Failing a PhD Defense: How?

Here’s how to fail a PhD defense:

It is possible to fail a PhD defense, and it does happen every now and then.

For the most part, this only happens when a student defends without sufficient support from their advisor.

Either the advisor failed in their role, or the student blatantly ignored advice and defended before they were ready.

So if you want to learn all about failing a PhD defense, then this article is for you.

Let’s get started!

Failing a PhD Defense: Possible? How? (Everything To Know)

Is It Possible to Fail a PhD Defense? (2 Answers)

Generally speaking, it is possible to fail a PhD defense, but it is very rare.

Departments work hard to prevent situations where failure is even possible, so you might be hard pressed to find a clear example of it.

More specifically, you’ll find that some departments see more failures than others, and in some situations, it actually might be impossible to fail the PhD defense.

You can fail things before that, but by the time you are ready to defend your PhD, there’s little chance of failure.

#1 Technically Yes

Every defense is graded.

The way it is graded might vary, but in general, things that have a grade can include failing grades.

In fact, why would there even be a defense if it didn’t matter and you automatically passed?

That’s really the thing to remember.

I’m going to show you a lot of reasons why PhD defense failures are super rare, but passing isn’t actually automatic.

You have to go through the process and get a pass from your reviewers. So, technically, it is definitely possible to fail.

#2 Sometimes No

Except, in some cases, it actually is impossible to fail.

In the majority of departments I’ve been able to research, it is possible to fail the PhD defense.

But, I came across a handful of departments where failing grades actually didn’t exist.

The options for the reviewers were some variation of passing without revisions or passing with revision.

They couldn’t fail the student.

Now, before you get worked up about why there would even be a defense, or start thinking that just anyone can get a PhD, it’s important to understand something.

In these uncommon departments where failure literally wasn’t an option, the pass/fail determinations happen before the actual defense.

In those cases, the defense really is just a formality.

There’s actually a lot to explain, so let’s just get into the nuts and bolts of a PhD defense.

Has Anyone Ever Failed a PhD Defense?

Actually, yes.

Now, I’ve already said that this is uncommon, but that doesn’t mean it has never, ever happened.

The truth is that most colleges have PhD defense failures.

In fact, if you go back enough years, most departments will have a failure in there somewhere.

However, it is uncommon enough that you might not be able to find anyone in the department who was there when the failure happened.

Hopefully, that puts this all in a little perspective.

What’s Involved in a PhD Defense? (3 Parts)

This might make more sense if I break down the whole process.

Here’s what you can expect when you defend your PhD.

#1 Dissertation

While there are exceptions, typically, the main difference between a PhD and other professional degrees is the dissertation.

It’s often called a thesis, but I’m going to harp on the technical idea of a dissertation for a moment.

This is the research you do as a PhD student.

It’s not research you contribute to; it’s your research.

You put it together in a dissertation thesis, and the document itself is reviewed.

It’s basically the body of your research, analysis, and conclusions.

One of the primary aspects of defending your PhD is supplying the thesis to your review board.

As I said before, they can pass it with or without revisions, and in most cases, they can choose to fail it as well.

The real point here is that analyzing your thesis is one specific part of the whole process.

#2 Defense

The defense itself is something that happens in-person (or a virtual analogue to an in-person meeting).

For the defense, you give a presentation to your review board.

The topic is your research, but you don’t just stand up there and read your thesis.

Instead, this is a more concise presentation that goes over the most important aspects of the research.

When the presentation is done, the reviewers fire questions at you.

This is the part that has the most variation.

It’s not just that it varies from one college to another.

The same review board might treat two separate PhD students very differently.

I can’t tell you which way it will go.

For some students, there are a few minutes of questions where the professionals in the room get to have fun prodding the ideas in your research.

For others, the questioning is intense and brutal.

A room full of seasoned doctors in your field fire challenging questions at you on purpose.

It can be grueling.

I don’t know how yours will go, but if you’re prepared for hard questioning, anything less will be a pleasant surprise.

After the questioning is done, the review board decides how you did on your defense.

