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I am a PhD student from a small and relatively-new private university that was set up overseas. The main home campus might be quite well known. My supervisor 'left' the university 4 months ago, but he has been helping me all the way until I submitted my PhD thesis. I submitted my PhD thesis 2 months ago, but my Graduate School insists that I should find new supervisor or they will not arrange my viva. They also do not make things clear in writing, but wish to meet me instead. I did not agree to meet as I am concerned about threats to me and behaviours that breach policy and standard and conditions that they do not want to put into writing so I cannot use as legal evidences. Instead, I have discussed everything in writing.

I cannot agree to find new supervisor for the following reasons.

1) I already finished all my PhD work and submitted the thesis and therefore would not expect the need for any new supervisor who does not know about me or my work. It is like I submitted my exam paper, and expect it to be marked, no matter if any problems occurred in the school.

2) I have done a lot of novel and important research and technical work so far which I would like to exploit further commercially and academically and do not want the involvement of others newly coming into the scene to stifle, limit or conflict with me.

3) The supervisors that were proposed or allocated to me are not in the area of my work (although the School insists that they are).

I would like to pursue job opportunities that require my graduation certificate as quickly as possible. However, I feels that the Graduate School is collaborating with the Faculty to coerce me into compromising my interests that could have been supported according to the Quality manual.

I am now very emotionally distressed. I see no logic in the School authorities bullying me into conditions that are against my interests, and are holding hostage my viva opportunity. I already had several email exchanges with the School authorities but they still have refused to allow me to proceed to viva without agreeing to a change of supervisor.

On the side, the Graduate School had also forwarded my thesis to some faculty members even when they have not sent it to my examiners, despite my application for thesis confidentiality.

The faculty representative for postgraduate students had also accused me of allegations of the Head of School who they want to allocate as my supervisor but I refused and explained the reasons why (he said these reasons are allegations). He cc'd his email to me to the Head of School and other School authorities, even when the school said that we can discuss with this representative confidentiality. His breach of confidentiality also makes me concerned about retaliation from the school authorities.

I did have a co-supervisor who should be able to deal with being my supervisor, but it seems that the co-supervisor withdrew from being available after the Head of School discussed with the co-supervisor. Now I am asked to find a new supervisor which is a problem created by the School for me.

What can I do? I am self funding while they are holiding up my viva. I am also trying to do some jobs to make ends me for me and my family. I am really struggling to defend my rights and interests in this university, and I appreciate any comments you may have. I have been writing to the home campus to ask for help, but they keep pushing back the school's problems to my campus.

Update

Dear all, thank you for the comments. I have attended a video meeting. Instead of resolving the problems the faculty representative criticised me for poor communication with the second supervisor. Instead of accepting responsibility they tried to push the responsibility to me. It was like a heated conversation. They also called me on the phone to ask me to change supervision team and later when they wrote email to me to follow up they deliberately did not state this. Instead they wrote in email not consistent with the phone call that my viva will be arranged with the examiners selected and if there is any conflict of interest with the examiners I should submit evidences. However, that was two weeks ago and now there is still no news about the examiner arrangement! I wonder as the English is not their native language they will claim misunderstanding.

