Why PhD Candidates Fail Their Program

Out of the total number of students who pursue a Ph.D. program in the UK, 19.5% fail. Out of that, about 16.2% drop from the program, while 3.3% of them fail their viva. This puts students who successfully earn a doctorate at 80.5%. Consequently, most doctoral students are more worried about the tendency of failing out the Ph.D.

Failing a Ph.D. could be every candidates’ worst academic nightmare. Imagine all the time used in learning, research, and lab work going to waste. In this piece, we take you through how you can fail your Ph.D. and ways to avoid that.

How Candidates Fail a PhD

There are two basic ways a Ph.D. candidate can fail a Ph.D. program: i.e., failing the oral defence (viva) and non-completion of the program.


This is when a student decides to quit the Ph.D. program before sitting for the viva examination. Viva is conducted at the final year of the program, i.e., the 3rd or 4th year, which is a disincentive for many students, hence, the dropout. This accounts for most of the numbers of non-completion of Ph.D. some students also leave the program early because:

  • Circumstances beyond control

Life is full of uncertainties, and a decision made today could be overturned by a happening tomorrow. No student would want to leave a program he/she has spent much on in the middle of nowhere. However, circumstances beyond control, including ill health, lack of funds, family issues, can shatter the dream. In some cases, the university may come to the student’s aid, especially for an extraordinary student.

Sometimes, a university may also decide to cut-short the program for nonperforming students. This is when a supervisor believes a student is making progress on their projects.

  • Decision

At a point in time, a student may feel incapable of undertaking a Ph.D. This may be due to the high-stress nature of the program, lack of initial assessment of it, or having an alternative.

Failing the Viva

Aside from a student deciding to quit, presenting a sub-standard dissertation, or failing a viva fail you.

At this level, universities expect students to know the nitty-gritty of writing a top-class dissertation. Therefore, anything below the university’s standard may end you being unqualified to graduate. A thesis may be regarded below average if it is plagiarised, insufficient data, and inconclusive findings. Your examiner may request a rework before conducting a viva examination for you if you are lucky enough. However, if you have already exceeded the allowable deadline without any valid reasons, then you may miss out on the viva exams, and that may account for your failure.

Another possible scenario is when you sit for the viva and fail. This is highly uncommon, but a contributing factor may be when your dissertation is not up to standard and may be very difficult to revise in the shortest possible time.

Ph.D. Failure Rate in the UK & EU

A data by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (now UK Research and Innovation) for 2010-11 show that out of the total number of students who enrol for Ph.D. in the UK or EU, 72.9% of them complete their program within seven years. For the remaining numbers, 80.5% of them complete within 25 years. This puts students who successfully complete their program at four out of five. Most of the students who fail are those who voluntarily exit the program.

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