Can You Fail a PhD Dissertation?

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As an actual or potential PhD student, it’s natural to be concerned about your chances of making it through postgraduate school. One of the significant aspects of PhD is dissertation defense. It can make or mar your graduation chances. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many people dread it. If you are wondering whether it’s possible to fail a PhD dissertation, here’s a detailed article to help you. We’ve also included practical steps to help you complete your dissertation successfully. Enjoy your read.

Do People Fail PhD Dissertation?Do People Fail PhD Dissertation?

To give you a dose of reality, studies show that a good percentage of people who enroll for a PhD would either fail their PhD dissertation or not complete it. While writing a dissertation is one of the most fulfilling experiences, it’s still a dreadful one. It’s fulfilling because it serves as the climax of college and university endeavors. But the dread comes in when you think about the results. Yes, it’s possible to fail your dissertation. However, despite the numerous statistics available online, we can categorically tell that failing one’s dissertation is quite rare. Not all dissertation chairs are that unforgiving, even when they fail to keep in touch with you during the dissertation period. Many doctoral departments have checks that make failure hard during the defense. For instance, if a student does everything right – say they’ve written their dissertation, communicated with their advisors, and scheduled their defense rightly, but have a freakout moment on the day of their examination, most committees or departments would allow the student to reschedule.

It’s not surprising that many people believe that if a PhD candidate does everything rightly, keeps constant communication with their committee members, and doesn’t receive any negative criticism to their submitted work but still fails their dissertation defense, it could be related to malicious intent on the committee’s part. However, that’s a rare scenario that doesn’t do both the advisors and the students any good.

Why Do People Fail Dissertation?

Why Do People Fail Dissertation?

Nobody in the world plans to fail their dissertation. Instead, most people struggle hard to clear their dissertation once and for all. But many times, despite the hard work, we still hear cases of people failing their dissertation. Many factors can cause this, and knowing these factors can help you take the route that avoids failure. Here, let’s review some of these factors.

Choosing the wrong dissertation adviser 

Your dissertation adviser would play an essential role in how smoothly your dissertation defense would go. Therefore, we recommend due diligence when choosing your adviser. Apart from offering you advice on the right ways to research, a good dissertation adviser can help you jump through the inevitable hurdles that you’ll encounter during this period. Unfortunately, many students choose their dissertation advisers because of qualities like personality, research interest, and charisma. While these characteristics are generally admirable, they may not count when it comes to offering you the needed assistance to complete a quality dissertation. Several studies show that the two most important factors in choosing the right dissertation adviser include:

  • Accessibility
  • Feedback turnaround times.

These qualities mean that the said candidate can give a realistic amount of time to attend to your dissertation needs.

Expecting your peers to hand-hold you throughout your dissertation 

One popular misconception that new doctoral students often hold about postgraduate school is that they’ll get a lot of help and hand-holding throughout postgraduate school. You must realize that postgraduate school works quite differently from college; hence, you must always take charge of your doctoral program.

Of course, you’ll get help from your dissertation chair, supervisor, and committee members at different times, but their help can’t replace the efforts you’ll need to put into the process. For example, there’ll be no one to remind you of the right courses to enroll, or which forms need completing before specific deadlines. You’ll be solely responsible for engraving your intellectual path. Therefore, you should never expect your dissertation supervisor or anyone else to hold your hand and tell you what seminars to attend, what journals to read, what literature to buy, or which grants to apply for.

While it’s cool to seek help and guidance, there should never be a moment where you’ll expect anybody to take over your responsibilities and shoulder all of them.

Choosing a dissertation topic that’s too broad

As a doctoral student, you’ll probably hear too often the critical role their dissertation plays in determining whether you’ll acquire your PhD. While this is true, you must not get lost in the belief that you try to include and cover everything in your dissertation. While it’s great to go wide, going too wide can be counterproductive to how well you can attack a topic.

As always, we advise students to consider narrowing down their research topic and zoning in on a particular area instead of choosing a broad research topic and realizing too late that you’ve probably bitten more than you can chew. Here, work closely with your dissertation adviser and take their advice to narrow down your topic properly. So many students dream of their dissertation being all-inclusive and having immediate impacts on their field but fail to realize that that’s an almost impossible feat considering the resources accessible to a typical doctoral student.


We can’t overemphasize this point – procrastination is an ultimate dream killer. Here, we are not even referring to lazy students considering that that’s not a personality trait for people enrolling in doctoral programs). Instead, we refer to typical doctoral students who set very high standards for themselves because they are perfectionists.

