I am a Ph.D. student at a university in Germany.

After about four years of research, my supervisor told me to write my thesis. After I sent him my thesis, he told me that he now thinks my work did not have enough scientific soundness and that I would not be graduating anymore. I published more than eight papers with him, including international journals and conferences with him, and worked as he suggested.

One year before, he wrote me saying I had enough material to write a thesis, so I should start writing, and now he is 100 percent the opposite. His behavior is so bossy now that he won't hear whatever I say. Even the other professors can not challenge his decision because of their personal relations with him.

Should I take legal action against him based on his previous and current statements. If not, then what could be the alternate way?

  • 14
    Welcome to Academia SE. I somewhat streamlined your question to focus on your problem. That is not to say that the consequences on your psyche are not important, but we can do little to help you with those (except informing you that your situation is not as bad as you might think it is). Please consider seeking professional help on this.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 10:19
  • 9
    Has he said anything about what he thinks is missing from the thesis? Sometimes a thesis does need to be rewritten or additional work needs to be done, and it's his responsibility to give you advice, not just say "no". On the other hand, his objection may be valid; a PhD is a research degree and in some fields you are expected to earn it by making a significant contribution to the area of study; "meeting requirements" may in fact not be enough. Again, ask for specifics.
    – keshlam
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:17
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    @JosephDoggie: PhD programmes in Germany require a master’s degree (or equivalent) by default. Exceptions exist but are, well, exceptions.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:49
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    As a general rule, never threaten legal action unless it's for something trivial, like replacing a small appliance in a shop. You don't want the other person to think they need to be 100% careful of everything they do. As soon as you threaten legal action all communication will stop. Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 9:48
  • 5
    Just to get the timeline right: He told you to start writing your thesis a year ago and you just (i.e. after a year) handed him a complete thesis without any intermediate feedback ? Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 13:46

9 Answers 9


I am sorry this is happening to you. Unfortunately, in Germany the PhD supervisor has a lot of power about the graduation of their PhD students. However, it is not in the best interest of the university to prevent students from graduating based on whims rather than merit.

Your points of contact should be the graduate school (if your university has one), the Promotionsausschuss (might be called differently), the Prüfungsamt (they are normally not directly responsible for PhD students, but they can help you find the right person to contact), or as a last step the Dekan of your faculty directly.

Let them know about your situation as objectively as you can. Do not accuse your professor of anything, but describe your situation that you fulfill all criteria, list your publications, and if you have written proof that your professor told you start writing your thesis, include that.

Then describe all the ways you have tried to talk to him and what exactly he said why you could not graduate and ask them how to proceed (and start writing down every conversation you have about this word-by-word).

In my personal experience, a legal action from a student is the last thing a university wants and they will definitely try to find another solution. But this should be your last resort (it will be expensive, it will take forever, and you might still not get anything).

  • 97
    Threatening legal action will also make everyone more likely to back the supervisor.
    – Maeher
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 10:25
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    Since all the work is done, would it be feasible to have him, and his work, transfer to a willing professor who is familiar with the students work, so that professor can move the candidate forward? Sounds like it'd be relatively painless, all they'd be doing is moving him through his defense?
    – Issel
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:40
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    @Issel - I'm familiar with a perhaps somewhat similar situation at the institution where I am employed: a student was being "held onto" by her mentor despite having finished her requirements and produced excellent work. Two of this man's colleagues were infuriated by this and managed to generate enough pressure that she was able to transfer her association to a more helpful mentor and graduate. How similar a situation this is, and how likely such a solution could be created here is not something I can say, though. Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:06
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    The precedent for trying to take legal action against universities is not good (at least in the UK).
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 11:40
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    +1 a fine and detailed answer. I would like to add that in nearly all German universities you usually can find an "Ombudsperson" who is your go-to-contact for any conflicts, especially concerning PhD and Dissertation related conflicts with your supervisor. Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 11:17

First of all, I strongly recommend that you consult somebody with whom you can share all the details and who ideally has some insight into your faculty’s rules and structures. It depends a bit on your university’s organisation where exactly you can find somebody to provide confidential advice and support you, but they clearly exist. At least the PhD office (usually called Promotionsbüro) or student union should be able to point you to the right people.

