Update on Feb 27

The extension is confirmed. I can get the different reviewer, but sadly the graduate school will be able to make a replacement for me next semester.

My additional advice for others who come here to read later.

  1. Going to the harassment center is effective, but please discuss with your professor before going there (if you can).
  2. Checking the rule who you should contact step by step.
  3. Checking the rule alphabetically that your case is in the scope of what you are going to report. If you are not confident, consult someone from the small position to the top (as mentioned in number 2). If you are ignored, you still have the bigger person to go for.

Thanks all a lot again.

Update on Feb 25

My professor exchanged some emails with the reviewer. The reviewer confirmed that "I am unable to change my judgement" but said he was ok to meet me for thesis defense. My co-advisor (who is the expert in machine learning) came to the lab and confirmed that the reviewer misunderstood many points of my thesis.

I think I will get an extension and go for thesis defense with the reviewer. My prof and my co-advisor are very supportive and understanding.

Now is the national entrance examination period in Japan, so all staff (the Dean and so on) have to manage the exam and I have to wait to get the official approval of the extension (I guess). So, I would like to open this question for a short while. If someone would like to add something, I would truly appreciate it. Thank you very much for all the support and answers here.

Sorry for the long story. Some advice/insight would be very appreciated.

I am a Ph.D candidate in Japan.

I had my Ph.D. defense on January 21st. One reviewer out of three did not attend to my defense without informing my supervisor. We had no clue why it happened. After the defense, I had 10 days to improve my Ph.D. thesis from questions and comments I got from the defense, and submit it to the committee. I sent all of the committee my thesis on January 31st. The committee had time to review my thesis until February 21st.

The absent reviewer contacted my supervisor saying that he was abroad on February 2nd. Anyway, his evaluation was rejection. Since he did not provide clear comments on which points of my thesis had problems, my supervisor and I did not understand clearly his reasons. I contacted him immediately to say I could go to his campus and would like to present my research for him.

He replied to me on February 15th. He said that he will be available in March or May which is out of the deadline from graduate school. My supervisor sent him a reminder on February 19th that if he had some comments, please gave me before 21st. He gave me comments on the night of 20th. I had one day left to reply to all of his comments, which were many. Anyway, in order to be within the timeline, I revised as much as I could and sent it to him before the deadline. However, my supervisor found out that he submitted his rejection to graduate school before he gave me comments. This situation is very unlikely, particularly in Japan where people really respect others.

At this point, my supervisor contacted the Dean and the professor in charge of the Ph.D. thesis. At first, I felt he was very sure that I would pass. However, today, he contacted me to say that I have to get 3 passes from 3 reviewers. Also, I think he checked the rule and found that it was not written in the book about the reviewer must come to the defense. So, he may be wavering. I have already got 2 passes, and I think what that reviewer did is not right.

To be fair, I think many of his comments are very valuable and I like to improve the quality of my thesis as much as possible. However, according to his comments, he is misunderstanding many points which I can explain but I have no chance to defend. I also feel he underestimated the complexity of my data (biology-based) and biased to the style of his field (machine learning-based).

My questions:

  1. What should I do in this situation? I do not want to be emotional and react to the situation carelessly, particularly with my supervisor.
  2. Is this a mistreatment or a common thing in graduate school?
  3. Sorry for another question, which may sound off-topic, but because this is not the first time in my experience that I feel the graduate school cannot protect me, should I quit or transfer my Ph.D. to elsewhere? I am just thinking about what I should do now, in the near future, and in the long run.

Thank you very much.

  • 84
    Yes you are being abused. When some professor doesn't do their job properly the student shouldn't be the one to suffer.
    – Buffy
    Feb 22, 2020 at 15:40
  • 58
    In an ideal world (not in ours), this person should be fired from their.job.
    – user111388
    Feb 22, 2020 at 16:44
  • 5
    Is there any way to negotiate an extension with the Graduate School so that you can defend your work in front of that reviewer and the reviewer could potentially revise their judgement? Even if there is, the reviewer may not be the kind of person to change their mind, of course. So the "ask for a different reviewer" advice seems good to me... if doable... Feb 22, 2020 at 18:00
  • 33
    To give you an idea what happens elsewhere when a committee member cannot make it to the defense: Ouf of my 5 committee members, one knew that they couldn't come as they were abroad. The rules allow for one being absent. At the very morning, however, one of the external members called the university that he was stuck at a railway station still 100 km away where due to an accident with persons involved the whole station was shut down. The next thing was an ad hoc faculty meeting that voted two replacement members into my committee. Defense started on time with a complete committee. Feb 22, 2020 at 22:40
  • 14
    @anomaly Common? I know of many outrageous stories, but never heard about such a blatant disregard for procedures in probably the most important regular type of academic examination. Feb 23, 2020 at 1:35

4 Answers 4


Ask for a different 3rd reviewer.

