I was talking to a friend of mine, and he just feel in a deep depression due to finishing his PhD.

He will be defending in the coming weeks, and there is a high likelihood he will pass.

In his words, he doesn't really feel he has learned anything PhD worthy, he only has one Journal paper and no conference papers (in his area conf papers are not worth much anyway). According to him, one of the postdocs kept his research at bay by denying him access to the machines he need to do experiments (something CMOS related, not really sure what). And in his own words, the same guy basically did the same experiments he was planning and wrote a couple of papers.

Of course he tried to tell his professor, but apparently he couldn't care less.

By now, he just feels that he lost 3 years of his life doing a PhD. And he mentioned that he might sue the Professor/University for this.

I take his word for all of this, and I have no real means to corroborate it to be truth. But it kept me thinking about one thing.

Is a student entitled to sue/demand a reimbursement/etc if he/she feels like the past years have been an utter waste of time?

Is there any mechanism in your universities to do this?

I've heard of similar cases of professors abusing of students in the same way in some US Universities (big/fancy ones by the way)

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    I would urge him to avoid talking about suing. It sounds frivolous to sue because he published only one paper, the postdocs hogged the machines and did some of the research he had hoped to do, and he doesn't feel he learned enough. I can understand why this is upsetting, but the courts are not equipped to settle such disputes, especially when the outcome is not terrible in absolute terms (he is getting a Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time and has published a paper). It may be worth complaining about the advisor, using one of the mechanisms F'x suggests below, but probably not a lawsuit. Jan 17, 2013 at 16:04
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    If I were your friend, I will just make sure I do the defense and graduate without any problem or bad relation with my advisor.. It is too late to change whats on the ground. Publishing one journal article is a good indication.. I believe many good PhD students are not satisfied with their degree outcome. They always look for better/stronger results.
    – seteropere
    Jan 18, 2013 at 21:18
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    Lack of publications in the PhD level is one of the main reasons for PostDoc positions.
    – Paul
    Jan 18, 2013 at 22:47
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    @Paul I don't understand your comment. I thought that to get to a good postdoc you need to have goo record; and (at least nowadays) it's impossible to get a professorship without a few prior postdoc positions. Jan 20, 2013 at 15:33
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    A PhD is essentially an apprenticeship for a career in research, if you can show that you have developed the experimental/theoretical skills required for this in your discipline and are able to design experiments, conduct them, sensibly analyze the results, then you have earned your PhD. There is no requirement to come up with some conspicuously good idea as that is at least partly down to luck. Learning to deal with awkward colleagues shouldn't have to be a useful skill, but it is a useful skill nevertheless. Don't let it get to you, a career is a long term thing. Dec 12, 2015 at 15:50

5 Answers 5


There sure are cases, every now and then, of researchers (professors or other) abusing students in various ways. As everyone, I have heard stories, and I know at least a couple of people who have been put in dramatic situations during their PhD. However bad the behavior of the advisor is, it turns out that there are multiple venues one can try, during the PhD, when the alarm flag is raised. These depend on the institution and type of employment, but they include:

  • Going to see the PhD program director, explaining your situation (diplomatically) and asking for advice (read: help).
  • Finding a friendly researcher/professor in your department, and ask him for advice (and possibly help) with your issue. They know the people and local “politics”, and might have efficient advice.
  • Your employer's HR department
  • Going to your professor's hierarchy (department chair, dean, …). As a last recourse, file a formal complaint.
  • Get someone to speak for you: a union representative, a member of the local “PhD association”, etc. That can help if you are worried about the fallout of intervening directly.
  • Changing your plans to work on a more “independent” research. In your example, your friend was denied access to a given experiment. If the experiment had broken down beyond repair, he sure could reörient his research, so the same thing could be done in the case at hand (I'm not saying it's easy).
  • Walking out (or, as JeffE would surely say: don't walk, run!)

Regarding legal action: I don't think this avenue can lead anywhere, unless there is factual evidence of gross misconduct or unethical activity. The burden of proof relies on your friend, and I think it will actually be harder to complain after the fact if he did not raise his concerns formally during his PhD.

