This is such a hard post to write, but after 5 years, I’ve failed my PhD.
I posted last year after receiving a 12-month revise and resubmit verdict following my first viva at the start of 2021. This was an absolute marathon of an examination at nearly 7 hours and I felt completely defeated at its conclusion. Amazingly, I passed and was told I’d need to rewrite one chapter and do some extensive work to another, but I wouldn’t need another viva. I took some time away and came back a few weeks later to start my corrections, after meeting with my supervisor. After the first month, my motivation and productivity nose-dived and it took everything to get those corrections completed. I met with my supervisor a couple of times and he seemed pleased that everything was heading in the right direction and that I should pass with no problems, possibly with 3-month minor corrections.
I submitted before Christmas 2022 and assumed I’d hear back at some point in the New Year to say the corrections were approved. You can imagine my utter dismay when I heard that my internal examiner wanted to organise another viva for this month. I hurriedly emailed my supervisor who said it’s likely just to go through the corrections, not to panic, and to meet again in a few weeks to discuss strategies in approaching the viva. I sat my viva and honestly it was even worse than the first. My heart wasn’t even in it and there were long silences as I tried to construct answers to questions fired at me. The only glimmer of hope was that there was a continuous feed of ideas on how to improve sections and when I asked for clarity on certain comments, they provided more information and only moved on if I was happy with the explanation.
After 4 hours, I was then informed I’d failed my viva, and that they’d recommend me for an MPhil. The bottom fell out of my world and I was barely able to get any words out. They said my corrections were not sufficient to merit a PhD, that I’d missed out an entire section of further work I could’ve done to supplement some flawed experimental data (instrument problems that persist to this day, so not necessarily all down to me; data still discussion worthy—this was brought up in my first viva, but my supervisor didn’t say anything about it when I presented my corrected thesis). My external examiner said they were disappointed by the work I’d done, especially as they gave me 12 months, which should have been sufficient, and that I shouldn’t be surprised I’ve failed as a result.
It’s needless to say I feel angry, insulted, disappointed, every adjective under the sun at this decision. Effectively 5 years down the drain for what I’ve been left in no doubt is a consolation prize for failing. I’m yet to speak to my supervisor as this only happened last week and the official report isn’t in yet.
I have a number of questions and there are a number of things I’ve taken issue with in this entire process:
1. The duration of my examinations. By the end of each viva I was left exhausted and catatonic for several days. What could possibly be covered in the second that wasn’t covered in the first, barring my corrections?
2. The existence of the second viva at all. It was perfectly clear that there was nothing I could’ve said in my viva that would have changed the outcome given the apparent fundamental flaws in my thesis. What was the point of subjecting me to another pointless viva (and several weeks revision to prepare)?
3. The attitude of my external examiner. I’m happy to accept criticism of my work, but to admonish me as if I were a school boy is cruel, sadistic, and unnecessary
4. I also have questions for my supervisor. He’s generally been good and available when I’ve needed him. He’s a little more hands off because he’s at the top of his field and therefore very busy, but I feel that if there were flaws of this magnitude, they should’ve been highlighted much sooner, so I could either buckle down or leave much earlier. On the other hand, he might feel my thesis was genuinely fine and is as similarly flummoxed as I am
5. What am I to do with an MPhil? I think it would’ve been fine after two or three years, but having a qualification that’s taken 5 years listed on my CV as such is evidently a sign of a failed PhD. Plus, I already have a master’s in a separate but related discipline. Is this likely to hinder me in the future?
6. Is there hope of a PhD in the future? I know for sure that I am capable of a PhD. I can do the work and get to this stage, and I have a prominent first author publication. The problem this time is that whilst interesting to me, my topic is a lot more technical than my undergraduate and master’s degrees so I struggled a great deal with this. Would another supervisor take me on in a different topic down the line? Plus there’s time and other life considerations, is this something I can realistically achieve?
I guess there isn’t much room to appeal given the inability to appeal just because I don’t like the result. Thankfully this doesn’t impact my job at this stage as I’ve recently accepted a position that only requires a master’s at most. However, amongst all the despair and ill-feeling, a part of me is honestly relieved. The process is over, I don’t have to think about this again, save reworking it for an alternative degree. I can, to some extent, focus solely on my new career.
Apologies for the long rant and post, but it’s honestly helped to at least get my thoughts down and I’d be so grateful for any comments/thoughts on what I can do now.
Sorry to hear this.