That being said, here are a few thoughts on what you are writing:

  • After I sent him my thesis, he told me that he now thinks my work did not have enough scientific soundness, and he told me that I would not be graduating anymore. […] Although I published more than 8 papers with him, including international journals and conferences with him, and worked as he suggested.

    Let’s assume for a second that his assessment is correct and your work is not sound. How could he not have noticed over eight papers? Does he intend to to retract those papers? This is casting a very bad light on his academic integrity and supervision. In fact, if he honestly believes that your work is bad, bullying you into not submitting your thesis could be him trying to save face by sweeping everything under the rug, which brings me to the next point:

  • If you just submit your thesis, your professor would have to give some pretty strong arguments to let you fail, given that you have eight papers. Most importantly, he would have to present those arguments in writing. As he co-authored your papers, I see little way for him to do this without severely shooting himself in the foot (see the above point). Also people failing their PhD at this stage is extremely rare and would therefore draw quite some negative attention (to your supervisor) and there are many safety nets that would get activated. Finally, depending on the faculty’s rules, he might not be able to do this alone, but would have to convince at least one colleague of this extreme step.

    I therefore find it much more likely that your supervisor’s threats are just empty bluffs. Instead, you will likely pass if you simply submit your thesis, although possibly with a bad grade. If your faculty’s rules allow for a cumulative thesis, consider doing one, since then your supervisor would directly be rejecting papers he co-authored (also, it’s less work).

  • Even the other professors can not challenge his decision because of their personal relations with him.

    What makes you so sure about this? A PhD is awarded by a faculty and, even if your university has small faculties (e.g., you are at the faculty of computer science), it is unlikely that your professor has positive personal ties with everybody, in particular given your description of him. There are likely hidden animosities and factions within your department; at the very least, there are some other professors who could not care less about your supervisor. As internal department politics are usually not shared publicly, I find it very unlikely that you can assess your supervisor’s popularity with the other professors. (The main exception would be that you have some insider in the faculty, but then this person could either support you or is not trustworthy.)

  • The entire situation sounds a lot like your supervisor is gaslighting you.

  • Please suggest to me whether I should take legal action against him based on his previous and current statements.

    Unless you have some clear statements in writing, I don’t think you have much basis for legal action. And even if you have, what exactly would you be suing over? If you take any legal action at all, I would wait for some substantial result, e.g., if you submitted your thesis and failed.

  • 8
    The supervisor does not need to call into question the correctness of the punished papers. They can simply argue that the students contribution to the results do not merit a PhD. In general submitting your thesis against your supervisor's advice is risky at best.
    – Maeher
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 10:30
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    They can simply argue that the students contribution to the results do not merit a PhD. – Unless most of the mentioned 8+ papers are big collaborations (as opposed to just supervisor and student), this will be difficult even in a field with high publication counts. — In general submitting your thesis against your supervisor's advice is risky at best. – Sure, but the supervisor here may never recommend submitting. Even if the asker will work towards fixing the relationship with their supervisor, it is helpful to know that they can do without their supervisor’s recommendation.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 11:27
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    At least at my university it is not possible to submit the PhD thesis without the supervisors consent.
    – Claude
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 13:58
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    At my university you technically can submit without you supervisor's consent. It's an application to the Promotionsausschuss which consists of all Professors of the faculty, including the supervisor. Before a decision is reached, the supervisor will be asked to comment with the expectation that they will give a short explanation of what the thesis contains and their view on the quality of the thesis. As such a submission against the advice of you supervisor can easily be sunk there without a long written argument. If you're going to go that route, talk to people beforehand!
    – Maeher
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 9:35
  • 1
    Or maybe the staple thesis is not an option and the writing was so terrible the entire thing has to be completely redone.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Nov 13, 2022 at 6:31

A key factor here is what your contribution was to the eight papers. If these are papers you made a substantial contribution to, or even were part of your PhD work then you have a good case as clearly your own research work is worthy of publication.