This person clearly does not respect the doctoral process and does not give you a fair chance to gain your PhD. He should be removed from the committee and replaced by someone else who does. You still can work in his comments as far as possible, as content-wise, they are relevant, but they should not be entrusted with judgement concerning your future academic (or otherwise) career.

  • 4
    Thank you very much for your solid advice. I should ask my supervisor whether this way is possible. Although, I’m not sure I would be allowed to have new reviewer at this point. The graduate school may choose professor’s side rather than student’s, and people tend to avoid to have conflicts in Japan. Whatever it will happen, I appreciate what you wrote here very much.
    – Jan
    Feb 22, 2020 at 17:13
  • 4
    @Jan They don't have to side with a professor over a student: they can side with your primary advisor if they agree you need a different third reviewer. Given that your current third reviewer is unwilling to review your thesis prior to your deadline, there is a lot of common sense in that solution.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 22, 2020 at 19:12
  • 54
    Actually I find it already astonishing that a reviewer who was absent from the defense without excuse was not replaced back then. Plus, if the rules say you get a list of required corrections at the defense and then have 10 days, that usually means there cannot be any corrections requested almost a month later. Feb 22, 2020 at 22:52
  • 5
    @Jan I understand Japanese culture sufficiently that I realise that a "frontal assault" may not be the action of choice here. But you could propose that, to round up the examiners expertise, another expert could be added (who would then provide the required 3rd review). Or whatever sounds like a political move that will not embarrass your prof and the other prof (although they would deserve this). Find some nuance which sounds like it would be a "good idea" to provide a further review. It could be even a dummy review, as you already have 2 positive votes and process seems irrelevant anyway. Feb 23, 2020 at 1:33
  • 6
    @Jan No, definitely don't show them where you got your responses from. Frame it into your language. If you demonstrate that you received external advice, it's an embarrassment for them, and you do not want that, since, in Japan, that means they will just block every request of yours, just to save face. Make this set of advice your own. Feb 23, 2020 at 13:34

Too new to comment, so following up on CaptainEmacs answer and whether it is "too late" to change reviewers.

I have a friend (albeit in the US) who had one reviewer out of three, not approve. And similarly, the reviewer was slow to give details, and asked for unreasonable amounts of not just changes but follow on work to be done before he would accept. His professor and this reviewer could not see eye to eye, and my friend was running out of time before he needed to leave to start a job he accepted. He basically had to choose to abandon all his work or take this job.

It was resolved in the following way: his professor decided to ask if the reviewer would mind letting someone else take his spot on the comittee, and the reviewer agreed he would give up his spot on the committee to someone else if the department found someone who would take his spot. Note, this was not required (I think with department approval, the committee can be changed at any point), but getting approval made anything easier "politics-wise", and also made it clear that it really was just that this reviewer did not want his name on it. In his case, it seemed the reviewer was an outsider to the field and did not understand how much additional research would be required to follow up on his questions (after all, interesting research always brings up follow-up questions; I guess there was a cross-field disagreement of where it is acceptable to draw that line).

In summary: Even in a case where all reviewers showed up, if the expectations are far enough out of line of the others, it is reasonable to change the committee.

  • 4
    Thank you very much for sharing me this. I will also propose my supervisor your suggestion. Asking him first is the great solution to save everyone's face, which is important here. Special thanks for the summary as well.
    – Jan
    Feb 23, 2020 at 5:10

I worked for four years in Japan in a research setting close to academia (not a university). In my experience hiring and evaluating people in Japan is mainly based on the relationship of the boss/GL/supervisors to each other. What you call "they have respect for other people" is that in a normal setting in a Japanese hierarchy your would not do things which reflect badly on your superiors or people where you are either lower in the hierarchy (have to use honorific forms to address them) or to whom you owe a favour. My considerations may reflect the Japanese mentality as far as I understand it. It boils down to a few essential questions:

  • are you a foreigner? If yes, nobody owes you a favour
  • is the reviewer also foreign? If yes, he doesn't owe anybody (in the Japanese sense).
  • if he is not: how is his relationship to your supervisor.

