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I was talking to a friend of mine, and he just feel in a deep depression due to finishing his PhD.

He will be defending in the coming weeks, and there is a high likelihood he will pass.

In his words, he doesn't really feel he has learned anything PhD worthy, he only has one Journal paper and no conference papers (in his area conf papers are not worth much anyway). According to him, one of the postdocs kept his research at bay by denying him access to the machines he need to do experiments (something CMOS related, not really sure what). And in his own words, the same guy basically did the same experiments he was planning and wrote a couple of papers.

Of course he tried to tell his professor, but apparently he couldn't care less.

By now, he just feels that he lost 3 years of his life doing a PhD. And he mentioned that he might sue the Professor/University for this.

I take his word for all of this, and I have no real means to corroborate it to be truth. But it kept me thinking about one thing.

Is a student entitled to sue/demand a reimbursement/etc if he/she feels like the past years have been an utter waste of time?

Is there any mechanism in your universities to do this?

I've heard of similar cases of professors abusing of students in the same way in some US Universities (big/fancy ones by the way)

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I would urge him to avoid talking about suing. It sounds frivolous to sue because he published only one paper, the postdocs hogged the machines and did some of the research he had hoped to do, and he doesn't feel he learned enough. I can understand why this is upsetting, but the courts are not equipped to settle such disputes, especially when the outcome is not terrible in absolute terms (he is getting a Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time and has published a paper). It may be worth complaining about the advisor, using one of the mechanisms F'x suggests below, but probably not a lawsuit. – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 17 '13 at 16:04
If I were your friend, I will just make sure I do the defense and graduate without any problem or bad relation with my advisor.. It is too late to change whats on the ground. Publishing one journal article is a good indication.. I believe many good PhD students are not satisfied with their degree outcome. They always look for better/stronger results. – seteropere Jan 18 '13 at 21:18
Lack of publications in the PhD level is one of the main reasons for PostDoc positions. – Paul Jan 18 '13 at 22:47
@Paul I don't understand your comment. I thought that to get to a good postdoc you need to have goo record; and (at least nowadays) it's impossible to get a professorship without a few prior postdoc positions. – Piotr Migdal Jan 20 '13 at 15:33
@PiotrMigdal: With fewer and fewer professorships available, one has to compete with those who have more research experience. Post-docs enable one to publish more and thus become more competitive. – Paul Jan 20 '13 at 20:13

2 Answers 2

up vote 27 down vote accepted

There sure are cases, every now and then, of researchers (professors or other) abusing students in various ways. As everyone, I have heard stories, and I know at least a couple of people who have been put in dramatic situations during their PhD. However bad the behavior of the advisor is, it turns out that there are multiple venues one can try, during the PhD, when the alarm flag is raised. These depend on the institution and type of employment, but they include:

  • Going to see the PhD program director, explaining your situation (diplomatically) and asking for advice (read: help).
  • Finding a friendly researcher/professor in your department, and ask him for advice (and possibly help) with your issue. They know the people and local “politics”, and might have efficient advice.
  • Your employer's HR department
  • Going to your professor's hierarchy (department chair, dean, …). As a last recourse, file a formal complaint.
  • Get someone to speak for you: a union representative, a member of the local “PhD association”, etc. That can help if you are worried about the fallout of intervening directly.
  • Changing your plans to work on a more “independent” research. In your example, your friend was denied access to a given experiment. If the experiment had broken down beyond repair, he sure could reörient his research, so the same thing could be done in the case at hand (I'm not saying it's easy).
  • Walking out (or, as JeffE would surely say: don't walk, run!)

Regarding legal action: I don't think this avenue can lead anywhere, unless there is factual evidence of gross misconduct or unethical activity. The burden of proof relies on your friend, and I think it will actually be harder to complain after the fact if he did not raise his concerns formally during his PhD.

