Ph.D. Students May Face Academic Progress Dismissal

The Greatest Ph.D. Challenge

The greatest challenge for a Ph.D. student can be completing the degree requirements timely. Ph.D. program work can be exhilarating. Ph.D. students can take great pleasure, or at times experience great frustration and pain, losing themselves in the intellectual pursuit of their Ph.D. thesis. One research road leads to another. One theme leads to another. One draft leads to another. And before you know it, the time that the school allows for completing the program is expiring. The Ph.D. student's mental acuity isn't the issue. The Ph.D. student's discipline and effort aren't the issue. The Ph.D. student may ardently desire to finish and may have great rewards coming for finishing, like excellent employment prospects. The Ph.D. student's one great challenge can instead be that time has run out on completing the program.

The Risk of Dismissal is Real

The Ph.D. student's time challenge is especially great because schools will dismiss Ph.D. students who fail to meet the school's satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements. The risk of dismissal is real for Ph.D. students. In Ph.D. programs, time can soon become your enemy. And when time runs out, disaster can strike in the form of dismissal. Too bad for those who love academic research and writing, but Ph.D. programs do not let students study and work in perpetuity. Ph.D. programs must have, and uniformly do have, defined endpoints. And the way that schools enforce those endpoints is to threaten to dismiss, and eventually actually dismiss, students who do not meet the time requirements. Time requirements go hand in hand with grade requirements, too. Ph.D. students must complete both a quantity of work and a quality of work that demonstrates that they are capable of meeting all program requirements. Those Ph.D. students who don't appear to be able to meet program requirements face dismissal.

Ph.D. Advisor Issues

Sometimes, the Ph.D. student is primarily responsible for not completing degree requirements timely. Sometimes, Ph.D. research can just not prove as fruitful as it should. Ph.D. theses and dissertation drafts sometimes just don't work out, despite the student's best efforts and intentions. But many times, the causes for satisfactory academic progress problems lie elsewhere, outside of the student and thesis. Unfortunately, Ph.D. advisors can at times contribute to SAP issues. Ph.D. advisors can fail to timely reply to student requests and communications. Ph.D. advisors can fail to timely review and return dissertation drafts. Those failures may be due to a Ph.D. advisor's illness or injury, or the illness or demise of a Ph.D. advisor's close family member. Ph.D. advisors are human. At times, they can also give inconsistent or poor advice and direction, resulting in wasted months and years of student effort. Advisor performance and relationships can even deteriorate over time to the point of threatening the student's SAP dismissal.

Other Causes Can Contribute

Time and inconsistent advisor support are not a Ph.D. student's only enemies. Other internal and external causes can contribute to SAP problems for Ph.D. students. Ph.D. students are generally well aware of the internal pressures on meeting SAP requirements. Those things include the student's own health, safety, security, and finances, and other things like family, employer, and community relationships. Life goes on while the Ph.D. student is progressing. And life often takes twists and turns that can interrupt a Ph.D. student's academic progress. But external pressures can also affect a Ph.D. student's academic progress. Economies tank, causing job or income loss. Pandemics erupt, limiting access to critical Ph.D. program personnel and resources. The outside world can produce its own extenuating circumstances, just as one's own life can do so, slowing a Ph.D. program's progress to the point of threatened dismissal.

The Value of Ph.D. Programs

Challenges, though, don't mean that a Ph.D. student should just give up. Students entering Ph.D. programs are generally undertaking fascinating and important work. Ph.D. programs, students, and graduates are the engines that drive research, while research drives economic, business, policy, and other success. A Ph.D. degree can certainly help the graduate gain a great job and career, whether in teaching, research, or another field. As the pinnacle of the educational system, a Ph.D. degree can also be worthwhile in itself, proving the graduate's commitment to personal growth and excellence. Your enrollment in your Ph.D. program reflected a worthwhile ambition to hold the most prestigious and valuable of all degrees. Just because you've faced challenges delaying your Ph.D. program progress doesn't mean that you should let time on your Ph.D. program run out. On the contrary, if you face satisfactory academic progress warnings or have already suffered SAP probation or dismissal, you may have just begun the good fight. Value your Ph.D. degree, and then put the resources to work to preserve your right and opportunity to complete your Ph.D. degree. Don't give up without a fight.

The Challenge of Ph.D. Programs

Ph.D. programs don't make things easy. Students in Ph.D. programs often report that while they expected challenges, they had little idea of how fast those challenges come and how hard they could be. Indeed, Ph.D. program attrition rates are some of the highest in all of higher education. One recent study puts Ph.D. attrition as high as forty to fifty percent, meaning that about one out of every two Ph.D. candidates fails to graduate. The same study indicated some surprising indicators for Ph.D. attrition. How you feel about yourself, and your Ph.D. program evidently has a lot to do with whether you will graduate with a Ph.D. degree. Ph.D. students apparently fail to graduate in large part not just for financial, health, or other personal or social reasons, but because of:

  • Their own perceived competence, meaning how they felt they were doing in their Ph.D. program
  • The quality of the relationship between the Ph.D. student and faculty Ph.D. advisor
  • The quantity and quality of interactions the Ph.D. student has with other faculty members outside of the Ph.D. advisor

Overcoming Challenges

Notice, though, that these challenges can in themselves prove valuable contributions to the overall value of the Ph.D. program. Take the question of your own perceived competence. As a Ph.D. student, you need to learn to trust your own competence. If you don't, then you may need to change that perception. If you don't regard yourself as a capable discipline expert, then you need not only to develop and exhibit the expertise but also to come to believe in yourself that you have it. And take the question of the quality and quantity of your professional interactions. If you are not yet engaging often enough in high-enough-quality interactions with your Ph.D. advisor and other faculty members, then you may need to cultivate those relationships or learn how to get those faculty members to recognize and respect you. Don't let your poor self-confidence or the low quality of your professional interactions discourage you. Instead, get help to improve them. That's much of what a Ph.D. program is about. Above all, don't let these natural and appropriate challenges cause you to ignore SAP warnings or permit SAP probation and dismissal to ruin your Ph.D. prospects.

