Doctoral Candidates Who Couldn't Defend Their Thesis Explain Just What Happened
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Defending your thesis is no joke. I've had friends crack up while preparing. It plays out like an episode of "Defend Your Life." In many cases you are defending your life. Your thesis is more than words on a page, it's a fundamental belief that you've been working towards for years. Everything learned and gained has had a part to play in the birth of that brief. So it can be gut wrenching and life altering when you find yourself at a loss in it's moment of reckoning.

Redditor u/dexMiloyev wanted to know about the times as a student when many of us were left.... stumped by asking.... Doctoral candidates who couldn't defend their thesis, what happened?

In Bed

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One of my colleagues in grad school didn't finish his dissertation. Our advisor moved universities and told him he wasn't invited.

My friend had a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. His wife divorced him because he spent all day catatonic in bed for months, and they had two young children to take care of.


Remind me Later

I've only heard of one or two people who didn't pass in the 6 or so years I was in grad school. They just worked on whatever their committee said to expand on and re-did their defense at a later date. Your advisor really shouldn't let you get to the point where you're defending and there's a chance you won't pass. It's more common that people will Masters out or go ABD, but not outright fail.


20 Years Later....

In the early 1970s, my father was an Ed.D candidate, and his thesis was on the topic of self-pacing computerized instruction (at the high school level). He taught himself the Basic programming language and everything, and was quite confident of success.

His thesis was summarily rejected because "there will NEVER be computers in the classroom" other than postsecondary computer science curriculums.

20 years later computers were everywhere in our schools, and you could go to any big box store and buy educational software similar to what my father had envisioned.


The Thief

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While in graduate school, a professor at my university came up with an idea to write his thesis on. He told his advisor, who basically laughed him out of the room and told him it was a ridiculous idea. A year later, he learned that his advisor had stolen his idea and written a paper on it to be published in a major scientific journal. The student (my current professor) then left the program in disgust and just finished with a master's instead. Pretty good physics professor though.



I knew a PhD student in Math who discovered halfway through her doctorate that the problem she was working on to get her PhD had just been solved by someone else. She was able to work with her advisor to find a way to make the work she applied to that problem be applicable to a similar one. She eventually earned her PhD.


dead to rights....

I have a friend who is a tenured professor at a major university. He submitted a proposal to a funding agency. He later discovered that the program manager had not only stolen his idea, but even reused substantial amounts of text from his proposal in a publication. It turned out that the same guy was in the process of being hired by my friend's university for a leadership role.

Even though he had the guy dead to rights, and my friend's position was fairly secure, the politics of the situation made him too fearful to mention it to anyone.

I can only imagine what might happen to a mere student who accused a professor of this kind of misconduct. The sad truth is, even if the student had unimpeachable evidence, I think a lot of people would choose to obstruct and bury it and destroy the student's life rather than burn a colleague.


Take 2....

We have a family friend who was in a PhD program that basically got disbanded. Like his advisor and several other faculty members got fired. I believe they ended up giving him two master's degrees, Which is nothing to sneeze at but he did the work for a PhD.


Not Passable....

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From my experience in grad school, your committee is there every step along the way.

You cant even start until you have an approved thesis prospectus. In this structure, you know if you're ready to defend or not. A member of my cohort was told prior to her thesis defense that she wouldn't pass, so they rescheduled for later.



It's exceedingly rare to outright fail a defense as others have mentioned. One person in my department failed their final defense because they froze up and couldn't even answer the easiest questions from their committee. Most people I know of who didn't complete their defense either left voluntarily with master's degrees for various reasons or failed out for silly, preventable reasons like plagiarism or not turning in their written qualifying exams on time.


Really Fool?

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Had a Chinese doctoral student in the program I worked for, who was intentionally putting off and screwing up his thesis process. He only had a student visa, and didn't want to go back to China.


Don't be Salty

I know a guy that eventually got his PhD, but it took extra work and encouragement. Poor guy. His adviser left for another university and forbid him from publishing like 2/3 of his work/data. He failed by trying to honor the former adviser's wishes; he was so depressed and going to just accept it. I was freaking livid, and so was everyone else with a graduate degree that heard about it. In the end he presented all his work, got his PhD, and left for a postdoc. His former adviser was told to pound sand. I'm still a little salty.


"all but defense"

OP, since you're an undergrad perhaps this is new: no competent advisor will let a student defend without meeting requirements. It would be a huge embarrassment for the advisor and committee to fail a candidate at the defense, because it implies they didn't do their supervisory job prior to the defense. Good advisors are invested in helping people in their group succeed.

Nevertheless, not everyone who starts the program will finish. People can drop out for every imaginable reason. From failing to meet the requirements for a PhD (e.g., not producing original work of substantial impact), to losing interest in the topic, medical problems, having problems with their advisor, getting an industry job, deciding to move...

For completeness: the impact of the original research and publications generated during the PhD are the key to a solid defense. Sometimes people put "all but defense" in their resume. This means they took classes and did not defend. But the point of a doctorate is not to take classes, but rather to contribute to the state of the art.



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I went to post grad school with a few who couldn't or who timed out. They are known as all but dissertation or ABD. They typically find work relating to their masters degree... or they bartend. Those are literally the top two options I've witnessed!


Years later...

The thesis directly opposed the main premise of the field at the time, the board had a political stake in preserving the status quo. Went to another school and they immediately were just like, yep, here's your PhD. Years later, the original school's board was found to be taking oil money on the side.


Just Fail

Failing the defence (or not being allowed to defend) happens, but rarely. What is far more common is failing the comprehensive exams that most PhD programs require. Comps usually happen before or around the time of proposal approval. They consist (for me at least) a reading list of c.260 books that you have to complete three written exams on and two oral exams. It's not uncommon to fail them and not be allowed to continue.


Upon Review....

Not me, but my friend at her quals. She walked in, and the committee said, "We've reviewed your work, and we can tell that you won't pass this. Therefore, we're not going to give it to you so that you don't have it on your records that you failed. Withdraw from the program."

I was crushed, and it wasn't even me.



Giving a serious answer here...

If your dissertation advisor is any good whatsoever, they will tell you when you are ready to defend and not allow you to defend until that point. For this reason, it is rare that a doctoral candidate ever fails to defend. The only times I have heard of it happening are when a student insists on defending even though their advisor says they are not ready, with predictable results.


I Made It...

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I have always been a horrible procrastinator and did not have the demeanor to complete a PhD. Did great in the coursework first two years then failed out after the third year. Now I make a lot of money as a quant.


Give me my backpack...

There was a guy in my program before I started (early 2000's) that had ALL of his data on one flash drive. He lost it when his backpack was stolen. Rumour had it he almost committed suicide after loosing like 3 years of work. He never finished and I think he went into a trade. Probably makes more money this way so good on him.


In the Netherlands...

My grandfather did not have to defend his thesis because he did not have to make one. In the Netherlands one could do doctoral by defending a number of assertions/propositions in front of the professors. So a real oral exam. He studied law, so he had to make a list of about 60 topics in different fields of law (criminal, civil, bankruptcy, merchant, sea etc.) like e.g. 'victims of violence have enough/not enough ways of getting compensation' and was questioned in depth about those. Apparently he did well, got the doctorate, and 25 years later Leiden University gave him a special diploma commemorating his doctorate.


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