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This has recently happened to an acquaintance of mine. A bit of background, in Australia, we do not 'defend' the thesis, we submit it to be examined by, usually, 3 academics (in the country or overseas).

The situation is, the thesis was approved by the advisor, after several drafts and some feedback. However, when it has come back from the examiners, it has come back as 'failed'. Some of the errors detected are ones that the advisor should have picked up on (as they are within their field of research).

Asides from the appeals procedure (dependent on the policies of the University), what are some practical options? Should they start again? Take her research elsewhere?

Edit for clarification:

  • This has not happened to me, it has happened to an acquaintance (as said above).

  • My acquaintance submitted her thesis well within time and underwent several drafts (as said above).

  • The advisor is young/new to the academic scene.

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    Don't you have PhD committees? They are supposed to follow your progression and prevent exactly this kind of scenario. – Bitwise Aug 26 '13 at 18:40
  • @Bitwise not really, the primary advisor keeps track on that, although there are semester evaluations filled in by the student and advisor. – user7130 Aug 26 '13 at 19:23
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    The thesis didn't come back as "Fundamental revisions required." (more primary research, serious interpretive or theoretical issues) or "Major Revisions required." but as "Failed"? Correct? – Samuel Russell Aug 26 '13 at 22:52
  • @SamuelRussell, apparently, 2 came back as failed and one as Fundamental revisions required – user7130 Aug 27 '13 at 1:12
  • @SamuelRussell: In my university (not in Australia), the external thesis examiner of has only two options: pass or fail. – Aditya Aug 28 '13 at 1:03
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It is difficult to answer the question without also judging the supervision and other aspects of the student-advisor "relationship". I have been involved in a case which also resulted in a fail. I, being non-Australian) got the impression the thesis was done either by meeting a time deadline or by the student "deciding" so. I cannot imagine any advisor would recommend the thesis as completed in the shape it was. I could not, as examiner, figure out what rules made the thesis judged as competed, it would simply not go in my own system.

In my case we bring in an examination committee from other universities and mostly from abroad. The thesis must stand an international scrutiny. This also means the advisors and students are aware of this requirement. In your case, as well as the one I experienced, I ask myself what sort of system is in palce to safekeep the general scientific standard?

As you can see there are many open questions which makes a simple answer difficult to provide. In some cases it might be possible to use the feedback to improve a thesis. In the US system it is common that a thesis is given revisions to complete. In my system (Sweden) all this quality work has to be made before time, there is no recouperation after a fail. Hence, the options depend on what is possible within the Australian system. If it is possible to revise and re-defend? then that is one way. Tpo take the work elsewhere might be possible but if the work does not stand international scrutiny then that option does not look bright. If there are deeper misunderstandings that lead to the verdict then it might be possible to claim a "mistrial" but failinga PhD thesis is not a good thing under any circumstances. I am just left wondering why it happened, not so much to put blaim but it seems something(s) must have failed in the process and finding out the reasons may provide a better view of possibilities to go forward.

finally, start again? another 3-5 years ona different project will require both a strong interest and financing (I would presume). It is possible but usually, I do not think anyone would subject themselves to another PhD period lightheartedly.

EDIT:

An example that just occurred.

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    "I cannot imagine any advisor would recommend the thesis as completed in the shape it was." I can. There is a similar external review procedure in Canada and, violating a few written rules in favor of common sense, I managed to figure out how a completely hopeless dissertation could get recommended by the adviser. I'll offer no disclosures however, just the confirmation that such things do happen. I agree with the rest you said. – fedja Aug 26 '13 at 20:28
  • "it seems something(s) must have failed in the process" - This is so true that I would think someone higher would get involved. How could the adviser recommend a dissertation when it was of so poor quality? Were they just hoping to 'sneak something by' the examiners or were they trying to torpedo the candidate? – earthling Aug 26 '13 at 23:53
  • @earthling that is what my acquaintance and myself are wondering also. – user7130 Aug 27 '13 at 1:14
  • I have a PhD from Oxford, there is no process whatsoever, the supervisor gets bored of you, asks someone to be on the committee and you'd better get someone nice. One brilliant American chap was failed without rational reason (it was English lit, so I suppose rationality is not necessary)... – PatrickT Feb 2 '14 at 1:42
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This type of thing is one reason that many graduate colleges or departments will not allow an assistant professor (or other non-tenured new academic regardless of formal title) to be the sole/primary advisor for a Ph.D. student.

Other than the obvious ill effects on the poor doctoral candidate, this also reflects extremely badly on, and could hurt, the advisor also (e.g., during tenure review), and even shows the department in poor light. I hope your friend is able to salvage things, but in my opinion this is at least as much the advisor's and department's problem as the candidate's, and they should be actively working to find a proper solution. If they're not, then I regard that as a bigger problem than the thesis rejection itself.

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    +1 for reflecting badly on the advisor and the department! – JeffE Aug 27 '13 at 21:39

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