Teaching & Learning


PhD diaries

These diaries are a useful resource to help PhD supervisors and their students discuss and find solutions to various scenarios.

These genuine accounts of the challenges faced by PhD students and their supervisors present useful examples of experiences for students, supervisors and examiners involved in the PhD process. Each diary comes with a list of questions to help guide supervisors through the problem-solving process and could also be shared with students who are facing similar problems.

The PhD diaries below have been developed and generously donated by Professor John Wakeford (University of Lancaster). You can view additional diaries on Professor Wakeford's website.

Students being supervised

Alan only saw his supervisor once a year. When he failed his PhD he appealed on the grounds of inappropriate supervision.

Having originally failed her PhD, Alice rewrote her thesis with the help of a more structured approach from her new supervisor.

When Anthony's supervisor left, the university was unable to find a replacement. Anthony is now taking the university to court to get his fees back.

Charlie found her induction rushed and stressful, discovered that her supervisors would be absent for the first two semesters, and had financial issues. 

Cherie's current university has a very different culture from that of her former one. She is, therefore, confused, and wonders which is the better approach.

Dan describes his positive relationship with his supervisor.

Jainaba is an international student. Her two supervisors tell her that her material is not of PhD standard but do not give her appropriate examples to follow.

Having initially had a good relationship with her two supervisors, Jane started to struggle with an increasing workload and found little support from her supervisors. She is now trying to decide whether she should find new supervisors or give up on her PhD altogether.

Having failed two vivas, Janet appealed the decision. Her appeal failed. Janet felt she had suffered from poor supervision and that the academic community had closed ranks. She decided to cut her losses and move on.

Kim had problems with one of his supervisors and so the supervisor was dropped. At his viva, Kim discovered that the examiner was this same supervisor.

After the sudden death of Li's original supervisor, the university has struggled to find a suitable replacement and, two-and-a-half years later, a replacement has still not been found.

Miranda feels her supervisor is far too positive and does not give enough critical feedback for her to act on. She has little confidence in her work and is not sure if she is really ready to submit her thesis.

Muriel enjoys a good relationship with her supervisors and values both their contributions but struggles to deal with the 'hierarchy' between the two supervisors.

When Phil started his research project he discovered that the only suitable person to supervise him was on secondment in Australia. His appointed supervisor was inadequate.

Rebecca struggled to fit in at her university and had a strange relationship with her supervisor. She was offered little support when asked to speak at a conference in New Zealand and feels she was treated 'like a clone'.

Supervising students

This supervisor was pressured into supervising Brenda, a mature and very confident student. She is having problems with the co-supervisor and has not been able to discuss either the project or the student.

Huw is an academic who is coming to the end of his contract. He has, however, been forced to take on additional students from a supervisor who has taken early retirement. Huw’s query is how best to secure his own future and the continued supervision of the students he has 'inherited'. 

Warren took up a fellowship. In his second year Warren obtained funding for two studentships. He appointed Wayne and Christina from Argentina. Wayne was strong academically but had to acquire the necessary technical skills, whereas Christina was excellent technically but had problems with her scientific English. His teaching load is gradually increasing and he is finding that time management is a challenge. 

Failed PhD

George is a failing student. His supervisor feels he is using his grant inappropriately.

When one of Jan's supervisors left the university, she was left with a supervisor who was not suitable. She failed her PhD and was given little help with following a formal complaints procedure.

Jennifer only had one supervisor who had very different ideas of what was PhD standard compared to the examiner. Jennifer subsequently failed her viva but could not appeal. She did however make a formal complaint and won back some fees.

Maureen has been doing her PhD for 17 years due to interruptions such as sabbaticals, writer's block and inadequate supervision. She has now found someone with the right expertise to supervise her but is unsure whether to proceed.

Paula suffered a scathing attack by an examiner and failed her PhD. She appealed on the grounds of procedural error, extenuating circumstances (she had mental health problems) and the conduct of the external examiner.

