I started my PhD in one of the very well renowned institutes in Germany. Unfortunately, in the middle I was forced very much to manipulate the data. I was extremely upset and did not know what to do. My supervisor has enormous amount of grants and he was very ambitious to prove all his hypotheses correct and he had to show the data to the grant givers as well. He starts forcing the PhD students in the middle of their PhD so that they can't leave. And he also doesnot allow somebody to simply graduate without publishing the manipuated data. So even for degree one has to publish that and afterwards if that person gets caught then the phd degree is gone and then the people would say that he/she should have reported the case when he/she was forced. It is a circular process , once you enter it is hard to get out.

I went to the University Higher Authority and told them indirectly(not very bluntly but slightly) about this problem. They gave me the feelings that they were helping me but it was actually leaked to my supervisor. He made my life even more difficult and finally I had to leave my Phd at the end of third year. I had three path: 1) to continue with dishonesty 2) To give him a full fight 3) To simply leave him. I chose the last option.

Afterwards, I started applying again to different places and everywhere I was asked that why I left my position. Initially , I told to the places I was called for an interview that I was not motivated in the project (without talking anything negative about my prveious lab) but this answer was not very well- accepted. Then, in one of the places I tried to tell about the real problem what I faced and I was given the feeling of committing a' grave crime of 7 murder cases' by one of the members of the Graduate School Selection Committee. I seriously felt like that after talking to them that leaving a PhD in between is a CRIME.

I am still applying to different places , it is almost going to be a year and now I am in real conflict that what is wrong and right? I left my Phd for not compromising with ethics of science and after leaving it people are giving me the feeling that not finishing my Phd is wrong.

1)I would like to ask you that what should I do and in what way I should approach other supervisors at this situation for a Phd position? Or I have to simple leave academics? Although I do not want to leave it because I have not done anything wrong or violated science ethics. Kindly help me and provide your suggestions.

P.S. My previous supervisor is not also giving any good recommendation so that is another big problem.

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    It seems your former supervisor is a well respected, established researcher in the field; and you are throwing very serious accusations at him without proof (although it is very difficult to get). I would most certainly expect a good degree of incredulity. On the other hand, leaving after so long because you are no longer interested sounds like you may do it again. I am looking forward for the answers here.
    – Davidmh
    Jan 23, 2015 at 22:54
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    Do you have evidence to support your case?
    – gerrit
    Jan 23, 2015 at 23:07
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    @JeffE After reading the entire post, I get the impression that OP did refuse to manipulate the data. Jan 24, 2015 at 20:23
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    @Alexandros People in positions of power often do things that sound like "too much of a risk for anyone to undertake." Anyway, I don't understand the point of your skeptical comments; the supervisor hasn't been named here, so you don't need to defend him. Jan 24, 2015 at 20:34
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    I must say that we all know that this sort of things do happen (some infamous case broke up even to newspapers), and are very detrimental to academia; I am very disappointed by the overall tone of the comments so far, which tend to turn the OP into the defendant while he apparently is one victim of one of the biggest misbehavior in science. So while the question of evidences are an important part of any answer, we should be very cautious about how we ask about them. Right know this thread makes academia look quite bad, in my opinion. Jan 26, 2015 at 10:30

8 Answers 8


You can tell the committee that you and the PI were not a good fit. That you tried to make it work for a while, but, as you reached a stage where you were ready for more research independence, it became increasingly clear that your two research styles were incompatible. For example, you had differences in opinion on which data were trustworthy enough to merit a publication. After a number of attempts to reach a common ground, you concluded that the best course of action is to start another PhD elsewhere. You are sad that you have lost some time, but overall, you were doing research and that's what matters, and you don't mind putting in a few extra years if that means you can do what you love.

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    I think this might actually be the best answer. I was trying to write something similar to this in my answer but couldn't quite get the wording right. If the OP phrases it as well as Ana has, this is the most honest way to handle the situation. "Trustworthy data" is a great way of phrasing things here. It is vague, doesn't include any accusations and sounds reasonable enough that it would lead to an advisor fall out. But note, if you do go this route do practice interviews with friends where they follow up with questions on this answer. If you aren't careful you could open a can of worms. Jan 26, 2015 at 17:16
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    Incredibly on point. Apr 18, 2020 at 15:16

Then, in one of the places I tried to tell about the real problem what I faced and I was given the feeling of committing a 'grave crime of 7 murder cases' by one of the members of the Graduate School Selection Committee. I seriously felt like that after talking to them that leaving a PhD in between is a CRIME.

