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I have been working on a PhD for over 6 years, and in that time have published 5 (conference) papers, each of which I intend to convert to journal articles after my PhD. My supervisor has been insisting that I do some experiments which have turned out to be considerably more challenging than either of us expected. Our funding has run out, so I recently asked my supervisor if it would be okay to scrap the experiments and defend what I have done so far at the end of the year. Based on the volume and quality of my work, I think any objective person would feel that I have done more than enough for a PhD. (Indeed, I've had a professor who clearly has read my work ask me out of the blue at a conference why I haven't graduated yet, as he thinks I've done way more than is typical for a PhD.)

My supervisor's reaction was particularly bad: He accused me of reneging on a promise, suggested that I've been conning him for years, etc. I agree completely with him that the experiments would be nice to have, but I disagree that they are essential, and I particularly disagree that they are worth going into debt over. I think we could get a good paper detailing what we've done so far and what the challenges have been. Unfortunately that option was unacceptable to him too.

Any attempt to discuss this further with my supervisor goes nowhere. What are my options at this point? I told him that in the absence of funding I will be dropping out at the end of the semester. He said that is a waste, which I agree with, but ultimately I don't want to continue what I'm now viewing as abuse.


I appreciate everyone's responses. Taking the advice I received here and elsewhere, I decided to complete one additional set of experiments and then speak with my supervisor again.

These experiments had a new feature that we've wanted for a while that my supervisor hoped would solve some of the issues we've been having. The new feature ultimately it did not solve the problems we've been having, though it helped narrow down the cause of the problems.

I spoke with my supervisor about the experiments, emphasizing that we need to do many many more experiments to get satisfactory results, far more than we have time for. He agreed when I described the results of the experiment. We then had a discussion about what he expects me to do to graduate, and again, he made clear that he doesn't care about what I did previously and only wants the new experiments and some computer simulations of the experiments. I tried to justify what I did previously as necessary to do the new experiments correctly, but he wasn't convinced.

Some folks here and elsewhere have suggested that my situation would be different if I had journal publications. While my supervisor's issues didn't sound at all like "you need journal publications" to me, I asked if submitting my previous work to journals soon would make a difference. He thought for about a minute and the answer was yes, it would.

Consequently, we came to an agreement: I submit my previous work to journals before end of the semester and write up a chapter in my dissertation on the already completed experiments (likely will remain unpublished aside from the dissertation). I will switch to a part-time position at the end of the year, move to a cheaper location, get a job, and return late in the spring semester to defend. In that time I should at the very least have reviews for some of the journal articles I'll submit, which is sufficient for my supervisor. My supervisor and I have agreed on which journals to submit the articles to as well.

I may update this answer later after my defense.

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    what part of the world are you in? Is there a department chair or graduate director you could talk to? – cag51 Oct 26 at 14:46
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    So why haven’t those conference papers been made into real papers? The actual conversion ratio post-PhD tends to be lower than expected. – Jon Custer Oct 26 at 15:56
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    @JonCuster the question does not state the field unless I missed it. At least in CS conference papers are real papers. – Maeher Oct 26 at 19:28
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    What field are you in? If conference papers are worth a lot in your field, then you probably have enough..If they are worth nothing, then you basically have 0 papers and no experiments... If they are worth a bit or very little you have somewhere between nothing end maybe enough.... – Nick S Oct 26 at 19:34
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    the fact that the goal is to make journal papers from the conference papers suggests it is a field where journal papers are what matter. As for the claim "each of which I intend to convert to journal articles after my PhD", this is worthless. My first reaction is "yeah right". You say you don't want to do research for free, well it could easily take years of your free time to do the necessary revisions on those papers to fulfill the improvements the reviewers ask for. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 26 at 19:56
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This is a really hard problem that is hard to give advice for. If the advice is bad, you will suffer, not the person giving the advice. You know the personalities better than we do. But, as an outsider, it seems like you are being abused. You are giving, but getting little in return at this point.

