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A few days ago one of my former PhD students (in fact Dr. since I'm in Germany) contaced me and asked me, if there is any chance to finish their PhD thesis. The work was done at a different institution where I was active years ago and I was one of the two advisors.

A rough outline of the facts:

  • At the time the work was done, it was quite innovative. The work was done in an interdisciplinary field and the person had to dig deep into "the other field" and did a good job. There was a tangible result and an evalutation was performed based on a small group of participants.
  • The tanglible result was novel at that time, the evaluation of the new system was in line with current findings at that time and confirmed the usefulness and practicability.
  • The work was not submitted since it was not completed when the contract of that person ended, and after working in the new job, it took a while (~1-2 years) to bring everything to paper.
  • When this was done (about 3 years ago), the person was in doubt whether "the results are enough" and "whether the validation was proper enough". My feeling was it was enough to at least obtain the grade, even though one could critisize a few things (e.g. size and quality of the study participants), but it was in line with many other theses in this field. The person told me that my remarks would be considered and that I would be contacted if any decision was made.
  • Now (about 8-9 years after the work was done) the person contacted me and asked, if I would see any chance to "bring this work to an end" - either with the "Dr." title (no matter which grade) or to finally dump it. The person is willing to add some extra work (e.g. doing another evaluation study), but the system developed is outdated from todays point of view and I would see little benefit in an additional study. The "Dr." title is quite helpful in the field the person is working in.
  • The technical system itself is still quite unique in the field.

I don't want to bias your answers so I would prefer not to tell at the moment how I responded, but I would appreciate thoughts and experience based on the following questions:

  • Did you ever experience a PhD handing in the thesis many (>5) years after completition? If yes, was it accepted?
  • If it was accepted, has it been evaluated based on the state of the art when the thesis work was done, or based on the current state of the art?

Bonus question (but opinion based, therefore just as a bonus ;-) ): How would you proceed? (Keep in mind that the was not done in a structured PhD program but as an employee in a research project for a limited time. And we are in Germany.)

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    My university had time constraints and you have 7 years after the start of a PhD to complete it. It would be impossible to just "finish" after such a large gap. – Zenon Jan 15 at 8:14
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    @Zenon I double checked the "Promotionsordnung" - there are no time constraints. – OBu Jan 15 at 8:33
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    The logical answer is that the work needs to be held up to the same standard of a PhD thesis being submitted for evaluation at your university today. When he did it ought to be irrelevant. If it’s at the level of a PhD when measured by the current standards and state of scientific knowledge, give him a PhD. If not, don’t - same as for any other student. (Posting as a comment since it doesn’t answer the main part of the question.) – Dan Romik Jan 15 at 9:04
  • Related - I don't think it answers your questions directly, but the answers might have some value in giving perspective. – Peter Taylor Jan 15 at 9:15
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    @user6522399 the candidate did not show it. You show it by writing a thesis, handing it in and have experts evaluate the work you did. – Dan Romik Jan 15 at 15:41
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Did you ever experience a PhD handing in the thesis many (>5) years after completition? If yes, was it accepted?

Our department actually just went through this. Our process involved a justification of why the gap occurred, a defense of the student's standing both at the time the gap occurred and now, and a defense of the scientific merits of the research (and how it wasn't completely stale).

If it was accepted, has it been evaluated based on the state of the art when the thesis work was done, or based on the current state of the art?

Current.

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Unfortunately much of the answer to your question has been given in comments. Let me summarize and then give a personal view as you request.

Yes, many places have a time limit. This is to encourage the student to maintain progress and to limit resources spent on the student's behalf. Your case doesn't really involve either of these and you say there are no limits in any case.

Yes, a degree given today should, in theory, meet today's standards as user Dan Romik has stated.

Yes, it is Germany, where, if I understand it correctly, the rules can be quite formal and, perhaps strictly applied.

An anecdote. I once had a colleague who did world shaking research with some of the top people in CS at the time, but never "earned" his doctorate as he was too busy doing the good work that others are known for. Not that the others don't deserve their acclaim, but my friend just didn't ever put the finishing touches on his work. I once suggested (as he was about to retire) that the university award him an honorary doctorate or lobby another "friendly" university to do so, based on his past work. That this didn't happen always made me sad, as he was, likely, the deepest thinker on our faculty.

My inclination would be to do "whatever it takes" to work with the student to achieve the goal, even if some rules need to be bent a bit. In particular, I would lobby the faculty as a whole to reach a point of awarding a degree by acclamation, or some such thing. I might fail, of course, but I would try.

The reasoning is that the student isn't "shirking" and being given a gift but it is simply a recognition of small, perhaps inconsequential, effects that caused the situation to occur. Letting it go on, or requiring extensive work, seems to me to be letting an injustice fester.

Unfortunately another answer here was very rude and was deleted, but I think that it gave good bottom-line advice. Make it so.

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    Can you expand on the "degree by acclamation" part? The student did not fulfill the PhD requirements 8 years ago, what has changed? Also, what's the "injustice" you're referring to? It seems like the student dropped their studies on their own accord. – Nuclear Wang Jan 15 at 14:07
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    @NuclearWang, I read it as a bit less "voluntary" as the contract ended. My view of the university is that it is the faculty and the faculty should control the rules by which it operates. A bit naive, of course, but I always fought for that view. If the faculty controls the rules it can also make exceptions in appropriate cases. So "acclamation" means, roughly, by "demand of the faculty". – Buffy Jan 15 at 14:10
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    Another anecdote. When former US president Eisenhower was made president of (I think) Rockefeller University he gave a speech in which is listed all of the wonderful things that "the university" would do for "the faculty". After he finished, one of the foremost faculty members stood and said, approximately, "Mr President, the faculty is the university". – Buffy Jan 15 at 14:14
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    "Yes, it is Germany, where, if I understand it correctly, the rules can be quite formal and, perhaps strictly applied." - but with respect to a possible time limit, this works both ways: On the one hand, if the time's up according to the rules, there may be no leeway for an extension. On the other hand, depending on the university's rules, merely having agreed with the supervisor on a topic, having spent years doing research on said topic and having been employed in the supervisor's lab may not mean anything, as it's well possible the clock for the time limit, according to the rules, only ... – O. R. Mapper Jan 19 at 22:38
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    ... starts ticking once the PhD candidate has completed some unrelated formal step (e.g. registering their thesis with the exam office), which at some universities is typically done as late as when the thesis is almost ready for printing. – O. R. Mapper Jan 19 at 22:39
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I am not clear that after completion has much meaning outside getting awarded a degree or outward facing milestones, at least not to the outside world. But, with that caveat, there is precedent here:

  • Other than rules internally imposed by universities there is no agreement that there is "you only get so long" to do it clause in the academia. There are "it might be exploitative to keep a PhD strung along as cheap labour" general agreement, but it's clear that's not what's going on here.

  • A PhD's merit is measured by contribution to the field. When the work was done should not have any bearing. If work was published during this time, that's a different matter and could well be reasonably judged relative to the state of the art at the time it was published. I don't know if this would be assured though.

Bonus round: Ask someone with authority if you think it has a decent chance. Ultimately this will boil down to if a university is willing to take on the case (and if an external examiner could be found to support it, but this is rarely an insurmountable issue). I would say there is at least merit to push this further (if you want to, but I would see it as the right thing).

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