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Many PhD programs only confer their degrees one, two or three times per year. If you successfully defend and submit your dissertation after the scheduled conferral date, you must wait until the next one to get the PhD. At many of these schools you can ask for an official document that basically states that all requirements for the PhD have been successfully completed and the degree will be conferred on the next conferral date.

Do postdoctoral research positions accept this type of official document in lieu of a PhD, to begin work, if a PhD is required? Is this specific from position to position or country to country? I will be receiving a PhD in the US and looking for postdocs in either the US, Canada, Europe, Japan or Australia.

Note this question is less about applying to postdocs and more about officially starting them. In other words, assume you have accepted a post doc offer, and the job requires a PhD, would having an official letter from the University stating the dissertation is done and everyone has signed off suffice to start?

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  • I don't think there's a general answer; it will depend on whether you impress them enough that they're willing to waive that requirement. How much will be needed to impress them will vary by school(s), by program(s), by who you have been working with and who you will be working with and what your recommendations look like and...
    – keshlam
    Dec 22, 2014 at 1:14
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    This also depends on what legally constitutes the end of the study in your country. Just now I am after my defense, but I will get my diploma in May. Nevertheless my study is legally finished and I am entitled to use the title by the law. Therefore the certificate from the university does not say "all requirements are completed" it really says that I finished the study and received the title "PhD". Dec 22, 2014 at 10:04
  • My university offered that if I needed the PhD before the next ceremony (or couldn't attend), I could a) have certified copies or b) get it without ceremony. On the other hand, I have been on postdoc positions (both regarding responsibilities and salary) for several years before. Depends quite a bit on negotiations and whether the institute is convinced they want you, and that you will nicely do the job etc, last but not least also on the local culture (whether negotiations are possible at all). Dec 22, 2014 at 12:54
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    I agree that you would have to ask each individual department to know for sure. However, I would say that if you have completed all the requirements (including a successful dissertation defense), you have an official letter to that effect, and the delay before the conferral of the degree is beyond your control, then it would be pretty unreasonable for a department to refuse to let you start a postdoc on those grounds. Of course, unreasonable policies do exist. Dec 23, 2014 at 0:42
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    One slightly more likely possibility is that you might have to start with a different job title, and lower salary, until your degree is officially conferred. Dec 23, 2014 at 0:45

3 Answers 3

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Most postdoc offers come with the condition that the candidate will have a PhD by the time that they start the job. In many cases showing the PhD is part of the initial paperwork.

If you want to start a postdoc with a document saying that all requirements have been met and the degree will be formally conferred at such and such a date, I think the only way to proceed is to ask the institution whether this will be acceptable. I don't think you can predict the answer by looking through the nuances of the job ad.

I was once asked by someone who had accepted a postdoc offer at my university (UGA) whether or not she could start the position with such a document. She came from an institution that only formally conferred degrees once a year. From my perspective, the key point is that I had no idea what the answer was, but I brought it up with my colleagues and the department head, it went further up in the university, and the answer came back: OK, so long as all requirements have been met. (In the end the candidate decided to push harder and actually get the degree awarded in the summer before arrival.)

I have also seen a postdoc -- at a very prestigious American university -- started by someone who had not written her thesis by the time of arrival. The next semester she accepted a second, semester-long postdoctoral position and only around the end of the spring semester did I learn that she was still writing up her thesis. (It worked out fine for her, and today she is a well-known strong person in the field.) The idea of starting a postdoc before completing your thesis is one of those things that would simply never have occurred to me, but apparently it happens. As with most things, having a very influential advisor couldn't hurt.

(My understanding is that in the humanities, it is relatively common for someone to start a tenure-track job without a PhD. They are then given a certain amount of time to complete their PhD while simultaneously navigating all the difficulties of their new job. This practice -- which is almost begging for trouble, in my opinion, and most of the stories I have heard that start this way end badly -- is all but unheard of in mathematics, because there is usually a postdoc done in between. You should probably have a PhD by the time you finish your postdoc!)

Moral: you really need to ask.

Let me end with a remark which leans towards the obvious: nothing is for sure until it happens, but if you have some specific reason to doubt that you'll have a PhD by the start time of a postdoc, you should bring that up ASAP and ideally before you accept the position in the first place. In the current job market, there is no lack of qualified candidates with PhD in hand.