You can pass it or fail it.

#3 Exams

It’s also possible that you will have final exams related to your defense.

This happens more in Europe and is almost unheard of in the United States.

For departments that utilize these exams, they typically are oral exams, and you definitely can fail them.

In fact, the fail rate for these types of exams is considerably higher than for the thesis and your defense.

In the United States, these kinds of exams usually happen when you finish your classes for your PhD.

It’s normal in the U.S. to have up to two years of classes.

After that, you’re just doing research (and possibly working as a teaching assistant).

So, two or three years into your PhD (assuming you didn’t get a master’s first), you have your major exams. 

These exams are not just a formality, and you definitely can fail them.

Failure is still not super common because you just spent years studying, and the department genuinely wants you to succeed.

But your defense usually won’t come for a couple of years after this.

So, if the department is going to weed anyone out of the program, it’s more likely to happen here than during your defense.

How Do You Fail? (4 Ways)

So, failure is possible. How does it happen?

In the simplest terms, when you defend your PhD, it is in front of a review board or committee (or whatever else they choose to call it).

A panel of experts in your field is in charge of your defense.

When you finish your defense, each one votes on whether to pass you or fail you.

If more vote to fail you than pass you, you fail.

That’s really all there is to it.

But, if you want to understand how it comes to that, I have a lot more information for you.

#1 Types of Grades

I’ve touched on this, but if we’re going to really get into what failure looks like, let’s cover the actual grading scale. 

You don’t receive a letter grade when you defend your PhD.

Instead, you get a pass or a fail, but there are caveats.

In general, there are five grades.

You can pass, you can pass with revisions (this is probably the most common outcome), you can fail with revisions (but you don’t necessarily have to redo everything), you can fail with major revisions (you’re basically starting a new dissertation), or you can get kicked out of the program (something I might call “total failure” moving forward).

Now, not every department is going to use all of these grades for a given defense.

But, if we consider all of the many departments around the world, these are by far the most common outcomes.

With that covered, let’s talk about the reasons why you might not pass.

Keep in mind that failure doesn’t always equate to total failure.

#2 Defend Too Soon

This is a top reason.

Especially in the United States, PhD programs don’t have set timelines.

You defend when you’re ready to defend.

For some, that’s after two to three years.

For others, it takes a decade.

Here’s the thing.

That time scale is working in your favor since virtually all PhD programs are funded (at least in the U.S.).

This means that you have a lot of time to get your advisor and other appropriate experts to review your work and help you prepare.

You absolutely don’t have to defend before you’re ready.

But if you’re in a hurry, you might be tempted to try to defend before your advisor signs off (or a committee chair for that matter).

In this case, it’s not a matter of if you might fail.

If you defend before the committee chair and your advisor think you aren’t ready, you very likely will fail.

That’s exactly why they’re telling you to do the things they ask of you, no matter how frustrating it might be.

#3 Give Up

The other most common reason for failure in a PhD program is giving up.

This happens to master’s students too, but it’s a bigger problem with a PhD.

You’re not on a clear schedule.

You finish the PhD when you finish, and being in research limbo can be frustrating and overwhelming.

Plenty of students quit before they even get to the defense.

That’s certainly what happened to me, but in this case I mean something a little more specific.

Virtually no one gets through the defense without having to make at least some revisions to their thesis.

If the revisions you get are significant enough, it can feel like a major setback.

Some people quit rather than keep going. 

If you’re willing to count that as a failure, then this is probably the most common form of PhD defense failure.

#4 Cheat

This is super unlikely, but aside from what’s already been covered, it’s the last possibility that I can really call credible.

Now, it would be nearly miraculous for you to get all the way to your defense by cheating.

If your department has any level of competency, then the interactions between you and your advisor and your reviewers will root out the cheating long before defense is even discussed.

But, if somehow you did manage to cheat your way to a defense, then yeah.

You’re extraordinarily likely to fail.

You’re probably going to get kicked out of school too, and you’ll never work in academia in any respect ever again.

I don’t need to tell you not to cheat on your PhD defense, right?