My uneducated guesses:

  • If you are foreigner and all others are Japanese: Your supervising professor doesn't have a relationship to the reviewer which requires the reviewer to address him in honorific form -> your direct supervisor misestimated one or more of the following
    1. The quality of your common work
    2. the interest of the reviewer in it
    3. Inter-institute politics
    4. The support of the supervising professor/dean
    5. The relationship between the supervising professor/dean and the reviewer
  • If additionally you are Japanese potentially additionally:
    1. The relative power/fame of the institution you did your master with
    2. Your master thesis supervisors relationship to the reviewer
  • If the reviewer is a foreigner, it takes some things off the table, since he will not be in the Japanese hierarchy. but some things will be added.

I have seen it happening before that due to communication issues the expected level and quality of work was not aligned between foreign collaborators/reviewers, i have been part of such constellations when it came to publications, where some people expected my formal collaborator "OK" but basically (even in a suitable diplomatic way) called out the bullshit. Some were as surprised as you (even if it was not a PHD thesis), since the GL obviously did not not communicate well before.

So my most likely estimation is that you direct supervisor did not communicate enough. I suggest that (if you are a foreigner) discuss the situation mainly with the dean and push either for a formal non-acceptance of your university of the reviewers comments (your dean will be experienced in finding convincing excuses) and another reviewer. If the reviewer is foreign and his comments are good, you could also try to shift the date and try to have a research visit at your reviewers institution.

  • 4
    I am a foreigner, and everyone else is Japanese. I am with this supervisor since my Master degree. I would like to talk to the Dean too, and I must inform my supervisor before doing this. Hope he does not feel bad or something. Thanks very much for your insight!
    – Jan
    Feb 24, 2020 at 5:54
  • 1
    I didn't understand the second last paragraph, despite reading it several times. Perhaps it's the convoluted sentences, but would you be able to rephrase? Feb 24, 2020 at 9:21
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs: I suspect it means that a foreign reviewer felt a publication was of insufficient quality, but also expected a collaborator to agree with the author for social/non-technical reasons, and therefore the reviewer agrees to assume the role as "bad cop" to prevent publication until quality was improved. I've seen this as well. It works when everyone (particularly reviewer & collaborator) understand the situation. But if communication is poor, it can lead to the OP's situation.
    – user81899
    Feb 24, 2020 at 17:23
  • 1
    @Richter65 To be honest, that's quite bad form to let it go to the examination without prior warning. OP can check for this themselves: did they get papers published? In good journals/conferences? If so, this probably does not apply (not a guarantee, but a good chance). Feb 24, 2020 at 23:26
  • @CaptainEmacs: Agreed; it's incredibly bad form. But it may not have been malicious; it might just have been a misunderstanding caused by poor communication. I think that was Sascha was trying to say in this answer. And I also agree that taking a look at the professional reputation of the reviewer might give a hint, though my guess is that the reviewer is indeed well-respected.
    – user81899
    Feb 25, 2020 at 2:57

What should I do in this situation? I do not want to be emotional and react to the situation carelessly, particularly with my supervisor.

Your supervisor should be your most important ally in this discussion. Your failed thesis reflects very badly on them, and they will almost certainly be very willing to go to bat for you (if not for your sake, then definitely for their own).

An urgent crisis meeting with your supervisor is in order. They will need to alert the PhD school about this problem, and discuss options. If there is no official process, the school will have to make up their mind how to handle the situation. Possible options include getting more reviews, giving you the option of more revision time, or simply overruling the reviewer. Of course they can, in principle, also say "the rules are the rules, so you failed" - but they are only shooting into their own foot. They now have one additional failed student for their statistics, a very disgruntled ex-PhD student (potentially with a case for formal complaint, depending on exact circumstances), a very disgruntled professor, and a cohort of current PhD students that learned that the PhD school will rather let them drown than support them. Normally, none of this is worth it to the school.

I would avoid going over your supervisor's head as long as they seem willing to fight for you. They are in a much better position to argue why your rejection was unfair, and the head of the PhD school will have a much harder time saying no to them than to you.

Is this a mistreatment or a common thing in graduate school?

It sounds extremely rare, if for no other reason than that your reviewer likely also burned a lot of bridges with their action.

Sorry for another question, which may sound off-topic, but because this is not the first time in my experience that I feel the graduate school cannot protect me, should I quit or transfer my Ph.D. to elsewhere? I am just thinking about what I should do now, in the near future, and in the long run.

Transferring now seems incredibly late in the process. If there is no other way, your supervisor and PhD school really cannot or will not help you, and you still want to do your PhD, then transferring might be your best shot, but I still feel there has to be a better way to handle this.

  • 1
    This would be a good point in a US-style university, I do not think that many of the downsides for the school apply that directly in Japan. Their logic works different. Feb 27, 2020 at 11:41

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