We’ve come to understand that people obsessed with perfection tend to be procrastinators. Yes, it’s true that you go to where you are by setting high standards and working to achieve near-perfect grades. While this is fine, it is only acceptable to the point where you get into postgraduate school. At this point, your dissertation, rather than your GPA, determines your success. And doctoral dissertations reflect more of life’s reality where you’ll stumble several times and need to pick yourself up every time, irrespective of how smart you think you are. Many doctoral students do not fancy facing too many obstacles in their academic life. And since the dissertation throws them right into such challenges, most doctoral students give up and shy away instead of confronting those problems. At this point, procrastination is birthed to help them cope with something they are not used to.

What Happens If You Fail Your Dissertation?

What Happens If You Fail Your Dissertation?

You’ve don’t everything you should do and followed all the dissertation defense etiquettes you know, but still somehow failed your dissertation – what should you do? Don’t worry; you’ll usually be given another opportunity to re-submit it at a later date. However, it’s important to remember that the marks awarded for a re-submitted dissertation will usually be capped at a bare minimum pass level. As we’ve explained above, a complete dissertation failure is a rarity and would only occur if a student neglects meeting with their supervisor at the required intervals. If you’ve certified all the requirements for your dissertation defense, you can rest assured that the chances of failure would be very slim.

How to Not Fail a Dissertation? 5 Preparation Tips

How to Not Fail a Dissertation? 5 Preparation Tips

Now that we’ve talked so much about PhD dissertation and how you can fail, you’re probably wondering how to avoid failure. Like your master thesis defense, your dissertation defense can be a walk in the pack if you know the right steps to take. To help, here are five top preparation tips you should know.

Start Early 

The earlier you start, the better your chances of covering just enough. You can start thinking about possible topics as early as you can. We also recommend carefully reading through departmental guidelines even before writing your dissertation. The best dissertation choices would usually arise from lots of reading, thinking, and talking about your areas of interest. One of the most significant advantages of starting early is that it affords you enough time to change your mind several times before you finalize your aims. However, be sure to keep your supervisor informed before changing your mind at any point.

Record Your Sources

This may seem like a no-brainer, but we’ve seen so many people fail in it, so we’ll just talk about it anyway. Keep an adequate record of all your research and reading throughout your dissertation period. Referencing is a vital aspect of dissertations, and it is marked quite strictly. You don’t want to struggle with trying to remember all the materials you’ve used as sources. Therefore, you can save time and stress by assembling your reference list /bibliography as you research your topic. You can always delete useless sources in the end.

Be Realistic About What You Can Cover 

Remember, we talked about the adverse effects of trying to cover everything at once. The truth is that you can’t cover every angle of your dissertation topic, irrespective of how passionate you are about it. Therefore it’s crucial not to be overly ambitious. Instead, focus on one specific idea and research it more thoroughly instead of juggling several different ideas. Mark out what needs to be covered in the topic and do what you can to cover them.

Your First Draft is Not Your Final Draft

One mistake many people make is trying to make their first draft perfect. The truth is that you’ll probably make many mistakes on your first draft, and that’s why experts advise against trying to get your final draft on the first attempt. This is a massive project, and there’s no point in trying to be perfect from the start. Your argument doesn’t have to be airtight from the start. Revising and rewriting are all crucial parts of the writing process. Just start working and edit your work in subsequent drafts.

Embrace Flexibility

Finally, it’s essential to be flexible throughout the process. Writer’s block often happens and can cause you to miss deadlines that you’ve set for yourself. If this happens, don’t sulk too much. Just adjust your schedule and continue working. Usually, we recommend setting deadlines a little earlier than necessary so that you can give yourself a head start in case you ever need to push any of them back.

Wrapping Things Up: Can You Fail a PhD Dissertation?

Dissertation research and defense are among the most important parts of the PhD program, yet many students dread it. It’s not surprising that people do not just want to know whether it’s possible to fail a dissertation, but also the probability ratio. So, can you fail a PhD dissertation? As we’ve seen throughout the article, it’s possible to fail PhD dissertation, although it only happens in rare scenarios where students fail to do what’s required of them. But don’t get paranoid – you can easily pass your dissertation by doing what’s right. To help, we’ve also explained some significant steps that can help you pass your dissertation. In all, don’t forget to work closely with your dissertation adviser to craft out the best strategy for your unique situation.

Picture of Professor Conquer
Professor Conquer

Professor Conquer started Conquer Your Exam in 2018 to help students feel more confident and better prepared for their tough tests. Prof excelled in high school, graduating top of his class and receiving admissions into several Ivy League and top 15 schools. He has helped many students through the years tutoring and mentoring K-12, consulting seniors through the college admissions process, and writing extensive how-to guides for school.

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