The Sham Ph.D.

The experiences I share in this post will be an eye-opener for many readers. Anyone who has been a university professor for more than a few years, on the other hand, probably won’t be too surprised. In fact, I’ll bet some experienced academics will remember having witnessed similar shenanigans from time to time during their own careers.

My main goal here, as it has been in my last few posts, is to bring to light certain realities of higher education, which might in some way help the reader become a better-informed consumer. My secondary goal is admittedly personal, and a bit cathartic. Some of the events I recount here still trouble me. The events all took place within the same academic department, within a very highly regarded university, somewhere in North America. These events make certain individuals look bad, so I will be vague about details that could easily trace a route to identifying the university, department, or any of the involved persons. I have no doubt that similar events occur from time to time at most universities, so this is not really intended as a commentary about a particular institution or group of people. All I will say is that the university in the story is not Concordia University (my employer), but that is not to say that similar events could never happen at Concordia.

The good and the bad

Over the past 20 years, I have attended dozens of Ph.D. defenses, either as a member of the doctoral candidate’s examination committee, or as a member of the audience. I have seen a great range of quality, which is not surprising. Of course, some people are really great and truly impressive, whereas others are not quite as good, but still deserving of the doctoral degree. These two categories of deserving individuals make up a vast majority of doctoral candidates.

It may seem incredible, but the truth is, if you want a Ph.D. from an accredited university, you might not have to earn it the ‘old-fashioned’ way… you know, the way people used to earn doctorate degrees from any respectable university — by doing original research, making a contribution to knowledge, and demonstrating that one is somewhat expert, or at least highly knowledgeable, within some particular domain. Today, that hard work and established competence is no longer absolutely necessary in all circumstances. Of course, most Ph.D.s are still obtained in the traditional and honorable way. But, if you automatically assume that someone with a Ph.D. from a high-profile university must have earned it on the basis of merit, you are mistaken. A person can get a Ph.D. from even the most highly regarded universities despite being only mediocre, even if they are utterly incompetent and worse than mediocre. It does not happen often, but it does happen.

Fast-track to a Ph.D.

Believe it or not, some people have actually managed to obtain a Ph.D. simply by annoying or aggravating their graduate supervisors so much that the latter wants to get rid of the student as quickly as possible. Luckily, it’s difficult to kick someone out of graduate school just because that person has some disagreeable aspects to the their character or behavior. Understandably, some faculty members will take a prudent approach to such an uncomfortable situation and do what they can to facilitate the student’s completion of the Ph.D. program.

In most Ph.D. programs, the final critical step toward completion occurs when the student’s examination committee approves the quality and quantity of the candidate’s research, and the quality of the written dissertation. If it all passes muster, the candidate will get the doctoral degree.

Most of the time, when a faculty member wants to hasten the graduation of one of his or her Ph.D. students, this is at least partly accomplished by accepting some minor compromises in terms of the standard expectations. For example, maybe that one last experiment or chapter that was planned is not really needed for an acceptable dissertation. I don’t think it’s a problem, in most cases, when a doctoral student’s supervisor orchestrates these types of omissions, as long as there is input from the other faculty members on the student’s Ph.D. committee. It might not seem fair to all the other doctoral students who will be held up to the normal standard expectations, but what usually happens is that the unfairness or inequity, if we want to call it that, is somewhat corrected when the person becomes an ex-student and finally joins the workforce. By that, I mean that most employers who have to hire people with Ph.D.s look far beyond whether or not a job applicant has the academic credentials. They know that just because someone has the necessary degree for the job that does not mean the person can do the job. When applying for jobs in one’s field, recent recipients of a doctorate will still have to furnish references and letters of recommendations, a CV, and there may be interviews. As part of the vetting process, the mediocre and the posers are quickly discovered and eliminated from consideration.

And, now… the ugly

Now it’s time to tell the story about the events that compelled me to write on the present topic. They took place at a university that turns out a large number of excellent scholars, researchers, and professionals, each year. But, I know that they also recently awarded a Ph.D. to someone did not deserve one. I know this because I was an external member of that person’s examination committee, and I was, therefore, a first-hand witness to several demonstrations of ineptness. (‘external’ denotes from a different university)

In preparation for the oral defense, I read this person’s doctoral dissertation. It was very short, which was the only good thing about it. It was also terrible in many ways. The literature review was cursory and shallow. The chapters that described the candidates’ experiments were poorly organized, and the whole thing fit together like a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s missing 80 pieces. The conclusions the candidate drew from the meager empirical results were not consistent with the existing literature, and they weren’t even very consistent with the student’s own data. I could go on and on about how bad this Ph.D. dissertation was, but let’s just say that when I arrived for the oral defense, the first thing I did was approach the student’s Ph.D. supervisor and asked, “What’s going on?” He knew immediately what I was talking about.

It took him only about a minute to explain, quietly but loud enough for the other committee members to hear, that he had no respect for the student, that the student was a liar, the student refused to follow any of the supervisor’s advice, and the student really didn’t know what he/she was talking about most of the time when it came to his/her research topic. Early on, the supervisor had tried to work closely with the student, but they had some sort of falling-out. He succinctly explained that he just want to get rid of this student.

I looked at the other faculty members from the student’s department who were on the committee, looking for any sign that they were concerned about the quality of the student’s work, like I was. Both of them are people I have known and respected for many years, and who have been at this business of training graduate students for longer than me. They both looked down, slightly slouching in a posture that resembled one of guilt or shame. Their subtle body language signaled to me that they knew what I was talking about, but they were not going to make it a big issue, and they seemed to be hoping that I would not do so, either. Maybe I was reading a lot into their subdued responses, but this was how I read them. There were also two other faculty members from the candidate’s university who were from different departments. They were a bit fidgety, but otherwise they just gazed around the room, generally avoiding eye contact with other people on the committee. After a few minutes, the Chair of the committee began the proceedings.

The candidate’s oral presentation of his/her work was awful, as confused and confusing as the dissertation. Could not answer any of the moderately challenging questions asked by the committee, and often responded as though he/she didn’t understand the question. When the candidate’s supervisor asked questions, he spoke tersely and used language that clearly displayed his overall dissatisfaction with the student, the student’s judgment, the research, and the dissertation. When all the painful public discourse was finally over, the candidate left the room so the committee could convene in private to discuss the dissertation and oral defense. The major task for the committee, at this point, is to come to some decision regarding whether it was all passable; that is to say, basically deciding whether the candidate should get the Ph.D., or not.

Remarkably, all the committee members from the candidate’s university basically said something like, “It was not good, but it was good enough.” But, I suspected that none of them really believed it; I sure didn’t. I expressed my misgivings, but I decided to leave it to the committee members from he candidate’s university to decide what judgment should be rendered. Remember, I was the external examiner. So, I was feeling somewhat like a guest, and it didn’t feel my place to be calling out these respected peers of mine for what I perceived was an unfolding lapse of integrity. I was not going to cause any fuss that would make it even harder for them to live with the decision.

I headed off homeward, feeling bad about the way things turned out. I kept thinking about the injustice of it all, considering that several other students in the same department will also get a Ph.D. this year, but they all will have earned it. I was upset with the faculty member who had been this student’s graduate supervisor. I felt he took an easy way out of an important commitment. I thought that he should have done what most faculty members would do and just put up with the annoying student until he or she completed the program in an acceptable manner. I believe he put the others members of the committee up to the idea of just passing this student through. I think the other committee members went along with a bit of reluctance, but they did go along, so I was disappointed that they were such an easy sell.  But, most of all, I felt guilty for going along with it, too. After a few hours of ruminating, I decided to put it behind me, and promised myself that I would never again agree to be a committee member for a doctoral student being supervised by this particular faculty member.

A few months later…

It didn’t take long before I was again asked if I would be an external committee for one of this faculty member’s doctoral students. The administrative staff member who contacted me is so nice and pleasant, that I didn’t think to reply, “No thanks,” to the request. When a copy of the student’s dissertation arrived in my mailbox a few days later, I remembered my previous vow never to do this again, but it was too late. Fortunately, this one turned out to be a very good Ph.D. dissertation! Well written and scholarly. The research behind it was ample, and it was solid work. I could tell right away that this person was not an imposter like the last one. In fact, he seemed like a really good researcher and a good analytical and critical thinker.

