My friend (who spent 3-4 years in a PhD program, discipline in social sciences) is encountering a serious situation with his committee/advisor. They are asking him to leave the program because the committee did not approve of the dissertation proposal. Earlier last summer, my friend had re-written the topic of the proposal.

Is this common? What can he do? He's a bit reticent to inform me but it seems he's not getting the support of his adviser. Can he talk to the graduate director to request to change advisors at this point? Or should he beg the committee to let him stay and try to somehow reach a compromise with his advisor on the type of dissertation he can produce. Or should he quietly leave and not put a fight? I suspect they might make things difficult for him if he persists to stay. Or should he talk to the graduate school?

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    Was there a previous proposal? Did the committee reject the previous proposal if there was one?
    – Nobody
    Jan 30, 2018 at 9:12
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    Why did he re-wrote the topic of the proposal, did he do this by himself or with approval of the advisor?
    – Mark
    Jan 30, 2018 at 9:35
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    There is a difference between having a dissertation proposal rejected and being asked to leave the program. I suspect that there is more to the situation than that. Rejecting the proposal might provide the occasion to ask that someone leave the program but is unlikely to be the reason for that (at least not the sole reason). Jan 30, 2018 at 11:48
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    @John Coleman I agree. There is probably more to it. If the committee is using the rejection of the proposal to ask my friend to leave, this is not a professional behavior. It seems to me that one committee member is wielding unusual power; that the advisor is not resisting; I just wish the advisor would bat for my friend.
    – pom thumi
    Jan 30, 2018 at 16:30
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    A conversation with the graduate director sounds like a good place to start. I suggest you offer to go along as an extra pair of eyes and ears. Jan 30, 2018 at 19:46

1 Answer 1


When doing your PhD you need the support of someone, so it is no use trying to finish your PhD if everybody in your department is against you. So if there is a conflict between your friend and his advisor that escalated to such an extent that the two cannot fix it themselves, than it is time to move up in the hierarchy. The graduate director can either try to mediate between your friend and his advisor, or try to find an another advisor.

If that fails, then that is a horrible situation for your friend, which in most (but not all) cases a professionally run department should be able to prevent. In that case there is pretty much no other option but to leave and try his luck at another department. However, beware that that department will in all likelihood be in the same field, and scientific fields are like small villages: they gossip a lot. So, your friend will most probably enter that new department with a "reputation". Also your friend should consider his own role in the conflict in order to prevent making the same mistakes again. Remember, he already has a reputation, so he probably won't be treated as leniently as a new PhD student.

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    It could also be that the advisor (already) has a "reputation". In that case, other departments might feel sorry for the student/OP's friend, and try everything to give him an easy transition time.
    – Mark
    Jan 30, 2018 at 9:34
  • This is a nice answer. The situation in which your friend is finding himself is an unwanted one in a professionally run institute/institution. Unless your friend and the advisor did something very wrong either scientifically or ethically, a phd topic cannot be dismiss after 4 ys. There should be a way, albeit unpleasant, to solve the situation.
    – Alchimista
    Jan 30, 2018 at 12:22
  • @Mark good point: Advisors definitely also have a reputation Jan 30, 2018 at 13:19
  • @Alchimista Yes I agree; this is a helpful answer. I hope the issue is resolved professionally. It seems though that professionally in academia means not conveying matters directly to graduate students. From what I know, neither my friend nor the advisor did anything wrong ethically or scientifically (it's a social sciences/humanities program).
    – pom thumi
    Jan 31, 2018 at 6:14

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