If, however, this is a bigger research group or network, and you are included on the papers as one of several authors and you were part of a team on those projects, it unfortunately makes less of an indication as to whether your own research is up to standard.

I just point that out as it’s a key distinction others haven't mentioned in answers.

My advice is to firstly try and get proper feedback from your advisor in writing (whether this is notes on the draft, or a text summary). Your question indicates you don't have this. This will give you more specifics to think about and to maybe ask someone for a second opinion. It's also an important component of supervision that you should have been given.

From there you can try and formulate a plan.

  • if you are sure they are wrong or refusing to give you feedback at all, then you can look to get a second person to look over it, and/or speak to graduate school.
  • if they are correct then you need to speak to graduate school about what the route forward is. If you have listened to the advisor all along then this is their failure as a supervisor as well. Is there a way to address the issues? Extra time to fill in experimental work, etc.
  • it may be necessary to get a replacement or second advisor to finish it off, but this needs to be managed carefully. Hard as it is, you don't want to make your advisor defensive or adversarial about this because if they are the type they may try and sabotage your thesis and/or career.

Legal action is a last resort and will not give you what you want. You'd be very unlikely in my opinion to win a legal case and be awarded a PhD. You may get damages. But your case would have to be on grounds of insufficient/bad supervision, so it would have to be that vs. the university regulations of what your supervision should have been.


There are a few possible things going on here. It is possible your supervisor is purposefully harming your chances of getting a PhD, and if that is the case, you should be sure to talk to your department's, or your university's, student support.

I'm going to present another possibility -- note that I can't know if this is what's happening, and if this is the problem, your supervisor is still describing poorly what the problem is.

When the supervisor says your "work did not have enough scientific soundness", this may be a specific discussion of the thesis writeup. Taking eight co-written papers and re-writing them in your own words is non-trivial, and you may be suffering from a poor presentation -- you can have an unscientific writeup of perfectly correct work.

If things have not fundamentally broken down with your supervisor, I would try to understand if they think the work is fundamentally bad (in which case this does raise issues about why they wrote so many papers with you) or if it is the presentation in the thesis. In general, it would be useful to get someone else to look at your thesis draft and give you honest feedback on it.

  • Thanks for mentioning this. I had a similar weird interaction with my chair in my last year. He just couldn’t understand why one of my papers was a contribution. Really, it was about how I framed it. He also loved a good diagram. Then suddenly it was my most impressive paper.
    – Dawn
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 17:31
  • 1
    "he now thinks my work did not have enough scientific soundness and that I would not be graduating anymore." Because why? That's not enough information to say anything about it, +1.
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 2:55

In many German universities, you can hand in a PhD thesis without the consent of your advisor, sometimes even without having an advisor at all.

While this is not advisable in most situations, it may be in yours because then, a committee will be set up and your thesis will be judged by more than one person.

  • 16
    Though I'm unfamiliar with the German system, I'd assume that before going ahead and submitting a thesis without advisor consent, one would first want to consult with the sorts of people mentioned at the beginning of Wrzlprmft's answer, correct?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:01
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    While technically correct, I believe this needs a big disclaimer that such action usually goes wrong a lot more often than it goes right. And if it goes wrong, OP has successfully deepened the hole they are in.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 7:45

I couldn't find this in the other answers: Another place to contact would be the Ombudskommission / Ombudsperson for your faculty. Most universities in Germany have this institution to support questions of good scientific research as well as scientific misconduct. They would launch an independent investigation and look to resolve the issue. I would guess that in your case, a change of advisor would be recommended.

The amount of papers you have published with your advisor directly and transparently contradicts their evaluation of your work, so I think your chances of resolving this situation by involving the Ombudskomission are quite good.

All the best to you.


"Should I take legal action..." probably, or even definitely, not at this stage before you exhaust internal means.

