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I failed my oral exam unexpectedly. My advisor had the impression that it would be less formal than it was (or at least that is what he told me) and I wasn't prepared. I thought it would be more along the lines of a project proposal, but instead my committee wanted my thesis to be close to half done.

It is not. The problem I have been working on is fairly unique, and there wasn't a lot of existing work for me to base it on. I've needed to run a lot of numerical tests to ensure my conjectures are correct before trying to prove them. Consequently, progress has been slow. But there have been some results, and I know that it is a good idea.

My second oral exam will be at the end of spring, and if I do not pass then, I will be removed from the program. I'm sure I could finish this in time to graduate, but with a hard, career-endangering deadline in sight, I'm becoming very worried about the timeline. I didn't expect to be in this position.

I've contemplated switching problems to something with a more predictable timeline, but at this point, starting over seems like a poor option, even if the new problem would be faster. I've thought the same about my advisor. It seems like time has locked me into playing what I thought was a good hand, but am now realizing may not be.

Are there any suggestions or advice for how to pull research together quickly for a deadline? (Other than work like hell, which I am doing.)

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    Are you talking about the thesis proposal or the thesis itself? Please clarify. Thanks. – scaaahu Jan 2 '18 at 12:49
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    The proposal needs to be detailed enough to pass as (or be) about half of a dissertation. – droppingbrickscrisismode Jan 2 '18 at 12:57
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    What country/continent is this? – Thomas Jan 2 '18 at 18:11
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    You should be absolutely explicit about what level the prgoramme is. By some interpretations this could be PhD level, but by others it could be Master's level. Timescales and the expected degree of independence both depend on which it is. – Chris H Jan 3 '18 at 9:34
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    Maybe you could give us an insight in the relationship between you and your advisor. Somehow your expectations of the oral exam were quite differently which could have a variety of reasons. Did he fail to tell you or did you fail to read the thesis guidelines? You can't really pull your research together quickly; maybe there is an option to move the deadline back. – P. G. Jan 3 '18 at 11:12
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If it helps, your failing is probably more representative of your committee criticizing your adviser rather than you alone. Let me guess -- you work for a assistant/junior Professor or a tenured professor who has fallen out of political favor within the department? My guess is they are "beating on you" as a proxy for your professor because that is how academia works.

My advice to getting out of this rut is to suss out who on your committee is your adviser's enemy and work more closely with them. To handle a similar situation I had in my PhD I attended "enemy" group meetings and presented updates on my work directly to "enemy's" group. I could learn any objections to my work from the "enemy" right away before presenting in the exam. Over time the deadline for retaking exam became more flexible. I ended up satisfying it a few months before defending my dissertation. Enemy turned to friend and helped me with providing materials and access to characterization tools. Enemy-turned-friend wrote stellar recc letters and helped organize job interview for me. I ended up drafting and publishing 5 manuscripts from the research, on 2 of the papers I offered "enemy/friend" coauthorship and he/she declined. After graduating enemy-turned-friend became department chair and took away my adviser's labspace and used my PhD apparatus for his/her own research.

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    While it's certainly possible, nothing in OP's post particularly sounds like this is a department politics issue. What I read more is that OP's advisor is quite inexperienced, and did not prepare her/him well for the exam. That said, your solution (talk more to other professors in the committee) is probably still useful. – xLeitix Jan 2 '18 at 14:30
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    I have seen these issues first and second-hand so many times I have to offer the OP a credible explanation for what comes as a surprise to him/her. I have also seen the reverse case -- an unaccomplished/unprepared student breezing through oral exam due to the PI being respected/feared/liked many many times. It is important OP puts the events in a broader perspective; success in the oral exam is in large part politically motivated. – DBB Jan 2 '18 at 15:47
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    +1 OP should definitely talk to other members of the committee and not rely on the advisor, as it sounds like the advisor has failed (be it for political reasons or not). – Thomas Jan 2 '18 at 18:13
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    "Let me guess" Guessing is not very useful in my opinion. – Trilarion Jan 3 '18 at 14:27
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    Wow, I’ve never heard of anything like this. I don’t doubt your accounts that this has happened but it must have been a highly dysfunctional department. As a default guess for OP’s situation it sounds grotesque. The prior should be that OP failed for legitimate reasons. The rest of your advice is solid but the first paragraph is really not. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 3 '18 at 14:48
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The actual question in the post is if there are suggestions for pulling research together quickly. For this, you need your advisor. Find out from him which of your research objectives maximize the importance to time ratio, and focus on those tasks. There may well be ways (specific to you) that improve your own efficiency, but that will depend on many personal factors.

I myself worked on a thesis problem (in math) that was basically, "I wonder if there is a connection between these two things?" When working on such a problem, it is easy for the new researcher to get bogged down in potential discoveries that are not "important" in one sense or another. It sounds to me like you need guidance in this area.

Going along these same lines, it would be best to find out explicitly what your committee is looking for in the next exam. Find out what types of things they felt were lacking from your research. Also, maybe one component to your initial failure was a perception that you lacked general knowledge of your field. If that is the case, than you don't want to put all of your effort into research. (I am certainly not accusing you of lacking knowledge. Just pointing out that there is more than one way to fail an oral exam.)

This idea that you need "half a dissertation" is way too vague to work off of in preparation for your next oral exam.

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I’ll be speaking out of turn here given my inexperience. But hopefully this may be a boon rather than a deficit.

Are you familiar with Occam’s Razor?

In short, the simplest reason is often (but not always) the correct one. In this case, let’s focus on your first paragraph.

I failed my oral exam unexpectedly. My advisor had the impression that it would be less formal than it was (or at least that is what he told me) and I wasn't prepared. I thought it would be more along the lines of a project proposal, but instead my committee wanted my thesis to be close to half done.

Before going into the first exam, how did you prepare? What information led you to presume that the exam was just a proposal? Analyze your information sources and deduce what is missing. If the missing link is input from the committee members, then it would be wise to reach out to them and cover your bases and get their opinion.

It is not. The problem I have been working on is fairly unique, and there wasn't a lot of existing work for me to base it on. I've needed to run a lot of numerical tests to ensure my conjectures are correct before trying to prove them. Consequently, progress has been slow. But there have been some results, and I know that it is a good idea.

My second oral exam will be at the end of spring, and if I do not pass then, I will be removed from the program. I'm sure I could finish this in time to graduate, but with a hard, career-endangering deadline in sight, I'm becoming very worried about the timeline. I didn't expect to be in this position.

I've contemplated switching problems to something with a more predictable timeline, but at this point, starting over seems like a poor option, even if the new problem would be faster. I've thought the same about my advisor. It seems like time has locked me into playing what I thought was a good hand, but am now realizing may not be.

You have a thesis plan. You have a timeline. But I ask, given the restrictions, can you reasonably modify it to fit the new deadline? If not, what options would you have? Defend an incomplete thesis? Continue and complete your research as a post doctorate? Request an extension?

Are there any suggestions or advice for how to pull research together quickly for a deadline? (Other than work like hell, which I am doing.)

I would urge caution and a different approach. Working like hell is good, but burning yourself out will not help you perform well in the long run.

Work smart as well as hard. Contact your committee members for their input as well as your advisor. If you have other commitments (like work, volunteering, etc) reconsider whether or not it would be possible to keep your commitments moving forward.

Lastly, remember to leave time for yourself. No one operates on 100% at each moment of the day. Remember to eat, exercise, and find time to socialize. Practice a holistic approach to keep you at 100%.

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