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    I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that a legal case would also be difficult without factual evidence of concrete harm to the student. I'd be surprised if "a complete waste of time" would be considered concrete harm.
    – JeffE
    Jan 17, 2013 at 16:09
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    While I completely agree that getting advice/help from other faculty is useful, formal complaints to department chairs or HR are more likely to help future students than the student lodging the complaint. No, that's not fair.
    – JeffE
    Jan 17, 2013 at 16:18
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    I agree with @JeffE, personally I dont see any legal dispute. OP finished PhD in normal time (3years) and published one paper ( according to most program normal requirement )
    – SSimon
    Dec 12, 2015 at 14:55

If it is likely that he will pass, your friend should go for the defense first, every other aspect put on hold. As for a court case, it is risky; they will have to prove that they were harmed intentionally or through negligence (I am not sure the latter counts in a supervision process - I am not a lawyer!).

They will also have to prove that the postdoc basically took the ideas from them. This is quite possible and definitively does happen, however, keep in mind the possibility that it might have been the other way round: sometimes students underestimate how much they have absorbed from the research group and their superviser and believe that they have had an original idea, whereas they only had the final "flash of understanding" about what their supervisors and group colleagues have been talking about for months.

An emotional situation may cloud their self-judgement with respect to their contribution and taking it to court is not recommended, unless they are absolutely sure their idea was taken and they can prove it. Even so, it might not be a good idea, because these are murky waters. I have known a case of a student being upset at their supervisor only to come back a period later - with more life experience - to complete a joint paper broken off in anger, because he understood how much the supervisor had contributed in the first place.

Finally, not every PhD is a success story in terms of concrete scientific achievements - this may depend on talent, luck, circumstances. However, if your friend passes, they have achieved a PhD in 3 years and, no matter what, that's a pretty good achievement. Some PhD's (esp. in Europe) drag on for 6-7 years, others never materialise. So, while it may not look like it at this point, after the PhD, things may look brighter to your friend.

  • For some students the most powerful type of learning is if they think they had the original idea. Not many things will make them devote themselves as much to research as if they get that feeling. But as you mention the drawbacks can at least short term include these kinds of perceptions. Sep 27, 2018 at 10:57

Learning is not an instantaneous event. You prepare and practice your brain for growth and development but there is a lot of inertia involved and it takes time. He will probably gradually realize what the studies has made him able to do, say over a.. 5-10 year period, maybe. Studying is planting the tree. If fertile land and skilled gardener and good care it will slowly grow, become majestic and sprout flowers or whatnot.

Heck some courses I took even 10 years ago I don't realize until now what some of the clever comments during professors lectures were about until this or last summer.


I am not sure at what stage of PhD your friend is. Has he finished the number of years necessary to do the PhD? If yes, he can submit the thesis. One really need to find the fault in the system if he/she want to sue a PhD supervisor. Once he finds the faults of Professor with supporting concrete evidences he/she could be on safe side. If your friend has decided to sue a PhD supervisor at any stage of PhD, beware of rules and regulations of university. In PhD, when you submit a thesis, the first thing comes is the acceptance or the rejection of thesis from examination. If your thesis is accepted by the examination committee, you can go for examination. If it is not accepted, you can not go for examination. In case of the rejection of PhD thesis, they will inform you about the reasons of rejection. Go through them carefully. Find out the faults in their own research articles and their own books or dissertation. Write them in a contradiction report. Send it to them. You must wait for the appeal decision of the university. If you are not satisfied with their decision you can go to the court.

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    -1. Looking for errors in papers of the committee members is a ridiculous suggestion. Dec 12, 2015 at 17:12
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    Another -1: yes, it is ridiculous. The papers of the thesis committee need not have any logical connection to the subject of the thesis. Even if there was some mistake in one of these papers that was intellectually pertinent to the subject of the thesis, the advice makes no sense: that it built on faulty work of others does not make your thesis correct. From a practical standpoint: this is such dangerously wrong-headed advice. Please do not pretend that you have any experience with successfully suing university professors in court. That is really irresponsible and immature. Dec 12, 2015 at 18:22
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    well now this is ridiculous. Then there should be no reason for the thesis rejection at all. On which basis the thesis are rejected? The published work can also be wrong. It is clear indication that the prof himself is not knowing the subject. Is this a blog created by professors or PhD candidates? if my doubt is true then I can understand you.
    – Aumit
    Dec 12, 2015 at 21:13
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    You've lost me entirely. No specific thesis rejection is being contemplated here: the OP did not say anything of the sort. "On which basis the thesis are rejected?" This question has been addressed on this site before. If after reading what's already here you still have questions, please feel free to ask a followup question. Dec 13, 2015 at 1:22
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    It really sounds like you have no experience with writing a dissertation at all. If you are already a week or two from your defense (date set on stone), your dissertation is probably already approved by the committee, unless you dance a polka on their desk, the final defense is mostly ceremonial in my experience in three countries (US, UK, Japan). Your answer is outright a confusing one. Dec 14, 2015 at 17:26

