I should defend my PhD in the UK near the end of the year.

Unfortunately I fell into the class of horribly supervised PhD students - with an ill-defined research project and an absent supervisor who steered me into so many different topics of my field that I'm convinced my results chapters lack depth and analysis.

For that specific reason I seriously doubt the originality and the importance of my research work, which will be thoroughly assessed during the viva.

Can the internal and external reviewers be receptive about objective arguments related to poor supervision during the 3-4 years of research? Or are they bound to discuss only the contents of the thesis?

PS - This is not an opinion-based or a stress-induced question where I expect "don't worry" answers. I'm well aware a PhD is a self journey and one should cope with difficult supervision. The question pertains to the viva only.

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    I'm not familiar with the term "viva". Can you clarify what that means? Is it a defense? May 20, 2020 at 13:30
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    @6005 "Viva" and "defence" convey two very different examination styles to me: a 3+ hour grilling on the minutiae of the thesis by two academics vs a presentation given by the candidate to a large audience followed by questions. The OP is having a viva, not a defence. The title should not be changed. May 20, 2020 at 14:47
  • Comments are not for extended discussion and the conversation has been moved to chat. I left the two above comments about the possible different meanings of the terms viva and defence. May 22, 2020 at 8:58
  • Do not underestimate the acumen of your examiners. My other half does a number of vivas every year and more than once I had him complain to me about an aspect of a thesis that (his words) "should have really been dealt with by the supervisor". Often it's blatantly obvious were your supervision has gone wrong. This does not mean that you do not need to fulfil the minimum requirements and I would suggest you make sure that you truly understand every little nook of your these before you show up for your viva. It's not going to be fun. May 23, 2020 at 10:23

10 Answers 10


I'd suggest that the viva is possibly the worst time to do this. Almost anything you say could be interpreted as whining and trying to deflect responsibility for any shortcomings. Many things you might say would be countered in the minds of the reviewers whether expressed by them or not.

Whether you bring it up yourself or just reply to questions or comments with complaints about your advisor or others would seem, to me at least, as unprofessional.

If you have issues about the performance of your advisor, make it a separate issue in an appropriate venue after the degree is in hand.

  • 69
    +1 "Possibly the worst time" indeed. It's like complaining about your boss while giving a presentation to a prospective client.
    – TooTea
    May 20, 2020 at 14:58
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    @TooTea Most users on this SE never had a client in their life, so this comparison is a bit lost here. May 21, 2020 at 21:09
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    Lost to some, perhaps, but I’m smirking nonetheless. +1 for @TooTea
    – MPW
    May 22, 2020 at 0:40

Let me rephrase what you're trying to do: You want to complain about your supervisor, in front of your supervisor and in the presence of your supervisor's colleagues. That seems like a generally bad approach in almost any context, but it is a particularly bad idea if the point of the meeting is to assess your qualifications as a researcher: In other words, everyone in the room is there to evaluate you, not your supervisor.

You might of course have a completely valid point about the quality of supervision, but the viva is not the place to bring that up. Doing so very much smells of calling "Look over there" when what's "over there" has nothing to do with the current context of the conversation.

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    @circuitbreaker But the goal of a viva or defense is not to assess the PhD process of your school, your supervisor's qualities, or whether you have done a good job given the circumstances. The goal is to assess whether you got there. Assuming that they indeed judge your dissertation lacking, no amount of "objective justification" will save you.
    – xLeitix
    May 20, 2020 at 16:00
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    @xLeitix Unless it is a self-referential characterisation of a thesis on "Deflectionary tactics in modern political communication" and the candidate is demonstrating this with a live example ;-) In my experience, satire, sarcasm and irony as well as scathing criticism of the system make for memorable heroic speeches in movies about academia and school, but for a career-limiting move in real life. All will remember the scandal, nobody will remember the underlying reasons. In short, OP is well advised not to go down this route. May 20, 2020 at 16:21
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    "in front of your supervisor" - this varies by country. In the system I'm most familiar with (Ireland), the supervisor is not usually present.
    – jmmcd
    May 20, 2020 at 21:13
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    @circuitbreaker in evaluating the work any justifications literally don't matter, it either fits the criteria or not. Poor supervision is reasonable justification to postpone a defence, or to change the supervisor, or have some other result, but it's not a valid justification to accept limitations that otherwise would not be acceptable. It's your job to convince them about the originality and the importance of your research work; admitting "my thesis does not meet the criteria because of X" does not do that, it results in "yep, your thesis does not meet the criteria, come back when it does".
    – Peteris
    May 20, 2020 at 21:15
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    The answer still holds, but in the UK the supervisor is indeed not usually present.
    – fqq
    May 20, 2020 at 21:27

Everyone is correctly saying don't do it, but my answer is stronger than "it's unprofessional" or "it's irrelevant". I think it increases the chances of failing. In the system I know (Ireland, similar to UK in viva style), there is a very small chance of failing (perhaps < 3%) but the viva is not a formality. When an external examiner is considering failing the student, they have to overcome many obstacles in their mind, one of which is that the supervisor and student both consider the document defendable, and another is that failing is anomalous. By talking about poor supervision in the viva, you tend to break down both of those obstacles.


