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My situation

I could go into the details of the situation in some detail here, but I fear it would read like a shaggy-dog story. For the moment I'll limit myself to these (what I hope are) salient points:

  • I enrolled for PhD in October 2011.

  • I made a breakthrough in my second year, which would be the subject of my thesis. This work has been ratified by colleagues both within and outside of academia.

  • After this, I took a considerable time off for personal reasons.

  • The likely earliest date I would have completed is October 2015.

  • If I were allowed to do so, I could likely complete in October 2018, so three years late.

  • Some would say that because my PhD is two years long, I would be five years late. I would counter that that's two years of funding the institution has saved (this irony would not be lost on anyone familiar with the workings of academia).

  • A senior and respected academic is on my side and is currently doing his best on my behalf to persuade the powers that be. However, I no longer think it is fair to drag him into the dispute. He is kind and reasonable, and for that reason this has become his burden. I want him out of it.

  • Nobody has told me that I cannot complete my PhD yet. The university has not responded yet, and I suspect they never will.

  • I don't need any funding. I just need to be allowed arrange the final examination and get this out of the way.

My question

I'm wondering whether I shouldn't just force the institution's hand with (at least) the threat of legal action, rather than expecting someone else to fight my battles for me. At the same time, however, I don't want to start issuing threats. I would do anything to avoid this course, to be frank.

  1. Can you offer any wisdom on doing this?
  2. Are there any relevant precedents? The institution is UK-based.
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    Legal advice should be got from your lawyer, not from random persons on the internet. If you can stay in without legal action then that is to be preferred. Since you have someone working for you on the inside, it sounds it me too early for legal action. At the very least coordinate this with your ally. If I were working in your behalf, and you started legal actions without discussing it with me first, then I would be not amused. Aug 5, 2018 at 9:34
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    It looks to me like there is no actual dispute yet, the problem is that they don't answer your request to register in order to complete the PhD, correct? If yes, I think you should simply ask the university administration what is the status of your request. There can be plenty of reasons why it would take time (most obvious one: the person in charge is on holiday!), it's not necessarily related to the fact that you are late in the PhD. In my experience it's very rare that a university would deprive themselves of a successful PhD just for the sake of duration rules.
    – Erwan
    Aug 5, 2018 at 10:27
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    Is it standard in the UK to have a hard deadline on PhD? In France, a standard PhD is 3 years but it is common, especially in social sciences where the funding is sparse, to take a longer time (7 years in social sciences is not uncommon).
    – Taladris
    Aug 5, 2018 at 10:41
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    I included a lot of information from the comments into your question and restructured it so it has the order a reader would expect. Still, one information is missing (as remarked by other commentors above): Has anybody ever told you that you cannot complete your PhD? Is anything actually keeping you from submitting your thesis right now? Please edit your question to include this information.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 5, 2018 at 14:51
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    What makes you think that your university will never respond to your request? What have you tried thus far? What does your ally say about this? Aug 5, 2018 at 15:47

4 Answers 4

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My broad diagnosis of your situation is that your time in your PhD program was too short and too long ago to give you a clear understanding of what the process of getting a PhD entails. That lack of understanding is definitely going to cause you problems so should be addressed right away. What other problems you may have, if any, is hard to tell at this point.

Let me now try to address some specifics:

Nobody has told me that I cannot complete my PhD yet. The university has not responded yet, and I suspect they never will.

I'm already a bit lost. The university will certainly respond to halfway reasonable questions directed to the right people. Whom are you asking? You should start by talking to people in your department: your advisor, the director/coordinator/chair/whatever of graduate studies, the department head....

I am considering legal action. I'm wondering whether I shouldn't just force the institution's hand with (at least) the threat of legal action, rather than expecting someone else to fight my battles for me. At the same time, however, I don't want to start issuing threats. I would do anything to avoid legal action, to be frank.

