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I am currently a Master’s and PhD student. I am in my last semester of my Master’s program. After a year of being in the PhD program, I have realized that academia is not for me. I received a job offer and notified my advisor of me leaving the PhD. This happened after I finished my thesis defense and after they signed off on the thesis defense paperwork. I also submitted my final thesis pdf to the graduate school portal. After I told him about me leaving, he got angry with the people that hired me (he knows them and works with them before). Not only that, he refuses to approve my final thesis pdf even though I already finished my defense and everything. Grad school has been emailing me and wondering when they will receive his approval on my final thesis pdf as it has already been pending for more than a week. He also sent an email including all committee members saying that if I am not continuing research to fix “flaws and limitations,” he had to withdraw his signature.

I am under extreme stress from my advisor because it looks like he is trying to force me into the PhD program. I talked to the people from my job, and they are very understanding and think he is unreasonable. I also went to a graduate school counselor to ask for help. She said that she would contact the dean and get back with me. Do you think that the dean can help me on this and that I will still be able to receive my Master’s degree? I am feeling hopeless and feel like I am being pressured into doing a PhD when I don’t want to.

UPDATE ON THE OUTCOME: After about a month of fighting my case and getting both the dean of my department and dean of graduate school involved, the dean of graduate school decided to let me graduate this semester. The department chair wasn’t of much help as they told me to do another semester with my advisor. The graduate school people took over my case and handled it so my advisor wouldn’t have any leverage or power over me. I am very grateful because the dean made the decision to let me graduate just 2 weeks before my graduation day. It’s great to know there’s still justice in our system.

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  • 2
    I assume your thesis process involved a defense that you "passed" on the condition that you complete some corrections/revisions? If so, it could become complicated to mount a defense of yourself if the advisor insists your corrections are insufficient. Your program or the graduate school may have a manual describing the relevant procedures if you are found not to pass (or whether it is possible to get this far and not pass). Of course, I am taking your word on the question of whether the necessary conditions have actually been met.
    – commscho
    Apr 20 at 4:13
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    The problem is he already edited my thesis and allowed me to submit it. After I told him about me leaving, strange things started to happen. He didn’t have a problem when I first submitted it.
    – Anonymous
    Apr 20 at 11:15
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    Yes, the dean is exactly the right person to help. If a faculty member displeases the dean then the dean can make life hard for them for a long time after you depart.
    – Buffy
    Apr 20 at 18:58
  • 2
    Sounds like a bad situation. "I am in my last semester of my Master’s program. After a year of being in the PhD program..." How is that possible? Are you in the Masters & PhD program simultaneously? Apr 21 at 0:57
  • 3
    Thank you all. I am graduating today!
    – Anonymous
    May 13 at 13:58

9 Answers 9

38

Your advisor is being completely unreasonable. It was very good you talked to the graduate school counselor. I think your best hope for a clean solution is that the dean will help resolve the issue.

However, since the company who offered the job is understanding, if push comes to shove, I would seriously consider the option of just taking the job and letting the master's degree go. I hope it won't come to that, but (a) the time spent on your degree may unfortunately be an example of the sunk cost, (b) you have this path open to you and no one can stop you doing this, (c) even if this worst case does not happen, knowing that you have a backup plan where you still get a nice job can be a calming fact to hold onto.

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    Not having the master's degree may not be an issue for this company, but it could become an issue with later job opportunities. It would be better to get the issue resolved rather than just letting the degree go.
    – chepner
    Apr 20 at 15:50
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    I agree with @chepner that at least for some master's degrees, there are meaningful labor market returns that would likely be lost even if there is no immediate consequence at this first job. This is not to mention the financial and/or opportunity cost already invested. If the advisor is threatening to withhold the degree, it makes sense to me to put forth great efforts in the remaining days/weeks to get the degree conferred even if these risk a bad relationship with the advisor or others at the institution.
    – commscho
    Apr 20 at 16:37
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    "I would seriously consider the option of just taking the job and letting the master's degree go." This is bad advice for a situation where the asker is likely to get their degree... eventually... without much more work. Apr 20 at 22:56
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    -1 for "I would seriously consider the option of just taking the job and letting the master's degree go" A degree is useful for the rest of your life, it's absurd to think one can estimate how things will go decades into the future and have confidence the lack of an advanced degree will have no substantial impact. This particular bit is horrible advice to a young person starting their career.
    – uhoh
    Apr 21 at 2:01
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    regardless of the sunk costs, even if one thinks they can get away with just dropping the degree, fighting this kind of crap out of principle is valuable in that it helps stop it in general.
    – ilkkachu
    Apr 21 at 7:21
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My suggestions …

