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I am currently enrolled in a master's program at a European university. The first year went smoothly, but the second year presented challenges due to personal issues, exacerbated by the difficulty of the thesis, which involved 60 credits and was part of an industrial project.

Meeting the deadline became a struggle, and my relationship with my supervisor became strained. He became more strict, and I found it difficult to get any response or feedback from him.

Despite his initial reluctance to guide me during the submission of my final thesis, he provided a review. I made corrections, passed with a satisfactory grade, and began preparing for the oral exam. Unfortunately, I did not perform well and failed on my first attempt.

The second oral exam was equally challenging. Despite feeling confident about my presentation, I failed again. While my presentation was good, I sensed that my answers did not satisfy my supervisor and the external examiner, despite my belief that I answered them mostly correctly. I have requested an explanation of the evaluation from the exam committee and am currently awaiting feedback from the school.

This situation is tough for me because I am uncertain about what will happen next and what improvements are needed. I don't believe my supervisor will provide guidelines or suggestions to help me prepare better, especially since my previous requests for assistance resulted in failure. It feels like I may not be capable of earning a master's degree under his guidance.

I didn't initially plan on discussing this, but I find myself in need of encouragement. I am determined not to fail again, as this might be my last opportunity to succeed.

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    Is the exam only about the thesis or about the field generally?
    – Buffy
    Dec 20, 2023 at 13:33
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    Have you asked your supervisor what answers you should have provided?
    – Allure
    Dec 20, 2023 at 13:59
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    Given the gap between how you thought you performed and how they thought you performed, you're going to need to get specific feedback. I don't think anyone here will be able to provide suggestions besides that without knowing what the feedback will be.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 20, 2023 at 14:22
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    Okay, those are not good reasons to not get feedback, though; if you don't understand what the expectations of your supervisor and examiner are then you are not likely to be able to meet them. If they refuse to provide feedback, it's possible this is something you can escalate through an ombuds or to a program or department chair - someone who has a stake and responsibility in the success of graduate students in your program.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 20, 2023 at 14:36
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    @BryanKrause I understand what you're saying. I've asked for feedback, and I'm looking forward to hearing from the examination committee soon. If I don't get a response, I'll contact the department chair. Thanks for your suggestions.
    – 5hi
    Dec 20, 2023 at 14:53

2 Answers 2

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Academia varies a lot; here's some suggestions that would work in my region, hopefully some apply to you:

  • Ask for the examination minutes (or equivalent)

In many countries, defence presentations require some formal documentation of events that (roughly) summarises how the exam went. It would have a sketch of the questions asked and your responses, which provide the justification for the grade given. Usually, you should be allowed to view this document on formal request (possibly even obtain a copy). If you can't make a copy, bring someone who has experience in your subject with you to the viewing (suggestions below).

  • Express your concerns about graduation to the head of your degree program

In my academic context in Europe, it's unusual to fail a Master's defence twice after a positive evaluation. As commentators have pointed out, you will need specific feedback here. The head of your degree program presumably also wants you to graduate: if you don't get specific feedback from your professor, they might be able to help.

  • Ask your student representatives for support

This strongly varies between regions: if you are in one that has active student representation, I would strongly recommend asking them for support. They will be aware of all the formal proceedings, and will be aware of more specific resources at your university.

Most importantly:

I was initially optimistic about the outcome, so receiving a fail was quite surprising.

This concerns me. Clearly, there's something quite misaligned between your impression of the situation and what your examiners perceived. As internet strangers, we can't fix this, but finding out why you failed is the key task here. You should get subject-specific guidance from your advisor, who can be nudged via the director of studies (if need be) and potential unfairness (or access to additional resources) can be settled via the student representatives, but at the end of the day you need to make some changes.

Aside from getting some official reasoning behind the failing grade, people who might be able to help you prepare include: your advisor, other research group members, friends/classmates in your degree program. Get as many unvarnished perspectives from people with subject knowledge as you can, and get friends from your degree program to quiz you on sample questions. They might have some unflattering things to say about your past performance: try to understand their perspective instead of arguing. Good luck!

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You need some feedback from people who know the situation explicitly. That means both the subject of the thesis and the surrounding information. You also need feedback on where your answers failed to satisfy. This means, unfortunately, your advisor and any external examiner, though you indicated that such would be hard to obtain. The written overview of the exam should help and you need to go through it carefully.

If you have another faculty member who knows your field and with whom you have a good relationship, consider speaking with them about the issue and seeking their advice.

I wonder, however, if there are other issues that you don't express here, since your name, now correctly omitted, isn't especially "European". For some folks I'd wonder if language was a problem but, assuming it is English, that doesn't seem to fit your case as you seem fluent. But if you expect any sort of discrimination in your case (language, ethnicity,...) then you need to speak with someone in administration who can deal with it and provide a fair hearing.

If both failures had the same people as examiners, I wonder if you could request someone different in the next trial.

And, to be honest, your supervisor has an obligation to provide the necessary feedback to enable you to prepare for the next go-round. If they are unwilling, then it is their failure and an ethical issue.


I'll also note that some people aren't very good communicators in high stress situations, experiencing a sort of brain-freeze. If that is the case, then there may be professional help available to help you deal with it, which you will probably need in the long term if you suffer from that. It takes practice to overcome, though.

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