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    At many if not all Universities I know the supervisor must be a member of the department. People from outside can be co-supervisors but the main supervisor needs to be someone from the department. If the Uni has any rule in this regard, your supervisor leaving means that someone else has to become your supervisor, even if you completed your work, but not your viva.. Sometimes rules and birocracy can create a headache. – Nick S Jun 13 at 7:03
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    In many universities, the first (formal) step towards attaining a PhD is a faculty member endorsing the thesis, recommending that it be considered for the award of a PhD. In the anglo-saxon system this person is usually referred to as the thesis supervisor. In some countries (especially in Europe) it may even be a (legal) requirement that this person is a full professor. Hence without a formal advisor it may simply be impossible for the university to grant you a PhD. – mmeent Jun 13 at 8:55
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    In all that, I didn't understand precisely what's the problem with accepting any supervisor just formally, until the viva's done? The thesis is submitted, so it could just be a formal act? At this stage, the supervisor is just a figurehead, (unless you get major corrections). Can you make it clear what your concerns are? Perhaps it might be just better to just go through the process and leave everything behind as quickly as you can. – Captain Emacs Jun 13 at 10:26
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    I don't understand the issue, here. You've already finished your research and finished and submitted your thesis. You don't need any more supervision. The janitor could give you all the supervision you need (because that is none at all). So what's wrong with accepting a supervisor -- any supervisor? It makes zero difference to your work, and it allows you to graduate. I see no down-sides. – David Richerby Jun 13 at 14:46
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    Confidentiality means that they won't share what you say with other people. It doesn't mean that they won't share what they say with other people, unless what they say involves things that are confidential in themselves. And "allegation" just means "claim". And accusing someone of allegations means that you are asserting those allegations. You seem to be saying that they are accusing of making allegations. – Acccumulation Jun 13 at 15:59
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The first thing you should do in this situation is to get a copy of the rules for your PhD program, and read the rules for supervision and for the viva voce. Usually these rules will stipulate a requirement that the student must be supervised by a member of the faculty, and this would generally include the entire period of the candidature up until the degree requirements have been met. (Even if the thesis is submitted, it has not yet been approved by the examiners, so it would be usual for you to have a supervisor, in case changes to your thesis are required.) The fact that you do not want a new supervisor is really beside the point --- it is most likely a requirement of the degree program. If this is a requirement under the rules of your university, it would not be unreasonable for the Department to take actions to satisfy this requirement. This might also explain why your thesis has been passed around to various members of the faculty (i.e., they are looking for someone willing to supervise you in this area of research).

With regard to the viva voce, the degree rules should set out the requirements for being able to sit. This might be something that you are able to undertake at your own discretion, or it may be something that requires the consent of your supervisor (in which case you will need to have a supervisor to proceed). If the Graduate School is requiring you to find a new supervisor before arranging this examination, then you should check that this is a requirement. If it is, then you are going to need a supervisor, but based on the concerns you express in your question, I would recommend looking for one with a "light touch".

Finally, with regard to meetings, you mention being afraid of "threats" or other breaches of required conditions, but it is not clear why you are expecting this. Unless there is some good reason to the contrary, I would recommend that you try to resolve this matter cordially and professionally, by meeting with the relevant staff and discussing the requirements of your degree, and your plan to meet these requirements. Make sure you make a file note directly after each meeting, so that you have a record of what happened. If you like, you can also circulate your file note to other participants (make sure it is accurate and neutral), to ensure that there is no dispute as to what was agreed in the meeting.

Nothing you have described in your question sounds to me like bullying (although I was unable to make sense of your description of allegations from the postgraduate representative). Nevertheless, it does appear that you are in conflict with your Department over your degree requirements, and you will need to establish exactly what these requirements are. At worst, the university staff are imposing requirements that may not be in the rules, and you should check to see if this is the case.


In bureaucratic struggles of this sort, the best outcomes often go to the person who has familiarised themselves with the applicable rules, and who is diligent in proceeding according to those rules and documenting all relevant communications. I would therefore recommend you undertake the following actions (in order):

  • Read the relevant university rules for your PhD program. In particular, find out if it is a requirement for you to have a supervisor, and find out the requirements for the viva voce. Determine whether or not you meet these requirements.

  • Based on this information, and assuming you meet the requirements for the viva voce, email the Graduate Coordinator for your Department (cc. to the Head of Department) and ask them to arrange this examination, citing the relevant rules, and the fact that you meet these requirements. On the other hand, if you do not meet the requirements for the viva voce (e.g., if it requires supervisor approval), then you will need to proceed with whatever is required to meet those requirements.

  • If the Department staff want to meet with you, I would recommend meeting with them, and be professional and cordial. If the rules require you to have a supervisor then you are going to need to bite the bullet and cooperate with this.