Why Is It So Hard to Fail? (5 Reasons)

Ok. Now you know how to fail a PhD defense.

None of those situations are exactly easy to get into, and I keep saying again and again that PhD defense failure is rare.

Maybe I haven’t made the why’s clear enough yet.

So, let’s spend a little time on that.

You are not set up to fail as a PhD student who is ready to defend.

That’s just not how it is, and there are some powerful things in your corner helping you to succeed when you get to this point.

#1 Department Investment

This idea really summarizes everything.

You had to jump through a lot of hoops to be accepted into the PhD program in the first place.

You may have had to write papers or proposals to get funding.

Even if you didn’t, the department is putting significant dollars into your hands to do your research.

It’s a major investment.

While most departments will tolerate certain levels of failure for undergraduate programs, graduate students are seen as more of an investment.

PhD students are seen as premium investments.

If you buy a Ferrari, you’re probably going to make sure it’s on a good maintenance schedule.

Likewise, if a college is investing in you as a PhD student, they want you to graduate, and they will expend resources to help make that happen.

#2 Your Advisor

I can’t emphasize the advisor role enough.

If you haven’t applied for grad school and you’re wondering about all of this, then let me clarify.

Your PhD advisor is not some stranger in the admissions department that makes sure you get all of your credits.

They are a PhD in your field.

So, if you’re studying astrophysics, then your advisor is a bonafide astrophysicist.

They’ve been through all of this.

You are probably not the first PhD student they have advised.

They know extremely well how all of this works, and they might even sit on the review board for other PhD students.

Your advisor (assuming they are competent) will be a major part of your PhD journey.

They’re going to check in on your research regularly.

They’re going to scrutinize your thesis multiple times before they ever recommend you for defense.

Most of all, if you fail your defense, it’s very bad for them.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that their job will be at risk if you fail your PhD defense.

That’s how invested they are, and that’s the level of responsibility that is expected of them as a PhD advisor.

#3 The Dissertation

The dissertation is another major factor here.

This is substantially different from a master’s thesis.

For the master’s, the topic of research is often assigned.

Even if it wasn’t, the amount of time spent and depth of the research don’t compare to a dissertation.

The master’s thesis is supposed to demonstrate a professional ability to work in your field.

A dissertation is meant to expand the professional understanding of your research topic.

More often than not, dissertation research is unique.

No one has ever studied this before—at least not in the exact same way.

You’re supposed to be someone who contributes to pushing the boundaries of your field.

Your dissertation is supposed to be part of that.

What does this mean for your defense?

By the time you’ve completed the dissertation, you should know the most about your research of anyone who will be in the room when you defend.

You might not know the most about your broader field, but your research?

You’re the expert.

And this hasn’t even touched on the dissertation proposal process.

If you haven’t already been through it, remember that you have to defend your proposal before you even start the research (although this is not as intense as the final PhD defense).

This is where the most “weeding out” happens for PhD students. 

If your research proposal is accepted, it means that the department is investing in your personal success.

They absolutely don’t want to see you fail.

#4 Review Boards

The way this works really varies from one institution to the next, but PhD defenses are valued above even master’s defenses.

Typically, whoever will be heading your review board will want to go over things with you before scheduling the defense.

Basically, they want to be sure that you’re ready and will pass before the formality can happen.

At some institutions, this is all left to the advisor, so keep that in mind.

Even so, if you know who will be reviewing you, you can talk to them about it to be sure that you really are ready to schedule a defense.

#5 Qualifying Exams

I mentioned this before, but I’m going to take a quick minute to explain why these exams prevent you from failing your PhD defense.

Usually, you have to pass these exams before the defense happens.

In the U.S., you typically pass these exams before you are anywhere near done with your dissertation research.

There are two things to remember.

First, if you’re going to fail out of your PhD program, it’s a lot more likely to be here than at your defense (although most students don’t fail their exams either).

Second, if you pass all of the qualifying exams, then you are effectively an expert in your field.

Your job from that point is to expand the field itself via your research.