The day of the oral defense arrived and the whole process went the way things are expected to go — he gave an excellent presentation and handled all the questions very well. It felt good to know that this guy was getting a Ph.D., because he deserved it. And his impressive performance served up a little bit of redemption for the faculty member who supervised his graduate work. Not much, but still a bit, at least in my opinion.

Real Ph.D. versus Sham Ph.D.

Although it was a relief that the second Ph.D. in this story was all very good, it did not correct any of the inappropriateness about the first one. The only thing it changed for me was that I now had some reassurance that this faculty member/graduate supervisor could properly supervise and mentor a doctoral student. It could be argued, on the other hand, that this student made his supervisor look good.

One general message to be taken from this story is that many aspects of higher education are not as standardized as one might expect. I think most people who do not know the two new Ph.D.s in this story personally would view them both with the same high regard, just from knowing that each of them recently earned a Ph.D. from the same prestigious university, and in the same field of study. Without knowing anything more about them than the academic credentials they possess, it would be natural to assume that both of them have exceptional abilities and aptitudes, skills and knowledge, and that they are both now qualified for certain occupations that require a Ph.D. But, these things are really only true about one of them, and none of them seem to be true about the other.

You can’t tell who has a sham Ph.D. until you talk to that person a bit, and even then, anyone who is not an expert in the same field of study will be unlikely to detect the fakery. Someone who has a sham Ph.D. might impress friends, relatives, and neighbors by virtue of having been awarded something as distinguished as a doctoral degree. Importantly, however, it all gets evened out in the job market and over the years as a career develops, … or fails to develop. A sham Ph.D. might come easy, but it doesn’t take anyone far.

Do you have questions or comments about anything mentioned in this article? Please consider sharing them in the comment section. I will try to answer any appropriate questions. Alternatively, if you are interested in communicating directly with me to receive personalized guidance and advice on any aspect of your educational or career planning, you might consider using my consultation services. We can cover a lot of ground in 30 minutes!



  1. Very interesting. So that ‘sham Ph.D’ student convinced a bevy of experts in their field to award them the highest possible academic award? I am prone to think that just the same way they were able to get a Ph.D is the same way they will be able to succeed in the future. They will be just fine. Who reads dissertations after they are done anyway?


    1. I don’t know how things have turned out for him since he got the PhD, as I haven’t followed him. If he is experiencing career success today, it might even be because he is truly capable. Although the story of the sham PhD may give the impression that he was incompetent, this isn’t really the main message. In my opinion, the student’s dissertation was not up to standards, and it was evident from his presentation and his problems answering questions that he wasn’t ready. But he may have been capable of eventually earning a PhD on the merits of his work. Eventually. The real villain in the story is the student’s supervisor, who successfully pushed the student through despite that he wasn’t ready yet, in order to get rid of him. The minor villains include the rest of his committee, as no one objected to what was happening. I was actually one of the minor villains, too, because I didn’t speak my mind at the time, and just sort of went along with what was happening. – Dave


  2. I saw this after my prelim and it is food for thought. I don’t want to end up with a sham PhD, but I am also worried about how not to. My supervisor and I don’t get along well, which led to a lot of conflict last year. I thought we were over it but now I am not so sure. I passed the prelim and then was told that my performance was subpar. I feel like the feedback I got makes me into the problematic student who will be pushed along and out with a degree. It is hard because I am older, so a lot of supervisors have difficulty with older students. Since it is not an equal relationship, I perceive that our difficulties make me perceived as the “difficult” one.

    I want to get a PhD that opens doors in the field, but am beginning to be aware that my supervisor will probably not help me open those doors. If my research and work is problematic, I welcome constructive criticism that can help me meet the mark. A paper under review got this kind of constructive criticism, it is easy to use it to make improvements. My supervisor doesn’t do constructive criticism well, or perhaps we just have very bad chemistry at this point. My supervisor seems to need to be authoritarian and put me down instead of working with what I have and do. But no one else in my department does similar work, so switching would mean drastically changing my research topic and field. It is depressing.

    I don’t see things the exact same way you do, since you say the market will sort things out. I think that in a sense, I am on my own. I can’t trust that I will get the right guidance from my supervisor to do well. Instead I have to seek guidance from others and opportunities, and do the best work I can. My supervisor’s dislike for me does not determine my work or potential, and if we are not able to work well together it is unfortunate, but I don’t have all the leverage here. People will be able to read my dissertation, hear me speak, read my papers, and decide if I can be a good colleague or have enough potential to perform. I just have to deal with the fact that without guidance from my supervisor, I may not be able to improve enough to be that strong candidate. The sham person you mention also has to speak about their research, and people may see through that just as you did.

    I did find that my university has some resources available to students through the graduate school. These are not advertised in any way that I have seen. I hope other students who are dealing with advisor issues will not be silent, but will speak to many people about the issues so that they can try to find a solution. I don’t know what will happen in my case, but many people struggle with these relationships. In the end, we are all trying to keep improving. A supervisor’s assessment of a student is not always the case. I have seen people around me be put down by their supervisors and then go on to be academics more successful than their supervisors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I once had professors back-to-back emotionally abuse me and take advantage of my meekness and this ultimately lead me to tentatively cease my former plans in continuing in academia. I never asked them for letters in fear of being rejected from them, but in hindsight I could have done better. If I were you I would open an honest dialogue with your supervisor about the kind of career support you can expect from him/her. If you don’t judge your supervisor and be sincere about your concern, then I am hopeful for you that you can at least get a decent closure in the matter.

      But if you end up not getting the support that you think you need, you are just going to have to accept it and think of other ways of continuing. You don’t need to switch careers like I did, but I would network with people and send people emails to look for opportunities. I think the best attitude to have in this scenario is to be positive that you can always find something if you try hard enough. You might have hit a small bump in your career path but it is nothing that you can’t recover from.

      As for switching research field, I don’t know what you are working on, but I am of the belief that working in different fields (presumably of the same discipline) is actually not as bad as people make it sound to be. Sure, you might not get to use the expertise that you spent years building in your previous field of research, but you get to experience the fun of learning something new. I sort of have this jack-of-all-trades mentality and derives joy from being good at multiple things. This mentality also helped me see new career and business opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered had I stayed focused in one field. I am not saying that you should change field, but I wouldn’t consider it a bad thing and feel depressed about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Seriously, almost no one in industry cares the quality of the dissertation and research work. The only thing tust counts ist whether the applicant has the doctoral degree or not. Personally, I regard the whole PhD thing as what it is – the student offers time and his workforce at the expense of temporary income sacrifice for getting the two letters from the university. In most cases, supervisors are only 10% as competent as they think, especially at leadership issues and didactic skill. Even their experience in their area of research tends to be lower than the one of a practicioner although academia-ians are always good at criticizing destructively others work. Or hindering their PhD students in their own career or pursuing their own ideas.

    I am glad when I have handed in my own dissertation and leave the ivory tower of crackpottery and return to industry. To anticipate one question – my motivation is spite for academia.

    To connect to the topic – If the student handed in a bad Dissertation, most likely the supervisor did a bad job at training the student and in particular has No leadership skills. Otherwise IT cannot be explained why He has given suggestions in a way that could not be implemented by the student. If pegorative questions are asked at the defense, I would view it as a bad sign – ultimately the supervisor plus commitee have failed the training of a research novice.

