I have had a very rocky PhD candidacy. My first supervisor left academia half way through my candidacy; the replacing supervisor passed away a year after that. So two and a half years through a three-years PhD candidacy, the head of the department gives me two choices: Either I have to change my topic of research and start over from zero again and somehow finish "in time" (how this will be done is unclear, and I am supposed to hash it out myself with one of the available supervisors), or I have to withdraw from the program.

Their justification is that no one in the department understands the content of my works. Is this a proper/normal justification? I cannot believe that an academic department belonging to a top university can seriously use “we fail to understand the candidate’s work“ as a justification to force me to do something that I deem to be completely infeasible.

So, assuming I cannot dispute this decision, given the fact that I have to start over from zero again anyway, with a department that readily admits that its people do not have the competence to understand and therefore will throw away wantonly what I have produced after two and a half years of working nine hours every single day without a single day off, should I just leave and apply for another PhD program? Whatever that will be coming out from this attempt to salvage my PhD will probably lead me nowhere except a piece of paper anyway. If I withdraw for this reason, how will this be seen by other universities? How will this be seen by people in the industry?

My goal is a career in academia. I am someone who has severe social anxiety and so I find it impossible to survive in the industry. I have always thought I might have a chance to be accepted in the academic world instead, but I have now realized that someone like me probably belongs nowhere.

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    What's your general academia area? Engineering, physical sciences, medicine, humanities, etc.?
    – Nat
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 1:04
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    This is totally going to depend on your field, I'm afraid. The culture of supervising is very different in humanities than in the physical sciences. In physics, it could be easily possible for there to only be two people in a department who could be competent to evaluate your work.
    – AJK
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 2:28
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    I think you may be underestimating some of the problems involved in getting a new advisor. For instance, I have worked extensively with SDEs and know some mathematical finance people. I could (with work) understand papers in that field. But I would never supervise a student working on that, because I do not know what is the state-of-the-art, I do not know what questions are interesting, and I have no specific unique expertise that would aid the student. It is possible that you are in a position where no one in the department feels they can responsibly supervise you in your current work.
    – AJK
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 3:30
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    Out of curiosity, did you ask the department head (non-rhetorically) exactly how he visualized a reasonable way for you to complete? Or is he just trying to throw you out and he's pretending that it's somehow possible for you to finish? Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 3:36
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    Also consider switching to a different university where there is a professor in your domain. Apparently your department just lost two... I can imagine that the remaining supervisors do come from very different subdomains. Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 9:32

7 Answers 7


Maybe someone else in the department can supervise your work and maybe they can't--the fact is that they won't, and that's what you have to work with. My (pessimistic) gut feeling is that the department head has essentially written you off as collateral damage. He's willing to push you through for a completion because that's good for the department, but he doesn't care that you want an academic career.

On the off chance that this isn't the case, you might try approaching the possible available supervisors and get a clear timeline from them about how you can finish with work that can launch an academic career. If they tell you it will take longer than the one year that the department head seems willing to allow, you can try going over his head to pressure him to agree to your new supervisor's timeline. But this is a rather delicate situation and you are probably better off shopping your work around at another school and explaining that you lost two supervisors through no fault of your own.

  • This answer is so real and hard truth. I think OP should change program also.
    – SSimon
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 6:50

First of all, there are a country dependency here. I assume you are in the UK, since you talk about a 3 year time limit. In most other countries, there is no time limit for a PhD, and if you did start over with another supervisor, it would be a good reason for taking another 3 years to finish, and the department could probably find some way to fund you for the extra time. Unfortunately, it seems like this is impossible in the UK.

Second, as a mathematician, I find it very plausible that no one else in the department can supervise your research. I can legitimately say that, in my department of 14, I do not really understand the research of anyone else in the department. There are 2 or 3 others whose students' work I would feel competent to evaluate if I had a reasonable amount of time to study, but I couldn't provide any useful research guidance to their students. For the rest of my department, I would really have to spend a couple of years relearning material from some fairly basic graduate courses in order to understand their research. It's a significant burden with minimal rewards to evaluate the research of the student of a deceased colleague; someone even in a related area could easily have to put in a full month or more of work to get up to speed on mathematical ideas they have not thought about in a long time. It might not be possible to persuade anyone to put in that kind of work for essentially no gain.

If you found someone at another university working in your area who would be a suitable supervisor, then I think starting a new (possibly expedited) PhD there would make sense, and you would have a good chance of being admitted under the circumstances. However, if you are planning to leave in order to start over in a new area somewhere else, I don't think that would look good.

