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I'm currently in the process of appealing a termination from my PhD program and although there are many facts concerning my case that I feel are relevant and important, I'm not sure how relevant they are in the consideration of my appeal.

My question is: how do I present my appeal in a way that ensures I have the best chance of success?

This may seem subjective, but there may be some objectively unsuccessful approaches to appealing such a decision. Are there any objectively successful ones?

The main thrust of my department's decision to terminate my candidacy is that I lack basic competency in topics related to my research. The issue is that the way my competency was evaluated was not in line with university and department guidelines (generally we are evaluated based on reports and formal meetings), I was evaluated based on my response to an email requesting more information from me about my research. In the grand scheme of things, this is a small part of the processes leading up to my termination, but it's what initiated the process. Would it be reasonable to appeal such a decision?

It is true that I don't have competency in the topics I was evaluated on, but these were part of one project I was working on and not related to the main thrust of my research, so I'm afraid I'm almost like a "fish" that was evaluated on its "climbing" ability (if that makes sense). I am confident I can "swim" quite well (meaning, I have other research merit as a PhD student), but there is no way I could "climb" in the time I was given.

It's simply nerve-racking and difficult consider my own assessment of myself over the assessment of experienced professors that seem to be making objective decisions about research ability, so I'm not sure whether my concerns are valid or not.

FYI - this is in Canada.

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    You are in an unenviable position. I would note, however, that what you believe 'initiated' the process is likely only a part of the picture - its just the part that you see as the 'cause'. Likely this was being discussed in a broader context beforehand. So, appealing based on that one point seems unlikely to succeed, since it is but one piece in the puzzle. Time for a good long chat with your advisor. – Jon Custer Nov 13 '18 at 15:12
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    Was the termination initiated by your PhD advisor, or by someone else in the department? – Nate Eldredge Nov 13 '18 at 15:15
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    Generally, your committee isn't going to recommend termination unless your advisors want it. – Jon Custer Nov 13 '18 at 15:20
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    I guess my other question would be - suppose your appeal is successful; what then? It seems clear that your current advisors and committee are not going to want to continue working with you, and even if they are somehow required to, that does not seem likely to lead to good outcomes. Would there be other professors who would take you on, even in view of political problems this might cause within the department? – Nate Eldredge Nov 13 '18 at 15:22
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    I feel like there is something major missing from your question. If, like you say, you were "evaluated based on (your) response to an email requesting more information from (you) about (your) research" (rather than some formal procedure like failing a qualifying exam), unless your response was truly stupendously ill-informed or extremely rude or insulting or something like that, this all makes no sense. Failing a PhD student is a big negative for a PhD program and it is very likely it was not taken lightly, unless there is something else missing here. – Bryan Krause Nov 13 '18 at 23:25
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Typically, successful appeals happen when another advisor is willing to take on the student after the appeal. This creates an ally during the appeal process. It also creates an "out" for the department. I have two friends who were able to appeal by finding an alternative advisor. I know no-one who was able to appeal with their original advisor UNLESS the advisor was actually using the process as a "wake-up call" rather than an authentic attempt to force the student out.

In the cases where an advisor is using the process as a real authentic attempt to force a student out, the advisor is communicating that they no longer desire to have you as a PhD student. The department is going to be reluctant to force that advisor to continue with you, despite the soundness of your logic. The reluctance is partially because it creates an uncomfortable/unproductive mentoring situation when one party is not enthusiastic. The reluctance is also related to an overall ethos of not wanting to oppose faculty on issues of academic judgement.

The presence of another ally/advisor who will take you on as a student after the process is concluded allows the department to evaluate your claims independent of their reluctance to force your original advisor to take you back. It allows everyone to put this down to a matter of "fit" rather than genuine problems with your work or your advisor's judgement.

IF your advisor is actually on the fence about this, you could attempt to convince your advisor that you now are "awake" to the stakes and they will find working with you to be much better/more productive in the future.

  • Yes, I see what you're saying. It seems like a very serious matter and I'm not sure my advisors or committee would initiate this process if they weren't certain. The judgement on the appeal is not done within the department, but by a committee of members from other departments. My department chair said this committee tends to side with students and recommended I make an appeal, but I'm not sure how true that is. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough interaction with other professors in the department (and it is quite small) to possibly find another advisor. – anon Nov 13 '18 at 16:01
  • Thank you for the helpful and considered response. I've thought this over and I plan to meet with my advisor to clear up the matter. – anon Nov 13 '18 at 18:35
  • In the US, and probably in Canada as well, grad programs can legally make pretty much any academic decision they want. This cuts both ways: if your advisor is willing to go to bat for you, the decision to allow you to continue doesn't need to be justified to anyone outside the university, or maybe even outside the department. – Elizabeth Henning Nov 13 '18 at 19:36
  • @ElizabethHenning - Yes, at this point I feel there is little chance that I can convince them, otherwise, why would they pursue this entire course of action? As others have mentions, it's unlikely they undertook the decisions without thorough consideration, even if I'm unaware of what it was. – anon Nov 14 '18 at 4:12
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Although this may not be the fairest of systems, you are up against a situation where the department (and its faculty) are both your judge, prosecutor, and jury. The truth is that you're unlikely to succeed in an appeal.