    From the above perspective IT can be seen that the situation of the OP can be re- Interpreted differently as well. Before blaming all in the student, i’d recommend supervisors to ask first how they could do a good job themselves. Nastily, self-reflection is just expected from everyone except oneself. Following Hegel, the solution will lie in between of the extremes described in the OP and above and certainly depend on individual factors as well.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Who said anything about the student publishing 3 papers? This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the article!
      But, let’s suppose he was first author on 3 published papers — that would not necessarily mean he is capable of doing good independent research. Authorship conventions vary somewhat from one discipline to another, and nowadays, in neuroscience and some other STEM disciplines, it is common for PIs (Principal Investigators) to put their name last in the list of authors, and to put a student as first author. There is no rule about this, but it has become normal practice over the past couple of decades. Often, a published paper is written entirely by the PI, and students are more likely to have been the ones collecting the data. As a result of this common type of arrangement, the first author on a published paper is most often a student, and the last author listed is usually the PI, even though the PI is usually the one whose ideas were behind the study, and who designed the experiments, and who did most of the writing, and dealt with peer reviewers comments, etc. In many instances, the students who are first authors did little more than follow instructions from their graduate supervisor, the PI, and collected the necessary data. Of course, much time, effort, and dedication can be involved in running an experiment, collecting and analyzing the data, so the students are certainly playing indispensable roles in getting the work done. But this doesn’t mean all students listed as co-authors on a paper have any deep insights to how the findings fit with the existing literature, or the theoretical significance, implications, etc. To put in in more plain terms, there are many published journal articles on which a student is listed as first author due to this being a contemporary norm in academic research circles, and not necessarily because the student is strong or capable of being an independent researcher. A Ph.D. is supposed to indicate that the degree-holder is capable of independent and meaningful research. I don’t believe the student in the Sham PhD story demonstrated this capability. – Dave Mumby


  4. Try a program where the instructors do not care. I spent three years, in a department where instructors rarely gave back students graded assignment and or feedback. There was one instructor that would no show, and or cancel 40% of the course. When addressed she replied with ‘I am busy”. 80% of their PhD students could not pass their comprehensive exam, but somehow everyone would never be ? and left the program. Its too bad when the program takes students money, string you along with low standards then only used ‘standards’ when taking the exam.? Setting students up for failure should be grounds for tuition reimbursement!!!! paying 3000 per course, to receive substandard instruction and no feedback? My mistake was believing the program was designed for student success, assumed myself 50k into debt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Angel, I understand your frustration. The type of experiences you describe are all too common. There are a lot of professors who don’t really care what happens with their students. Not all professors are like that, of course, but in some academic departments there are enough of them that they end up establishing and perpetuating a culture of arrogance and pseudo-greatness. New young hot-shot professor arrives and quickly finds that to fit in it is necessary to adopt similar behaviours and attitudes, and soon these people who were grad students themselves only a few years ago are on the road to becoming ultra-arrogant and pseudo-great, themselves. These people are deluded about the importance and the extent of their contributions to knowledge, and many of them complain frequently about having to deal with students. This is the modern day “great researcher”. Usually an arrogant asshole, often a lousy scientist, but always fantastic managers of their reputations as “top” researchers. Treating students as unimportant and a nuisance helps support their delusions about themselves. Students who are thinking of graduate school need to know who they are signing up to work with before they decide to accept an offer of admittance to any graduate program in which they will be locked into having a particular individual as their graduate supervisor – Dave Mumby


  5. I think a lot of academic supervisors are getting the idea that because a student is disrespectful or incompetent during the PhD program they have the right to put the students down in front of other people and talk behind the student’s back about the student’s potentially dismal career. What they don’t realize is that they might have contributed to the student’s inadequate performance or personality by being disrespectful back to the student. We all have this notion that all students in a PhD program are competent people who can take on and execute projects on their own, but the reality is support from their co-workers is just as crucial for their success, if not more. By labelling the PhD student as incompetent and avoiding to help him, they are effectively depleting one of the most important resources that the student needs to be successful. I believe that moralistic supervisors should at least give an honest effort towards helping the student, which is the reason why I felt a little taken aback towards the supervisor discussed in this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not agree more. If the candidate is not aware of what “right” looks like, how can they be expected to replicate it? Public (and otherwise) castigation only signals that something IS wrong, but not WHAT is wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This article points out the critical role of dissertation committee members, both internal and external, who uphold academic standards. Several failings occurred here, but the two most prominent are that the student was said to be a liar, yet was not charged with Honor Code violations or otherwise held accountable; and the dissertation committee members shirked their responsibility to uphold academic integrity. I think it points out that, unsurprisingly, bad behavior leads to a bad result.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have seen many candidates who do no research but just do work assigned by supervisor, they got the PhD , a good relation with supervisor and good recommendation letters……but a really hard working researcher got into frequent arguments with supervisor, supervisor knowingly played politics to take his research results and give it to his pet students, and went about telling everyone how the guy who actually did research work is bad in research and has no contribution etc…………. supervisors are not Holy people..there are lots of bad cheating supervisors in this world……I feel sorry for the hard working researcher……
    ….I wish my friend will get a better life in future if somehow he gets PhD ………( a bad thesis or research work can be a ploy by the supervisor to make the student look bad)……… just my thought though.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I found this blog in a moment of disgust with a new colleague. A recent hire, this individual impressed our company head with their academic credentials and was given responsibilities assumed to be a a level suitable to their ability.

    The situation is rapidly deteriorating! This individual is not living up to their credentials. However, despite being in the public sector, they are not going to be fired because they have already been assigned to projects and it would disturb our customers to change personnel.

    We can’t lose bad, nor can we afford to lose business, nor do we wish to alienate the customer.

    So what to do?

    The work that rightfully should go to this person is being internally “ghosted”. By whom? By those of us without advanced credentials who merely happen to be competent at our jobs.

    Ironically, the customers require that the work be handed them by the PhD! And when materials come their way directly from any other source, they ask, “Did X approve this? Shouldn’t this come through them?

    The situation now applies across several projects and the individual, oblivious to the wreckage caused, is looking for additional projects to participate in…spreading the disaster.

    Meanwhile, the work is being performed by others on top of work they already are assigned.

    It will take the better part of a year to get this person off our books, assuming we keep their fingers out of other projects in the interim. Given the situation and HR sensitivities a future reference will not reflect the difficulty and this person will be sent on to the next firm that we cannot warn.

    My point is this, do not give unqualified candidates degrees! If they cannot think, reason, write coherently, organize thoughts, plan, and have no subject specific abilities….worse, have nothing original to add…do not give them the credential!

    It is a mistake to believe that the non-academic world will sort them out in a hurry, we can’t respond fast enough and our ability to give truthful references is limited by the fear of legal action.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am a PhD candidate in electrical engineering at a top 50 university in the USA. I found this article today after my PhD Research Proposal was rejected by my thesis committee, and I was advised to do more work and then propose again. I have been in grad school for over 8 years now. After my proposal was rejected today I was very disheartened. I am not a native English speaker FYI.
    Anyways, I find this blog post by Dr. Mumby naive and condescending. I agree with Bobby when he says “One mistake that a lot of both experienced or “wise” people and new grads make is assume that if someone gets a degree illegitimately, or sham-like, that they will be unsuccessful and that yes they will finally get their bad karma when they get in the corporate world or academia and get weeded out. That is for the laymen to believe! If we look at many current cultures today, people who have bad intentions or cheat are constantly promoted. Narcissistic personalities, and in new terms called almost psychopathic or corporate psychopaths, typically take on many leadership roles.”
    I do agree that many undeserving students get PhDs but whether they will be successful in life or not is independent of that. I have seen students who are charming, confident, and good speakers graduate much sooner than those nerdy geeky looking ones and really smart ones but with timid personalities. In today’s world it all comes down to how you market yourself, that’s what really matters.
    There are a large number of PhD students in USA today. There are several journals with various impact factors, almost anything and everything is publishable in some journal. There are only a few professors who actually care about science. It’s a rat race for grants and everybody is busy marketing themselves, it’s no longer about science except in a handful of cases.
    I am also not sure how you label a certain PhD as sham. As a graduate student in engineering at a top 50 university, I can tell you that graduate school is full of highly pretentious and condescending people, I mean majority of these people – both students and faculty are so full of themselves that sometimes I am shocked. Also it’s in graduate school’s culture to put down each others research. In happy hours all the talks among graduate students and faculty are behind the back putting down of some other faculty or some other student’s work and calling it “sham”. Every professor and his graduate students think the work of other professors and their graduate students is “sham”. I have realized that labeling someone’s work as sham is more subjective than objective.
    And as it has been pointed out by many, in several cases the advisers are not interested. My adviser has little interest in me and my work, I have had to push him and push him in all these years to have meetings and guide my research. My research is modeling, the models that I worked on were suggested by my adviser, I did as he said, and today the committee was not happy with the modeling work, they said my models were too simple and making too many assumptions. I was very disappointed, because I had assumed that as I was doing exactly what my adviser had suggested that I would be okay, I could have done more realistic modeling but my adviser prefers that I do exactly as he says so I did what he said and committee was not impressed. My adviser is very well known and very respected in the department, he is a tenured professor (and has been for a very very long time). So even though I did as he said (in my research), I am sure that some members of the committee thought that I was undeserving and that if I do get a PhD it would be a “sham”.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have never witnessed any retained in a graduate student program who deserved to be exclude due to poor academic scholarship. While I agree with the rarity of your observations and that some student had been granted masters degrees when they didn’t so a high enough level of scholarship to continue, there are just too many ways eliminate a candidate without granting the PhD to someone unworthy of it. Hundreds of course credits hours and evaluation by other faculty and teachers are involved before even reaching the point at which your ability to conduct independent research is being certified. Your article describes are rare, aberrant yet unimportant phenom that occurs in our education system. Graduate study can be but serious and dangerous; especially in chemistry. One of my brightest students loss to fingers before his defence and was not shown any favor.