I think you may be able to challenge on the grounds of deviation from standard procedure. Why two vivas? Was your examiner bias? Did your supervisor give sufficient supervision? Can you chat with your students union about this?
Have a look at the posts of faded07 who had an external examiner from hell and how he/she fought against it and won. https://www.postgraduateforum.com/faded07-profile
Thanks for your reply and advice, and for your link to another thread, it seems quite the ordeal!
As far as I know, everything that's happened in my case so far has at least been procedurally correct. The guidelines at my university state that upon resubmission, a second viva must be organised within three months. This viva must go ahead if the award granted is to be downgraded or if the verdict is a fail. The viva can be cancelled if the examination panel agree that the corrected thesis is worthy of being awarded a PhD.
I doubt my external examiner is biased, he doesn't have any reason to be as we don't research similar topics. The only potential thing I can see is that my research area is quite small so everyone knows each other; it's possible there's some existing conflict, but that's pure conjecture.
As I say, my supervisor has been there when I've needed him and provided guidance as and when. Perhaps he could've been more hands-on, but I don't have any issues. My only concern is that whilst everyone in my department had a primary supervisor and at least one secondary supervisor, I only had a primary, so there wasn't anyone I could have immediate contact with if he wasn't available.
I'll be speaking to the union after I've seen my supervisor if he feels it's a route worth pursuing.
If you have failed to complete your PhD or have failed your final submission, it can be a challenging and disheartening experience. However, it's important to remember that this setback does not define you or your future prospects. Here are some steps you can take to move forward:
1.Take a break and regroup: It's important to take some time to process your emotions and recharge. Take some time off to do things that bring you joy and relaxation.
2. Review your feedback: Review the feedback provided by your supervisor or examiners and identify areas for improvement. This will help you to understand what went wrong and how you can improve your work.
3. Seek support: Reach out to your supervisor or mentor for support and guidance on how to move forward. They may be able to provide valuable insights and suggestions for improvement.
4. Consider your options: Consider your options for resubmitting your work, seeking additional support or resources, or pursuing a different path altogether.
5.Create a plan: Create a plan of action that outlines your goals, strategies, and timeline for moving forward. This will help you to stay focused and motivated.
Keep a positive mindset: Remember that setbacks are a normal part of the learning process and that you have the skills and resilience to overcome them. Keep a positive mindset and focus on the opportunities for growth and improvement.
Remember, falling at the final hurdle does not mean the end of your academic or professional journey. With persistence, hard work, and support, you can overcome this setback and achieve your goals.
Thanks for the reply and your advice, apologies it's taken so long to reply.
I've had opportunity to speak to my supervisor about the outcome. He reckons the reason for the downgrade was a combination of the standard of corrections and my performance during the viva. He said that had I been able to have a more in-depth and knowledgable conversation about the subject area more broadly, that would've gone someway to allaying my examiners' fears. I disagree because I got the distinct impression that the outcome would've been the same regardless of how the viva went; perhaps it would've been a three month extension rather than a downgrade, but we'll never know. As my PhD is in a more technical subject from my undergraduate and master's degrees, then it was always going to be a challenge to convincingly write and defend my thesis. I feel that if they (my supervisor and internal examiner) anticipated significant difficulties for me, then it would've been kinder to tell me to go for an MPhil or MSc rather than allowing it drag on for so much longer; after all, progress is assessed every 6 months.
Returning to my recent meeting with my supervisor, he said I could likely get a three month extension if I fight hard enough and he'd be happy for me to do so. He does recommend potentially setting my thesis aside, accepting the MPhil, and moving on. Part of me feels this may be the right thing to do as I have a job and career lined up that won't be negatively affected by not having a PhD at this stage. The other part of me won't accept that I'll leave with an MPhil after 5 years of work, for something I worked so hard for year after interminable year. My university does say that one potential outcome of the appeals process is that my thesis may be reassessed on a 'as first submission' basis. I'm not sure whether this means I would be subject to another viva and run the risk of an outright fail or a lower award (MSc) and forfeit the MPhil from the first assessment, this is something I need to clarify.
I mentioned to my supervisor that I know I have a PhD in me and that I'll likely try again in a few years. He agreed and recommended I take a few years to dive into my job and apply for a PhD again, in a less technical area, if it's something I want to do. He also said he'd write me a good and explanatory reference for any future supervisors. If I antagonise everything too much now, this is something I may lose.
Anyway, I'm meeting a union representative later this week, so hopefully I'll be able to explore my options more thoroughly with him.
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