It would not be "pointless", it would be incredibly counterproductive. Any concerns about the supervision should have been brought up with the supervisor (or in severe cases escalated to the head of department) during the course of your PhD.

In your viva, you should present your own work from its best angle. You are there to discuss your scientific achievements. Also consider that negative results are part of science, so you can do science even if your starting point was an "ill-defined research project". (Science consists in a process progressing towards results of interest, rather than just in the end results themselves.)

Publicly criticizing someone when you're supposed to discuss your scientific achievements will only reflect badly on yourself and cast doubts on your work ethic and your fitness to be awarded a PhD.

(If your supervisor is indeed a "bad cookie", their colleagues may already have noticed and will value your independence and motivation to have worked to the best of your ability considering the circumstances. They will also likely pick up on "bad supervision" and hopefully will not only assess the end result, but more generally the journey you had to take to produce these results.)


Your viva is about your achievements. Your supervisor should not be discussed at all.


TL;DR: Do not complain outright to your examiners about the supervision. If they are any good, they will work it out for themselves.

The purpose of a viva is several fold:

  1. Make sure the student did the work they have written about in the thesis.
  2. Make sure the student understands the work they did.

These first two control for situations where the supervisor basically did the PhD for the candidate, and just used them as hired hands to do technical or leg work.

  1. Probe the students broader understanding of the field and how their work relates to the field
  2. Make sure the student understands, or can be made to understand the limitations and the shortcomings of their work.
  3. Check that the written thesis is a fair representation of the abilities of the student.

Often examiners come into an exam unconvinced by the thesis, but the exam convinces them that the student is capable, but that they just didn't write the thesis very well.

If you feel the thesis work is not good (whether that is the fault of the supervisor or not), the viva is your time to shine. So, make sure you are confident of exactly what the strong and weak points of your thesis work are. You say you doubt its originality. Don't doubt, know. If someone else has done this before, know who, and exactly what they did and exactly where your work is similar and where different. Don't think you work lacks depth and analysis; know which ideas are not fully developed, and the directions in which they could be taken if you had more time. If you abandoned ideas uncompleted, be prepared to discuss the pros and cons of this, and say if on balance you made a mistake in abandoning or not.

Most of all, be prepared to say where you were wrong in the past. Not a general, handwavy kind of "oh I wasn't very good then", but specifics: I thought this, but actually that was the case. At the time I felt topic X was not going anywhere, but I've since come to learn that A, B and C could have allowed me to progress it.

It is highly unlikely you will outright fail. But you may well be asked to make quite substantial corrections if the thesis really is as bad as you say (students, and some supervisors often have an inflated view of what is necessary in a thesis). Think ahead what these might be, and have some ideas for them already worked out.

All this demonstrates your quality as a scholar or scientist, independently of what your relationship with your supervisor has been. Which, in the end, is what is being tested in a viva.

Traditionally it is the job of the external examiner to really probe the work, and the job of the internal examiner to a) act as umpire between the external and the candidate b) be aware of the context in which the work was done. You might be surprised about the extent to which the internal is aware of problems with supervision (especially if they are from the same department). But also, good examiners will get a feel for the supervision in the exam, in science vivas especially, the exam is as much an examination of the supervisor as it is the student. You won't pass with substandard work because your supervision was poor, but you might be cut some slack in making it better.


Yes, it's pointless unfortunately. It's a bit late at this stage: you should have raised it with the relevant people and/or tried to change to a good supervisor as quickly as possible into the PhD.


If you want to have an academic career and/or if you would ever like a letter of reference from anyone on the PhD committee or your supervisor, I would recommend to wait until you have a permanent job secured, or at least a tenure-track faculty-like position which is stable for several years, before revealing the things you said about your supervisor here.