  11. I think some people take degrees with too much weight, they should only be taken with a grain of salt. Intelligence is an extremely difficult thing to categorize, and can go so deep, that we are unintelligent because we often jump to conclusions about things, make blanket statements, and fail to recognize why someone different or with what appears to be a lower IQ, really is very talented in their own way. I think of a Ph.D. as being a prerequisite to being a faculty at a university. If somebody has a bad thesis, so what!!!! Some of the worlds most famous scientists I’m sure had questionable manuscripts, figures, results and theses topics. Think about how the world works, lots of the folks that do stuff different, are the ones that make all the money. Or in other basic corporate scenarios, the ones with the low grades in school or talent become the manager. Maybe it takes a while for a student to get where they want to go, just like everybody else in the world. Maybe the thesis / lab research topics available were boring. As long as that person is allowed to graduate, they have the chance to continue on as they mature, as every individual matures at different rates. Think about people in the 1800s and early 1900s, some did great things by age 16, coming to the U.S. alone, and maturing quickly, maybe starting their own businesses. The way our system is moving, is that people are maturing later. I would say as long as there is some ounce of merit in the work done, passion shown, I think they are worthy of the degree. So what, somebody does something great at 22, so what another guy has a terrible thesis, maybe by 32 or 40 he will be a totally different person, after being able to move where he wants to go. Maybe that person will leave science forever, join a hedge fund, and find they are good at that, then they feel happy and donate a lot of money to the department, even though deep down “the teacher mentality” is kicking in and saying, “that guy is an idiot!” People are different, there are introverted leaders and extroverted leaders, lab manager type professors / fund raisers and professors that are doers. Its funny, but sometimes you see those really talented researchers do something unrelated to science, then the guy who started out low just kept going with his slow rise all through his life, even though his Ph.D. wouldn’t have been given “honor” at the bachelor level. Maybe he even had his girlfriend do the math in it.


  12. What about a PhD student who has NO guidance from his supervisor and instead of research, the student performs like a technician to save money?

    What about a research that was not the student’s idea in the first place?

    I am talking of myself and I hate my supervisor cause he does not supervise me! How to handle it?


  13. Dear Prof. Mumby

    I am a PhD student in my final year. I think your disdain for the student is uncalled for because the poor quality of a student’s work is the responsibility of the supervisor NOT the student. Why?

    I think it is wrong to expect that a “student” (who is learning how to become a researcher) should present a PhD degree equivalent to someone already expert in the field. Good academics are not born, they are trained.

    The only reason “Students” are able to raise the standard of their dissertation is primarily related to the feedback of the supervisor. When a supervisor does not reply to emails and does not give feedback on chapters for six months is the reason a student’s work is not up to standard.

    If a supervisor did his job, and promptly gave feedback, the student would have the time to fix the problems that his supervisor pointed out, which will improve the standard of his work.

    In my case, I had a very very shitty supervisor. I would send him a chapter, he would not respond. I would send him the second chapter, he would not respond. After sending him the third chapter, I would get an email from his holiness “the supervisor” informing me to stop sending chapters because he is not intending to read any of them until five months from now.

    Considering that I was paying to LEARN how to develop as a researcher, this was not acceptable. I contacted my department requesting to change my supervisor. His holiness the supervisor defended himself by claiming that I was the problem, and that I was not following his advice. When this reached me, I contacted the administration and I forwarded my correspondence with supervisor to the administration to demonstrate how he refused to read my work and provide me with feedback.

    I changed my supervisor. (May he rot in hell.) The new supervisor would return my chapters within two weeks with feedback and recommendations. I learned more in the last year with my new supervisor than I did with my old supervisor for the last three years. In the last year, my dissertation improved significantly because I was getting feedback.

    Dear Prof. Mumby

    You will not find a PhD student who is not willing to do what his supervisor recommends. When a supervisor accuses a student of not listening to his advice, KNOW that the supervisor is trying to hide his own negligence. It is expected that a student will not be able to write a good PhD without feedback because he is after all a ‘student’ who the supervisor is supposed to TEACH the student how to develop as a researcher.

    So blame the supervisor not the student.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your personal story is familiar, as I have known many people who had the same type of awful experience with an incompetent supervisor. And, if you read more carefully, you will see that I am indeed blaming the supervisor for some of the shortcomings displayed by the student in my story. The Sham Ph.D. isn’t so much about having disdain for the student in my story; it’s about my disdain for how the supervisor was able to shirk his responsibilities and then deal with a student he didn’t like by putting him on a fast-track to leave the lab by graduating prematurely. The Sham Ph.D. story is about my disdain for weak-kneed professors who lack the courage to stand up and defend standards of scholarship and display integrity for the sake of the academy. It’s also a confession of sorts, as I didn’t step up and cross my colleagues that day even though it might have been the best thing to do. I don’t have any disdain for the student in my story. My description of his work as being poor is just my objective analysis of that work, based on what I read and heard the student present. At no point have i blamed the student for anything. That would not be in line with any of the general points I am trying to make with this story.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I understand what you’re saying, and if this is true it’s unfortunate. But posts like these are what is undercutting the credibility of PhD’s around the nation. If the research sucked then it is the advisor’s job to guide that student and hold them to standard until it doesn’t.
    It seems that there are flaws in many systems, and since a knowledge based career can be so subjective to changes in the field, etc it’s even easier to find them in higher education.
    Next time it might be a wiser choice to address these problems to the people on the committee instead of giving the internet more fodder on why higher education degrees are uneccessary and useless.


  15. Dear Prof. Mumby,

    I believe you may have arrived at some illogical conclusions here regarding your experience as an outside examiner reading a poor thesis, then attending an equally poor closed defense.

    It could be that the dissertation is poorly written because the student is a non-native English speaker. His or her research adviser and or committee should have provided feedback to the candidate, however, to make improvements. Regarding the poor defense, I’m sure all of us can understand the immense pressure and intimidation surrounding the process. Just as some are not good at public speaking, others, too, may fail to defend well. That alone, however, does not mean one’s work is undeserving of a Ph.D. or somehow a “sham”.

    Moreover, how could it be that a paid graduate student, on a teaching or research stipend, could “bother” (bully) a tenured professor into granting an undeserved degree? I think most of us could agree that the bullying occurs from the other side. I, myself, have seen Ph.D. candidates dismissed from University at late stage (the dreaded, “All But Thesis”), simply to vanish into the world of the working, via whatever mechanism possible. What i have never seen, however, is any respectable university pass an undeserving student in a class, far less grant an undeserving degree, of any kind, whatsoever.

    In any case, I have raised this blog article as a topic of debate in our community, Computational Chemistry Group, a forum on LinkedIn. We are a lively bunch of approximately 4,000 members. I am a manager there.



    1. That’s quite gratifying to know that you and other members of your group may be discussing my experiences and the thoughts I conveyed in that article. I’ll try to clarify a few things about the particular Ph.D. candidate and the oral defense I described in the article. I think you’ll see that my conclusions aren’t illogical. It’s just that I hadn’t provided every contextual detail in my original article.