Fighting with an advisor is seldom a wise choice. But quitting after five years with good productivity seems equally terrible, maybe worse.

For your consideration only, let me suggest a possibility. Work with the graduate advisor on a plan to get you out the door properly. Tell them that you are feeling abused and defeated unjustly and you need to graduate. It is at least partly the responsibility of the institution to assure that you have a clear path. Take their advice to stay an extra semester, but put them on notice that you need funding, either from them or from a proper job elsewhere. Other professors in the department might also be able to apply some pressure if they are approached properly. They can prevail with your advisor even when you can't. Advisors need the support of their peers, generally, and need to be seen as fair in dealing with students. But don't try any of this if your reading of the personalities suggests it would be counterproductive. But you have a right to insist on a fair path and a right to insist that your advisor and the graduate director do their jobs properly.

If you trust that outside professor enough to ask for a letter applying some pressure on the graduate director, it might be useful (or not, depending, again, on personalities). Most especially if they would consider hiring you.

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    Yes! I used a variation on this plan effectively. I basically established the practice of meeting with each member of my committee and every one of my letter writers every two months to update them on my progress. Then they would send follow-up notes to my chair praising him for all that he helped me to accomplish and saying that they were supportive of/prepared to sign off on my graduation. I was allowed to graduate just a bit later than planned. – Dawn Oct 26 at 17:22
  • yes, there are people at the university, who's job is to help students graduate, help navigate relationship with the PI – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Oct 27 at 16:03
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    I would leave out the part of feeling abused and defeated and simply request the requirements for graduating - leave emotions out of the equation and focus on substance and action. – CramerTV Oct 28 at 19:53
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My advice is to write your thesis up and submit it to the committee. If you are going to have an argument about whether your work is sufficient, it will go better for you if you can show that everything is written up. Maybe you still don't win. But the time is not wasted. And it is too loosey goosey to argue about "done enough" when you're not looking at a document.

Personally I think 6 years, several papers is enough. And this guy trying to drive extra experiments, that aren't working, sans funding, in year 6 is being unreasonable.

Write it all up. Dump it on the committee. Involve the department chairman and the grad school. You may still have problems. But I bet if you show some spine, you end up doing none or at least "less" extra experiments.

Good luck.

  • The graduate advisor told me that in my department people have submitted their dissertation to their committee against their supervisor's wishes before. He didn't say much about my chances for success aside from that if the committee's reaction is positive then the supervisor might just let the student go. – JEs9X Oct 27 at 0:33
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    I just submitted mine--worked. But my point is that even if it's not successful, it moves things along. And it's a lot easier to have the argument "I'm done", when you can show a document. Having the argument you're done, when you can't show anything tips things too much in favor of the advisor. Even if you don't win outright, I still think it helps move you along. – guest Oct 27 at 0:48
  • This is great advise. I would however at least start to involve your supervisor once "meat" section of the thesis is in good shape. Maybe you can swing his opinion once he sees the work and everybody can save their face. – magu_ Oct 28 at 8:04
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You simply aren't going to get a PhD without the signatures of your committee. And the rest of your committee will generally give a lot of weight to your advisor's opinion when they decide to sign off or not.

Of course if you quit now both you and your advisor will lose out. As will the department and school because they all invested resources in you and did not get a successful graduate out of it. Plus you have various rights to make a big fight for them via appeals to the administration. All of this gives you some leverage to negotiate what would be acceptable to finish. As with every negotiation, it often starts from what seems like an impossible point, but it's very often possible to find some alternative or some middle point that can work. If experiments are off the table for you, what else can you do to satisfy them? Talk to the entire committee and find out. You could even do this formally at a qualifying exam if you must. But if your advisor is not yet satisfied, you really should offer something more.

