I am having a problem and I need some input to reflect.

Long story almost short: I am in the UK. I have started an interdisciplinary PhD research. At the end of the first year, during the progress panel review, I wrote some potential problems about inter-communication, difficulties in running my work, etc. The times passes, and after 3 years I am ready to submit the work planned, as agreed with my supervisor. 3 months before submitting my thesis, happened an important episode, that made me write an official complaint on both inter-communication and work problems deriving from this episode, that could (and actually would have) create problems in my viva.

After this, I had a great co-supervisor, that arrived to my university just 8 months before submitting. My supervisor instead has almost never done anything - you know that type of people that keep behaving as a friend, speaking about their funny experiences, and in the end (instead of saying: "wow, you are unable to run your work. I'll make sure you find a way/you could try that strategy.") just say: "Oooh, that is a problem: to be fair, it's normal to ask 5-6 times the same thing for that". In the end, career-obsessed, my supervisor has not submitted a ticket for me to work with the super-server of my University - after saying "yes, no problem" (at a certain point I have created another strategy) -, and has stopped replying to my emails about my thesis 6 weeks before my submission, has never provided any review even though I started sending to him chunks of my submission 5 months before submitting. I have mentioned this to the Head of PGR Studies.

All this because I was confident in my work. But my work is interdisciplinary (which is notoriously difficult for examination), and a little naivety about selecting my examiners has brought me to fail (revise and resubmit). As my work is interdisciplinary, instead of giving specific reasons on why to dismiss half of my submission, I was just given instructions on how to make it disciplinary.

Usually, in my field, PhD students are expected to submit 90 minutes of music. I asked my supervisor if it was possible to submit 45 minutes of music and 40.000 words on the topic of music theory. The answer was "yes, that's fine". I have also presented part of my written dissertation at a conference in the UK.

My co-supervisor, while reviewing part of my thesis, complimented me on the depth of argumentation and novelty for my field. During my viva, though, after spending some good words on the work and addressing some minor questions here and there, in the very end I was told "Good the music. About the written dissertation, though, you have written what other people have said. We acknowledge you have read a lot". There I was like "??? Wait, that dissertation is half of my submission", and after a short silence of panic, I was asked to outline my dissertation in 1 sentence, and was not given the right to use more than one sentence when I asked for some space. Here, the viva ended and I failed. The reports say that "the dissertation is well written, but it has no focus and brings no contribution to knowledge" and that therefore they asked me to dismiss my thesis and provide more music. I do believe that the problem is "interdisciplinarity": that feeling of "Is it music? Is it mathematics? Is it philosophy? Is it physics?".

After this, maybe to cheer me up, my supervisor has said (in front of another faculty) "Well, to be honest, in music composition it happens often that examiners don't pay much attention to the written part". Here I was again "???". The reasons for dismissing my written part were very generic - a simple "it's unfocused; it's unclear; brings no contribution to knowledge" without pointing to any concrete example or argumentation.

The problem is that now I have just 1 chance to pass or fail. And my supervisor has just warned me with a 'written notification' (before even listening to my proposal for improving my work) to follow the recommendations of my examiners, and that if I don't, I will go against the recommendations of the whole department and the blame will be mine. He has not asked me why my project is important to me, nor has agreed to see my proposal on reworking the material and submit to another board - not that I would do that, but from "recommendations" we have passed to strict "guidelines" with a supervisor that has refused to listen to me. What was before so "easy" to not get even a review, has suddenly become a taboo.

Question 1) Just to know, I guess I can't change university right? I am stuck with him, correct?

Moral: I submitted a PhD that has never been reviewed (and I understand now some unclear things - yes, the response of the examiners was a general "it's unclear") and now I have just 1 chance. For this chance, I am "very recommended" to throw away the thing I would like to work on in the future and do just as they recommend. And on top I have no money. For me this is a complete defeat - even if I pass.

Question 2) What should/could I do?