      So, here goes my attempt to provide a bit more context in response to your particular comments…

      First, it wasn’t a closed defense. It was a public defense, attended by about a dozen other graduate students. Public Ph.D. defenses are the norm in North American universities, especially within the sciences and social sciences.

      English is the student’s first language, so language issues were not the reason for his poorly-written thesis. It wasn’t actually the quality of the writing that was bad, anyway — the serious problems were mostly about inadequate content, including unsubstantiated arguments, and a lack of any kind of comprehensive review or analysis of the existing literature, or even the student’s own data.

      While it is certainly true that an oral Ph.D. defense is a highly stressful occasion for most people, and yes we can all understand how someone might get flustered and put in a bad show because of it, this was definitely not the case with the Ph.D. candidate, that day. He did not appear especially nervous, and in fact, he seemed overconfident, and maybe even a bit smug.

      As for the question of how can a grad student bully a professor into granting an easy passage to the Ph.D., it didn’t actually go like that at all. The student wasn’t a bully, although it may be the case that the supervisor is a bully (we know each other professionally, so I will not share all my frank opinions on that matter, here).
      You’ll probably notice that I express some disdain in the article for the role played by the supervisor in this “sham Ph.D.” In fact, the supervisor is primarily the one who is most responsible for it because he could have held the student to a higher standard, in accordance with academic traditions, but instead decided to facilitate the student’s attainment of the degree for the purpose of getting rid of him in the easiest way possible. In fact, the supervisor actually told me this was his reason for allowing the student to defend his dissertation. If there was any bullying, I didn’t really witness it, but the supervisor in this case is definitely not a person who get’s bullied by anyone, let alone one of his students. He is a rather assertive man and he is also quite physically intimidating. The student has a slight build, and I think the supervisor could squash him with little effort. It is only my speculation, and I point out in the original article that it is only speculation, but I suspect that the other members of the examining committee who are departmental colleagues of the supervisor might have felt intimidated enough by the supervisor that they went along with whatever the supervisor wanted when it came to this student. In other words, they might have decided it was much easier and therefore a good idea to just refrain from raising any serious objections about the dissertation, and let the student pass. The alternative to doing so would most certainly have resulted in seriously damaged working relationships among the supervisor and the other faculty members. Most people will make compromises in order to avoid creating problems with a co-worker or colleague, and I don’t blame the other faculty members on the examining committee for being partly complicit in setting the bar so low for the Ph.D. candidate in this case. After all, it was this same kind of social pressure from peers (everyone else on the examining committee) that caused me to keep my mouth shut that day, too!

      If you’re wondering why the supervisor wouldn’t have just dismissed the Ph.D. student from his lab at an earlier point in the program, or allowed him to finish with something akin to “All But Thesis”, we can’t really know for sure. But, I suspect an important factor was the supervisor knowing that he could add another “graduated Ph.D.” to his vita, and that would be of more benefit to his career than putting in all the effort necessary to bring this candidate and his work up to an appropriate standard. When it comes to getting research grants, every little demonstration of a contribution to training of other researchers helps. Also, at least here in North America, tenured university professors don’t need to be concerned about how their own actions might affect the reputation of the institution. This is because those professors neither gain nor lose by such things; they don’t affect job security or pay. (I will keep getting the same salary whether I am an excellent supervisor of graduate students, or a dismal failure at supervising them. Likewise, my pay and tenure are unaffected if the reputation of my university takes a nose dive).

      It takes a lot of time and considerable effort to teach a new researcher and scholar how to do excellent work, and some professors are only interested in managing their own careers. For this reason, the decision the supervisor in the “sham Ph.D.” article made, to push the student through the exit in the most expedient way (i.e., with a Ph.D.) was actually prudent, from his point of view. It was good for the supervisor to did it this way (just not good that he did it this way). It saved him months of hard work with this student. It also saved him having to go through a bureaucratic hassle of having the student kicked out of the program. (Here, we don’t have something equivalent to what you refer to as “All But Thesis”, at least no in most Ph.D. programs within the sciences or social sciences. The Ph.D. is only granted after a successful defence of the dissertation). I fully understand, I think, the motives of the supervisor in this case for wanting to pass the student through, even though it is in clear contrast to what we all believe a doctoral degree is supposed to denote. The supervisor should have taken one of the hard roads with this student, but he chose the easiest road, instead. One of the main problems is that there are few, if any, quality control mechanisms in most North American universities to ensure that individual faculty members and academic departments are upholding the high academic standards of the institution supposedly stands for.

      In sum, higher education is messed up in a number of ways, and I was hoping that the “sham Ph.D.” article would highlight some of them.

      Thanks for taking the time to write a comment, here. And please, feel free to share more of your thoughts.

      – Dave


      1. Dear Prof. Mumby,

        Thank you for your kind further explanations and insights
        regarding your experiences during the open defense. My thread on
        Computational Chemistry Group generated much discussion, and it was a
        thought an interesting topic for the community for all those who
        participated. Thus far, it has been one of our larger threads at the
        moment; and I am happy for the generosity of our members in this
        discussion of your blog article, “The Sham Ph.D.”

        In short, my colleagues have assured me that your original article
        contains no illogical conclusions that they can find. They have either
        heard similar accounts from people that they trust, or directly from
        research mentors at top notch Universities who admit allowing graduate
        students to defend their dissertations without truly deserving it. One
        commenter also stated that even more common than the “sham Ph.D.” is a
        sham recommendation letter. Personally, I have heard less of that. I would tend to agree with your observations, that such students accused of having “sham” Ph.D. degrees do not receive letters from their advisers.

        We discussed a number of aspects to your article. Among them were: how
        could a “sham” Ph.D. exist with the vast number of candidacy and other requirements: yearly research seminars, committee meetings, cumulative examinations, coursework, proposal for original research, publications, authorships, and even teaching duties? These requirements should surely provide sufficient evidence whether a student in question can/does operate at the Ph.D. level at various stages. I was reminded by my colleagues, as you suggest, that all can be made to be possible for the student by the power of the professor, and peer pressure within the department.

        We also discussed what the motivation would be to keep such a student
        around? There was a suggestion that the professor should like to avoid
        the “black eye” of a student who didn’t finish. I did not quite
        understand the meaning of this comment until I read your response to
        my post. I feel that I understand the issue better now: that the
        professor does benefit by the number of successful graduates he or she
        produces. I did not know this before. Thank you, Professor Mumby.

        Another commenter stated that new Ph.D.’s are often “competent crank-turners” and finds this scenario more common than what you describe in your article. That is, at the post-doctoral level, the Ph.D. cannot contribute new insights and “wrap up things into something publishable”. Of course, I completely agreed with this. I know of people who completed their Ph.D.’s, were awarded wonderful letters, and completed prestigious post-doctoral fellowships. Later, became professors, albeit, at modest four year universities, where their research is not their own. Rather, the research is continued collaboration with their original Ph.D. adviser during graduate school. No original thought or contributions to their field.

        I still have some concerns. I know a Ph.D. candidate who was accused
        by his or her peers of being a “sham” Ph.D., and was very much
        “bullied” by labmates and some other fellow graduate students. My
        heart went out to the candidate as I knew this person’s research to be
        of very high quality, and research skills to be excellent. The
        candidate’s coursework and other candidacy requirements all came along
        swimmingly, as would be the case for a typically deserving candidate. Although this person is well known for public speaking skills, I think does bow to the pressures of a closed defense, or so I hear. The issue was a personal conflict between this candidate, labmates, and even research professor, although I am at less liberty to discuss that aspect. What I can share is that I know they had a “falling out”. The student was even asked by the adviser to “drop out” of the program, and did. Other faculty, however, did not accept the resignation, and “rescued” the student by overturning an obviously erroneous late stage dismissal or resignation, depending on how one views this. In that case, the student did graduate, but the adviser did not give the student letters for research. I know that this
        candidate, now Ph.D., had wanted to become a professor as a life goal.
        Now, of course, this is impossible. The post-doctoral plans that were
        in place (and actually, it was the post-doctoral professor who invited
        the candidate for the position) were forced to be turned down, under
        threat of not graduating at all. The student did indeed graduate,
        but was “defamed” and ruined. In fact, the student’s research was
        later published (yes, the student was made an author on the paper) and
        incorporated into a major Quantum Computational Software Suite. In this case, I happen to know that the portion of the student’s research that was incorporated into this Suite initiated as the independent proposal for research, a candidacy requirement, and demonstrating this person’s capability for independent thought and function at an early stage of the Ph.D. process. Naturally, that would have grown stronger through time. The Ph.D. to which I refer is still, to this day, falsely labeled by many, though not all who truly knew this person, a “sham” Ph.D.