Strangely enough it depends on the legal system, as that describes the burden of proof. My advise is go see a lawyer... But...

I have had a harrowing experience with what l can best describe as a macho thesis advisor, a personae dramatica. Much of the assault was verbal, but that does not mean that there is no evidence. I have annacodotal emails, he even sent me threatening Emails and lied to my mum! shitty behaviour.

Instead of attacking the problem as if it's is you against the world, think about it differently.

  1. Does the school have a contractual system in place with the student and thesis advisor? In my previous UK school, that is not the case, so in most common law jurisdictions and quiet a few civil law jurisdictions too, that is a no no...

  2. Case law, yes ask your lawyer to look into case law, in fact it's so easy nowerdays, you can do it by yourself. You need to find some precedent, even in civil law, which generally has a rule, that says contracts that cause undue hardship are illegal, and when there is no contract, and you have suffered undue hardship because you were unable to complete your thesis, tends to be sufficient evidence.

  3. Malpractice suites in medicine and the police turn around the expertise embedded in a expert, or someone with special skill and experience. The school has a greater duty of care under common law and under certain civil law jurisdictions, that is an avenue to pursue.

  4. Increasingly in many jurisdictions, when it comes to experts as thesis advisors, the burden of evidence has come down, and you can use here say, and indirect evidence. So this line of mechanistic thinking is wrong. The law is not black letter, and if it is, then it would surely be unjust.

  5. What are you aiming for? Be like a Vulcan and think about it logically. My thesis advisor, was sure of his superior position, and that he could bully me around, and lie to me in my face, that is a breach of conduct, and that is easy to prove. If it's sexual, then it's even easier. You should not think about suing to win, you should think about suing to damage someone's career and the reputation of the school instead. It's a bit like opting for a constant stalemate, like in chess, to prolong the game, and await your opportunity to strike. Then, mind the Star Trek cliche, a legal case can said, to be revenge, and that is best served cold.

  6. You should look at the schools previous record with dealing with thesis advisor problems... Like in my previous school they swept everything under the carpet, even plagerism, and used the data protection act in the UK to avoid dealing with a problem, you have them! When a institution hides behind privacy issues, and does not deal with the real issues, they are not fair or just.

  7. Read through the student booklet and if it says, that they will fairly and justly deal with complaints and they have not, even with small complaints then they are breaking their own contract with you. In our student book it says, l must go to make the complaint to a staff member, and and and... And they would resolve it fairly, but if they blame you, and don't listen, in your and other peoples case, there is a pattern of political game playing and failing to do the right thing. A lot of the contractual relationships can not be put down on paper, and is open to interpretation. You may not be able to sue your thesis advisor, but you can sue the school for they employ him, on grounds other than the thesis advisor.

  8. Think about it this way, you can damage your opponent. A lot of the education you receive, is based on an unwritten contact for services. And even if there is a contrAct, you can poke holes into it. Maybe you can sue them for an unsafe work environment, and force the lab to be closed down. If l were a school, l would be very upset, but you, as an innocent whistle blower with a slightly alter our, but ethically just motive, well the law will see you in a good light. Also if the school fails to give you an adequate answer to a problem, or does not help you, but protects the to hear that is a good grounds to sue on.

  9. Remember in law nothing is the way it seems... Smoke and mirrors.

you are thinking about it all wrong, remove the emotion, and think about maiming and hurting your opponent. My thesis advisor is very confident he is safe because of his position, well he has another thing coming. Not through anger and emotion, but through cold hard logic, find a flaw in the system and pursue that, and do it to damage the schools reputation. If they damage you, you damage them back using the law, and above all doing the right thing, because as institutions they must not think they can get away with abuse.


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