EDIT: I want to add an additional consideration. In mathematics, applications for research-oriented positions rely heavily on letters from senior researchers who can explain how your work fits in the broader context of work in your area, since it is likely that the hiring committee will not have enough expertise to understand this context on their own, and recent PhDs do not have a broad enough perspective to explain this context for themselves. Having a supervisor who does not understand your research area well enough to write such a letter puts you at a severe disadvantage on the job market.

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    The "gain" would of course be fulfilling the department's obligation to the student, who has already put in more than two years' work. Which just underscores that (many) departments don't think they have any obligation to their students. Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 4:47
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    @ElizabethHenning: No I think it underscores that (many) professors don't think they have any obligations beyond the contracted ones to their departments or their universities. I would venture that (many) professors think that their department has an obligation to the student, but that it's solely the job of the chair or the director of graduate studies to find a solution. Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 5:24
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    I was not aware that professors thought of themselves as contractors to the department. Thanks for the clarification. Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 5:31
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    For what it's worth: I believe both that the department has obligations to the student, and that I (as a faculty member) have obligations to the department beyond what is written in my contract. (I certainly don't view myself as a "contractor", and I don't know anyone who does.) However, in both cases these obligations have limitations, and they can be in tension with other obligations. In the case under discussion, taking on the student appears to be a very difficult assignment (in particular given the HoD's lack of flexibility in the case) that would be very likely to affect...
    – Spiny
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 13:57
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    ...the supervisor's other duties. Unless the department is really committed to achieving a good solution for the student, say by offering the new supervisor substantial accommodations in other workload, it seems difficult to imagine anyone volunteering for this job.
    – Spiny
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 14:01

Their justification is that no one in the department understands the content of my works. Is this a proper/normal justification?

I really empathize with this situation. No one's understood my work for half my life now. If it weren't for the fact that the stuff I make works, folks'd probably write me off as crazy.

Still, I passed a dissertation/defense pretty easily. An advisor had suggested that I keep my mouth shut about how the stuff worked and just focus on showing its results. The dissertation was mostly a bunch of how-to for the intro-level stuff.

I suppose that the dilemma is that, to pass you, the committee needs some means of appreciating that your work's meaningful enough to constitute a PhD. For me, that was building stuff that worked. For you, what might it be? What can you do to show that your work has merit?

If I withdraw for this reason, how will this be seen by other universities? How will this be seen by people in the industry?

Individuals will likely have all sorts of different opinions. Some might empathize; others might not.

When you go to interview for something, why should the interviewer believe your description of the situation? How could they see that you have ability to be applied? What should they think of your ability to contribute to their group's/company's efforts?

Ultimately, I think that this takes you back to the same dilemma - you need some means of providing others with a basis for appreciating your work.

My goal is a career in academia.

Academia's about building up a common knowledge base; some level of intellectual conformity is a prerequisite. Otherwise, you'll be the person publishing papers that no one cites and hosting lectures that no one attends.

So if academia's your goal, you'll probably need to find some line of research that others can appreciate. Something that they'll want to read about and attend lectures on. Something that students'll want to take classes on. Something that'll get traction when you write up a grant application.

Optimally, you'll pick a popular topic and increment it. This works really well because there'll be a ton of academics reading papers on that topic already, and they'll liable cite your paper if it's the best on what they're trying to do.

I am someone who has severe social anxiety and so I find it impossible to survive in the industry. I have always thought I might have a chance to be accepted in the academic world instead, but I have now realized that someone like me probably belongs nowhere.

People'll judge you no matter what. Just in academia, it'll be more about social esteem, while in industry, it'll be more about perceived market use.

If you have tons of anxiety, it'll be difficult for you to stand on your own as a free entity since that's exactly what stresses you out. But if you're still able to get productive stuff done, then you'll often be able to find a place under someone's wing.

In academia, you might find a place as a researcher in another PI's group. Or in industry, you might find a nice R&D lab. You might not be a leader in either of those scenarios, but you'd still be a valued member.

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    Most of my works can be classified as "theoretical" so unfortunately I can't just show people that "it works" and be done with it. I have always had an affinity towards the abstract, and I chose to take my education up to this point because I believed that the people here appreciated what I could offer. I do not know if my previous two supervisors did "appreciate" it, but they certainly allowed me to work in this direction, and on papers, the department did too. But in the aftermath, it turned out that nobody knew what I was doing, and then after months of uncertainty, they decide to do this. Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 3:17
  • @ProjectBook Could you elaborate on "theoretical"? I mean, theories are all about making real-world predictions; would you be able to make such predictions to show that your methods work?
    – Nat
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 3:30
  • One of the question I address is that suppose an investor cannot form a portfolio that pays, say 1 dollar, with certainty, then we can infer that the price of the stock satisfies certain statistical properties. This sort of result mainly (as far as I understand) allows one to justify why he/she can make certain statistical assumptions regarding the price of a stock (as well as give a rigorous argument to a conjecture that, intuitively, should be true), but in practice, it is virtually impossible to verify if either of the two equivalent conditions hold, hence "theoretical". Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 4:11
  • The equivalent to "the stuff I make works" for theory/pure math is publication and acceptance by the field. If you can get a prominent journal in your field to referee your work and find it valuable, that would be a sign that your work could be worth a PhD. However, since A) your work may not be at the stage to submit, and B) reviewing times are very long in pure math/econ, this probably would not help you with your academic situation.
    – AJK
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 5:41

