I was recently forced out of a PhD program at XX early in the dissertation stage. Without going into details, XX acted in bad faith and also broke the law. So even though a good academic case can be made for re-admitting me, XX won't touch me.

The problem is that in order to avoid a lawsuit, XX manufactured a story about how I repeatedly failed to make progress despite their leniency. All additional information contradicting this story was deliberately omitted from my file and the people who know what really happened will not go on record about it.

So the only option is to enroll somewhere else. But it looks terrible to have been thrown out of a program after several years, with the official reason as failure to make progress on a dissertation. It probably also looks terrible say that XX lied about that, even though that's exactly what they did. I have good evidence, but an admissions committee is not a courtroom jury and will probably not want to hear that XX broke the law and lied to cover it up.

What can I do to address doubts about my ability to complete a PhD? Do I tell them what actually happened?

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    Consider that whoever you apply to does not know who to believe, you or XX. They will think: what if they end up in the same trouble with you as XX? So, whatever your strategy is, you need to think how to mitigate that suspicion. Note that, if you say your old department lied, they will think that, if you leave them, you will say the same things about them. Creating such an impression is what you need to avoid. Build your case around what you are going to do, not about the evils that befell you. Do you have arguments to convince them that you will succeed with them when you didn't at XX? – Captain Emacs Oct 9 '17 at 21:21
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    Why? Of course, you can explain the progress and what you did and back it up with evidence (papers or explanations/notes). I just would not make ostentatiously negative remarks (or probably none at all) about your old department. If you demonstrate a constructive, competent and professional attitude in the interview this can work out to balance out some of the other downsides of your situation. – Captain Emacs Oct 9 '17 at 22:34
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    Listen to Captain Emacs. He knows whereof he speaks. I spent many years in industry before retiring to teach. I told my troops, "Never hire someone who bad mouths a previous employer!" The same is true for academic posts and PhD programs. – Bob Brown Oct 10 '17 at 0:11
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    While I understand your desire not to want to wade into unpleasant (and potentially identity-divulging) details, I am having particular trouble wrapping my head around your claim that XX "broke the law." That's quite a strong allegation to make, as there are very few laws specifically governing academic interactions. Have you consulted an attorney about this, and do they agree that a law was broken? If so, perhaps you should pursue legal proceedings: the fact that those who broke the law lied about it does not seem like a reason not to! – Pete L. Clark Oct 10 '17 at 4:15
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    @BobBrown I have decided as an applicant to never bad mouth previous employers b/c I have limited bandwidth with prospective employers. I want to fill that bandwidth with (1) how awesome I am; (2) subtle probing for employer awfulness. There is just no leftover bandwidth for talking about former employers. It is the same result from a different perspective. A PhD application is similarly a constrained bandwidth medium. If the OP wants to use his limited communication with the admissions committee to convince them his old university was bad then they will have no basis for which to admit. – emory Oct 11 '17 at 10:37

So here's what I see as the issue you need to overcome: If I'm told that a whole department or university conspired against a student to force them out, I usually tend to think that that is a silly allegation and that the person who makes this allegation is delusional. That's because it requires that a whole bunch of people (who also happen to be my colleagues!) would have had to act unethically, as opposed to just one person coming up with claims that have no factual basis but support their self-interest in believing that it's someone else's fault.

I have no idea which side is correct in your case, but as a member of an admission committee, a story like yours would certainly not make me excited about the candidate.

So you have two options in your explanations to the department you are applying to now:

  • You provide incontrovertible evidence that your claims really are what they are, and that the colleagues of the admissions committee members are all unethical blokes waging a vendetta. You may not have the space to sufficiently support your claims.

  • You make up some other explanation that sounds plausible for why you left that program. This may include "having had personal problems that you have since overcome through personal growth", or an admission that you really did something wrong but have come to understand by now why it was wrong and that you have learned from it. In either case, the explanation ought to be credible and probably ought to address the issue at hand in some way, though it can also be a bit nebulous.

The point I'm trying to make is that leaving a program, for whatever reason, carries with it a stigma that usually falls on the person who left the program, not the program itself. It is your job in the new application to address this.

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    You're recommending that someone lie about the reason for leaving a program as long as the lie is incriminating to themselves? Seriously? – Elizabeth Henning Oct 10 '17 at 0:46
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    @Elizabeth: The OP also claims that some relevant party XX broke the law in their treatment of the OP. This is, at least in my experience, not something that happens all the time. This is a bit much for an admissions committee to try to examine -- if this claim has merit, perhaps it should be pursued in the proper forum, i.e., legally. – Pete L. Clark Oct 10 '17 at 4:20
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    @Elizabeth: My own experience with such things is almost nonexistent, but it is not my intention to globally extrapolate from that. (Spending time on this site and hearing the sort of things that can go wrong for students has been quite a sobering experience.) However: "Filing a lawsuit against any school is career suicide even if you win." That seems too strong; e.g. I know of mathematicians who successfully sued after being denied tenure and then remained at the institution for many years.... – Pete L. Clark Oct 10 '17 at 5:27
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    @Pete My experience both within and outside of academia is that illegal discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are appallingly common but extremely difficult to successfully prove in court even if the claim has merit. So it's entirely possible that the OP is assessing the situation correctly, but either cannot or does not want to take legal action. Filing a lawsuit against any school is career suicide even if you win. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 10 '17 at 5:27
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    ...Moreover, speaking as the Graduate Coordinator of my department: if I got an application from a candidate who had won a lawsuit against their department, my first reaction would be "Wow, what a terrible place they came from." The idea that a student who was treated wrongly/illegally found a way to retaliate does not scare me, because we mean to treat our students well/legally. – Pete L. Clark Oct 10 '17 at 5:29

Letters of recommendation are meant to be confidential: that also includes confidential to the administration of the university at which the recommender works. Therefore, if you know people who know what's going on (your question suggests this is the case), you could ask if they could write a letter of recommendation explaining the situation.

Alternatively, you can provide details about your situation if there is a place to do so (in a cover letter or a "special comments" section in an online application). Remember that an admissions committee is not a jury—they don't need to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt; they just need to believe you're going to be a good fit for their department.

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    While true, if I, as faculty, was being bullied to not speak up while the department lied about a student, I would probably also decline writing a letter of reference. – StrongBad Oct 9 '17 at 23:08
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    If I, as faculty, were being bullied not to speak up while the department lied about a student, I would (a) definitely write a letter of recommendation for the student, and (b) resign. Not necessarily in that order. – JeffE Oct 10 '17 at 21:59

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