Here is a peculiar situation I face but I don't think it is uncommon in academia.

My adviser asked me in an email to commit to continuing the work to publish a paper from my PhD work before signing my PhD dissertation form

Let's assume the worst case scenario in which I will not be able to work on this paper in the future.

Does my adviser have the power to revoke my PhD if I will commit in an email, but I will not be able to continue the work to publish this paper?

What do you suggest me to do?


I am not a lawyer, but this type of promise strikes me as a good example of a contract that is very likely to be ruled unconscionable, and hence legally unenforceable, if a court of law were ever to consider the matter.

In a more academic context (since academia sometimes obeys unwritten rules that don’t always coincide with the written law), your adviser’s requirement strikes me as unethical and highly problematic. Your adviser’s job is to approve your dissertation if, and only if, they judge that the work that you have done to date meets the requirements for a PhD. A PhD is not indentured servitude and your adviser cannot exert control over your life into the indefinite future, or indeed into any future that extends beyond the moment they sign that piece of paper. I see it as highly improper for your adviser to attempt to impose such a requirement. If I were a colleague of your adviser who heard about their behavior, I would lose a lot of the respect I hold for them, assuming I had such respect to begin with. And if I were a university official hearing a demand from your advisor to revoke your PhD over a breached promise of this type, I would laugh them out of the room. Of course, I cannot guarantee that other academics would have the same reaction.

I can’t advise you how to proceed, but some options that I can think of are:

  1. Make the promise and be true to your word.

  2. Make the promise without planning to satisfy the requirement. The rationale here is that a promise obtained under coercion is ethically void and you are not bound to satisfy it. (Again, that is the notion of unconscionability I was referring to earlier, but in an ethics rather than legal context.)

  3. Do not make the promise. Explain to your adviser that the demand is inappropriate and hope that they will be convinced, or possibly negotiate to get the adviser to relax the unreasonable condition so as to allow for uncertainties about future events.

  4. Complain to relevant authorities at your department and/or university.

Some people might think less of you for choosing option 2. Personally I think each of the choices I outlined above is reasonable and moral, although option 2 is certainly distasteful and I would try to avoid it if I could.

Good luck!

  • I think your suggestion that this is, in any way, a contract is misplaced. Your #4, if acted upon, would chance destroying a relationship. Such a "promise" is just noise.
    – Buffy
    Nov 27 '19 at 21:57
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    @Buffy yes, you’re probably right about #4, but when an advisor is behaving abusively, complaining is certainly an option to consider.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 27 '19 at 22:32
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    @Buffy the advisor is asking OP to commit in an email to doing something in exchange for granting approval of their PhD. Sounds like a contract to me, and the question is specifically about whether it is enforceable (although OP didn’t use such precise legal language). Not sure what you mean about the word being misplaced.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 27 '19 at 22:35
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    @user2512443 I don’t know, I think you’d need a lawyer to answer that question.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 27 '19 at 23:47
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    Abuse of power is another term for this. Nov 28 '19 at 11:32

I suggest that you make the commitment and try to stick to it. It would be good if you get it done. But nothing bad can happen if you don't. It would be unethical for the advisor to even suggest revocation.

This sounds more to me like a strong endorsement of the quality of your work and that it should be seen by more than just your committee. I doubt that it would enter their mind to try to harm you. If your work was poor they would have no reason whatever to suggest you publish it.

  • I already defended. They think I will not continue working on the paper. And, it is possoble because I am very busy with both my presonal and at work, and they know that. Nov 27 '19 at 20:38
  • Again, it sounds like encouragement and nothing else. Maybe their choice of words didn't resonate with you, but it sounds to me like the intent is "This is really good work. I want to see it published. Promise me you'll get that done." In my own case it took a few years to publish my dissertation work but it came out in the end. And for much the same reason you state.
    – Buffy
    Nov 27 '19 at 20:41
  • Thanks. Maybe I'm over analyzing it. I wish he knew how to frame it better. Nov 27 '19 at 20:49
  • It may just be an anxious time for you. It is for many.
    – Buffy
    Nov 27 '19 at 20:57
  • 3
    This sounds more to me like a strong endorsement of the quality of your work. Um, no, this sounds like an unethical and abusive act of attempted coercion. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but coercion nonetheless.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 27 '19 at 21:24

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