        This is the source of my frustration, and indeed, why I raised the
        topic in our community. How can one distinguish between those who are
        undeserving, having been allowed to “slip through the cracks”, from a truly deserving candidate who was “bullied” by labmates and his or her adviser, “defamed”, and ruined?

        I believe that all those who do graduate with Ph.D. degrees should be
        allowed to attend interviews of their own choosing, and if letters are
        required for that, then they should be made available. I believe this
        so that the Ph.D. can show their own worth.

        As you point out so aptly, Professor Mumby, the truth will come out.
        My thread is still open, and seems to flourish. I may have more to share with you later.

        Thank you for your article, and your many insights. We welcome any
        further input you may wish to share.

        Best wishes, Computational Chemistry Group Manager.


  16. One mistake that a lot of both experienced or “wise” people and new grads make is assume that if someone gets a degree illegitimately, or sham-like, that they will be unsuccessful and that yes they will finally get their bad karma when they get in the corporate world or academia and get weeded out. That is for the laymen to believe! If we look at many current cultures today, people who have bad intentions or cheat are constantly promoted. Narcissistic personalities, and in new terms called almost psychopathic or corporate psychopaths, typically take on many leadership roles. People on “Wall Street” make a lot more, even at the entry level, then senior employees in their fields. Some manager or executives may show no fear, which leads them to be promoted. Working the system to get a PhD probably helped them better in the real world. Now if someone is in academia, essentially if they have a prestigious degree, maybe they will end up at a prestigious institution, which has large, already established labs. I don’t know a whole lot about science, but I would guess that it is easier to get grant money and start and finish projects with top quality students (plus the brand name brick and motor school on the application), on average they are probably top quality, to push the work farther. Also, if that person has the personality combination, disorder, whatever you want to call it, to get a sham degree, they probably know a bit about manipulation, and thus would be excellent lab managers and probably know how to direct a large amount of students, and also would serve as the face for the lab because of their charisma, etc. I don’t know if this sham-artist had any of these traits, he or she maybe didn’t, but most cheater or rule-bordering type people I have heard of are more successful than the folks that wait for things to be handed to them, complain, or do things that don’t help them. All over America, you see top leaders in investment banking, internet businesses, etc., that have even falsified credentials and experiences. After they made it so far, they get fired from one gig, and get hired again for a position just as good if not even better with more pay with the circumstances known. Also, if you know a person who cheated in some degree or got a lame degree, that doesn’t mean that everything in that degree was needed to do what their job is. Many jobs out there that supposedly require top quality credentials, with top schools etc., really are not that hard and probably if someone with a decent IQ was trained for a while, they could be fine in the role. To the outside world people think, wow what a top person, I could never do what their doing, but what they don’t want to tell you is its not that hard.


  17. Hi I’m a final year PhD student and I was so glad I found your article because I’am worried about my own PhD! I do applied maths and I have worked hard to understand what I have been doing but the work my supervisor gives me is undergraduate level and he never asks if I understand anything and we do not discuss much our field. I’ve been mainly employed to do the computer plotting and making pretty pics for the paper so it is received well.
    I never really have to do much technical stuff which made me so bored and uninterested
    that I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore and managed to come up with my own problem to work on but when I told him about it he did’nt seem interested. This really upsets me as I wanted to do a PhD so I’am trained to do research.
    I felt so sorry for you when you said you felt compelled by the dept to past the student as
    I’ve noticed in my department myself no one wants to rock the boat when I complained
    everyone said you have papers thats great but I did’nt have to know anything to get them!
    I’ve been complaining for a year and nothing new has happened so I decided to get up and do things myself and drew up problems and sent it to other academics who seemed really interested one academic has be so helpful sending me papers and sending emails etc.
    So now what I’m going to do is just finish my nonsense PhD thesis graduate with it (even though to me it’s nothing) and then get finding to work with these other people.

    What happened to you is so completely unsurprising to me and it played out exactly how it was always going to be played out. Having a PhD means nothing to me if you know something just do it yourself titles and pieces of paper mean nothing. My PhD is just a pass to getting interviews!! 😦


    1. From a late term PhD candidate — It would be nice if professors would say these things to students directly instead of being passive aggressive about it. The entire education system often seems designed to make real meaningful feedback difficult or even impossible. Why do so many discussions about students happen behind closed doors? Right from the beginning of school, the real work happens at home (homework) and marks are assigned in an office where no students are present.

      Maybe it’s ultimately better for our fragile graduate student egos that you don’t say these things to our face.. but on a blog post? I feel worse for the student than for the authour. It may be more difficult in the short term for you to point out the shortcomings of this student, but that’s the point! I spend months preparing for these meetings, and feedback is greatly appreciated even if it is hard to hear.


  18. I finished my PhD at a top-100 university 5 years ago but I have never been happy with the whole experience. Before doing my PhD, I completed my MSc program at the same university which took me almost 3 years full-time intensive lab work and defended my thesis with a world-class supervisor and published few peered review journal articles from my results. Being good at what I was doing and love doing science, I decided to continue to a PhD program but due to the family issues (having kids and a house etc), I decided to stay at the same university with a different supervisor whom was known as an “excellent” prof and a “nice” person (my MSc supervisor went to another university). Knowing the quality of my lab work and background, the new supervisor was extremely happy to have me in her team and put me in charge of the her lab but also mentioned that she would not allow anyone with a MSc degree to stay in the PhD program more than 3 years. Since she only had one source of funding at that time, I was placed to continue working on the same topic as her other students but just after starting my second year, out of the blue she left for a 2 years research opportunity in Europe and then I realized that in fact I was “hired” to take responsibility for her lab and “supervise” the lab use by other students. She also set a 3 years goal for me to finish my PhD which technically meant that I would be finishing before she would come back. Long story short, I was rushed writing my research proposal (with minimum feedback from her), rushed doing research (she practically asked me to cut the number of experiments), could not completed a part of the proposal due to an expensive equipment failure. To make the matter worse, at the end of her two years research opportunity, she decided to accept a faculty position in Europe and asked me to end the experiment where it was and write the thesis only based on the completed experiments. She gave me 5-6 months to write the thesis but she did not give any feedback (really any feedback) on the “draft” version of thesis, arranged a date with the examiners and after a year she showed up only on my examination date. I felt that I went to the exam based on my drafts. I passed the exam but I received major corrections from the external examiner which was also an expert in that field. It took me more than 8 months to repeat some experiments at a different facility, re-write the whole thesis again (based on the comments from the external examiner) and resubmit and get tha approval from the external examiner (again with no input from my supervisor). But I have never felt good about the whole 3 years (+1 year of corrections) and have always hated my own PhD thesis and will hate it forever.

    I just wanted to say that the bad theses are not always as a result of bad students but bad profs can also cause bad theses.


  19. The big question is: how do you divorce a PhD candidate who is clearly unwilling to follow the advice of his committee in spite of his inability to write, do research or show respect to those with more experience? Do we just keep sending the proposal back to him until he either pulls up his socks or gives up?