If you are not being funded then the last thing you should do is stick around as a full-time student paying out of pocket to hang out in a lab and be someone's research assistant. Your school may have the option of being part-time (which still costs you, but less at least), or taking a leave, where you can work while finishing up. Ideally you should take the qualifying exam, where you basically propose what your final thesis will entail, and then advance to ABD status. Then you can finish up the final agreed-upon tasks on your own time. At least you aren't going into to debt to do it.

As for your plan of publishing journal articles, I can almost guarantee you that you will come across reviewers just as demanding as you advisor. Major revisions could easily entail months of further experiments in the lab, for each paper. You really need to start one or more of them in the process and learn this. It's something you should already be all-too familiar with before you earn a PhD, frankly.

  • Fair points. I've tried negotiating with my supervisor, but that went nowhere. I'm going to look into submitting my papers to journals, as I've actually already revised most of them as chapters in my dissertation. I'm "ABD" right now, having taken advanced to candidacy years ago. Leave is not an option to my knowledge, as my university has some weird rules about it. I don't believe I can get a TA position, so financially I'd have to find another job that's likely less convenient. – JEs9X Oct 27 at 0:44
  • @JEs9X In that case you should have proposed a research plan. Did you implement that? If so you are in good shape to defend and worst case your advisor would have to grudgingly accept while kicking himself for not putting in his demands back then. However a likely outcome of the defense would probably be a demand for more work, but it may not be quite such an open-ended demand for major new results. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 27 at 18:22
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I recall something like this happening with a fellow graduate student in my dept. The advisor kept wanting more. Just because the advisor wants more doesn't mean the advisor's position is reasonable. The student went to another member of the thesis committee for help, and was able to negotiate a resolution that led to graduation.

My advice would be to first bolster your position with data. Specifically, you should get a list of all the students who obtained PhD's from your department within the past few years and, for each of them, determine their publication list at graduation (the former can be obtained either directly from the graduate office, or from the department's commencement announcements; for the latter, use your choice of search engine, e.g. Google Scholar).

This info. should be subdivided into logical categories (first-authored conference papers, co-authored conference papers, first-authored papers in peer-reviewed journals, co-authored papers in peer-reviewed journals, etc.). Make a spreadsheet. Then determine if you are indeed being held to a different standard than is typical for your department. If you are, then go to your graduate advisor, show this, and then state, objectively and without rancor, that you have met the standards for your department.

This is a much stronger argument than simply arguing that you should be allowed to graduate. If you can demonstrate that the PI is forcing you meet standards significantly different than is typical, that strongly bolsters your position.

Alternately, you may be surprised to find that your fellow grad students typically do have at least a couple of first-authored papers in peer-reviewed journals before they graduate (that was typical in my department), in which case you haven't met the typical standards for your department. Only the data will tell you this.

Also, I would politely tell your PI that you want to resolve this is a civil manner, and that his ad hominem attacks are unacceptable. If he balks, the best response to his accusation that you are "reneging on a promise,...been conning him for years, etc." would be to say: "You would not like it if I made the accusation that you've been acting in bad faith, i.e., that you are keeping me here even though you know I've met the requirements for graduation, and simply want to benefit at my expense. So please don't accuse me of bad faith either."

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This is way out field but you might want to consider moving to the other professor if he will consider allowing you to defend your thesis with him...

Had a friend who changed supervisors but was not easy...

Will definitely get that supervisor noticed in their department though...

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    I also thought of suggesting this, but was you say, a long shot. Might be worth an ask. The problem would be that the other university has its own requirements, which might set you back in time. – Buffy Oct 26 at 19:18
  • Reasonable suggestion. The graduate advisor told me that switching supervisors is not a good option as apparently according to university rules I'd have to redo my proposal and apply to candidacy again. I'll ask someone else in case he got that wrong. – JEs9X Oct 27 at 0:21
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    @JEs9X my friend changed universities as part of this... not easy... – Solar Mike Oct 27 at 5:33
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Unfortunately, situations like this are best resolved before they reach this stage.

