I'm a PhD student in experimental biology in the UK. My funding grants me a monthly stipend for 3.5 years (including money for consumables/conferences etc).

In my group, the standard practice is for people to work for 3.5 years and then write up (though actually different people have different funding, and the funding that the department provides directly does last 4 years).

When I started, I was quite happy to stay for 4 years (the stipend is sufficiently generous that I've saved enough to cover me), but, relationships with my PI have deteriorated significantly. * At this stage, I've said that I wish to write up at the end of 3 years, and be ready to viva by 3.5. This is something that she refuses to grant.

What should I do in this situation? I don't feel that anyone can be expected to work for free (theres no expectation that I should have saved money), and therefore feel that (1) she should either give me her blessing to write up, and all the support that goes with it, or (2) she should find additional funding for the final 0.5 years in order to force me to write up in the department.

Note: the UK has a different funding model to the US, and I'd prefer to just hear answers relating to the UK funding situation (i'm well aware that students in the US have a far tougher time of things, both in terms of money, but also in terms of the very very long PhD's that some people must endure).

*: We've had a difficult relationship from the start, truthfully. She is fairly old and established at this stage, and has very little interest in discussing things, but rather dictates her wishes via emails from her secretary and then comes to the lab to complain when things don't work. This has slowed my work appreciably as we're constantly jumping around to keep her happy.

  • 4
    How is she preventing you from writing up and defending? I have never seen a UK program in which the supervisor was directly involved in the defense.
    – StrongBad
    Aug 8, 2017 at 18:30
  • 5
    She has to fill in paperwork and organise my viva. I mean, she isn't literally holding me hostage, she's simply refusing to help the process along. I could of course go above her head and force the matter, but I dont think that will help my future prospects.
    – Alana
    Aug 8, 2017 at 18:32
  • I don't understand "I don't feel that anyone can be expected to work for free". Writing a dissertation is your own private business. Why do you expect anyone to fund it? I know many people who wrote their dissertation in their free time while working a regular job after their funded PhD project was completed. Did you get paid for writing your bachelor thesis? Btw., 3.5 years appears generous to me. The norm over here is 3 years, but of course we start already having a Master degree.
    – user9482
    Aug 9, 2017 at 7:29

2 Answers 2


Unless UK universities differ significantly between each other, your supervisor will not have any role in assessing your final thesis - this will be done by the internal and external examiner.

Your supervisor will normally propose these based on personal experience - and I suspect in most cases the university will go along with those suggestions (at least that was my experience). So a malicious supervisor can give you an examiner who will give you a hard time - while a friendly supervisor will suggest a friendly examiner.

So where am I going: If the relationship with your supervisor has deteriorated to the level where you feel you would just quit - but are nevertheless motivated to complete your work, it would be highly advisable to seek some advice within the university (and possibly also if you aren't motivated to make sure you don't make a mistake). There should be a person responsible for dealing with such situations - I forgot what they are called... Ideally, you could be given an administrative supervisor and submit the thesis under their "guidance" - they won't need to be an expert in the field, but should understand your work.

The key question in this case is whether the work is sufficient to be considered for a PhD, but only you or your supervisor (be it old or new) can determine that.

A side note on funding: The university as an institution is unlikely to continue your funding, unless you are employed doing some work, say on a part time basis to carry on with your work. Where people are paid beyond the standard grant duration, this is done by the department - potentially the sponsor if there is an industry sponsor. I believe it is up to the department ow they organise this - i.e. whether they pay you to write up or whether they pay you to continue/complete your work before/after writing up but before defending the thesis.

  • 3
    I forgot what they are called — Ombudsman?
    – JeffE
    Aug 8, 2017 at 21:35
  • @JeffE possibly - I'm not sure what the terminology in Leeds was.
    – DetlevCM
    Aug 8, 2017 at 21:46
  • Detlev: just to clarify, are you referring to someone at university, faculty, or departmental level?
    – Yemon Choi
    Aug 8, 2017 at 22:16
  • There should be someone at the "school level" - so above the department, but below the university as an institution. For example it could be "School Chemical and Process Engineering" - or alternatively say the Faculty of Chemistry. Then again, specific arrangements may depend on the size of the university and the number of PhD students they take on. (The person in Leeds is/was apparently also the post-graduate tutor, or one of several - I'm not sure I have ever consciously met him though.)
    – DetlevCM
    Aug 9, 2017 at 13:04

You can most definitely leave with out a PhD. Further, every UK PhD program I am familiar with will allow students to defend at nearly any point. Most programs have max durations (usually 4 or 5 years) after which they will not let you defend. Some programs also require students to progress from an MPhil to a PhD after the first year. The standard route may ask for your supervisor to sign off on scheduling the viva (and schedule the viva). In the case of an unhelpful supervisor, students can approach other faculty or the director of graduate studies. If you push hard enough, you should be given a viva.

Your supervisor should have no contact, especially in difficult cases, with the examiners during the viva. That said, I would be wary about doing a viva without your supervisor on board.

  • 1
    The University of Leeds will consider you to have failed a PhD if it is not submitted within 4 years of starting (unless there are extenuating circumstances and an extension is granted). - I believe the University of Sheffield has also introduced a time limit.
    – DetlevCM
    Aug 8, 2017 at 20:00
  • @DetlevCM the OP wants to finish quickly so it is not quite relevant, but as a general answer, you are correct so I have edited that info in.
    – StrongBad
    Aug 8, 2017 at 20:09

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