Leaving your PhD position isn't a crime, but you've made a dreadful accusation in a terribly awkward way. If what you say is true, then it should mean the end of your former advisor's career, and there is no reason why you shouldn't return to graduate school. On the other hand, maybe it's not true. There are any numbers of other explanations: maybe you're crazy, maybe you don't understand how research is supposed to work, maybe you're trying to cover up your own misconduct or incompetence, etc. I don't mean to cast doubt on your story, since you have no motivation to lie to us anonymously, but the admissions committee has no way of knowing whether to believe you. The only way to find out is by a careful investigation, which the committee is in no position to carry out. (It's not their job, and they don't have the time or resources to do it even if they wanted to.)

As soon as you explained the accusation, they couldn't possibly admit you. The difficulty is that admitting you would come across like an endorsement of your accusation, since nobody would dream of admitting a student with a history of false accusations of fraud. But nobody is going to endorse a career-ending accusation without strong evidence, which you haven't provided.

I'm not surprised the committee members were upset, because you put them in an awkward, no-win situation. How did you expect them to react? Were you hoping they would simply believe the story without evidence? Did you think it didn't matter to them whether it was really true? It sounds like they were harder on you than you deserved, which is too bad, but it makes no sense to offer an explanation without having in mind a plausible way in which it could lead to being admitted.

You can't offer fraud as an explanation unless you are willing to make a formal complaint. It sounds like you weren't direct enough last time:

I went to the University Higher Authority and told them indirectly (not very bluntly but slightly) about this problem.

If you believe you could help investigators find evidence of fraud, then I'd recommend making a detailed formal complaint to the university and funding agencies. It won't be a pleasant experience, but you'll be doing the research community a valuable service. If the investigators conclude that your accusations are true, then you'll have a great explanation of why you left graduate school.

If you don't think anything can be proved or you would rather not try, then you should avoid talking about fraud.

One option is to admit to the conflict without discussing the underlying issue of fraud. For example, you could try something along the lines of "Unfortunately, my former advisor and I developed a serious personality conflict. Our working styles turned out not to be compatible, and our interactions became difficult enough that I eventually withdrew from the Ph.D. program."

This will hurt your chances of admission, since it raises the possibility that you have a difficult personality and might run into conflicts with other people in the future. However, it's a reasonable explanation, and it's close enough to the full truth that you could comfortably answer questions (which you should expect to get). It also helps explain why a letter of recommendation from your previous advisor won't be useful.

Initially, I told to the places I was called for an interview that I was not motivated in the project (without talking anything negative about my previous lab) but this answer was not very well accepted.

One possibility is that your answer sounded evasive, like you were making an excuse to avoid talking about what happened. But even aside from that, it raises the question of why next time will be different. What makes you think you'll be better able to build/maintain motivation to work on a new project? Not addressing this is worrisome.

Unfortunately, I don't think there's any great way to handle this if you can't back up a formal accusation of fraud against your former advisor. The fact that you spent three unsuccessful years in graduate school is going to worry admissions committees, and they will often prefer candidates without this history.

Perhaps you'll have better luck if you lower your standards and apply to weaker Ph.D. programs? An advisor who would normally find it difficult to attract a student at your level might be more willing to take a chance on you. I am sorry to make this suggestion, but you might prefer this option to a career change or a formal accusation of fraud.

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    A hiring committee could also settle for accepting the doubt about the accusation, and ignore the leave from the former PhD. From their point of view, there is a possibility of problematic behavior of the applicant, but there is also the possibility that he or she has very strong ethics and force of will. It seems in this case the other aspects of the application should be considered to take the decision. Do we value ethics in research so little that a young scientist quitting PhD to avoid the worse possible misconduct is dead to us? We have to treat these situation better than that! Jan 26, 2015 at 10:37
  • This answer, while providing good advice, in general, is filled with too many extreme statements for me to upvote it. E.g. "soon as you explained the accusation, they couldn't possibly admit you", "admitting you would come across like an endorsement of your accusation". Admission committees weigh pluses and minuses. Many might view this situation as too big of a minus, but if a program admitted you it simply means they think your pluses outweigh your minuses enough that they want you, so admission does not equal endorsement of the accusation necessarily. May 3, 2017 at 6:02

You could say the following

"I left due to reasons in my personal life. This issue has now passed and I am excited to get back into research."