You should of course take the advice of many other answers and try to resolve the issue internally. But I do not think consulting a lawyer is necessarily a bad thing, if you have the means to do so (it is expensive).

Within their academic freedoms, professors at public universities are still public officials under the law who must not act arbitrarily; their decisions must be justified and are subject to internal and judicial review (where the degree conferring power is granted by the state, including in Germany).

There are lawyers specializing in higher education law under which disputes between students and universities may arise (even if their existence and social "utility" may be questioned). If the internal contact person or the student/staff unions cannot point you to the right direction, a lawyer may still be able to help you navigate internal regulations or support you in in an internal process (even if they do not communicate with the university directly at first stages). They may also tell you if a legal case is impossible or unlikely or likely to succeed based on the full circumstances you tell them.


You could move universities and find another supervisor elsewhere to finish up.

I have personally had a great experience in the UK with the PhD system there, in particular does your PhD not get graded by your own supervisor, and they are not permitted to speak at your doctoral defense, only listen.

A few German friends of mine had similar problems like you described, some picked other supervisors and finished at the same university, whereas others changed universities and in one case countries to finish up. The good news is: do not despair - all these friends ended in a good position in the end.

The German system gives professors too much power as supervisors, who often are also employers. I would like to see the system change towards supervisors playing more of a "guide" role, independent of the assessment, which should not be done by conflicted people. German PhDs seem more political than focused on the science, I know one person who was not permitted to talk to a professor from another department when he wanted help from a statistician. In the UK, cross-departmental collaboration is much more part of the culture.

If the original poster could be reached (e.g. disposable email account) I'd be happy to have an independent discussion. In any case, I wish you all the best and a satisfactory outcome. Meanwhile, tell yourself, "The first PhD is the hardest!"

  • 1
    I did my PhD in the UK, and the supervisors here have pretty much the same powers as in Germany. In fact (at least in physics) PhD committees are larger in Germany than in the UK (= 2 people, including one from your own group). Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 13:43
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    Yes in the UK there is only internal and external evaluators, with absolute power. In Germany the committee is usually larger and more balanced. And your comments about German PhDs being political is just an anecdote, it is not true in general.
    – Dr. Snoopy
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 18:44

I had deep, long-running personal problems with my PhD supervisor.

All those problems instantly vanished once we stopped meeting one-on-one and every meeting became a group meeting.

The situation you describe does not have a single answer. You’re going to need to address multiple smaller issues as part of the whole.

You think your supervisor is unreasonable? Make it a group conversation and get objectivity in the room.

Focus on minutiae. What can you actually achieve? Make a giant pile of small victories, because the problem as you describe is too large to solve at once.

Isn’t your research where it needs to be? Fix that. The thesis is one document. Do whatever it takes to improve that document. Whatever it takes.

Hit the panic button and get all the help you can from wherever you can, because it’s time to show up and finish.

It’s one guy standing in the way. Manipulate him, intimidate him, beg him, and lie to his face. Anything it takes. Just overcome. the end justifies the means in the situation you describe.

Do not be combative, be a PhD. Identify issues and tackle them. Don't give him any excuses.

  • 13
    I'd guess your penultimate paragraph is generating the downvotes. It is profoundly bad advice.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 20:10
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    You're contradicting yourself. I do not expect manipulative, intimidative or even lying behaviour from anyone much less a PhD. Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 8:53
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    @Buffy Yes of course you are right. My heart goes out to the guy. Its stories like this that keep me awake at night. I guess I get worked up.
    – user156207
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 22:09
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    @infinitezero: While I don't approve of the answer, I don't understand the following part of your comment either: "I do not expect manipulative, intimidative or even lying behaviour from anyone much less a PhD." How is having a PhD related to any of this? I don't see any reason to assume that people with a PhD would act, on average, more ethically than other people. Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 22:13
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    @infinitezero i am prepared to make the argument that academia in the USA survives on scheming and nepotism. anytime. dinner. middle of the night. anytime. i might get worked up though :)
    – user156207
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 23:13

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