  1. Don’t turn down the job offer.
  2. Make sure that your advisor understands that you will not continue in the Ph.D. Program, no matter how he tries to bully you, so his threats are futile.
  3. See if the dean or other authorities will honor your advisor’s original approval, and get you the master’s degree. You’re already doing this. Good.
  4. Ask your advisor to list in writing the “flaws and limitations” that he mentioned. Negotiate an agreement (in writing) about what’s required to fix them. Do the work, if it’s not too much.
  5. Have a strong talk with your advisor. Remind him that he already admitted that blocking your masters degree is just childish spite and retaliation, and bears little relationship to the quality of your work. Tell him he is causing you great mental stress, and that this is grounds for legal action. Show him that you’re not going to let him push you around. Try to scare him. This may or may not work, depending on your personality and his.
  6. If all else fails, there is an extreme approach: tell your advisor you’ll continue in the Ph.D. program with him. Presumably this will free up your masters degree. Once you have the masters degree, quit the Ph.D. program. This is dishonest, but since your advisor has treated you so badly, he doesn’t deserve honesty, in my opinion. Personally, I’m OK with this sort of subterfuge (as a last resort, when dealing with snakes), but maybe you have higher moral standards than I do. You’re the only one who can decide.
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    In the UK you would just go to the head of department who would overrule the advisor. It’s very simple.
    – graffe
    Apr 22 at 7:16
  • Not just in the UK. Apr 22 at 18:29
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The main issue here is the claim of the advisor that there are remaining flaws and limitations that require your attention before approval of the thesis. It is unclear from your post whether "signing off" on your thesis defence means that the thesis is accepted without further revisions, or whether it merely means that you have completed the defence portion (but may need to make further revisions to the thesis before it is acceptable). Usually a thesis defence would be followed by revisions relating to comments/critiques raised in the defence portion, so the latter is plausible. However, the fact that your advisor is threatening to "withdraw his signature" suggests that the signature is intended to mean the former. In any case, you should clarify this before proceeding further.

Assuming that signing off on the thesis defence means that the thesis is accepted, it is dubious for your advisor to have signed off on the work if he truly believes that there are outstanding flaws, and also dubious for him to suggest that he will need to "withdraw his signature" if further work is not done. Both of these suggest ---at minimum--- that he has not followed the proper process for examining and signing off on the thesis after the defence.

At this point, I would recommend that you review the signed paperwork for your thesis defence to see exactly what this paperwork attests to (i.e., does it mean that the thesis is accepted, or does it just mean the defence portion is completed). Once you have done this you will know if you are on solid ground in relying on the signed defence paperwork. This is a matter where the administration of the Department should be able to give you some guidance on the process and the meaning of your paperwork. In my view it is premature to escalate this to the Dean of the Department, and you should make some further inquiries and give the matter some time to resolve before taking that step.

You certainly should not allow yourself to be coerced into a PhD program if you don't want to do that. If you think you are being unfairly treated then you can put that view to your advisor/Department and see if you can come to some accomodation. Nevertheless, even if you don't absolutely have to, you should at least consider hearing out your advisor in relation to the revisions he would like you to make on your thesis. Talk to him about the things he identifies as flaws and limitations and see if it is feasible for you to revise the thesis to deal with these within a reasonable time --- you might find that this improves the quality of your research.

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    I actually talked to him twice before escalating this. My advisor complained about PhD funding both times I talked to him. He also said he let me pass the thesis because I was continuing as a PhD student, and said that if I broke this commitment with him, he had the right to do what he wanted with my thesis. He mentioned flaws and limitations yet didn’t email me on what exactly he wanted me to fix or edits. The paperwork that was signed indicates that I passed the defense and my thesis was accepted. He still has to approve on the final thesis that was submitted.
    – Anonymous
    Apr 20 at 11:21
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    @Anonymous: "he let me pass the thesis because I was continuing as a PhD student"... do you have this in writing? To me, this seems unethical on his part because he stands to progress in his career if you continue as his PhD student. Similar to "I'm giving you an 'A' in this class because you agree to do landscaping at my house next year."
    – James
    Apr 20 at 15:55
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    @Anonymous: You need to include that crucial information in your question. It shows that his assessment of the quality of your work is conditional on your continuation to a PhD candidature.
    – Ben
    Apr 20 at 21:02
  • "The main issue here is the claim of the advisor that there are remaining flaws and limitations" No, the main issue is the emotions involved. Apr 20 at 22:55
10

This situation is largely dependent upon your exact circumstances, and is thus difficult to address.

I think you need to be the person taking this to the Dean and the Chair of your department, and any faculty leadership of the graduate program (i.e., if you have a Director of graduate studies in your department, loop them in).

You should also ask the counselor working on your behalf to extend you the courtesy of cc-ing you on any communications on this issue.

Frankly, since you are trying to leave with a Masters, an expeditious way to handle this might simply be to have your advisor removed from your committee, and have someone, maybe the Chair, substitute. Your advisor won't like it, but if the situation is as you describe it, tough on your advisor!

