I'm finishing a really messed up dissertation. Maybe decent in some sense, but all the PhD has been done without following any of the supposed methodology and criteria. Since I'm in a sort of arm wrestling with the supervisor from years and since I didn't miss the chance of exposing some soft versions of my PhD nightmare, I think that my supervisor might act in the following ways:

  • Helping to actually finish successfully the PhD so that all the issues will be silenced and hidden under a carpet. This might imply inviting examiners that are under his influence and pretending that everything is alright.
  • Otherwise, he might bring me to the viva knowing that the research cannot be accepted and exposing all its shortcomings.

This last one would open to two possibilities:

  • Asking the changes that he expected from the beginning of my research (independently from their actual value)
  • Making me failed so that I can take all the blame without having any chance to expose his responsibilities and delegitimize any possible retaliation I can do

I have the feeling that the only thing he wants to avoid is that I leave the PhD, because in that case he is powerless over me and I can actually expose the problems that occurred and ruin his reputation.

For this reason I'm trying to understand what is on the stake for the supervisor if I succeed, if I fail or if I abandon. I would like to know how this might affect his reputation and/or his role in the institution, or if any of these options would not change much (in positive or negative) for him.

I'm asking this, also for another reason: in any case and at any moment, I never perceived that my supervisor expected or had any interest in having me doing a great job. I have the feeling that this doesn't really matter to him. The only thing that matters is the utility that this research can have for his personal, social, institutional purposes.

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    Please consider editing this question to be shorter. The title alone is nearly enough to describe what you're asking, and all the rest of this is background that gets in the way of people reading and helping.
    – Jeff
    Apr 13, 2020 at 16:58
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    Although much depends on the particular professor, the culture of the institution, etc., I can at least comment on this bit of your question: "he might bring me to the viva knowing that the research cannot be accepted and exposing all its shortcomings." This is extremely unlikely. Allowing a student to defend an unacceptable thesis would reflect as badly on the supervisor as on the student. Before one of my students can defend a thesis, I must certify that it's acceptable; I would be very humiliated if it actually wasn't acceptable. Apr 13, 2020 at 18:32
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    As a prospective PhD student, when I choose my advisor if I see that PI had a PhD student who had left, failed etc, that would be a strong motivation for me to not to work with them.
    – Our
    Apr 13, 2020 at 18:40
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    @AndreasBlass This depends on the country. In the UK, a PhD student can decide to proceed to defend the thesis even if the supervisor advises against. It has happened in the past at my university with the student failing miserably.
    – electrique
    Apr 13, 2020 at 18:51

4 Answers 4


First, to answer the question directly, supervisors have much more to gain from successful students than unsuccessful ones. Among other things, success brings them new students and future collaborators. Most of us are very proud of our successful students and, we hope, they have good feelings toward us, as well. The failures just disappear.

Moreover, I doubt that he would want to keep you "under his thumb" rather than letting you go, whether from passing or failing. I think that it is very unlikely that any student, no matter how badly treated, can "ruin the reputation" of their advisor unless there is a pattern of abuse over many years and many students. I'm sure it happens, but is so unlikely that it would be an extreme event if he considered it to be a possibility.

But, it is also possible that he just wants you gone, however it happens, because he sees you as a thorn in his side and he is tired of dealing with it. It is possible that, while failing you is a poor alternative, he sees it as the only way. That doesn't imply that he is correct, though he may be, and that you are wrong. But it might just be more peaceful without you. Your statement "all the PhD has been done without following any of the supposed methodology and criteria" is a bit of a red flag.

I worry, however, that you may be fighting him just for the sake of fighting. He seems to have "expected" some changes. It seems you have resisted. I can't judge the case, of course, but it is a poor strategy to fight with your supervisor rather than seeking some accommodation.

I don't know what options are open to you, but most seem dire unless you find a way to make peace. Abandoning years of work is difficult, but may be necessary if it hasn't been productive. Even established researchers have to do that on occasion.

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    I'm afraid you might have a different notion of 'success' than the questioner here. A student who continues as a researcher in the field brings a supervisor new students and future collaborators. A student who continues as a successful practitioner in the field also adds reputational effects that might help bring in new students. A student who passes their PhD and then slinks away because their PhD wasn't really all that good does neither. Apr 13, 2020 at 17:57
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    @AlexanderWoo, I guess I don't define "success" as just basic completion. We can aid their success, but it is up to them.
    – Buffy
    Apr 13, 2020 at 18:39
  • Let me clarify this... in the general sense of the question with "success" I mean the actual finishing the PhD without quitting it. In the end of my post, when I said that " I never perceived that my supervisor expected or had any interest in having me doing a great job" I referred to the success in my career.
    – pat
    Apr 13, 2020 at 21:40
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    Harder than I suspected, then. I suggest finding allies. Preferably among the faculty.
    – Buffy
    Apr 13, 2020 at 23:05
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    To add to your "success is better than failure": depending on the country, you may also need to have tutored a few PhDs before getting promoted.
    – WoJ
    Apr 15, 2020 at 9:35

Sorry to hear you had a bad PhD experience.