  • Dear Ben, thank you for your comments. I actually has a co-supervisor who can work as the supervisor in my Uni. However, it seems the Head of School talked her into being not involved or available any more. And because of this I need to accept the Head of School as the supervisor instead, which I do not want to for reasons I which I do not wish to write here. This looks like the School creates the problems for me that I need to compromise to proceed which I feel is unfair. They are trying to 'allocate' the Head of School to be my supervisor. – ayisha Jun 13 at 9:50
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    @ayisha You keep saying two things, first that the Head talked your co-supervisor out of being your supervisor and second that you cannot accept the Head as your supervisor. Until you can present this case to an authority above your department Head and have it resolved, you will be left stranded. – Jeffrey J Weimer Jun 13 at 12:30
  • That is correct. He is asking the rep to allocate him as my supervisor. I suspect malice of this Head. He may want to sabotage me because he considers my supervisor as an enemy. – ayisha Jun 13 at 15:50
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    @ayisha - your (ex) supervisor is now gone. Unless you have a factual basis, suspecting 'malice' and 'sabotage' is taking you in the wrong direction. Read the rules. Consult with appropriate authorities. The Head could just be taking this on to not burden other professors with this bureaucratic detail. – Jon Custer Jun 13 at 17:58
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Based on your description I am not convinced that there is as much malice involved as you think there is. This just sounds like bureaucratic rules at work. In that case this is a fight you cannot win.

Alternatively, you could try to transfer to the new institution of your old advisor. But then you have to deal with all the bureaucratic problems involved with that.

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    It may also be worth mentioning that, if this is indeed the case, a "relatively new" University would probably be compeled more than an older University to follow the rules to the letter. – Nick S Jun 13 at 8:20
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    I have a small sample size (3ish) but every university I've ever attended had cultural in jokes about how the place goes out of its way to prevent students from finishing their degrees. My own theory is that it just always seems that way to students as their own main goal in life is just to finish that degree, in much the same way that every athlete is convinced every referee is trying to help their opponent. – T.E.D. Jun 13 at 19:56
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Don't panic, take a few deep breaths :)

First let's back up a little bit: what did your supervisor plan for you before leaving? Normally it was his responsibility to arrange something with the administration with respect to your PhD. Even if there was no plan you say that he has been rather helpful, so maybe you can contact him and ask him for advice? he's certainly the best person to tell you what's best for you and your PhD.

If you trust him to protect your interests, it would be ideal if he could recommend somebody from the department as a supervisor. It's very common in this kind of circumstances to have a supervisor just for administrative purposes: they would just sign the paperwork and probably not even look seriously at the content of your work, so they don't even need to be from the same field.

It's important that you understand that the requirement to have an official supervisor must be met for you to pass the PhD. It would be the same anywhere, your school is not doing anything special by enforcing this requirement. Even if you had the best reasons in the world, it's a standard rule in academia: you can get any supervisor you want, but if you don't get any you won't be allowed to pass the viva anywhere. So sorry to say that being stubborn about that is not going to get you anywhere, currently it seems to me you are your own worst enemy: by refusing this you entered into a conflict with the school administration, and that's not ideal when you are hoping to pass the viva soon.

Apparently you were not aware of this requirement and it's not your fault, it's your supervisor who apparently wasn't very careful and didn't plan things properly. You should contact him and you should also talk to this co-supervisor: normally the co-supervisor is the natural choice when the main supervisor has to be replaced, so there needs to be a clear discussion: if they refuse to supervise you, and it's only on paper for only a few months so it's not a big responsibility, they owe you at least an explanation.


PS: "It is like I submitted my exam paper, and expect it to be marked, no matter if any problems occurred in the school." Actually a viva is not really like a regular exam. In principle the supervisor is the one asking the committee to consider giving you the PhD diploma, so they kind of vouch for you. This is why the supervisor's approval is required before passing the viva and their presence is required at the viva. You can see it like this: your application to the PhD doctors' club will only be reviewed if it is supported by an existing member of the club ;)

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One detail in your question that popped out to me was this:

They also do not make things clear in writing, but wish to meet me instead. I did not agree to meet as I am concerned about threats to me and behaviours that breach policy and standard and conditions that they do not want to put into writing so I cannot use as legal evidences. Instead, I have discussed everything in writing.