    1. It’s a difficult situation. I think we send the proposal back until it’s good enough. If the supervisor believes the candidate just doesn’t have what it takes to ever get it right, then I think the supervisor should try to convince the candidate to discontinue the program. If the relationship between supervisor and the candidate is not good, and if the candidate distrusts the supervisor and doesn’t respect his or her opinion, then other members of the student’s committee should talk to the candidate. If the candidate is not willing to listen to frank advice from members of the committee, then the Graduate Program Director should take over. In many universities, the Faculty or School of Graduate Studies does an annual evaluation of grad students, which involves having faculty members report on their students’ performance and progress. At my university, if a student gets a bad evaluation, Graduate Studies starts to monitor the student, requiring interim progress reports. At this point, the supervisor and committee members are no longer the only one’s involved in sending “the message” to this student. Eventually, Graduate Studies will “lower the boom”. It’s not going to be pleasant, but it’s better than pushing the incapable candidate through to program to receive a sham PhD. – Dave


  20. I am now 70 years old and I was awarded the Ph.D. 38 years ago. After leaving 4 years of military service, I started out in a 5 year straight Ph.D. program. I registered for every class I could and ended up with a very broad science education without much depth (especially modern research techniques) in any area. My asigned advisor was absent for the last 4 years of my program. I had no other faculty members interested in my research or having any expertise in microbial research. I had no financial support for my research. I fabricated my equipment, stole all the supplies in the department that I could use. I even made trips to a nearby research hospital to steal supplies from their labs. I had a committee selected by the dean of my school, and composed of a Ph.D.microbiologist from a nearby university, an M.D. pathologist from a nearby hospital, the Dr.PH. director of the local public health laboratory, a Ph.D. in statistics, and a Ph.D. in ecology. I felt very depressed considering the effort I had to expend just to get to the point of actually doing any research. Unknown to me, there was a political conflict between my university and the nearby university where my microbiologist committee member was from. This member was hostile to me because of the underlying conflict and also based on his fundamentalist religious beliefs regarding evolution.

    I wrote the first draft of my dissertation without committee input and it was soundly rejected. It was not a good dissertation. The data was week, and my techniques were lacking in skill and technical sophistication. The M.D. pathologist offered to help me and gave me good advice on improving the structure of the document, suggested some cleanup experiments, as well as how to maneuver through the committee minefield.

    At my defense, the religious microbiologist objected to my data as “flawed” because God did not intend for the organisms He created (the bacteria I did my research on), to change their SDS-PAGE protein profiles. He believed a species was immutable. I was describing phase variation in outer membrane proteins and changes due to horizontal gene transfer. He refused to sign off on the dissertation IF I described my data as I had up to that point.

    The dean of my school solved the problem. He advised me to give a special copy of the dissertation to the religious microbiologist, bowing to his demands in the text, and to turn in to the Graduate School office the two required signed copies of the dissertation as I wanted it written. The rest of the committee was made aware of the situation and they agreed to the solution provided by the dean.

    I somehow got a post-doc placement in a world-class lab where I learned good technique and overcame my technical deficits. I went on to a successful academic reseach and clinical service career.


    1. ok. i think i have learned enough from the discussion and cant help drawn into it! Have completed my thesis and opting that my supervisor wud finally take the time to check it.I am very upset by the facat that though i have completed each task my supervisor does not have the clue to what exactly i have taken my research into.He never really guided me much except for giving me a topic!


      1. Your experiences are familiar to a lot of graduate students, unfortunately. Some professors are very bad graduate supervisors or advisors, whereas some others are amazingly dedicated to helping their students develop and succeed. Most are in between. Universities do not have adequate quality-control mechanisms or standards to prevent incompetent supervision or abusiveness by faculty members toward their graduate students.


        1. I think we as graduate students have to rely on luck — do we end up with an advisor who is going to invest a lot of her/his time and effort in my growth? or is she/he just going to do her own stuff? My advisor is sweet and warm, interpersonally, but not a good advisor. She was too busy getting her own tenure and completely ignored my progress in the first two years, and during this time, she was also pregnant, had a baby…I know she has life and I respect that, but I feel like I did not get enough guidance throughout graduate school years that I needed…

          And yes, I completely agree with you. The higher education does not have any quality control system in terms of advising graduate students…no incentive structure for one to invest time and energy on mentoring …It all depends on advisors’ own internal motivation and willingness, which is sometimes hard to find in even the most sweet and warm person…


  21. I lost quite a bit of respect for this university, and regard it more as a pretentious institution rather than a honorable university. Especially when they tell you that your application wasn’t really considered since your degree is from the other university and not “up to par” with theirs.


  22. I wish we had an examination process that was more like the one you describe. Especially, those features that ensure independence amongst the examiners. I only discovered recently that in Australia the candidate’s supervisor does not serve as one of the examiners. In North America, the supervisor plays a very pivotal role in the evaluation, and the supervisor is usually the person who chooses who else should be asked to serve on the committee. Understandably, many faculty members will try to make their students look good, because a student’s performances is partly a reflection of the faculty member’s ability to train and mentor new researchers. The other examiners often know each other, so if they want to, they can discuss the candidate and his or her work, before the final evaluation. There lots of opportunities for collusion when all the evaluators know each other. Like you mentioned, everyone still treats the process quite seriously most of the time. But I think it would be better to have a system like the Australian one, in which a person can evaluate a doctorate independently, without being fettered by fear of social reprisals from a colleague.


    1. What an interesting discussion. Can I just interject, though, that Australia is terribly small? There aren’t that many people working in exactly the same field, and so it’s at least not theoretically impossible that fixes and deals occur. That’ll probably be the case wherever humans are involved…


  23. I’m sure the ‘fix’ can be put in anywhere, since so much of academic life is about relationships and collegiality. I’m not going to get holier than thou, but I’d like to think this kind of scenario is a little harder to pull off in the Australian universities I’ve worked in. Our examination process is entirely ‘external’, in that the thesis is sent independently to three examiners [who don’t know who else is examining] and forms the sole basis for the final result. Admittedly these examiners could be somebody’s mates, but [just like Dave], everyone treats the process quite seriously.

    Do we get fails? Yes, we do, but only about 1%. The ‘experienced examiners are the most forgiving’ phenomenon Dave describes is definitely true. I strive mightily not to have our doctorates sent to anyone who hasn’t had a doctorate for at least five years, preferably longer, and has examined at least five theses. Otherwise, we get the syndrome known as ‘I had to suffer for my art, now it’s your turn’.


  24. Thanks for sharing your experience. It would have been easier for you to just feel bad about passing the PhD and forgetting about it, but you decided to share your experience and mistake with others.

    I am finishing up my PhD, and I am disappointed with the general quality demanded of PhD graduates. In Canada the main “weeding-out” stage at which low-caliber PhD students are booted out is the comprehensive exam. This takes place about a year after the start of a PhD, and it provides an opportunity for examiners to determine whether a candidate knows their stuff. I know one candidate who passed only because she received many MANY hours of coaching and mock exams from her supervisor; she didn’t even know that insects are animals! Dumb as a rock, but she passed with her memorized answers. She and I will have the same degree, which annoys me. With the rapid increase in numbers of PhD graduates, I question how strong the modern relationship is between getting a PhD and actually being a critical independent thinker. Too often, being capable of paying tuition seems to be one of the only critical qualifications for getting your degree.


    1. Many years ago when I was nearing completion of my Ph.D., I felt much the same way that you describe. I had much higher expectations for myself than what it turned out was actually expected by my supervisor or examinations committee. A few years later, when I became a faculty member, I was disturbed by how easy we made things for our Ph.D. candidates. As years went by, I began to lower my expectations so that they were more in line with the established culture within my department — a culture that was there long before I arrived. Inger Mewburn says it like it is: “Experienced examiners are more forgiving,…”


  25. I too was surprised that you did not want to create “a fuss”. I wonder why you did not mention something before the defense, once you had read the dissertation? This may have allowed for more time for discussion and explorations of possible solutions.

    I understand my role as an external reviewer to be precisely aimed at this sort of situation. It is meant to help ensure the integrity of the system. We need to be willing to do our jobs, even if it is tough. Otherwise, aren’t we a sham?


    1. Well, I did create a bit of a fuss. I just choose not to create an even bigger fuss. And I did, absolutely, make it clear that I thought the dissertation and the candidate’s oral defense were awful. No one on the examination committee disagreed. Instead, they actually echoed my sentiments. Like I mentioned in the commentary, they all said something along the lines of, “it’s bad, but good enough…” I think it was implicit in their words and actions, however, that what they really meant was something like, “it’s bad, and despite it not being good enough, we are willing to pass it through in order to avoid having to deal with this student any further.”
      I really like your closing comment/question — we need to do the right thing at all times, even when it’s tough, otherwise we (examinations committees) are a sham. Agreed. But the unfortunate truth is that things don’t always go the way they should. Examinations committees are not normally a sham, but the story I relate in my commentary shows that sometimes they can be.
      thank-you for the great comment.