PhD supervisors are invested in the success of the students for a multitude of reasons. In the science, much of the research a supervisor is connected to happens vicariously, through their students and postdocs. Assuming the PI went into academia because they loved research, that is reason enough! Plus, they are likey to to be authors on papers etc.

I gether things arn't so much the same in humanities. But I'd still expect a successful student to be a source of joy and intelectual stimulation. At worse, a student is a part of the job, given to you by the department to look after, and your record will record how good a job you did.

How many students I have succesfully graduated is an important part of my job when it comes to promotions and pay rises. More than a couple of failures to complete and the department will start getting flack from those that pay. In the UK system, if the completion rate of a dept drops below 75% they are cut off from research funding. One failure to complete is a black mark on my record. Two would get serious questions asked. Three would put you in serious trouble.

Almost nobody "fails" a PhD, doubly so if the supervisor green lights the submission. I've heard of maybe two people whom anyone I know has been connected to that having failed - that is they have submitted a thesis and the committee/viva examiners have said "no, this is not good enough, you fail". Students (and new faculty) often over-estimate what is required in a PhD thesis to pass. Much more common is failure to complete - where a thesis is never submitted, either because the student loses the motivation to complete, has personal problems, or the supervisor decides that the student will never produce a good enough thesis and starts proceedings to remove the student from the program. Or some combination (supervisor keeps saying "no this isn't yet good enought" and eventually the student gives up).

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    It is also possible that we say "no this isn't yet good enough" and the student gets re-invigorated and gets it right. I can think of a couple of cases of that.
    – Buffy
    Apr 13, 2020 at 19:05
  • Yes, everything is correct in normal situations and I hope the same will applies to me. My suspicion, thus my question, is that the failing or success, or success with major changes that I wouldn't agree, might be instruments for further manipulations and/or retaliations. Maybe I'm just overreacting to a very stressful experience, but I need to evaluate these possible strategies.
    – pat
    Apr 13, 2020 at 22:50
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    " success with major changes" is the norm. I think in my department proably just slightly less than 50% of students are required to make major corrections to their thesis by the viva examiners (the next 40% are required to make "minor corrections", the only difference being whether you are given 3 or 6 months to make them. Apr 14, 2020 at 9:09

I like the answer by Buffy but I will focus on your question:

  • What to gain by you succeeding: nothing. Basically, your relationship is not good, so s/he cannot probably expect a collaboration in the future. Moreover, you succeeding might create more issues. For instance, you might decide to “expose” them anyway but now as a successful Dr rather as a disgruntled failed candidate.
  • What to gain by you failing: nothing. A PhD student failing is always bad for the supervisor. S/he has spent hours, days, months advising you and reviewing material. Even if s/he didn’t spend any time, still there is a social and professional “stigma” from one of your PhD students failing. On top of that, s/he’ll have to deal with you for a longer period.
  • What to gain by you leaving: maybe something. Confrontation is uncomfortable for most people. If you decide to leave, then you’re out of sight. Even if you try to “expose” them, you are anymore an outsider that failed the program and now you are disgruntled. Unless you have some really damning evidence (falsification of data, financial mismanagement, etc.), the effect on them would be minimum.

Anyway, you decided to stick with the said supervisor and for your own reasons you didn’t move to another lab or supervisor for years. If they feel that strongly about some ideas and yourself can only describe your own work as “descent”, then maybe you should reconsider following their advise or compromising. Keep in mind that even if you get a PhD, unless it’s an amazing PhD, you might still need some references in the future.

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    I like this answer, but "What to gain by you succeeding: nothing." might not necessarily be true. At some places, number of graduated PhD students is seen a success metrics and there might be explicit incentives for scoring well on that metrics. Apr 13, 2020 at 19:57
  • @electrique, I also agree, but I would add some other considerations: before starting the PhD I had already a discrete success and reputation in the specific community (... my field allows this) after I started the PhD, this begin to degrade since I had to exit my specific area for dealing with what the supervisor requested. Meanwhile I got appointed as adjunct professor in another university in another country, so I might still be a disgruntled failed candidate, but that still can hold a bit of recognition that I can use. In the other hand my fear is that this won't be enough to have a voice.
    – pat
    Apr 13, 2020 at 22:29
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    @lighthousekeeper: in some places having tutored a number of PhD is a legal requirement for the next title of the advisor.
    – WoJ
    Apr 15, 2020 at 9:37

There are commonly institutional incentives to get PhD students to pass even if they're not strong candidates. At my institution there is a direct payment from the government when a student passes. On the other side, there's not much to gain from the failure of a student - every one that fails is a black mark against the supervisor's name within the institution. If the student leaves without completing, that's a failure for the supervisor. The supervisor wants you to pass. Where the conflict usually arises is in how much work they're willing to put in to see it happen.

If i can offer advice: most PhDs get a bit messed up along the way, making the best out of what you have is the key. Don't focus on the problems or what you regret, focus on what succeeded or is interesting.

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