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European student here. I was accepted to a PhD program to continue my studies at the same university where I completed my Master's program with a near perfect GPA. Then the time came to write my thesis, and I messed up. I got a C. The feedback I received says the thesis contains a valuable contribution and relevant conclusions, but the research design leaves much to be desired. Considering the paralyzing anxiety I had surrounding the thesis, I'm glad I passed at all, but I have a few concerns:

  1. The university (including my supervisor) provided me very little support throughout the program. I'm confused as to how I can do research at the PhD level without having fully developed the necessary skills. Will there be training at the PhD level?
  2. Do I want to do a PhD at a university that allowed me to flounder in confusion for the entirety of my Master's program and of the PhD application process? I doubt I can apply elsewhere with this thesis grade, and my ADHD/anxiety definitely needs to be under better control.
  3. Will they rescind my acceptance? Is that something that they can do?

If anyone has been in a remotely similar situation, I would appreciate guidance. I've already reached out to my supervisor to prepare for my defense, but I'm left questioning if academia is for me or if my experience was worsened by the environment.

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    "how I can do research at the PhD level without having fully developed the skill" Could you be more specific on which skill you believe you are lacking, and how this is connected to your thesis work?
    – GioMott
    Aug 21, 2023 at 16:23
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    As somebody who has a PhD here: most of us started the PhD without having the necessary skills..... A PhD student is still a student, so they may learn.
    – Sascha
    Oct 22, 2023 at 10:00

3 Answers 3

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I'm sorry to hear about your poor master's experience. I'm also in Europe, but do understand that the answers to your questions require context we don't have. The situation is different in different European countries and across academic disciplines.

Generally speaking, you are correct. In Europe, the masters is meant to be your research 'training wheels' with your thesis meant to be proof that you are ready to do PhD level research. A poor result is demoralising, and also potentially a problem if your master's work was meant to lead into your PhD research line.

While you might have some half day trainings in your PhD, no you will not have classes. In Europe, PhDs don't take classes; classes are a master's level thing.

I think that instead of asking us these questions, you need to ask them of your prospective PhD supervisor. Ideally this would be in person, with your master's results on hand to discuss. This is where the country may come in. In the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, or UK for example, it would be totally normal, even expected, to email them, ask for a coffee meeting, and go over all these concerns and questions interpersonally. In a more hierarchical "esteemed professor" style country, it may be difficult to get a response. If that's the case, schedule a meeting with your graduate studies office to talk about these questions.

You are right: it will be very hard to get a PhD place in Europe with a C mark on your thesis. Only you will know if a PhD is right for you, but talking to the people within your uni is the way to find out.

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The main goal of all PhD programs is learning how to independently do research. In that sense, PhD programs are very much a training/learning experience: while you are expected to know the bases of your field, when you being you are not expected to know how to carry out your own research. Thus, if your concern is that you are not prepared to do the research work, do not worry: there will be many opportunities to learn, both formally (through courses, though that vary from university to univerisity) and especially informally (through your supervisor and your group).

For your second question, we cannot answer that. Is your PhD supervisor the same as your Master thesis supervisor? Usually, your PhD experience mainly depend on your supervisor and much less so on the university. It is also worth considering that research-focused professors may tend to spend more time and resources on their PhD students rather than Master students, although you may judge for yourself how correct that is.

Lastly, whether the university will rescind their offer will depend on their policy, but generally it is extremely unlikely that they rescind a full offer (rather than a conditional one), unless there is evidence of academic misconduct (such as cheating).

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    I note the OP is in Europe, not the USA. In Europe, the masters is meant to be research training, with the PhD meant to be research. In many European countries and the UK you apply to the PhD with a proposal and are expected to begin working on your research the day you start. You ARE expected to know how to carry out your own research to some degree, and with some guidance. Oct 22, 2023 at 9:33
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Will there be training at the PhD level?

Depends on exact PhD program, but in Europe there typically aren't many classes during PhD level (as opposed to US). You will still be probably able to take graduate level research classes if you apply. Many universities allow external students to take graduate level classes but you will probably have to finance them yourself (but this varies a lot across EU).

Do I want to do a PhD at a university that allowed me to flounder in confusion for the entirety of my Master's program and of the PhD application process?

This is up to you but from my experience the following holds; the more prestigious university and your supervisor is, the less hand-holding you will get during masters and PhD program. There are exceptions, but generally people who do top research simply don't have time to hold hands of new researchers. I think that at any good university, unless you luck out with very attentive supervisor. At my Alma Mater, which is good ranking university you were only entitled to 4 meetings with thesis supervisors for bachelor and master thesis.

During PhD you will get more feedback and more meetings but you should not expect that someone will be helping you with every part of the paper.

My advice is to look for graduate level summer school or some good books in your area if you need to learn how to do research.

Will they rescind my acceptance? Is that something that they can do?

University can technically always rescind your acceptance. This is actually becoming more and more popular if some bad behavior is discovered. However, for a bad thesis grade this is very unlikely unless your acceptance was conditional on having some grade point average that you now don't as a result of thesis grade.

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