What to do when your thesis is rejected by the examiners

If you start a blog called ‘The Thesis Whisperer’ I suppose you should expect students to write to you 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

Further reading

5 thoughts on why I blog (John Canning)

PDF by Linda Candy called “Practice based research: a guide”

Patter blog


‘Helping doctoral students write’

‘Style: 10 lessons in clarity and grace’

20 thoughts on “What to do when your thesis is rejected by the examiners

  1. ozzietassie says:

    Oh this makes me twitchy. So SO twitchy. Having had something similar happen (supervisor with no direct experience in the area I was writing about, and no one really in the University who had a clue) this person has my sympathies. The squeaky wheel advise works, agitate, annoy and be the person that both the admin and the grad office see coming and go “Oh dear..” sometimes its the only way!
    Also if there was such a difference in examiners marks, should it have not gone to a third examiner?

    • eleanor says:

      I agree! At my university, and I don’t know if this is a universal rule, you have to have a nominated third examiner in the wings before you submit. Otherwise the third examiner option isn’t allowed. Is this usual? I made sure I had a third lined up just incase because our department has stories like this too. Shouldn’t happen 🙁

      • Jodie Martin (@jodie__martin) says:

        I have a friend this happened to – essentially got a 1 and a 3 and ended up having to do minor revisions to the written component. But that got me curious – how can you have a 3rd examiner when the major component is the visual arts exhibition 6 months ago? It’s not as easy as just resubmitting the written component.

  2. jhaars (@jhaars) says:

    I had an unfortunate similar experience during my Master’s degree. I did not know my supervision team well (something that has been a must for me during my PhD)…and at submission the two outside members of my committee did not understand my use of auto-ethnography and would not let it through. They wanted me to completely scrap my thesis and start from scratch. I had no desire to remake my project into something that suited them- so I had two other academics read it in more closely aligned fields, re-formed a committee and passed easily a few months later. I would recommend to have a few other opinions from some carefully matched examiners before moving forward.

  3. Jennifer Eagleton says:

    I had to have three examiners look at my thesis – at an Australian University. I do think that this helps in the first instance, rather than getting one “yes” and one “no” and then sending it out again. By having three the situation is resolved more easily.

  4. Anna says:

    The department I did my MA in required 3 readers for the thesis: my supervisor, another faculty member, and one outside reader. The policy there is that you can defend when they feel your thesis is ready for it, but you may have revisions to do following that. After my defence, they all recommended what they phrased as “substantial minor changes.” The suggestions from the outside reader weren’t very helpful (he worked in the same theory but using a different sub-theory to the one I did, so he wasn’t sure how to offer advice on that; we also had radically different approaches to academic writing, and my other readers didn’t have a problem with my writing style), but between my supervisor’s and second reader’s comments, I was able to improve my work drastically. I’ll never be completely happy with it, but that’s the way of things, isn’t it?

  5. Katherine Firth says:

    Reblogged this on Research Degree Voodoo and commented:
    The Thesis Whisperer talks about what to do when your thesis is rejected by examiners, and suggests some fantastic blogs to follow to get advice and help. [Plus this blog. Yay!]
    If you’re here because of that post, welcome!
    At Research Degree Voodoo, we’re all about moving inside that magic circle of the academy, through practical tips and some deeper reflection about what it means to be an expert and a peer.
    I’m always keen to answer reader questions, so get in touch in the comments or on Twitter, via @katrinafee!

  6. Beth Dumont says:

    Although I was not asked by either of my Examiner’s to resubmit, I had similar issues to this. I found that one of my Examiner’s was able to follow my arguments, the other not. What made it more frustrating was that the Examiner who could follow the argument came from a different cultural background to myself and the other Examiner!!

    What I would like to see is a post around academic bullying/harassment of supervisors to students, intentional or otherwise. I feel that that happened to me in the process of trying to answer the Examiner’s comments on the part of one supervisor. This is not the first time in my academic journey that I have been subjected to such behaviour from academics – it has occurred twice before – at the end of my undergraduate degree and in trying to enrol as a postgrad.

    I am someone who firmly believes that fault exists on both sides of the equation, yet in all three cases I have been the only side to take ownership of the issues and have had to work around the issue. I believe the refusal of the other side of the equation (the academic) is not respectful of me as a person. As a student, I am also a consumer of the service provided by the university, so such behaviour is also not good customer service on the part of the institution. I am reliably told that my own universities policies in this area are vague, ambiguous and ill-defined in nature, making it difficult for student complaints of such ilk to be acted on. Universities need to realise that simply hearing a student’s complaint is NOT the justice they think it is. They also need to realise that they need to LISTEN with an OPEN mind for true justice to be achieved. Maybe, such a stance will lead to the more difficult supervisors becoming better ones.

  7. liz says:

    Neither of my main supervisors have PhD’s so they hadn’t gone through the sifting and sorting process in reading and writing, eliminating eventually what ceases to be relevant or important. I also work like this in my practice which is very time consuming but is the way it has always been over about 25 years. I read your article on ‘plotters and drafters’ and realised I wasn’t so stupid as I felt they were making me feel and that I wasn’t being pretentious either! It was an upsetting experience. The processes we go through can vary. People work differently. This would be useful for supervisors to understand. I eventually got to where I needed to go, via a long and windy path!

  8. The British Asian Blog says:

    Although I am fortunate to have a supervisor who, I think, is from a good bunch, I have come across some fellow students who simply share their experiences – which in return makes me wonder about mine. I’ve not yet entered the critical part of my research, and I know when the pressure is on, is when my relationship with my supervisor will be tested.

    It does give me some comfort that on a PhD level, you do tend to have two supervisors, and sometimes access to more, but how often do you see supervisors argue in favour of the student – not often.

  9. bev1073 says:

    Happened to my husband too when the uni parachuted another professor in for his defence session. After he asked about three questions which showed he did not understand what was written, he pulled out a prepared statement from his pocket which read, “I am not prepared to accept this thesis as my in-laws do not do this so it can’t be.” He refused to speak to anyone or give any comments about what could be done. One other member was the VP of the Uni and Dean of Grad Studies who thought it was one of the best ever written. Took three years to get it accepted after he left the uni.

  10. Fergal Fleming says:

    Practice led research is a tricky area. Lots of different opinions, and I suppose one just has to hope that the opinions of one’s supervisor roughly coincide with those of the examiners 😉
    In addition to the sources already mentioned, a useful read is ‘6 rules for practice-led research’ by Andrew McNamara from QUT.

  11. midnightthesis says:

    This just happened to me and I’m dumbfounded. My supervisor is inexperienced at this level – I was their first PhD Candidate. This outcome has shocked me, but most of all angered me that I was basically set to be slapped in the face after taking on all the feedback I was given. Advice from anyone who has gone through this would be great!

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