I witnessed a similar situation in my field a few years ago: A professor died suddenly, leaving a bunch of PhD students at a university where nobody had sufficient rank and expertise to evaluate their thesis and supervise them.

For those close to graduation, the following was done: They joined a PhD program at another university where there was a professor capable of advising or supervising them, usually a collaborator of the late professor. However, if they wanted to, they could physically stay at their old university, except for a few visits to the new university. Also, their employments at the old university would continue. All previous achievements were transferred to the new program, so the PhD students could basically continue without a considerable delay.

Whether this will be possible for you depends on the involved university’s guidelines, how PhD financing is organised in your country, and so on, so you have to get familiar with these. Be aware that PhD programs differ a lot across different countries and universities. If you can, find a supervisor at a university with a suitable program. Being geographically and financially flexible helps of course. For example, most German PhD programs officially only require you to have a reasonable prerequisite degree (e.g., a master’s), find a professor at the university who agrees to supervise you, stay in the program for at least a year, hand in a good thesis, and pass the defence (with the last two being the difficult parts). Moreover, they often have a flexibility clause that allows them to waive certain criteria (such as staying in the program for a year) in exceptional circumstances such as yours.

Regarding your anxiety, consider that many professors in your field will happily take you: You are already trained, probably productive in terms of publications, and having you as a graduate may contribute positively to all sorts of evaluations. Moreover, you may become the ideal postdoc candidate, as you can be evaluated on the job. Finally, keep in mind that a typical academic career would have involved switching locations for a postdoc soon anyway. Now you do it a little bit sooner, but that’s easily explained on a CV given your circumstances.

Some random thoughts:

  • Are there any other supervisees of your late supervisor? If yes, consider working together to get proper support from the department.

  • Consider finding professional help for dealing with your department. Most universities nowadays have people whose job it is to support people having trouble with their advisor or similar. Also, if you have a student union, they may help.

  • This won’t probably work given the attitude of your department, but it’s worth a try: If your late supervisor had other supervisees, in particular for a bachelor’s or master’s thesis (if that’s a thing in your country and field at all), these need supervision too. If you are good, you may help the department providing that supervision or even evaluating the respective theses (depending on your regulations). This won’t only give them a reason to keep and support you, but will also look good on your CV if you aspire an academic career.


(1) Your fear of working in industry, and how that may affect your life as a grad student.

Feeling boxed in isn't the best way to do a PhD.

I understand your fear of working in industry, but I will encourage you to face this fear, gently. I think that if you do, some of that fear will dissolve, and you'll be able to continue your studies in a more positive way, with less energy wasted on fear-related stuff.

How can you face this fear? Look around for people to shadow in industry. "Shadow" means you follow your host around for a day, and watch and listen. I've seen this called "career exploration." Perhaps you could aim to do one shadow per month.

Believe it or not, there are people with severe social anxiety who are able to function pretty well in industry.

(2) The death of your advisor (on top of the departure of your first advisor).

You've had two significant losses.

I'm going to make two suggestions for you to consider:

(a) Get a doctor's note supporting a request for a leave of absence of a semester (or six months, if that is more compatible with your university's calendar). Give yourself some time to grieve and recover after the death of your advisor.

(b) Regardless of whether you stick with your original research plan, or modify it somewhat, or start something brand new, you need an advisor. It would be ideal if the advisor were hip to your research topic, but it sounds like that's not going to be possible. Well, then you need an advisor who can be supportive in a more general, less specific way. Since you are in a small department, you can consider each faculty member as a potential advisor. Make yourself a short list of professors and get to know them a little bit, see if you can narrow things down some more.

Once you are feeling better, and once you have an advisor, you'll be in a better position to make some decisions about your thesis research and your thesis topic.

One possible way forward that I can imagine for you is that your new advisor helps you find a quasi-advisor at another university who can mentor you with your existing topic, or with a slightly modified version of your original topic.