I'm not a lawyer. If you end up leaving without a Masters and feel damaged by it, sound advice would be to talk to a lawyer with experience in education.

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I would suggest you examine the Academic Board Regulations or their equivalent for your institution. You may find as a last resort you have a formal appeals process. Unfortunately every institution is different.

As an example (Monash University, Section 45; PDF), an appeal to the Graduate Research Committee may trigger Clauses 7(c), 8 and 9. End result could be completion of a Masters. Needless to say this document will not apply to your institution and your milage may vary.

7

You really have to find out what exactly happens - what the adviser may or may not do. What you can or cannot do - according to the written rules of your university. For example - at my university such a thing (revoking a degree after a defense) could not even happen. The actual rules and laws, which are location specific, matter.

That may involve a university ombudsperson (if one exists) or even a lawyer you would have to hire.

But for sure, the advisor is acting unreasonably in revoking their signature to the thesis just because you are leaving. This is abuse of power, and would be a clear reason for wanting to leave the advisor anyway, but the legality of what the advisor is doing at the specific university is impossible to tell from the generic situation. You will need to raise the issue at the responsible offices (Prodean for studies, Dean, Rector, ...) according to the rules and laws.

5

I echo the first bit of Andrew's answer: your advisor is being unreasonable. I believe, he is trying to bully you into joining the PhD programme, apparently he likes your work so much that he wants to capitalise more on it.

You also did the right thing, contacting the grad school and their counsellor directly; hopefully the escalation to the dean will work out in the very near future. The dean definitely has the behind-the-scenes power to help you get that degree signed off; I would also assume that deans usually are happy to use that power when the facts present themselves making as you describe, making the professor look unreasonable.

Of course, the best case would be a swift resolution and you getting your certificate before you begin working for the company. If that doesn't materialise, I hope the company is understanding and will let you begin working there even without the certificate.

However, unlike Andrew I would not suggest treating the certificate (or entire degree programme) as a sunken cost. The next recruiter might look at that bit of your CV, raise eyebrows and move you to the reject pile. Instead, after joining the company I would still follow up with the grad school and their counsellor every now and again, hoping that the professor has given in and you can receive your certificate. I suspect that once the professor has realised he cannot get you to come back, he might release your thesis after all (especially if pressure from the dean's side continues to build up).

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  • From my understanding, that was the same reason my coworker had his Master's withheld by his supervisor. The issue remains unresolved last I heard.
    – DKNguyen
    Apr 21 at 17:27
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You have a job offer and a completed thesis. I'd say things are looking pretty good for you right now.

he is trying to force me into the PhD program.

No he is not. Either this is petty revenge or it's a miscommunication. Professors cannot force anyone to complete a PhD.

Do not panic. This could sort itself out with time.

Do you think that the dean can help me on this

Maybe. The dean will know who can.

I will still be able to receive my Master’s degree?

Very likely, so long as you keep seeking it.

Do not give up.

I am feeling hopeless

You should talk to a mental health professional.

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  • The reason why I believe I am being pressured into the PhD is because he told me that if I broke the commitment with him, he had the right to do whatever he wanted with my thesis and that I had to face the consequences of maybe doing a part-time PhD with him, which I do not want to. I also think the reason he is holding my degree hostage is to make me change my mind and go back to the PhD program.
    – Anonymous
    Apr 21 at 0:02
  • Just because he said it does not mean he thinks it. Apr 21 at 0:47
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    @Anonymous I have an article two that says I can do whatever I want. When someone proposes they have the right do to whatever they want they've crossed a line. Is it in writing? Be sure to preserve all communications just in case. It could just be a moment of frustration and instability, but it might be a sign that this individual feels above the applicable rules and norms, in which case you are doing the right thing by escalating to proper authorities in the university. Document all correspondence and discussions, keep contemporaneous notes.
    – uhoh
    Apr 21 at 2:08
3

I was in a similar situation: I submitted my first thesis draft in November. Got feedback from my advisor at the end of January. Submitted by revised version in March. Finally got him to sign off on it in August, convocated in October.

Obviously I got a job in the meantime.

While frustrating that my thesis edits took almost a full year from submitting first draft to acceptance; it was ultimately fine to do the edits while working full time. I'm sure that is not uncommon and the university will have encountered this situation before.

My advice would be to start your job and complete any outstanding thesis requirements in your evenings and weekends. It may take a while, but if it's clear that you passed your defense, and that you've made the requested edits, then he won't be able to withhold his signature forever. Demanding additional research after you have passed your defense is clearly absurd.

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    Working, making money and doing the final rivisions to you thesis seem to be pretty reasonable. Atleast it gives you a bit more power when you have an income and know that you are not for 100% dependendant on the teacher. Apr 22 at 13:29

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