One could decry this as unfair, but my best guess is that in reality, the vast majority of such decisions are based on a correct assessment of a student's abilities. That's because nobody really wants to make this kind of decision. It is far easier to just drag along a student and see them through getting some degree than having to fight this, document every step, and make sure a student gets dismissed. So my recommendation to you is to not focus on the formal steps that may have led to your dismissal, but why your department initiated them in the first place. For example, what gave them the idea to ask you for an email after which you ended up being "evaluated based on my response to an email requesting more information from me about my research"? This request likely did not come out of nowhere, but someone, likely multiple someones, will have had concerns about your technical abilities. This prior knowledge will then clearly have entered into the conclusion that you really did not have the necessary abilities to successfully complete your degree. So when you say "In the grand scheme of things, this is a small part of the processes leading up to my termination, but it's what initiated the process.", then this does not make sense to me -- there must have been a prior story (which you may or may not be aware of).

In other words, what you will have to do is to convince your department not that their process was flawed, but that you really are competent and have the skills to complete your PhD. Just relying on process arguments is not likely going to succeed. If you don't know your stuff, you may simply be given some other kind of test that you will fail -- with the same result that you find yourself in at the moment.

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    Yes, based on some decades' experience, faculty are very hesitant to "kick people out"... and will go to great lengths to repair things so that it's not necessary. Thus, the odds are that there is at least a perception that the OP has insurmountable difficulties. In particular, I'd be quite surprised if such decisions were made based on bias, although this is not out of the question. – paul garrett Nov 14 '18 at 0:10
  • @paulgarrett - When I inquired about the reasons for this email the faculty were hesitant to attribute it to any particular reason beyond "we just want to understand what you did". I do believe there is some deeper meaning behind this and that there's part of this I'm not seeing, but I don't think I can really guess what that is. I think this may have been a means to an end, if that makes sense. I agree that the true matter at hand is demonstrating competence and this is the main thrust of my appeal, but I'm grasping at straws where I can find them. – anon Nov 14 '18 at 3:43
  • Just as one possibility, I have seen on numerous occasions colleagues asking at lunch what others' opinion of student X is since X is struggling in a class. I've done this myself. If there seems to be a common perception among multiple faculty that the struggles of X are not limited to one class, but systemic, then the right thing to do is to document this in an email to the graduate program coordinator. – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 15 '18 at 3:29
  • As a student, you will never know that this has happened. But if a graduate adviser gets two or three such emails about a student, then clearly there is a problem, and that may be what initiates an email to you such as the one you describe. – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 15 '18 at 3:29
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Rightly or not, one of the goals of making a decision to terminate is to avoid having a student spend time and yet fail to make sufficient progress. If you truly do lack the necessary background or are seen as such you have a very hard (and long) path forward. If your advisors agree, then it seems fruitless to try to push through.

I wonder if a better path isn't to just withdraw and somehow gain the necessary competence or change the situation to one that suits you better. This might entail moving to a different university, but it might be a quicker path forward. If nothing else it would let new people look at you with a fresh perspective.

  • This is something I've considered. There is always the question of how long this would take and I agree with the logic of this concern. My main concern is that my research doesn't have to depend on competency in these fields and I can (and have) made contributions in ways that don't relate to these. One may argue that my lack of competency here is indicative of a bigger and systemic problem that would stop me from doing my PhD. I have certainly considered the possibility of withdrawal and exactly what you mentioned, though, I just don't want to miss out on a chance now. – anon Nov 13 '18 at 15:35
  • @Ron, just as a technical point about whether or not your research "has to" depend on these other things: maybe your advisors believe/see that it does, or should (for good scientific/intellectual reasons). At the very least, you should try to get clear explanations from your advisors about the relationships of all these things. – paul garrett Nov 14 '18 at 0:18
  • @paulgarrett - yes, the research is certainly related to these topics and I agree that knowing them would be useful, but I'm not sure they are so pivotally important that they constitute a reason for dismissal. Arguing about the technical merits of one viewpoint over the other is very hard though, as the school would most likely defer to the judgement of faculty in the matter. – anon Nov 14 '18 at 3:47

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