters of recommendations, a CV, and there may be interviews. As part of the vetting process, the mediocre and the posers are quickly discovered and eliminated from consideration.

And, now… the ugly

Now it’s time to tell the story about the events that compelled me to write on the present topic. They took place at a university that turns out a large number of excellent scholars, researchers, and professionals, each year. But, I know that they also recently awarded a Ph.D. to someone did not deserve one. I know this because I was an external member of that person’s examination committee, and I was, therefore, a first-hand witness to several demonstrations of ineptness. (‘external’ denotes from a different university)

In preparation for the oral defense, I read this person’s doctoral dissertation. It was very short, which was the only good thing about it. It was also terrible in many ways. The literature review was cursory and shallow. The chapters that described the candidates’ experiments were poorly organized, and the whole thing fit together like a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s missing 80 pieces. The conclusions the candidate drew from the meager empirical results were not consistent with the existing literature, and they weren’t even very consistent with the student’s own data. I could go on and on about how bad this Ph.D. dissertation was, but let’s just say that when I arrived for the oral defense, the first thing I did was approach the student’s Ph.D. supervisor and asked, “What’s going on?” He knew immediately what I was talking about.

It took him only about a minute to explain, quietly but loud enough for the other committee members to hear, that he had no respect for the student, that the student was a liar, the student refused to follow any of the supervisor’s advice, and the student really didn’t know what he/she was talking about most of the time when it came to his/her research topic. Early on, the supervisor had tried to work closely with the student, but they had some sort of falling-out. He succinctly explained that he just want to get rid of this student.

I looked at the other faculty members from the student’s department who were on the committee, looking for any sign that they were concerned about the quality of the student’s work, like I was. Both of them are people I have known and respected for many years, and who have been at this business of training graduate students for longer than me. They both looked down, slightly slouching in a posture that resembled one of guilt or shame. Their subtle body language signaled to me that they knew what I was talking about, but they were not going to make it a big issue, and they seemed to be hoping that I would not do so, either. Maybe I was reading a lot into their subdued responses, but this was how I read them. There were also two other faculty members from the candidate’s university who were from different departments. They were a bit fidgety, but otherwise they just gazed around the room, generally avoiding eye contact with other people on the committee. After a few minutes, the Chair of the committee began the proceedings.

The candidate’s oral presentation of his/her work was awful, as confused and confusing as the dissertation. Could not answer any of the moderately challenging questions asked by the committee, and often responded as though he/she didn’t understand the question. When the candidate’s supervisor asked questions, he spoke tersely and used language that clearly displayed his overall dissatisfaction with the student, the student’s judgment, the research, and the dissertation. When all the painful public discourse was finally over, the candidate left the room so the committee could convene in private to discuss the dissertation and oral defense. The major task for the committee, at this point, is to come to some decision regarding whether it was all passable; that is to say, basically deciding whether the candidate should get the Ph.D., or not.

Remarkably, all the committee members from the candidate’s university basically said something like, “It was not good, but it was good enough.” But, I suspected that none of them really believed it; I sure didn’t. I expressed my misgivings, but I decided to leave it to the committee members from he candidate’s university to decide what judgment should be rendered. Remember, I was the external examiner. So, I was feeling somewhat like a guest, and it didn’t feel my place to be calling out these respected peers of mine for what I perceived was an unfolding lapse of integrity. I was not going to cause any fuss that would make it even harder for them to live with the decision.

I headed off homeward, feeling bad about the way things turned out. I kept thinking about the injustice of it all, considering that several other students in the same department will also get a Ph.D. this year, but they all will have earned it. I was upset with the faculty member who had been this student’s graduate supervisor. I felt he took an easy way out of an important commitment. I thought that he should have done what most faculty members would do and just put up with the annoying student until he or she completed the program in an acceptable manner. I believe he put the others members of the committee up to the idea of just passing this student through. I think the other committee members went along with a bit of reluctance, but they did go along, so I was disappointed that they were such an easy sell.  But, most of all, I felt guilty for going along with it, too. After a few hours of ruminating, I decided to put it behind me, and promised myself that I would never again agree to be a committee member for a doctoral student being supervised by this particular faculty member.

A few months later…

It didn’t take long before I was again asked if I would be an external committee for one of this faculty member’s doctoral students. The administrative staff member who contacted me is so nice and pleasant, that I didn’t think to reply, “No thanks,” to the request. When a copy of the student’s dissertation arrived in my mailbox a few days later, I remembered my previous vow never to do this again, but it was too late. Fortunately, this one turned out to be a very good Ph.D. dissertation! Well written and scholarly. The research behind it was ample, and it was solid work. I could tell right away that this person was not an imposter like the last one. In fact, he seemed like a really good researcher and a good analytical and critical thinker.