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  • Agreed. There are many people in the humanities and humanistic social sciences who start TT jobs without finishing their dissertations. This puts them at a severe disadvantage at tenure-time because they essentially have less time on the clock compared to their peers who came dissertation on hand.
    – RoboKaren
    Dec 22, 2014 at 6:55
  • "In mathematics... there is usually a postdoc done in between": at least, for those going to R1 tenure-track positions. Math departments at institutions with lower research activity very often make tenure-track hires straight out of grad school. Dec 22, 2014 at 7:56
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If the postdoc requires "degree in hand" by a certain date, then there's little flexibility. The actual degree must be conferred by the university.

That being said, a good number of postdocs instead require that all of the requirements for the PhD be completed before a certain date. This usually means that that the dissertation has been deposited, if not defended. On the extreme end of flexibility, some will simply take the word of the dissertation advisor that the dissertation will be finished by the start date.

Some postdocs will even allow you to start without a degree in hand if all of the requirements for the degree have been satisfied. Some will be satisfied with a letter from the advisor, others will require a letter from the registrar. How strict they will be may be correlated to how many times they've been burned in the past with non-completers.

I don't think there are stats are on how many postdocs (and in which fields) are strict vs. flexible. What I think you'll find is that once a flexible department has been burned by a "postdoc" who never finished their PhD, then they shift to being more strict.

tl;dr: Ask the postdoc program if they are willing to be flexible and if so, which documentation they require.

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    The "all requirements have been completed" letter should be pretty solid burn insurance, as the candidate doesn't actually have to do anything else to receive the degree. I think such a letter would normally imply that the thesis is completed, defended, and approved by everyone. Dec 22, 2014 at 1:49
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    The problem is that committees usually evaluate postdoc proposals in March so we get "all requirements will be completed by June/July/August" letters. Unfortunately, they aren't always. Sometimes the advisor is being optimistic, sometimes the student suffers a major fail and just can't finish the last 10% of the dissertation.
    – RoboKaren
    Dec 22, 2014 at 3:03
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    Certainly, but I don't think that is what this question is asking (an edit has clarified it). The applicant here is already past the point you describe - the committee has decided and the applicant has an offer in hand, contingent on finishing the degree by the start date. The question is whether the "have been completed" letter is enough by the start date. Dec 22, 2014 at 7:39
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    @NateEldredge No one can answer that question except for the folks managing that specific postdoc. I added material to my answer noting various contingencies.
    – RoboKaren
    Dec 22, 2014 at 7:47
  • @RoboKaren Yep, I can't imagine a department has ever been burned with a letter from the registrar. However, I can imagine departments being burned with a letter from the advisor/committee/department. In case you are interested in the outcome you can see my answer +1 btw. Jan 22, 2021 at 21:49
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I, the question asker, ended up accepting a postdoc in Australia. The University offered me to start the postdoc without the degree, but at a slightly lower salary (which would then be raised once I had the official degree). I countered by saying that I was willing to wait a couple of months to start the postdoc with the degree, to get two years at the advertised salary and have some time off. The job ad said the start date was negotiable. The University then gave in; they let me start right away anyway, at the advertised salary, without the degree, as the PI really wanted me to start ASAP. Later I found out the rules which hold pretty much universally in Australia. At Australian Universities, you are allowed to start a postdoc without the degree in hand. Australian Universities have a minimum wage for someone with an official PhD. Therefore, Australian universities are allowed to pay you less than the advertised postdoc wage if you don't officially have the degree, and some PIs/Universities will try to get away with this if they can, to save money. However, they are not forced to pay you a lower wage, so you can negotiate to get the advertised wage. Just thought I'd post a follow-up answer in my specific context.

You might wonder, why do Australian Universities allow you to start without the degree. One of the big reasons is that Australian dissertations go through a form of peer-review by people external to the University (rather than just the thesis committee and a department chair/impartial rep). You can imagine all the delays this could create. Therefore, to avoid having all PhD candidates being unemployed for months/years while their theses go through peer review (and foreign students immediately being deported!) it is generally seen as fine by PIs to start a postdoc as long as the thesis has been submitted for external peer-review. Most PIs will want the thesis written so they aren't working too much on their thesis while doing their postdoc.

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    "Australian Universities have a minimum wage for someone with an official PhD." Is that an Award wage, or something they negotiated with unions? (For non-Australians, Award wages are the legal minimum wage, and vary depending on industry, job, and level of education and experience.)
    – nick012000
    Jan 23, 2021 at 5:22

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