Please read this over yourself. It's conflicted bordering on contradictory. But let me chime in: no, you should absolutely not try to "force the institution's hand" with the threat of legal action -- certainly not at this point, and in my opinion and experience, virtually never for someone in your broad situation. The institution knows its own rules and policies intimately and you don't seem to know them at all. The institution employs a team of lawyers; you do not. A legal threat is not going to spook them into any positive action.

Also, IANAL and doubly not a lawyer in the UK, but in order to bring legal action you need to have some legal basis: a law they broke, a contract they breached, something like that. You didn't mention any such thing. Timing out your PhD may not be very nice, but that's not the same thing at all.

If I were allowed to do so, I could likely complete in October 2018, so three years late.

You haven't been in academia for several years, but you think you could complete your PhD within three months from now? Unless you have a completed thesis ready to go (or better, already submitted to your committee) that is basically impossible. Your unrealistic time frame is a bit worrisome to me.

I made a breakthrough in my second year, which would be the subject of my thesis. This work has been ratified by colleagues both within and outside of academia.

This is a key point in regard to how close you are to finishing your PhD. "Ratified" is a strange word to use, and "outside of academia" is not very relevant either. If your "breakthrough" resulted in a publication in a strong journal, then you're going in the right direction. But you still need to work out with your thesis advisor whether the work of this publication alone is sufficient to be written up into a thesis (such writing may or may not take substantial extra time). If you haven't spoken to your thesis advisor about this -- or, and here I am cringing as I type and hoping I am way off, if you don't have a thesis advisor -- then you are much less close to finishing than you think, and whatever acclaim you have gotten from people outside of your department is good rather than bad but not nearly so directly relevant as you seem to think.

Let me end where I began: please talk to your advisor or other sympathetic department personnel. Please do not try to strong arm the institution at this time. Good luck.

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  • Your answer echoes some comments above that I have taken on board. I am indeed guilty of being pretty much ignorant of the process and I am going to take steps to rectify that. On the issues of my PhD being short and completed some time ago, however, I think I can relate some good news. On talking to my contact, I was assured that if it can be shown that the work is of sufficient merit (and this is the purpose of the PhD defence after all), these issues won't present insuperable barriers. Aug 5, 2018 at 16:10
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    @JamesSmith - the purpose of the defense is purely ceremonial - the merit must be clear before the defense.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 5, 2018 at 16:26
  • There's more than a little truth in that. I will also take steps in this direction. Aug 5, 2018 at 16:29
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    +1 for I am cringing as I type this and hoping I am way off - this was my exact thought. A strange omission indeed on OP’s part for not mentioning an advisor...
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 5, 2018 at 17:12
  • See my comment above. Aug 5, 2018 at 17:40
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Without knowing all the details, it’s hard to provide clear guidance, but a few general principles still hold.

  • Jumping into legal action before you’ve tried to resolve this via less obtrusive means is generally a bad idea.

  • What personal reasons delayed your PhD matters. For instance, personal time off for health or raising a family is almost always considered “excused,” and can be cited as reasons for extending deadlines. However, taking time off to work or do something unrelated may be problematic.

  • Equally important in this process is the view of your thesis committee. If everybody views this as being very important work that deserves a PhD, that will carry weight with the administration even in spite of their regulations.

So, instead of going for legal action right now, talk to your thesis committee and work out a plan. If they have your back, the administration will generally accede to their requests.

