What to do when your thesis is rejected by the examiners



I suppose I should expect students to write asking for personal help. What has surprised me however is how OFTEN I get emails from students who are upset, confused or just plain pissed off.

Mostly these students are complaining about their supervisors.

doris-day-teacher\’s-pet3The rate these emails come in varies, but I would say it averages four a week – and they come from all over the world, not from within my institution. More men write to me than women – perhaps, if my facebook page and comment threads are anything to go by, this is because women find it easier to admit their vulnerabilities in public.

I sympathise with these students and at the same time I feel frustrated on their behalf. I know many capable and even brilliant supervisors, but I also know some who are inexperienced and others who fail to recognise their style of dealing with people is a problem. I’ve heard about (but I should stress, rarely meet) supervisors who have habitual ways of doing supervision which are unhelpful, but they can’t (or won’t) change their behaviour.

As Pat Thomson pointed out recently, supervision can be hard. It’s my belief that ALL supervisors should take part in some of the professional development activities their universities offer. But it’s hard to get them to come along. Either they don’t realise these services are there, or worse, they assume that professional development would not be helpful. Sometimes they are right – who hasn’t sat through a boring ‘professional development’ workshop where someone tells you a whole bunch of stuff you know already, and treats you like you are stupid? These workshops are rare in my experience, but you only have to go to one to be put off the genre.

In a minority of cases I suspect the supervisors in question have been getting away with it for so long now they honestly think the way they are doing things is fine and students who have a problem with it are the limpers in the pack who should just leave. Those supervisors are wrong: if you can get INTO a PhD, you should be able to graduate from one.

But I digress.

I’m not complaining about these emails mind – they are unique and valuable insights into the PhD experience and thus grist for my mill. I try my best to give considered and thoughtful responses, but this takes time. I’m a busy person, so often these cries for help lie at the bottom of my inbox for ages until I can find time respond properly. The longer these emails stay there, the more guilty I feel because of the time and effort the person has spent writing it and how distressed they are feeling. Eventually I have to force myself to take what Katherine Firth calls ‘the electronic walk of shame’ to the bottom of my inbox and clear them all out.

Inevitably when I do this, like just now, I emerge really cheesed off.

It’s just occurred to me that I write essentially the same 10 or so emails, with minor variations. The problems of student / supervisor relationships, while diverse, do tend to fall along some familiar lines.

In a recent post responding to the paper Prof Pat Thomson and I wrote on ‘Why do academics blog?’, John Canning remarked that he blogs, in part as an aide memoire. Call me thick, but I only just realised that this is a useful way to think about something I do already. Many of my blog posts end up being hand outs in my workshops because I’ve recorded my thoughts on a particular problem. My email responses, while personalised, touch on common issues. So from now on, as I can, I am going to blog my responses to letters I get about supervision, so that I can point students at the relevant post as part of my response. The advantage of doing this is bringing more brains to bear on the issue – so I’m hoping you will chip in on the comments.

This particular one concerns poor supervision and failure of process, which led to a student being asked to resubmit their thesis. I’ve slightly edited it to make sure the student cannot be identified. It’s from a student in the creative arts area, but I think there’s lessons here for students or supervisors alike.

Dear Dr Inger

It was a pleasure attending your lecture some time ago at [a University in Australia]. I’m one of the few PhD candidates in my department who is doing practice based thesis. I’ve made pieces for exhibition and written about them, which should be fun but, to be frank, it hasn’t been a pleasant Journey.

I submitted my thesis 6 months ago and the result came back 4 weeks ago. One examiner report was positive but the other was completely the opposite. I’ve been told I have to resubmit my thesis.

To make matters worse, my original supervisor has left the university and my current supervisor has no experience with practice based theses. How can I combine my creative works with my written thesis in away that two components seem like they belong together?

There are many grey areas. I’m finding it difficult to get advice, written or otherwise, on how to move my thesis forward and complete. I feel really confused and helpless.

Can you help me?

A Sad Student.

This is what I wrote:

Dear Sad Student,

I feel your pain – it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do a practice based thesis, as I know from experience. I’m not sure how I can really help as the answer to your question is dependant on the work you have done, but here are some things to think about:

1) Think about the thesis as a document for fellow professionals in your discipline. The over riding mission is to show them what others can learn from what you have done. This may be insights into practice itself, materials, culture – whatever.

2) Really look at your writing. How clear is it? In my experience, much of the way we are taught to write in creative disciplines is wrong. Your writing style (if you were taught the way I was) might be either too simplistic or too obscure. Perhaps both. This is not your fault. You are immersed in a culture that, on the whole, approaches academic writing in an ad hoc way. It’s totally fixable, but will take some work. Seek help from your academic skills unit. I learned much from books, such as ‘Helping doctoral students write’ by Kamler and Thomson (Pat runs the excellent ‘Patter’ blog) and ‘Style: 10 lessons in clarity and grace’ by Joseph Williams. There’s other great blogs out there, like Explorations in Style, Research Degree Voodoo, Lit Review HQ and Doctoral writing SIG, which have tips too. Subscribe to them.

3) INSIST on proper supervision from your department. In your circumstance it’s not enough to give you a supervisor who ‘doesn’t understand’ a practice based thesis. If you are not satisfied with what your department says, take it to the next level. If there’s a graduate school, escalate your complaint to them. They can probably help you arrange another supervisor from another university if necessary. Become the proverbial squeaky wheel. If processes were working properly you should never have found yourself in this situation. Problems with theses should be picked up in a final presentation and examiners should be chosen with due care.

4) Sometimes the problems occur in creative research examinations because the student was never properly guided through the nature of knowledge making in creative disciplines. This is a contested and contestable field. I’ve attached a PDF by Linda Candy called “Practice based research: a guide” which might help sort some of these things out in your mind. There are other books and many different points of view

All the best,

Well, that’s my response – have you suffered this problem? What did you do? How about the excellent supervisors who read the Thesis Whisperer? Would you have offered similar or different advice to me?

Related links

4 things you should know about choosing examiners for your thesis