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I attended a doctoral program and was completing it in 3 to 4 years. I got a life-threatening sickness that set me back several years. When nearing my dissertation I was dismissed. I was told that I was let go because I had cancer. I never wanted to return to that school again, but not having completed my work has caused me great heartache and I am not able to pursue the career I desired. Is it at all possible to complete the degree elsewhere?

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    Had you published any of the results? This may be enough to convince an admissions committee that you are worth taking a risk on. – Dave Clarke Aug 10 '12 at 8:02
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    From the limited details you provide, it seems like you'll need some far more personalized advice than we can offer you here. I'll leave the question open anyway, just in case, but I strongly suggest you seek guidance from someone qualified to answer who is more intimately aware of your situation. – eykanal Aug 10 '12 at 12:26
  • Another thing in your favour, if you had done sufficiently well and had been working for 3 or 4 years, is that you probably have developed good research skills, which would make finishing a PhD the second time around much easier. (Are you in the US? If so, there's coursework to consider as well. Maybe you can get an exception, maybe not.) – Dave Clarke Aug 10 '12 at 15:57
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    This seems to border on a legal issue. – Raphael Aug 16 '12 at 9:35
  • Some universities have a rule that you MUST complete your phd within X years of starting, and this is inflexible. Is it possible that such a rule has caught you out? – Jeremy Miles Dec 19 '13 at 17:40
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In general, I think graduate schools want students to pursue their entire PhD candidacy at a given institution. Moreover, schools may be reluctant to count work done a long time ago as part of the requirements for obtaining a degree, as it likely sets a bad precedent.

Moreover, there's the question of financing. If you're in a program where students are financed through TA's, it's a lot easier to convince a school to take a chance, rather than in the sciences. The reason for this is that funding in the sciences is often tied to specific projects—which means that you will most likely need to change topics if you pursue a PhD in such a department. This would of course set your time to degree back considerably.

That said, you may find a sympathetic department that's willing to take a chance. My best advice is try to talk to the graduate admissions officers of some of the departments you're thinking of applying to. They'll help you to figure out what are the requirements and possibilities.

  • Finding a willing advisor seems to be sufficient to secure a position. The OP would essentially advisors, I am not sure the way has to be through the usual channels. – Raphael Aug 16 '12 at 9:36
  • @Raphael: Finding a willing advisor isn't sufficient if the admissions committee has a policy against "transfers" or "restarts." – aeismail Aug 16 '12 at 10:37
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This situation surprises me: in the U.S., one could likely file (and win) a lawsuit alleging discrimination, in such a situation.

Dismissal from a college or university on grounds that one is ill is not legal, I think. Accommodation must be made, so that perhaps things are delayed, but not simply cancelled.

Outright dismissal from a job (such as research assistant or teaching assistant) on medical grounds I think is not allowed, either. One may be required to take a leave of absence if one absolutely cannot do one's job even with accommodation, but there is substantial legal (and moral) push to accommodate and reach a compromise.

I think discrimination on admissions, on medical grounds, would also be essentially illegal.

Edit: you should talk to a laywer conversant with such things, who might be willing to talk to you without a huge fee if you describe your situation to their screening personnel. The situation is rife with lawyerism, indeed. Be careful.

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    While this may be the case, we do not have enough details to allege anything. To the OP reading this post, I strongly suggest you exercise caution before throwing around terms such as "illegal" and "lawsuit". You have your entire professional life ahead of you still; don't ruin it now. – eykanal Aug 12 '12 at 23:12
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    Yes, indeed, caution in legal matters is surely wise... but/and there is something strange here. An informal consultation with student-legal-advisor or such might be useful to help the questioner see/understand the boundaries/parameters/whatever in his/her situation. And/but I will reiterate: in the U.S., dismissal for medical condition is... not ok. If that's what happened... one should investigate what legal recourse there might be. But do_not rush into things, making too-aggressive claims, no. But don't be too passive, either... (The usual...) – paul garrett Aug 12 '12 at 23:16
  • It's also quite likely that the formal reasons for the dismissal were something other than just getting sick. However, the OP should definitely speak to somebody who can speak to legal matters in the country where he or she lives, just to understand what the appropriate options are. – aeismail Aug 16 '12 at 10:39
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I think you should try to fight it diplomatically but legally with the school. It doesn't seem fair or legal. It would be nearly impossible to continue in another institution unless you have relationships and also the reputation of the former school is considerably higher, which you wouldn't want to do anyway.

Depends if really the time you were away was strictly due to sickness. If you took several years more afterwards it is unlikely for you to win. Doctoral programs routinely turn away people who started, left, went to the real world, didn't like it, and want to return. They believe that somewhat freshness of knowledge and being current in the topics is important. Also they have some strange ideas about academic virginity that you want to take into account.

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