When you feel ready, you should prepare to teach your new advisor about what you've been working on.


assuming I cannot dispute this decision

I recommend trying to:

two and half years through a three years PhD candidacy, the head of the department gives me two choices, either I have to change my topic of research and start over from zero again and somehow finish "in time"...or I have to withdraw from the program.

It is worth considering whether the head of the department has the legal right to actually do this. You have no-doubt signed a contract with the university and this contract grants rights to both parties. Perhaps the contract will support a third option:

Write your thesis and submit. Writing-up doesn't require supervision, so you can proceed without a supervisor.

I'd recommend proposing this solution to the head of department before exploring any legal avenue. (By "legal avenue," I don't necessarily mean using the legal system. I mean presenting an argument, perhaps in writing, to the department or university, that proposes a solution and provides some legal basis for why the department/university should accept. Such a legal basis need not be direct. That is, you needn't refer directly to any contract. You needn't threaten either. You just need to provide a reasonable solution that can be accepted.)

Their justification is that no one in the department understands the content of my works.

At this stage, there doesn't seem a need for supervision of your work. You're 5/6 complete.

should I just leave and apply for another PhD program? ... If I withdraw for this reason, how will this be seen by other universities? How will this be seen by people in the industry?

You presumably know some senior researchers (from other universities) at this stage. You could approach them and discuss the possibility of their supervising the remainder of your PhD, either at their university or your own. If you approach a senior researcher, rather than a university, then the university should follow the advise of their employee, so that shouldn't cause a problem. From a future employer's perspective, you'll have a tricky aspect to explain on your CV. That might be problematic for early positions, but it won't matter down the line.

  • The OP wrote "My goal is a career in academia." Maybe he can somehow finish his PhD without a supervisor, but it is all but impossible for him to continue his academic career if he graduates this way. In my opinion, it would be better in the long term to start in a new PhD program with a supervisor who can fully supervise, support and promote him. Commented Dec 19, 2017 at 15:45
  • @PeteL.Clark Why can he not continue his academic career?
    – user2768
    Commented Dec 19, 2017 at 16:02

My first response was going to be that you could say the following: "No!" One key to this is not to follow up with any reasoning, as in fact you do not need to give reasoning--the reasoning is clearly implied by the situation. If you do give reasoning be careful they do not force you to eat away your own position of argument. Since they have the lower stance, they may use such a strategy. You have much more right to carry on with what you have started (started under the mutual agreement between you and the department) then they have for forcing you to drop all your work.

The above still stands, however, considering your personal situation, if you have concerns about communicating this strongly enough, then you may want to hire someone to represent you either formally or informally. You might consider the graduate student union, but the problem is are they good enough at your university? And are you ok approaching them?, if not then that is why getting your own representation is also possible.

By the way, there are definitely places where you belong, and university is one of them.

Also I'd like to address your question about their current justification. No it is not a valid argument. For one if someone needs to know the stuff, they can go learn it just as you have learned it. Learning is common and fundamental to professorial life. The other point is that the situation is not much different from when you had an advisor, as the advisor can not single-handedly give you a Phd, correct?

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    I'm curious why there has been negative votes to my answer, especially considering my answer is the only one which directly encourages the poster to stand up for what is their right without pulling any punches. The other posts are almost fatalistic, and thus indirectly in favour of the department's very unfair and authoritarian approach. I consider that wrongheaded, and feel the poster should take a solid stance against such injustice.
    – Ootagu
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 20:16
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    I would guess that you have received downvotes because your approach is highly confrontational and many of us have made the experience that in academia (and in life), being highly confrontational is rarely the way to achieve your goals, even and especially when dealing with unreasonable people. Your suggestion that the OP should "get representation" implies that they have a legal leg to stand on, which I find extremely questionable.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Dec 16, 2017 at 20:54
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    In addition, you also claim that "if someone needs to know the stuff, they can go learn it just as you have learned it." and assume that this is trivial. Instead, it is very likely that this would require months to years of focused work. Going up to anyone in any position and saying, "I have had bad luck, and therefore you must invest massive amounts of time to fix it" is not likely to end well, because it isn't reasonable.
    – AJK
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 5:38
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    @SSimon Everybody has the legal right to sue anybody about anything. Whether it has a chance to even go before a court is a different story, and I can't imagine that this case has.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 9:06
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    Wow, we've been pushed around too much, but does that mean to down vote the messenger? That's horrible. Everyone has the right to sue, and everyone has a legal leg to stand on, especially if you have a lawyer representing you. The lawyer's job is to determine what to sue for. My guess it would be connected to the contractural agreement with the department to complete the PhD, lost income due to not working all those years, and lost career opportunities. I'm being confrontational because the department is being unjust!
    – Ootagu
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 18:50

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