The day of the oral defense arrived and the whole process went the way things are expected to go — he gave an excellent presentation and handled all the questions very well. It felt good to know that this guy was getting a Ph.D., because he deserved it. And his impressive performance served up a little bit of redemption for the faculty member who supervised his graduate work. Not much, but still a bit, at least in my opinion.

Real Ph.D. versus Sham Ph.D.

Although it was a relief that the second Ph.D. in this story was all very good, it did not correct any of the inappropriateness about the first one. The only thing it changed for me was that I now had some reassurance that this faculty member/graduate supervisor could properly supervise and mentor a doctoral student. It could be argued, on the other hand, that this student made his supervisor look good.

One general message to be taken from this story is that many aspects of higher education are not as standardized as one might expect. I think most people who do not know the two new Ph.D.s in this story personally would view them both with the same high regard, just from knowing that each of them recently earned a Ph.D. from the same prestigious university, and in the same field of study. Without knowing anything more about them than the academic credentials they possess, it would be natural to assume that both of them have exceptional abilities and aptitudes, skills and knowledge, and that they are both now qualified for certain occupations that require a Ph.D. But, these things are really only true about one of them, and none of them seem to be true about the other.

You can’t tell who has a sham Ph.D. until you talk to that person a bit, and even then, anyone who is not an expert in the same field of study will be unlikely to detect the fakery. Someone who has a sham Ph.D. might impress friends, relatives, and neighbors by virtue of having been awarded something as distinguished as a doctoral degree. Importantly, however, it all gets evened out in the job market and over the years as a career develops, … or fails to develop. A sham Ph.D. might come easy, but it doesn’t take anyone far.

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Posted in career planning, education, education issues, graduate school, letters of recommendation and tagged faking your way to a Ph.D. advisor and student relationships, fast-tracking to a Ph.D., impostor syndrome, Ph.D., research on by Dave G Mumby, Ph.D.. 66 Comments

Given the stakes involved, one peculiar aspect of graduate school is the number of students who seem indifferent to its pitfalls. Year after year many run headlong, like lemmings, off the same cliffs as their predecessors. Yet a good share of these people ignore or are even hostile towards the advice that might help them avoid screwing up.

Having repeatedly witnessed this process, we have concluded that a small group of students actually want to screw up. We do not know why. Maybe they are masochists or fear success. Whatever the reason, our heart goes out to them. Indeed, we hope to help them – by setting down a course of action that will ensure that they blunder through graduate school in a spectacularly disastrous fashion.

1. Stay at the same university

It can be tempting to obtain all three of your degrees (undergraduate, master’s and PhD) at the same university: you have already established personal and professional friendships there, you know the routines of the university, you have a solid working relationship with the academics, and you even have lined up a potential PhD supervisor who will incorporate you into an existing research project. However, if you actually want to succeed, doing so is probably a mistake.

Friends and colleagues often tell students to obtain their degrees at different universities, but seldom explain why. One reason is that departments have different strengths. Going to a different university or country exposes you to different perspectives. If you complete both your undergraduate and your master’s at one location, some say that you have probably got everything you can from the kind of scholarship and research practised in that department. (Whether this is true is a different matter.)

Going somewhere else for your PhD shows that you have expanded your intellectual horizons. In contrast, others will view the fact that you did all your degrees at the same place as an indication that you lack scholarly breadth and independence, and that you were not wise or committed enough to follow this standard advice about studying elsewhere.

2. Do an unfunded PhD

If you receive an offer for admission to a PhD programme that does not include funding, you should walk away. If the funding arrangement is vague, you should clarify it as much as possible to make sure that it has substance. While many master’s students are unfunded, the normal practice is for PhD students to be supported through scholarships, teaching, a supervisor’s individual research grants, or a combination of those things. An offer of admission without a financial package can be interpreted in several different ways, but none is encouraging.

Most obviously, it signals that the department is not committed to you. It can also be a sign of problems or even crisis in your department, university or discipline. Beyond what the lack of funding might say about how the admissions committee views you, an unfunded PhD will require you to support yourself through your course, research and writing your thesis. This precarious financial situation is demanding and can severely delay your completion.

3. Choose the coolest supervisor

Several years ago, I pulled aside a graduate student and advised her to find a different PhD supervisor. I delicately, but clearly, pointed out that her current supervisor had a record of relating poorly to others and was seen as a source of extreme irritation by many departmental colleagues.

The student was torn – for her supervisor was also charismatic, had published in prominent outlets, and had research interests that were reasonably close to her own. So she rolled the dice and maintained the relationship.

Three years later, the student sat in my office completely distraught. Her supervisor would not respond to emails and phone calls and was taking forever to comment on drafts of her thesis chapters. In essence, her supervisor failed her as a mentor, her degree was in crisis, and she needed to find a new supervisor quickly.