This is not a lie. Your ethical convictions and how you handled a difficult ethical situation is personal. Personal life as defined by the lead sentence in Wikipedia "the course of an individual's life, especially when viewed as the sum of personal choices contributing to one's personal identity." Your situation seems to be a quintessential example of that.

If they inquire further, you can say:

"It is personal and I am a private person. I wish not to discuss the details."

Try to get off the topic quickly. Don't lie but don't give them any real information either. Focus on the positive things you bring to the table. Basically you need to convince them you still have an enthusiasm for research. I know this is kind of dodging the question, but saying you weren't excited about the project or explaining the situation in detail will look worse. People have all sorts of personal problems in grad school and it is very reasonable to not want to discuss them. I think the University you are applying to will assume a far better excuse than the one you give them, so basically don't tell them anything. Of course this isn't ideal,; it would be better to have a well thought out answer that makes you look great. Unfortunately you cannot give them one with the information you supplied us. Your goal is to let your research and enthusiasm shine and hope they take a chance on you.

If they ask you, "why didn't you reenter at the school you left?" You could say

"The personal problem occurred in city X and I found if very traumatizing. While I have put it past me, I would like a fresh start in a new city, so I can focus on research without any distractions."

I think the bigger red flag is that I assume your former advisor will not be writing you a letter of reference. Don't bring it up, but if they ask you about it you can say

This personal problem affected my work. I wish I could go back and change the way I responded to the personal problem, but unfortunately that is in the past, all I can do now is focus on my research.

Unfortunately, all of what I have suggested will hurt your chances vs. a well crafted explanation as to why you left, and it may even sound evasive, but it might read better than opening a can of worms by talking about your past advisor relationship. Even if you talked about your relationship very carefully, as others have suggested (both Anna's and anonymous mathematician great answers) you could accidentally slip in the spontaneity of an interview (you seem strong in your ethical point of view and convictions - if you are upset slipping would be very easy). I believe my above answer is the "lowest risk" option, although the careful explanations possibly carry a higher reward, if executed perfectly.

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    +1 This is a very practical advice for the OP's situation.
    – sean
    Jan 26, 2015 at 9:19
  • I'm not sure it works. You need ideally an answer for why the previous advisor is not recommending you. Apr 18, 2020 at 15:17

I think that your problems roots before your tentative to enter another PhD program: it seems that your institute authorities have not made their job. Your accusations are serious, but as you say in comments there are several previous PhD students that were willing to tell you, at least, about the same misbehavior by your advisor. The fact that several students quit this advisor in a relatively short amount of time is enough evidence to start an investigation: there should be a disciplinary committee investigating the data published by your advisor over the years (forged data can in many cases be proved so), hearing you and the other quitting students, and of course hearing your advisor.

If what you say is right, and I assume it is, then your advisor's career should be terminated, he should be prosecuted with fraud, and a public statement should be available to back up your tentative to reenter a PhD program. Unfortunately, I am not surprised by poor handling of such a case by academic authorities: they tend to think that it reflects poorly on their institution and have an interest in covering them up. If you have a way to file a more formal complaint about your former advisor, it might be a way out your situation -- but the timing is definitely against you. Short of that, I do not see a good solution, you might want to use the tangential one of WetLabStudent.

Oh, and something else: if the truth about your advisor comes out in a few year, and you managed to enter academia, you might prefer to be one of those that made it right, rather than one of those that covered it up. I am not promising that it would be a more comfortable position with respect to your colleagues, but since you obviously value ethics, it would be more comfortable with respect to yourself.