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I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that a legal case would also be difficult without factual evidence of concrete harm to the student. I'd be surprised if "a complete waste of time" would be considered concrete harm. – JeffE Jan 17 '13 at 16:09
While I completely agree that getting advice/help from other faculty is useful, formal complaints to department chairs or HR are more likely to help future students than the student lodging the complaint. No, that's not fair. – JeffE Jan 17 '13 at 16:18

Strangely enough it depends on the legal system, as that describes the burden of proof. My advise is go see a lawyer... But...

I have had a harrowing experience with what l can best describe as a macho thesis advisor, a personae dramatica. Much of the assault was verbal, but that does not mean that there is no evidence. I have annacodotal emails, he even sent me threatening Emails and lied to my mum! shitty behaviour.

Instead of attacking the problem as if it's is you against the world, think about it differently.

  1. Does the school have a contractual system in place with the student and thesis advisor? In my previous UK school, that is not the case, so in most common law jurisdictions and quiet a few civil law jurisdictions too, that is a no no...

  2. Case law, yes ask your lawyer to look into case law, in fact it's so easy nowerdays, you can do it by yourself. You need to find some precedent, even in civil law, which generally has a rule, that says contracts that cause undue hardship are illegal, and when there is no contract, and you have suffered undue hardship because you were unable to complete your thesis, tends to be sufficient evidence.

  3. Malpractice suites in medicine and the police turn around the expertise embedded in a expert, or someone with special skill and experience. The school has a greater duty of care under common law and under certain civil law jurisdictions, that is an avenue to pursue.

  4. Increasingly in many jurisdictions, when it comes to experts as thesis advisors, the burden of evidence has come down, and you can use here say, and indirect evidence. So this line of mechanistic thinking is wrong. The law is not black letter, and if it is, then it would surely be unjust.

  5. What are you aiming for? Be like a Vulcan and think about it logically. My thesis advisor, was sure of his superior position, and that he could bully me around, and lie to me in my face, that is a breach of conduct, and that is easy to prove. If it's sexual, then it's even easier. You should not think about suing to win, you should think about suing to damage someone's career and the reputation of the school instead. It's a bit like opting for a constant stalemate, like in chess, to prolong the game, and await your opportunity to strike. Then, mind the Star Trek cliche, a legal case can said, to be revenge, and that is best served cold.

  6. You should look at the schools previous record with dealing with thesis advisor problems... Like in my previous school they swept everything under the carpet, even plagerism, and used the data protection act in the UK to avoid dealing with a problem, you have them! When a institution hides behind privacy issues, and does not deal with the real issues, they are not fair or just.

  7. Read through the student booklet and if it says, that they will fairly and justly deal with complaints and they have not, even with small complaints then they are breaking their own contract with you. In our student book it says, l must go to make the complaint to a staff member, and and and... And they would resolve it fairly, but if they blame you, and don't listen, in your and other peoples case, there is a pattern of political game playing and failing to do the right thing. A lot of the contractual relationships can not be put down on paper, and is open to interpretation. You may not be able to sue your thesis advisor, but you can sue the school for they employ him, on grounds other than the thesis advisor.

  8. Think about it this way, you can damage your opponent. A lot of the education you receive, is based on an unwritten contact for services. And even if there is a contrAct, you can poke holes into it. Maybe you can sue them for an unsafe work environment, and force the lab to be closed down. If l were a school, l would be very upset, but you, as an innocent whistle blower with a slightly alter our, but ethically just motive, well the law will see you in a good light. Also if the school fails to give you an adequate answer to a problem, or does not help you, but protects the to hear that is a good grounds to sue on.

  9. Remember in law nothing is the way it seems... Smoke and mirrors.

you are thinking about it all wrong, remove the emotion, and think about maiming and hurting your opponent. My thesis advisor is very confident he is safe because of his position, well he has another thing coming. Not through anger and emotion, but through cold hard logic, find a flaw in the system and pursue that, and do it to damage the schools reputation. If they damage you, you damage them back using the law, and above all doing the right thing, because as institutions they must not think they can get away with abuse.

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This advice is as terrible as it is bitter. – Marc Claesen Oct 9 at 11:42

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