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The following case came into my attention.

A PhD student, A, has a contract until month X. A finished the write up of the thesis in month X-5 (5 months before the contract ends). Till X, none of A's supervisors read the thesis. A asks what about A's funding. A receives reply: "we can extent the contract by 1 month but do your best to defend during this time" (although I fail to see how this is in A's hands).

A receives the approval from A's adviser during X+1.5 and they send it to the external committee members. They schedule the PhD defense to be at X+4. For the 3 extra months, the student is not supported by any grant/scholarship and goes to the unemployment office to support A's living. A's institution blames A for being late ad not doing what A could to defend earlier.

I know for a fact that A's institution can very well support A if they want: there are PhD students well into their 5th-6th year and A is exactly 48 months (at time X, and finished the write up at X-5).

Question: Is this treatment considered fair for A (given that other PhD students in the same office stay 5 or 6 years without anyone being bothered)? Is there anything A could do to avoid being in this situation? Or A should just accept that "that's how things are" and move forward? How can A then ask for a recommendation letter with such treatment?

And finally: What does this say to the external committee? Is it possible that this would create a very bad image for A to the reviewers?

Any feedback or advice would be greatly appreciated!

  • I don't understand why you expect the institution to throw funding at a student who has submitted their thesis? What does the institute get out of it? From the institute's perspective it makes more sense to finance actual research instead of a student preparing for the examination which I'd expect them to do in their free time while searching for or actually working their next job. At least, that's the standard situation for most PhD students in Germany after submission of the thesis. – Roland Apr 22 '17 at 20:11
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    @Roland: "What does the institute get out of it?" - well, actual research, as you say, same as before the thesis submission. I don't see the submission of the thesis as a crucial turning point, and I have witnessed all kinds of combinations - end of funding right before thesis submission, somewhere between thesis submission and defense, or after the defense. In Germany. Preparing for the examination mostly means preparing the talk, which can be argued to be (at least in part) something to do in one's spare time, but again, the same applies to writing the thesis and preparing its submission. – O. R. Mapper Apr 22 '17 at 21:51
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    @Roland So, research stops when the thesis is submitted? I cannot possibly see why it's either one or the other. 2nd, as I mention, this is not the standard norm in the said university where most (if not all) students get full funding till the end. – PsySp Apr 22 '17 at 22:27
  • Till X, none of A's supervisors read the thesis. Maybe I'm not familiar with how things work in A's country. Here in the US, a PhD student normally has exactly one supervisor, and the other people on the committee are lined up fairly late in the game and may not know anything about the student or the student's research specialty. How many supervisors did A have? Till X, none of A's supervisors read the thesis. Again, maybe I'm missing context, but this seems odd. Did A just wait passively for 5 months without reminding the supervisors of the need to finish? – Ben Crowell Apr 22 '17 at 22:40
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    @Roland I disagree. I tell my student exactly the opposite: If they finish early their contract will not stop (for one I don't like the encourage "I keep working on the PhD just because I still have a position." and also I can use a well trained postdoc). – Dirk Apr 23 '17 at 16:04
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It is fairly common (at least in Germany) that the date of final defense is after the contract/funding ends. What should happen in this case is that this is discussed between the PhD student and the advisor as soon as possible. And with "that" I mean the funding/employment situation. Actually, there should be a discussion about the future plans of the PhD student somewhere around the last half year of write-up and if the advisor does not initiate this, the student should do it. Indeed, PhD students can have different plans, e.g. "having a job outside academia secured an wanting to start as soon as possible", "wanting to apply for postdoc positions", "continuing at the current place in some way", "applying for a fellowship somewhere"… In each of these cases advisor and student should proceed differently and without knowing the situation, things may go the wrong way.

Is this treatment considered fair for A (given that other PhD students in the same office stay 5 or 6 years without anyone being bothered)?

I can't judge "fairness" but for sure it is unfortunate. But if nothing regarding the defense date and the further plans of the student has been discussed, delays in the defense date are common (and in some cases no problem for anybody).

Is there anything A could do to avoid being in this situation? Or A should just accept that "that's how things are" and move forward?

See above: Discuss exactly this matter as early as possible.

How can A then ask for a recommendation letter with such treatment?

I do not see how recommendations letters are influenced.

And finally: What does this say to the external committee? Is it possible that this would create a very bad image for A to the reviewers?

Since procedures for the review of PhD theses are quite different at different places, I don't think that the process has any influence of the external reviewers.

  • Thanks. Just a few comments. The discussion was always along this line: "we do not care, finish as soon as possible, it's our fault if you don't finish". This shows some air of hostility or dissatisfaction (although I cannot guess where it comes from), thus the question about the recommendation letters. Finally, since all other PhDs are treated differently, one might wonder (e.g., an external committee member) if there is something inherently wrong to the person or the thesis. It sounds suspicious to say the least. – PsySp Mar 10 '17 at 15:06
  • It's not our fault if you don't finish (somehow, I cannot edit my own comment!) – PsySp Mar 10 '17 at 15:27
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    @PsySp: Comments become uneditable after 5 minutes or so. Sometimes I delete & re-enter the comment I really wanted. – Daniel R. Collins Apr 23 '17 at 0:41

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