After seeing your post, I also think I should tell my story. I also worked as a PhD for around 2.5 years in a very famous institute in Germany and I also faced the same problem. I do not mind revealing the name of the institute as I have no respect for it after my weird experience. I worked earlier in memorial Slaon kettering cancer center , USA and also National University Singapore (NUS). Fortunately nowhere I was forced to manipulate the data and it is only in this German institute where I was forced. If I tell my entire story it will take 4-5 pages. I also went to the people who are members of ' Scientific Ethics Committee' gave me the feeling of 'great ' help but actually did not help. They told me neither they can help me changing my supervisor nor getting a reference letter from him. But if I can bring the proof, they can take steps against my boss. Ofcourse being a foreighner I was not willing to fight a case(or take any trouble) rather I prefer to fight anonymously. I left my position and started applying. Everywhere I faced the same question and I also did not have any answer. But finally after 9 months I talked to a group leader and he knew my previous boss. I started the conversation without talking much about my previous boss but I had the feeling that he also didnot have a very good impression about my previous boss. And I told him about what has happened to me and he really did trust what I said. I joined his group after 2 months and now it has been already 2 years in this lab I have been working with him and everything seems good. May be in my case ,my current PI knew my previous boss and probably he heard something similar about him. So my case might be different but I still believe that there would be some people who genuinely understand your real problem and it will serve as a filter itself. So do not loose your heart and try applying outside Germany as well .

  • This is interesting advice. Some professors do gain a "hush hush" reputation for being unethical. I am glad you were lucky enough to find a professor who was in the know, but wonder how unusual this case is. Feb 6, 2015 at 23:30
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    @Lucas :Thank you very much for sharing your story. I can completely understand as I was also a victim. I also appreciate your approach as you started your new job without lying and I also believe it will serve as a filter. A person who would accept you knowing your entire story would be your best PI.
    – hjbrl
    Feb 8, 2015 at 14:08

Here in the Czech Republic, it is customary to approach your future advisor in person before applying for PhD. At least in my faculty, if the future advisor wants to accept a student, the selection committee usually does not object.

Talk in person to whoever you think might become your advisor. Ask them if you could join their research group to work on (... enter your thesis proposal here...), or if they could recommend one of their colleagues to turn to. Be pretty concrete; if you think of using some specific lab equipment, ask if the department has it. Who would not like to take on a student that has a clear vision of his thesis?

It the faculty member you are talking with shows interest in accepting you, it's time to show hesitation and tell them about your previous study (along the lines suggested by Ana). Explain that you understand that taking in a drop-out is a risk that not everyone is willing to take. If your chosen advisor thinks that this would be an obstacle to accepting you, ask them if there would be any other way to become part of their research group so that you could prove yourself. You might work as a lab technician, do some (boring but necessary) data analysis, prepare a review of literature on a selected topic that your advisor would be interested in but does not have the time to read in detail. If that is so, indicate that you would not mind doing one of these things for free until the next application deadline.


My following opinion is all hindsight.

If I were in your initial situation of being forced to falsify data, and I had proof of that, then I would have taken all my proof and found a lawyer and asked him for his legal advice on how to proceed. I think this whole problem should have been confronted immediately at the beginning.

Falsification of data is one of the most serious offenses in academia. It doesn't surprise me at all that this is taking place per my own, different and past experiences in academia.

This is an extremely difficult situation. If you want to get into a new program, you have to answer their questions, but you can't make accusations without proof. You might just be forced to say that you had serious ethical conflicts in your prior program and that you are seeking an institution that in no way resembles your prior institution's appearance regarding ethics. Hopefully nobody has any proof that you may have participated in data falsification.

Perhaps you should think about obtaining legal advice.

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    Legal advice might be a good idea for other reasons, but I am not seeing how a laywer is going to help get the OP into another graduate program. Jan 26, 2015 at 1:03

You have too much research integrity to stay in a bad lab, that is an important part of being a good academic. Stand up for it, and say it as it was.

But don't do it with a focus on saying bad things about others, or about personal issues, or anything that unfairly paints you as the problem. You want to do good research, and it was unfortunatly not possible at your lab so you quit rather than lowering your standards.

If you get questions about it, intended to make you talk badly about your previous lab, answer instead with things related to how you want to be able to do better work than there. Show that you are capable of handling integrity and are ready for a new place, instead of being hung up or broken by a previous place.

(And please ignore the above suggestions that you should say negative things about your self that arent even true! You have done nothing wrong and do not need to pretend you have.)

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