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  • Additionally it would be useful to find out how other similar cases in your institution got dealt with in the past. If you are in contact with academics who have been there for some time, they probably know of former PhD students who faced a similar problem and what happened to them.
    – Erwan
    Aug 5, 2018 at 13:13
  • Thanks for the answer. I am absolutely not jumping into legal action. I would have thought that was clear and the insinuation is not needed. In answer to your second point, there are personal reasons, but I am not going into them here. They are, as to be expected, related to money, but that is as much detail as is needed. I am not quite sure what you mean by a thesis committee. To be honest, being in the position I am, I am still unaware of the exact process of obtaining a PhD. Aug 5, 2018 at 15:15
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    @JamesSmith: "I am not quite sure what you mean by a thesis committee." To say the least: if so, then you are by no means ready to complete your PhD. "To be honest, being in the position I am, I am still unaware of the exact process of obtaining a PhD." Right, that's your main issue here. Aug 5, 2018 at 15:54
  • Answers on SE are written for the benefit of a general audience, not just the person asking the question. You might not, but someone else might. So the general points are there for someone coming to this question later.
    – aeismail
    Aug 5, 2018 at 15:57
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    However, more concerning here is that you don’t know the process for getting a PhD. Your institution will have a set of written policies to follow. If you are unaware of those, then you may create problems for yourself that will make your life needlessly harder later on. Educate yourself now.
    – aeismail
    Aug 5, 2018 at 16:01
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Plenty of people have left school then finished their PhD up while working in industry. Though they generally have been at the ABD stage where you can maintain enrollment with a small fee. After only two years enrolled you are really asking for special treatment, regardless of your break length. When you say your work was "ratified", does this mean publication in an extremely impressive journal plus 1k citations by now or something? Because you need it to be so great that it will overcome rather unrelated requirements regarding your knowledge and expertise. A PhD is supposed to be mentored training to teach you to lead research investigations, not just a fishing expedition for a big score.

As for deciding how to proceed. You need to dig into the rules. Schools operate on legalistic procedures (which includes a massive amount of paperwork for handling exceptions and waivers of the rules). You need to do two things:

  1. Determine the hurdles you need to jump through to finish, and their requirements in turn. For example there may be another exam prior to your defense. You may be required to be enrolled to do some of the steps. You may need to have people sign up for your committee and for them to sign off that you have successfully completed those steps along the way.

  2. Find the show-stopping rule(es) standing in your way, if any. For example a hard deadline of 8 years is common. Then find out if you can get a waiver to get past that.

If people don't respond to your emails call them or go visit them in person.

Finally, legal action (or at least believable threats of it) can motivate people to sign off on your good faith attempts at actually accomplishing the graduation requirements. Though it is a drastic, scorched-earth approach to doing so. You can often accomplish a similar effect (for free) using the university's own internal procedures for resolving disputes. You may just need to convince them you are serious about finishing by showing up there regularly and submitting requests formally.

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  • This is more like good advice. Thank you. I am in contact with another senior member of the university not directly associated with my department. Her role is to act as mediator in situations such as these. Finding out the exact requirements to complete my PhD sounds like a very good idea. I shall copy your points 1. and 2. to her verbatim and see what she says. It will involve some work for her, and I will offer to help out, but I think things are at the stage where I at least have the right to see some practical progress being made. Thanks again! Aug 5, 2018 at 16:01
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Where I did my PhD (in London, and I started one month before you), there are several strict rules regarding the time.

  • There are evaluations at 3-month, 1-year and 2-year milestone. In particular, if one cannot pass at the 2-year evaluation, they have to quit with an MPhil (or nothing)
  • Students have to enroll to the program every year. Several months before deadline, I received several emails saying that there would be serious consequence if I didn't enroll on time.
  • My funding was only 3 years. After exactly 3 years, I need to change to the thesis-writing stage, otherwise the school would start charging me tuition fee (crazily expensive for international students like me)
  • Students are expected to submit the thesis within 4 years, not one day later.

I'm not sure if all universities in the UK adopt the same procedure, but the 4 year deadline for thesis is very common. It is not clear from your question what is your current status. Before considering legal action, you need to check if you break any rule.

  • Did you pass the second stage evaluation?
  • Are you currently enrolled in the program?
  • What is your current stage in the program?
  • Did your PhD supervisor approve that you made enough contribution to write a thesis?
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  • A good answer. Fortunately, I'm pretty sure my institution is not as strict as yours, although it is becoming so. I will be finding out about enrolling later this week. Aug 8, 2018 at 6:34

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