    2. It just occurred to me that I should clarify something about how the examinations committee operates in the Ph.D. program I am referring to in my original post. There are actually two external examiners. Only one of them is required to provide a written evaluation of the candidate’s dissertation. The other one is not asked to provide a report, but instead, is asked to attend the oral defense, ask questions, and participate in the final evaluation of the candidate. I was that second external examiner, thus, I did not have a written report to write. My feedback was provided only verbally, and on the day of the oral defense (viva).
      The other external examiner, who clearly had much more work to do than I did, provided a written evaluation that made it very clear that they agreed with everyone else’s estimation that the dissertation was awful. This other external examiner also provided a few questions, which the Chair of the examination committee read to the candidate, while all of us who were present judged how well the candidate addressed those questions. The Chair had the responsibility of interpreting whether the external examiners report was bad enough to justify failing the candidate. The person who wrote that report was not present, so if he or she believed it was a not a passable dissertation, there was not really an ideal opportunity for that view to be unequivocally expressed. Keep in mind that the external examiner who wrote the detailed evaluative report was not witness to the candidate’s poor performance at the oral defense.


  26. I’m currently finalizing my PhD and I feel like I’m an impostor all the time. I feel that my research is not unique or scholary enough. Reading this article made me feel really really bad. I have worked for 4 years and realized during that time that I´m really no good in science, but what I am supposed to do? Quit and not defend, because I know that I’m no good? Or go to the defense, take the humiliation and finalize something? At the moment I feel like slitting my wrists. Thanks for ruining my day.


    1. Sorry for ruining your day. Maybe I can fix things a bit: First, in my experience, most good graduate students spend a significant amount of time worrying that they might not be good enough. Nearly everyone who gets a Ph.D. in the end deserves it. I say as much in my original post.
      One thing I never mentioned in my original commentary is that the Ph.D. candidate in that story probably never worried about whether or not the work was good enough, or whether he/she was good enough. This person was not a typical graduate student in those respects.
      If you are getting down on yourself because you have come to believe that you’re “really no good in science…” then I would suggest that you immediately seek a second opinion. Your graduate supervisor probably knows the truth, and you might discover that he or she sees more promise in you than you are able to see yourself. At the very least, your supervisor should be able to help you identify the areas in which you are performing up to par, and if there are shortcomings in your abilities or aptitudes, the supervisor should be able to tell you what they are, and give you some guidance on how to improve on any weaknesses. If your supervisor is a good mentor, then he or she will give you an honest estimate of things. Don’t leave it all to just your own imagination, or your confidence might just continue to slide without any real justification.
      If you happen to be someone who has a lousy supervisor/mentor, someone who doesn’t really care much about you beyond whatever you can do for them, then you should go talk about things with someone else on your examinations committee. If you do not yet have an examinations committee, then go talk to a faculty member who knows you and who knows at least a little about your work. Meantime, I hope you cheer can up.


  27. I read this article with a great deal of interest. I am currently working toward a doctoral degree in education. The one thing that I ponder and stress over on a daily basis is that I am doing justice to the data, and more importantly, to the people whom I represent through that data. Their voices are the real representation of my work and I am always aware of the fact that it is incumbent upon me to do the best job possible of making that true reflection heard, as best that “true” can be represented. To present a work such as that described in Dr. Mumby’s article is do do a grave disservice to the field, to the academy, and to the source of the data reported on in the work. The is a great deal of responsibility contained in the the letters of the degree, and it goes much deeper than the ink that makes the stamp on paper!


    1. I couldn’t agree more. And I also suspect that if you ponder and fret daily about the quality and integrity of your research then you are not a poser like the person in my story. I don’t think that person ever cared about doing justice to his/her data or to those other people being represented by those data. In most places, the candidate would have been kicked out of the program at some point, or just allowed to fail. I actually think that if he/she had a different supervisor, he/she would have been given the boot, or allowed to fail. The supervisor in this case is not someone who cares much about integrity; at least, this is my opinion of the supervisor from the many occasions I have spoken with him over the years. I think the supervisor is basically a bully, and that the internal examiners went along with the sham because it was the easiest way to deal with a bullying colleague. I’m not making an excuse for them, but I think this does partly account for their complicity.
      I hope that as a Ph.D. candidate yourself, you will have faith that the evaluation process works the way it is supposed to in the vast majority of cases. I hope you will have the confidence to realize that you are becoming an expert in your specific topic. When the day comes that you give your oral defense (or viva) you will probably be more of an expert on your thesis topic than anyone on your examination committee. Most people who maintain their integrity throughout the process of getting a Ph.D. will end up with a valid degree — one that denotes the kind of excellence in ability and accomplishment that we all assume is the behind every Ph.D.


  28. This sounds a bit harsh to imply that if you dont have an awesome career after a few years then you must have a ‘sham’ degree. How about the economy sucks and youre lucky if you have a job


    1. I agree, that would be harsh. But, nowhere in this commentary do I imply that someone who doesn’t have an awesome career after a few years must have a “sham” degree. I don’t believe that at all. Instead, I am saying that someone who has a sham Ph.D. will not usually be able to develop a very successful career on the basis of just having the academic credentials. Also, I have not stated, nor even implied, that someone who has earned a Ph.D. on the basis of hard work and merit will find it easy to develop their career. I agree with your point about the economy being in bad shape, and also the idea that people with jobs are fortunate, but those things are not really relevant to the message I am trying to get across in this commentary.


  29. I have been a PhD external examiner in the UK and I am really surprised by your comment “I was not going to cause any fuss that would make it even harder for them to live with the decision.” I would have thought that the role of the external was to question, and hopefully overturn, any local fixes. Surely the decision is made jointly, after the viva.


    1. Well, you’re right… the decision was made jointly after the viva. I did express my opinion that the work was substandard, and the other committee members from the candidate’s university agreed with that assessment. But, it was pretty clear that none of them wanted to deal with this candidate’s abject failure by rendering a verdict of failure. To do so would have meant that the supervisor and the internal members of the candidate’s committee would have had a lot more work to do. Since they all seemed to have disdain for this person’s character and personality, I think they wanted to avoid the extra work. I do believe that failing the candidate would have been right course to take, however, but it would not have meant any extra work for me, as external examiner. At the time, I choose not to demand a judgment of failure, and this is the main reason why the whole affair left me lingering bad feelings. I was complicit the awarding of a sham Ph.D. and it left me feeling guilty. I would not have gone along with it if if the candidate was from my university, and I realize that this is a bit of a problem because it should not matter whether its my university or another one. In retrospect, I wish I would not have gone along with the sham described in my commentary. I agree with your view that the role of the external is to question and possibly “overturn any local fixes.” My main reason for writing the commentary in the first place was to let readers know that the integrity of the evaluation process can be undermined by the self-interests of the people on the examining committee. I strongly suspect that those internal members chose a particular course of action to avoid having to deal with more unpleasantness, either from the student or the supervisor. And I am completely certain that the supervisor wanted to pass the candidate for those reasons. And in the end, I also choose to go along with the sham. For me, it wasn’t to avoid having to deal with the candidate, but instead it was to avoid the unpleasant social consequences of saying “we can’t do this” when the others wanted so clearly to do it. So, I’m making a confession of sorts. Perhaps I should have created a bigger fuss. Would I do so if a similar situation occurred in the future? Still not sure that I would, but probably.


  30. I guess it all comes down to character. I had a colleague from grad school who got the same treatment. Their thesis was undeserving of an UNDERGRADUATE, let alone a PhD candidate, but they now have the same credentials (from one of the top universities in the country) that I do. None of us in the lab (including the advisor) respected this person or their work, and they knew it. I know I never would have been satisfied with a substandard degree given the amount of work I put into it, but for some people, it’s the destination and not the journey that matters most.


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