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    Let's not forget, on the other hand, that work with (academic) integrity is about being honest to facts and circumstances. So, if there have been recognisable shortcomings limiting the researcher from achieving the prospected goals, this should be accounted for in the column of liabilities and (internal) threats. Granted that the viva is not the right place to raise internal issues (do wash dirty linen in the family), raising to the challenges and describing the coping strategies is a valued quality in any job. In sum, swallowing and waiting is not the only way out. Also @circuitbreaker May 21, 2020 at 16:43
  • @XavierStuvw thank you for explaining your downvote. Too many people do it without even bothering to write a comment. I agree that in an ideal world, honesty and integrity should triumph over politics, but I wanted to give the user the best advice possible. Without knowing enough details about the specific situation in this case, it is generally a bad idea (i.e. career suicide) to describe ones supervisor the way that OP is doing, before securing a job. I agree that in an ideal world, OP would be able to do it freely. But the world is nasty.
    – Nik
    May 21, 2020 at 16:50
  • Thanks in turn. The world can definitely be nasty, even appalling, but it is not nasty anywhere, anyhow. Honesty and integrity may well be fiddling for minorities but help maintain a degree of collective, enduring, resilient decency. (My two cents.) Not to mention that integrity is a condition for getting a salary in some employments. Another form of career suicide is getting stuck in a job where you do not qualify yourself further and grow professionally: many a PhD student who feel not to have achieved anything in 3-4 years because of structural shortcomings do fear leaping into their future May 21, 2020 at 17:08
  • There's nothing in your last comment that I vehemently disagree with. When answering here I tend to try to stay on the "safe side" because I don't want to say something that turns out to be bad advice. The OP has described their supervisor as "horrible" and is asking about whether or not they should attempt to say this publicly in front of other academics in their field. A lot of horrible supervisors are very powerful (ones that don't yet have tenure tend to be less abusive to their students since they don't want to lose their job). Without knowing more details, I recommend OP to relax & wait.
    – Nik
    May 21, 2020 at 17:18
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    Respectable viewpoint. In the same conditions of not knowing more details, I'd be cautious not to invite an a priori submissive position, for the risk of defeating one's own true self. Sometimes the pain comes from remorse, sometimes from regret. In term of personal development I'd see more use in clarifying to oneself a positive stand, train the reasoning underlying it (if any), and then refrain to use it (not in the viva), rather than postponing manifestations after security (which may never came or be what stifles you for good). Kudos for holding this conversation and modulating agreement. May 21, 2020 at 18:51

Others have addressed the main part of your question; I want to refer to the following:

... I seriously doubt the originality and the importance of my research work, which will be thoroughly assessed during the viva.

Thoroughness. Let's start with the third part of this sentence: I don't know how defenses/viva's look like in the UK; but I do know PhD candidates tend to over-estimate the level of scrutiny, or the nature of the scrutiny, these events involve. I believe that PhD research work should be thoroughly assessed, but for better and for worse - that often isn't nearly as serious as one might expect.

Importance. Importance is at least partly subjective, and it is well known that most fields of research have "fashions" regarding what's important and what isn't. I'm not saying every PhD work is of the same importance or significance - but this is not an aspect you will be considered to have "failed" in. Your opposition panelists may well ask you about applicability, and may express some disappointment if you don't have a good answer for them. But it is quite acceptable to respond with "Potential uses of this work are X Y and Z, but, in hindsight, it is not as consequential than we had initially hoped." If you can add something like "But if we change ABC to be DEF, this will open up the possibility of HIJ" - that's also good. Doesn't matter that in all of your work you stuck to ABC.

Originality. Now this is the problematic part. If you mean that your work is "not original enough" in the sense of not being inspiring/surprising/insightful/groundbreaking - that's unfortunate, but assuming you've done a sufficient amount of decent-though-not-great work of this kind, you'll pass. If, on the other hand, you're saying some of your work has actually been done by others, only with slightly different notation/terminology/field - that is a serious problem and could cost you more than your PhD. If that is the case, you must find a way to announce / disclose this state of affairs this at once - and under no circumstances reach a point where your opposition brings this up. Even if it means putting your degree in jeopardy, it's the better and safer alternative. You haven't given details so I can't be more specific in my advice on this matter.

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    " I don't know how defenses/viva's look like in the UK" A viva in the UK is you and two examiners on your own in a room, going through your thesis a page at a time for between 2.5 and 4 hours. Of course, there is generally a lot to talk about in a thesis, and not everything can be discussed in detail, but somethings will be. May 22, 2020 at 9:53

The other answers excellently summarise why negatively commenting on your supervisor is a bad idea in your viva, however reading between the lines of your question:

"... supervisor who steered me into so many different topics of my field that I'm convinced my results chapters lack depth and analysis".

It sounds like you might be worried that you could be questioned in significant depth on topics that you don't feel like you have a fully detailed understanding of.

The bad news is that this is a large part of what a viva is about, assessing your understanding of the material you've written about. The good news is you don't have to 'attack' your supervisor to handle these questions well.

Think about why your advisor pointed you at those topics; why they relate to the research you've done; what the limitations of these approaches were; and why you didn't pursue them in further depth. A well phrased answer explaining the limitations of the supporting topics, the connection to your research focus, and where that connection ends, can show a mature understanding of the broader field and help you tie back more tangential questions to your own research.

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