Paulo was a part-time student living away from university who found his supervision deteriorated. He failed his PhD viva and was given a year to resubmit.

Ron was given misinformation regarding the procedure of his PhD viva. He was given one year to resubmit his thesis but is not confident of passing and feels he has lost ownership of his thesis.

Difficult supervision situations

Bren 'inherited' Chris, an ESRC-CASE student in the second year of her PhD. In practice he is now the sole supervisor and has major concerns about the supervisory arrangements and her progress. Chris is currently in her fourth year, lacks motivation and has major problems meeting deadlines.

Dave is a recently appointed lecturer who as well as pursuing his own research, has been asked to supervise a number of postgraduate students, teach a first-year undergraduate course and become departmental postgraduate tutor. In addition he has been asked to take on the supervision of a difficult student who has had a disagreement with her current supervisor. 

Derek took over as head of department and had to deal with a student making a formal complaint against one his members of staff.

Harry was asked to supervise Georgina, a very capable student. Her demands were very high and when she felt they were not met, she made a formal complaint against Harry.

Joseph's supervisor had high expectations for Joseph which he couldn't achieve. Joseph found it difficult to admit he was having problems and became defensive and confrontational.

Linda's co-supervisor held more knowledge on their student's research, but was frequently away from the university acting as a journalist. Linda was concerned the student was going to fail and so did her best to prevent this from happening.

Lynda refused to take note of her supervisor's suggestions. She was hostile towards her supervisor and accused him of letting her down.

International students

Arana is an international student from Georgia who gained an excellent MA in the UK before commencing a PhD. She describes the different cultures of the further education systems in Georgia and the UK. The latter’s more liberal approach initially caused her problems. She also experienced problems with her level of supervision, particularly after her first year, but she is on track towards successfully completing her PhD.

Batrisyia is funded by the Malaysian government. Her supervisors had a difference of opinion in how she should proceed with her work. As a consequence, her head of department downgraded her status to MPhil. She appealed and has been allowed to continue with a new supervisory team.

Bunda believed that his scholarship would include a teaching position to provide experience and an income. The university did not stick to this verbal agreement however and he now has financial problems.

Charles is from China and has been told he cannot continue with his studies due to his poor English skills.

Priya is an international student from India who had successfully obtained an MSc in the UK and was determined, despite the wishes of her family, to undertake a PhD. She was accepted by Barchester University without funding and without other crucial elements in place. She subsequently struggled and failed her MPhil/PhD upgrade

During a visit to an international university, Robin was asked to supervise Magda. She had problems enrolling her as she had no supervisory experience. Magda also had poor research methodology which needed to be overcome.

Part-time students

Clare felt pressured into doing a part-time PhD and experienced further problems when one of her supervisors went on extended sabbatical leave. 

As a mature part-time PhD student, Joan found the available funding inadequate. She also found the work demanding and her supervisor admitted her subject was not in his field of knowledge.

June struggled with her self-funded part-time PhD and felt the supervision she received was inadequate.

Writing and publishing a thesis

Josie reveals her strategy which helped her to complete her thesis on time.

Judy feels she is suffering intellectual burnout and is finding it very difficult to redraft her thesis to the required length and standard.

CASE (Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering)

Julian was offered a CASE studentship to undertake a PhD in collaboration with the Council for Scientific Innovation (CSI). Julian found himself disagreeing with some of CSI’s central arguments and becoming more sympathetic towards the views of their rival organisation. The demands of CSI on Julian became inappropriate.

Patrick found that there was unsatisfactory collaboration for a CASE award.

Peter was pressurised into accepting a CASE collaborative studentship between his academic department and an industrial sponsor headed by his professor. His difficult situation was further complicated because his primary supervisor was a new, inexperienced lecturer and the professor was his secondary supervisor.

Examiners diaries

Amanda recounts her experience as an internal examiner and the importance of having an Independent Chair.

 Robert relates his experiences as an examiner in the case of resubmitted theses.