I'm currently scheduled to start graduate school next semester. I've been going to the lab that I'll be working in for the past few months now. I had a question regarding graduation after talking with some of my seniors from the lab.

Just for some background info, I'm currently attending school in South Korea. I'll be pursuing an MS/PhD integrated degree in computer science. The lab that I'm working in is a lab that does research on machine learning and deep learning methods.

My initial plan was to go to the US after finishing my undergrad, but I figured that with my specs I'm not going to get funded and probably won't be able to get into a top program. Also fortunately enough the aforementioned lab's research coincided with mine and I would be getting funding so it seemed like the wiser choice.

I wanted to complete the requirements for a master's and then apply for PhD programs abroad. My supervisor advised that it'd probably be better to just get my PhD here and apply for post-doc positions in the US (or anywhere else) but he said he's also open to the idea of me quitting halfway.

The reason why I'm posting this question is because in Korea (I can't speak for other Asian countries but I heard Japan is also very similar) the professor who runs the lab is basically a "king" in that lab. Pretty much everything is according to his/her will and they also get to determine if they want to "let their students graduate." It's one reason why many people are reluctant to pursue graduate studies here if they had the choice.

Fortunately, my professor seems to be nice and at least considers his graduate students to some extent alongside his own personal interests.

I'm curious though, is this kind of thing also normal (or at least prevalent) in other countries in the Western world? The impression that I get for those countries is that graduate students are pretty much independent researchers/students and their supervisors are just that - supervisors. Does one's graduation also depend on their signature?

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    "My supervisor advised that it'd probably be better to just get my PhD here and apply for post-doc positions in the US" Bad advice. Rightly or wrongly, many Americans believe that a PhD from the US is better than a PhD from Asia. Many US academics won't know the difference between KAIST and KAUST. Jun 30, 2019 at 1:46
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    If your supervisor won't support a perfectly sensible career strategy because he's afraid to loose you, then you need to find a new supervisor. Jun 30, 2019 at 1:54
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    That's true. Fortunately enough he doesn't seem to be completely against it. I guess as of now I need to take his advice and get some output in (e.g. conference/journal submissions). He did advise that if I want to go abroad then I need to make sure I stand out and if that happens then prestigious programs/labs/companies will likely get in touch. According to him that also makes the lab look good too.
    – Sean
    Jun 30, 2019 at 2:44
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    For a more concrete counter-example, think of Yann LeCun, he's had a quite successful career and he doesn't have a US PhD, but a French one. Not sure if many US profs know the University where he did his PhD. In the end what matters is your research, not where you did it.
    – Dr. Snoopy
    Jun 30, 2019 at 10:36
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    There are lots of counterexamples to the incorrect belief that US PhDs are superior to non-US PhDs. That doesn’t make the belief go away.
    – JeffE
    Jun 30, 2019 at 14:11

4 Answers 4


Pretty much everything is according to his/her will and they also get to determine if they want to "let their students graduate."

This is how it works in the U.S. also. However, the proper behavior is for the supervisor to have a collaborative working relationship with PhD students. I think Germany is similar.

In Australia, and I think Canada, the award of the PhD is decided by an external committee. Members of the committee all work at other universities. This substantially reduces the power of the supervisor.

Practices vary by region, and even among universities. For example, some U.S. universities require a committee to approve the PhD thesis, with one member being from a different department. At other U.S. universities the committee does not have this external member as a check. Generally the committee does what the supervisor recommends.

  • Austria also has external awards (at least the university of Vienna has). Jun 30, 2019 at 9:12
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    In Germany, the thesis is submitted to the faculty board, where all professors are members. You could submit over your prof's head, I believe.
    – Karl
    Jun 30, 2019 at 13:56

Depending on the country and even institution, academics have varying amounts of accountability to their universities. In the UK where there isn't such a thing as legal tenure, an academic who behaves unreasonably towards their students runs the risk of being sanctioned or sacked. Of course, this doesn't mean the university can't turn a blind eye (as can be the case if they are a bit of an academic celebrity) but it does mean a complaint to the institution about an academic carries a lot more weight.

You generally have the option to change supervisor if you feel there is a good reason to do so. Though whether you need the permission of your current supervisor in all cases will again depend on the institution.

The way laboratories and equipment are managed may also make a difference. In my school the majority of equipment is managed by technical staff and experimental officers (a kind of halfway role between academic and technician), not academics. So it would be hard for an academic to prevent students using that equipment and other resources.


It's pretty similar in the USA, with the PI being king.

What you want to do is be selective about who you work with, within the department. In general, pre-tenure is bad. As are recently tenured profs running slave labor camps. Older profs near retirement tend to be better--even the ones who used to be unreasonable will have mellowed out.

In addition, you can just ask and find out typical graduation times by group. 7 years is bad, 4 years is good (in the US). You may get some blabla about "it depends", but just ask for the last 5 students and what their duration was and then do the math yourself.

Caveat emptor...

  • 2
    Why, in general, would pre-tenure professors be especially bad?
    – Zelinusa
    Jul 1, 2019 at 8:25
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    Age has nothing to do with it. Mistreating students is just a sign of incompetence, which can occur at any age. If a research group in the US tells you their typical graduation time is four years, they are very likely lying. Jul 1, 2019 at 13:05

Concerning the following quote:

' professor who runs the lab is basically a "king" in that lab '

I don't have much experience in western world of academia. Yet, I feel it is more like person by person basis (even in Asian countries). I have seen both "holding hostage" type and "open" type.

Since your professor already told you that he is open to you quitting half-way, I guess yours is the latter type. After all, the rate of quitting worldwide is around 50% so ... any smart professor won't feel too much of their students quitting (otherwise, they will feel very bad 50% of the time).

Good luck.

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