I think your path forward, given that you're already in this situation, is to speak with, in this order,

  1. Your committee
  2. the graduate program leadership in your department
  3. your department chair
  4. the graduate program leadership in your school
  5. a university problem solver, like an ombudsman

Work through one at a time, until you can come up with a mutually agreeable solution with your adviser. Having you actually pay or live unstipended to continue your degree is NOT a mutually agreeable solution. If your adviser is in a hole, it is the department's place to dig him or her out of it -- not yours! The department should be looking for resources to fund you.

For the record, the right way to not get into such issues is to form and use a graduate student committee as early as you can. One of the goals of the first meeting is to determine how often the committee should meet. As you get closer to finishing, an important milestone for the committee is to work with you to figure out what you need to do to finish. There is no way this decision should fall on one person with inherent conflicts.

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Did you never write a research plan before starting your PhD with milestones/goals you want to pursue and to which you could now refer to as being fulfilled? Or a talk you gave outlining those which was seen by your advisor and another professor. Both is pretty much mandatory at my university to not end in the situation you describe and being dependent on a single advisor with own interests suggesting new experiments at the end of your PhD. It also allows a third person which I had choose (another professor from different chair) to be mediator in that case of advisor and student disagreeing. What experiments and measurements you want to do should have been outlined between both of you at the beginninig.

What I don't understand and cannot judge is your conversion of conference to journal papers. Does a conference paper count as much as talk or a poster in your field, is there a serious review by 2-3 reviewers? In my field having no journal articles apart from talks/posters given at conferences or conference papers that are part of a special issue of a renowned journal would be a strong point that you are not ready to finish PhD.

  • The proposal my department requires has something like this, but my understanding is that it's not binding. And as I recall, the experiments my supervisor wants me to finish weren't on there. There's also no mediator position to my knowledge, unfortunately. In terms of the reviews, it varies. 3 out of 5 of my papers received some form of review. And in my sub-field it's not unusual at all to have zero journal publications when you finish your PhD. – JEs9X Oct 27 at 0:38
  • @JEs9X So everything you're saying seems to back up the advice User is giving you here! (and that given in other answers!) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 28 at 8:14
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There are many replies above, with excellent advice for you.

However something that is missing above, I would like to add here.
I was exactly in the same situation 10 years ago (Germany) - funding finished but professor was asking for more; visa was linked to studies and without funding I couldn't continue, so eventually dropped out!

I can suggest you what not to do!
1. Don't ever think of quitting at this stage.
2. Don't irk your professor in any way. Be polite and assertive.
3. Don't isolate yourself at this time when you need help from the fellow researchers at your department.
4. Don't take a full-time job in case if your funding is finished, but your thesis is not.
5. In case if you were able to secure a part-time job or external funding for your studies, don't let your professor know about it. I told my professor when my funding was finished about my new job, and he never bothered about my thesis as he assumed I was happy with my job.

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Most of the other answers here don't really address the professor's situation.

The professor may be feeling significant pressure to deliver results, especially if he does not yet have tenure. This means, in part, having students like yourself graduate and deliver good quality research. He may be in denial about the fact that your planned experiments were not feasible in the time and budget he had set aside for this.

Rather than approaching it as a potential confrontation, you may find it better to address it as a shared problem: you not finishing your degree is a problem for both of you. It's a black mark on his track record for graduating students, and he is not able to deliver the expected results for funding he secured.

If you approach it in the light of: we both underestimated the complexity of the experiments so how do we get the best possible outcome with the time and budget remaining? One part of this is definitely finding acceptable content for a thesis and having you graduate and possibly publishing some journal articles. Another part might be working together to write up a post-doc project for the supporting experiments, which he might then shop around to funding agencies. This might be a project for you or a future student for him.

The most important thing though is to recognize that you're in this together, and that it's in both of your favors to find a good way forward where you successfully graduate and he can claim success in the research project.

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