Best

  • 2
    1) Which country are you in? 2) Can you clean the timeline (maybe in table format)? How can you submit a thesis one year after starting a PhD? Have you published any of the work at conferences/journals (and was it all unclear there as well)? – Mark May 18 at 21:40
  • Hi @Mark, edited a little the text but shortly: UK, Start -> after 1.5 years, panel review -> after 1 year, Official complaint -> after 2 months, my supervisor stops replying to my emails about my thesis. I haven't published anything yet. I have one article out for review but I do Music Composition, so half of my submission was about musical works that got never performed by my University (and I was asked during my viva that). As I was having very little support for writing my articles for 2.5 years, I was getting the feedback from journal reviewers to improve my work. – Luca Danieli May 18 at 22:32
  • Ah, yes, now that I remember, I have published at a conference. Well, it was an abstract. – Luca Danieli May 19 at 10:28
  • 3
    I find it very hard to follow your writing. Was your thesis manuscript in similar style (bluntly, in bad english)? If your supervisor had no idea what you were doing, he might simply not have understood the text. Ask that co-supervisor to go through the whole thing with you and re-phrase it? – Karl May 20 at 20:12
  • 3
    Long story was not short. – A Simple Algorithm May 25 at 4:19
up vote 7 down vote accepted

From my understanding of your situation, you did something unconventional for your thesis. The examiners didn't like the approach, and told you to do something more conventional in your revise and resubmit.

Since you have only one more chance, your supervisor (and I think your co-supervisor) are telling you to do the safe thing and revise as your examiners have specified.

You would prefer to do the risky thing, which is submit a revised, but still unconventional thesis, but they are not advising this. They are probably right. The time for a risky approach has passed. You are concerned that you won't be able to pursue your scholarly passion without the risky approach. However, please note that you do not need to delete those words from the universe forever. You must simply find another venue to publish/present them. It is just not your dissertation/vita. Instead of discussing with your co-supervisors how to get the examiners to prefer your unconventional approach, you might discuss where you might submit that work outside of the defense.

Another question is if you are right to be frustrated at your supervisor for not advising your better. I think that it is probably fair for you to be frustrated. The supervisor or co-supervisor should have raised red flags for you that the original submission was going to be problematic. At that stage you could have made the submission more clear and had a better shot of the "risky" interdisciplinary thesis being accepted. But that ship has sailed, and it really doesn't' serve you to focus too much on this now.

Note that I am in the US, so there may be some UK loophole you could exploit that I am unaware of. I hope someone in the UK will chime in if so.

  • Everything you say is right indeed. Thank you for your opinion. Presenting myself to other academics with my dissertation was already giving me some results, as I was proposed to apply for a PostDoc in Austria for that specific research. Hope I will still be able to apply for that - I will release my submission as a Creative Commons document. The thing is that now I cannot trust my supervisor anymore, as from carefree he went straight away to aggressive/formal without discussing the thing with me, and he's the only one that can supervise me in my department (topic of research). – Luca Danieli May 21 at 17:57
  • And yes, it is true that the ship has sailed, but I had the Head of my Department know about the unresponsive supervisor, and I was told "the first thing for you is to submit, that maybe you pass, who knows". – Luca Danieli May 21 at 18:45
  • Trust him in what way? Your failure would be embarrassing for him so you will probably find him more responsive this time around. – Dawn May 21 at 18:48

I don't have any experience in music, nor do I know anyone who has done a PhD in a similar area. However, in the UK, it's common to be asked to summarise your thesis in 3 minutes, not one sentence, but similar point.

My PhD is also interdisciplinary - medicine, genetics and statistics. I'm currently writing the corrections. There was one comment from the examiners that I don't agree and I wrote that in the response letter and my main supervisor was strongly against that (I passed with minor corrections). I should avoid going into a conflict because the examiners may not agree and the thesis may still not get accepted. In fact, one of my colleagues that passed with minor corrections had to reply to another round of comments because he ignored comments of the examiners that he didn't agree.

At the end of the day, you need to please the examiners, without compromising yourself. Although, that may be difficult in your case. Perhaps you could follow the examiner comments and publish the deleted parts elsewhere? In my case, I deleted the part where I stated I don't agree with them but answered in a more political way, saying that I agree only on one thing. Still working on the corrections so I don't know if that worked out.

Not sure if this is of use to you, but I thought I would give you a few examples from the UK and highlight the risk you're taking if you decide to resubmit a risky approach.

  • Yep, I see no other option, thanks :) – Luca Danieli May 28 at 15:21

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