Unfortunately, written communication can often be a lot slower and less expressive than speaking face to face, so your school might have a perfectly legitimate reason to wish to arrange a discussion in person. If you're concerned about inappropriate things being said "off the record" in such a meeting, I would suggest you agree to the meeting but bring a voice recorder.*

Note that the legality of recording spoken conversations (and the admissibility of such recordings as evidence of wrongdoing) varies between different jurisdictions (and also depending on the circumstances where the conversation occurs). As you have not specified where you live, you will have to check your local laws on this (and/or consult a local lawyer), but generally speaking the rules are likely to fall more or less into one of the following three broad cases:

  1. You're free to record any conversation you participate in, even secretly.
  2. You're allowed to record the conversation, but must inform the other participants of the fact that you're doing so. After being so informed, they can either speak on record or not speak at all.
  3. You will need everyone's consent to record the conversation. If they do not consent, you may choose to turn around and leave.

In cases 2 and 3, you will need to start the conversation by stating that you will be recording it, and possibly asking if anyone present objects to it. If so, try to do this in a way that will not come across as unnecessarily confrontational. Useful phrases to work into your statement may include e.g. "to avoid any later misunderstanding", "for my peace of mind" and/or "just in case I forget anything". Don't say anything that implies you don't trust the other people present (even if you really don't). You may also want to explicitly state that you don't object to anyone else present also recording the conversation, either.

If you like, you could also ask for permission to bring a third-party observer to the meeting. Of course, unless there's some specific rule saying that you're allowed to bring anyone you like to such a meeting (which there might be, but it may be buried in your university by-laws), this probably requires you to find someone sufficiently trustworthy and impartial to be acceptable to both sides. If the level of trust breakdown evident in your question is mutual, this might be tricky, but your university may have some kind of an ombudsperson whose job is to mediate such conflicts and to whose presence the staff may find it hard to object. Of course, you'd presumably need to discuss the situation with the ombudsperson first (which may be a good idea anyway).

Anyway, as other answerers have already noted, your department head and the other people involved may have perfectly valid reasons for requiring you to find a new supervisor for your viva, as your former supervisor is no longer a member of the faculty. Of course, that doesn't prove that they couldn't also be insisting on it for some nefarious purpose, although, as you noted yourself, it's not obvious what they would have to gain by doing so. In any case, in situations like this, it's usually a good idea to at least consider the possibility that everyone (or at least most people) involved might just be trying to resolve an awkward bureaucratic situation in good faith. Sure, don't trust anyone blindly or sign anything without reading it, but also try not to needlessly dig your heels in and create unnecessary confrontation just because you suspect someone must be out to get you in some way.


*) Your cell phone probably has a voice recording app preinstalled on it, or you can download one.

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If I were you, I would just choose a new supervisor and graduate as soon as possible, rather than messing up with the HR (or whatever they are called).

1) I already finished all my PhD work and submitted the thesis and therefore would not expect the need for any new supervisor who does not know about me or my work. It is like I submitted my exam paper, and expect it to be marked, no matter if any problems occurred in the school.

You only work with the new advisor to complete the viva, and do not produce any research result. Unless you tell everybody you meet, nobody outside your school will know (s)he is your supervisor. It is unlikely that they will put you on your CV as their student for some paperwork. Even if they do, why is it a big deal?

In industry, nobody cares who your supervisor is. In academia, people also rarely mention their supervisor (unless the supervisor is a big shot in the field :-) ).

2) I have done a lot of novel and important research and technical work so far which I would like to exploit further commercially and academically and do not want the involvement of others newly coming into the scene to stifle, limit or conflict with me.

After you graduate, you are free to do whatever you want, e.g. cutting all connections with the current department. About the authorship, it is extremely unlikely that they will try to claim any work you did with your former advisor.

3) The supervisors that were proposed or allocated to me are not in the area of my work (although the School insists that they are).

This makes any risks in 2) even less likely. Those supervisors may be as annoyed as you are about the process.

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