Screwing up your choice of supervisor is one of the biggest missteps you can make in graduate school. It is also easy to do. If you choose a supervisor because of a single overriding factor – such as a desire for someone who is personable, or is not intimidating, or has a big name – you risk choosing poorly.

So choose carefully, and do not let any one factor sway your decision too much. Enquire about whether others recognise your potential supervisor as a solid choice. Do her students finish their degrees, and in a reasonable time? Does she publish work of high quality in prominent outlets? Does she have a record of getting her students published? Does she equitably co-author articles with her students? Is the supervisor too overwhelmed with other commitments to give you the attention you need? Has she secured research grants? What kinds of jobs did her previous students obtain? Is the supervisor immersed in her academic community?

Also consider the personality of a potential supervisor. Do colleagues find her easy to work with? You should consult widely.

The availability of an appropriate supervisor should definitely affect your decision about which PhD programme to attend. But if the person you have your sights set on is known as a good supervisor, there are likely to be other students seeking to work with her. If you are going to a university mainly to work with that person, make sure that she will actually work with you.

4. Expect people to hold your hand

As a postgraduate, you need to take charge of your own programme. While you should seek guidance from your supervisor and from the graduate chair or her assistant, you are the person who ultimately organises your degree. Nobody – and certainly not your supervisor – will pull you aside to remind you, for example, that you must take a certain course or complete a form by a specific date.

You are also personally responsible for developing your own intellectual path. Do not expect your supervisor, or anyone else, to hold your hand and tell you which books to read, journals to subscribe to, future research projects to pursue, research collaborations to explore, conferences to attend or grants to apply for.

Seek guidance about your degree programme and your scholarly development, but do not wait around expecting others to tell you what to do next.

5. Concentrate only on your thesis

It is easy to assume that at graduate school you will spend most of your time and energy on a thesis. This focus on completing your thesis (in reasonable time) can foster the mistaken belief that nothing else in graduate school matters. Such an attitude, paradoxically, can be a way to screw up.

While doing PhD study, you learn to become a researcher and an academic. Those roles involve considerably more than simply carrying out a large research project. Professors also teach, edit journals, attend conferences, review manuscripts, mentor students, organise workshops and administer different aspects of their department and university, among many other things. Graduate school slowly exposes you to the nuances of these tasks.

While your overriding priorities are to publish, to make progress on your thesis and otherwise to build up your CV, you typically still have enough hours in your day to get involved in other projects. Not doing so means that you are missing opportunities to become a well-rounded academic. And greater exposure to different activities helps you to distinguish yourself in the job market.

6. Expect friends and family to understand

I was over the moon when I won my doctoral scholarship. Eager to share the good news, I phoned my parents. My mum listened closely to the details and said: “That’s not enough money to live off of. Can you get two?” Deflated, I had to tell her no, that was not possible.

Her reaction was not atypical: most people outside your academic colleagues will have a hard time relating to your experiences.

To an outsider, a PhD student’s schedule looks tantalisingly open. It can contain huge slots where you appear to be doing nothing. Those people might encourage you to socialise more or to take on more household tasks to fill the time. Maintaining self-discipline is hard enough at the best of times without outside encouragement to postpone or forgo your scholarly labours. You will likely have to tell friends and family that although you might not have a formal workday, you are “on the clock” and have to use your time to complete a long list of tasks.

But be sure to cultivate a group of sympathetic academic friends and colleagues with whom you can share and discuss your exploits.

7. Cover everything

Students eager to screw up should remember that their thesis is their defining personal and professional achievement. The thesis is everything. Therefore, it should contain everything. Approach your topic from every conceivable angle. Use a diverse set of methodologies. Explore the topic from every theoretical framework conceivable. Aim to produce an analysis that spans the full sweep of human history. This will ensure that in 30 years you will be asking whether you are eligible for pension benefits as a graduate student.

While working on my master’s degree, I bumped into one of my professors and summarised my thesis topic for him. I was doing research on the sex trade, so I detailed how I expected to conduct a feminist analysis of prostitution in Toronto. It would address economic issues and incorporate recent theoretical work on ethnicity and identity. My methodology involved an ambitious plan for a lengthy period of first-hand observation in the field, combined with dozens of interviews with female street prostitutes, police officers, politicians and local activists. When I stopped talking, he smiled wryly and said, “Well, you certainly have your work cut out for you.”

As we parted, I thought to myself: “He’s right. This is insane. I will never be able to do all of this.” The project was massive, unfocused, and had to be radically reduced in scope and ambition or I would never finish. I slept horribly that night, but my fear motivated me to transform my thesis into something more feasible. Master’s and PhD students tend to set overly ambitious parameters for their research, mistakenly thinking that their thesis has to be a monumental contribution to knowledge.

The jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie famously said that it took his whole life to learn what not to play. The same is true for designing and writing academic works. You need to identify what not to cover in your research, and you must remove tangents peripheral to your analysis or argument. You might have to cut major sections or even chapters. This will hurt. I cut many pages of material in the final stages of writing my master’s thesis, including a number of chunks that I loved but which did not quite fit with my final structure and arguments. A thesis, like any written work, is always stronger when you omit unnecessary sections. Simply place those parts in a separate file and work them up later for a submission to a journal.

8. Abuse your audience

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”
– Flannery O’Connor

You are a budding academic, so you need to write like an academic. This means that you need to produce long, convoluted sentences written in the passive voice, riddled with discipline-specific jargon and exotic words. Writing like that will certainly demonstrate your academic pedigree, yes? Actually, it will not. It will alienate your audience, turn off editors and annoy your supervisor. When postgraduate students aim to “write like an academic”, it too often translates into producing turgid, tortured prose.

One secret of graduate school is that strong writers can do extremely well even if they are not the brightest people in the room. If you cannot write clearly and persuasively, everything about PhD study becomes harder.

So vow that you will not write like a traditional academic: eliminate jargon, strive for clear and concise assertions, compose in the active voice, and be kind to your readers. Above all, continually strive to improve your writing. Writing is like playing guitar; it can improve only through consistent, concerted effort.

9. Have a thin skin

My student Tom was in a funk. After I asked him several times what was wrong, he confided that he was upset by the reviews that he had received of an article that he had submitted to a journal for publication consideration. The reviews were harsh, the paper was rejected, and Tom doubted whether he was cut out to be an academic.

He then handed me a copy of the response that he had written to the journal’s editor. Thank goodness he had not yet sent it off. Tom’s reply came across as both hurt and angry. He essentially accused the reviewers of being know-nothings who were not up on the recent literature and had missed the point of his paper. He then questioned the editor’s competence for choosing such inept reviewers. After reading his letter, I explained to Tom why he needed to develop a thick skin about his professional work. Then I shredded his response to the editor.

You are likely a high achiever who has accumulated a lifetime’s worth of academic success. You are accustomed to being among the best students and to being praised. The feedback you have received from high school and university teachers may have tended to emphasise the positive, sometimes to the point of sugar-coating. Things are different in the more elevated levels of academia. Standards are higher, and failure is common.

You will be competing with other high-calibre students for scholarships and fellowships, the majority of which you will not win. You will also need to publish. A great deal of work will go into developing articles only to have many of them rejected. Once you enter the job market, you will put together lengthy job applications to apply for positions for which there may be dozens of applicants.

A key part of being an academic involves learning to persevere in the face of uncertainty, failure and rejection. Everyone is in the same boat.

10. Get romantically involved with faculty

Although it is rarely discussed frankly, postgraduates and academics sometimes become romantically involved. Here I am not talking about harassment or sexual assault, but rather about consensual couplings. As these are adults, one might be tempted to see this situation as something the participants should work out for themselves. Be that as it may, these consenting adults should be attuned to the dangers of faculty-graduate student relationships.

The most fundamental problem inherent in all such relationships is that academics have more formal and informal power than students. Even in seemingly consensual situations, questions arise about how free the student was to decline the relationship. This differential power is acute if it involves a supervisor sleeping with a student.

What might look like a caring relationship could, in fact, be part of a pattern in which a faculty member cycles through impressionable students.

If a romantic relationship continues, the student’s relationships with all sorts of department members may change. Her accomplishments might become tainted or be dismissed. People may suggest that she published an important article or secured a lucrative grant because her relationship gave her an unfair advantage. If the relationship ends badly, she can become a target of gossip and informal recriminations, sometimes for years to come.

Without condoning such situations, I should point out that I know of several instances where a fling between a student and an academic ended amicably, and in some cases evolved into a long-term relationship. But more often, students end up feeling betrayed, exploited and abandoned. These are risky situations, and unfortunately the graduate student bears almost all the risk. So find your emotional connections outside the faculty ranks.

Graduate school can be an enjoyable experience that sets you on the path for a rewarding career. These 10 tips will be invaluable if you are determined to screw up that prospect. Hopefully, our advice will also help those students eager to avoid missteps.

The authors have chosen to write in the first person singular to protect the privacy of the individuals whose experiences are discussed.

Kevin D. Haggerty is a Killam research laureate and professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Alberta. Aaron Doyle is associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University.


This article is based on extracts from 57 Ways to Screw up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students (University of Chicago Press), a book that sets out further ways to screw up, moving from the earliest stages of planning to go to graduate school all the way through to the finish line. 57 Ways is published this week in the US and on 14 September 2015 in the UK.

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