The Academic Progress Challenge

If you haven't already understood the satisfactory academic progress (SAP) challenge, then now's the time. Ph.D. programs may seem eternal, especially to the candidate making a fourth or fifth edit of a Ph.D. thesis. But Ph.D. schools place time limits on how long candidates can take to earn their Ph.D. degree. They also may have credit load and minimum grade point standards that Ph.D. students must meet along the way. When a Ph.D. student fails to graduate, the technical reason that the school will have for that failure is typically that the student has not made satisfactory academic progress (SAP). Satisfactory academic progress policies determine the boundaries or outer limits of a Ph.D. program, both quantitatively as to how much academic work a student does within a certain time and qualitatively as to the competence or level of that work. If you are a Ph.D. student facing an SAP issue, that issue likely has to do with one or the other, or both: too little work too slowly, too low in quality. For example, the University of Minnesota maintains this SAP policy for Ph.D. students:

  • Your cumulative grade point average must be at least a 3.00 (higher in some colleges) for your entire enrollment
  • You must complete your Ph.D. within eight years of admission to your doctoral program
  • You must earn at least 67% of the credits you attempt as of the end of each term

These SAP requirements can look immoveable, non-negotiable, as if written in stone by the finger of God. And indeed, that's their intent, to strike respect, if not also fear, in the Ph.D. student so that the student gets more work done of a higher quality in a shorter period. Standards are standard. The school supposes and expects that students will meet those standards. But SAP requirements and formulas are not as set in stone as they may look. After all, the outcome of every formula depends on the data that one inputs. Credits earned, credits attempted, and even grades awarded can all be open to interpretation, appeal, analysis, and adjustment. Just because it at first appears clear, from a warning, probation, or dismissal, that you have not met your Ph.D. program's satisfactory academic progress requirements, doesn't mean it's so. Your school may not have given your academic record its proper interpretation. You may alternatively have ways to appeal and adjust your record to satisfy your school's requirements. Or you may be due special relief from your school's SAP requirements.

The Relationship of SAP Issues to Misconduct Charges

SAP issues generally have nothing directly to do with student misconduct, especially in the case of mature, sound, and capable Ph.D. students. Anything affecting studies can cause SAP issues, including matters in which the Ph.D. student is entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. Good, well-behaving Ph.D. students can face SAP issues, not of their own making. Yet, on the other hand, student misconduct allegations and charges can cause SAP problems. Student misconduct proceedings can certainly distract and disrupt an accused Ph.D. student's education. The school may, for instance, summarily suspend the Ph.D. student over safety issues, preventing the student from completing required coursework and requiring withdrawal from courses. Or the misconduct proceedings may so burden the student that the student must withdraw from courses, take a term off, reduce a course load, or set aside or slow work on a Ph.D. thesis. Any of those actions may create SAP issues, especially if the Ph.D. student's academic pace and work had already placed the student at SAP risk. Misconduct is one thing, while SAP issues are another thing. But misconduct charges can create or exacerbate SAP issues.

Addressing Misconduct Charges

Prompt, effective, and successful defense of misconduct charges can put a Ph.D. student back on track. If you face misconduct charges while in your Ph.D. program, then promptly retain national college misconduct defense attorney Joseph Lento and the expert team at the Lento Law Firm to help you defend and defeat those charges. Attorney Lento may also help you communicate and negotiate with your Ph.D. program administrators and advisors to ensure that the misconduct charges haven't unduly interfered with your Ph.D. satisfactory academic progress. Don't let misconduct charges disrupt and destroy your Ph.D. program. Get the expert academic administrative attorney help you need to keep your Ph.D. program on track, while defending and defeating false, unfair, unsupported, or exaggerated misconduct charges.

School-Created SAP Problems

Sometimes, the school itself is to blame for a Ph.D. student's SAP issues. Professors, administrators, and staff members make mistakes, even those in doctoral programs. SAP policies are complex enough that many schools, such as Texas A&M University, offer students an online SAP calculator. When professors, administrators, or staff members make mistakes in calculating the satisfactory academic progress of hundreds or even thousands of students each term, they may catch and correct those mistakes. Yet sometimes, administrators insist that their calculations are correct when they are not correct. Or the SAP policy may itself have more than one reasonable interpretation on which the Ph.D. student rightly relied for a good reason. Here are common and uncommon examples of mistakes that your Ph.D. program could make in applying its SAP policy:

  • Awarding a lower-than-earned grade
  • Miscalculating a grade point average
  • Misapplying a matriculation date in place of the real date
  • Ignoring earned grades and credits in the calculation
  • Prematurely barring enrollment, causing progress delay
  • Canceling or failing to offer courses required for adequate progress
  • Unfairly or arbitrarily refusing transfer credits
  • Failing to follow the school's own standards
  • Refusing to consider compelling student circumstances

Correcting Doctoral Program Errors

Sometimes, it takes more than the affected Ph.D. student's complaint to get a college or university professor, administrator, or staff member to correct the institution's own mistake. Sure, if you believe your school has made such a mistake, then immediately call the mistake to school officials' attention. But doing so won't always get you the relief you deserve. If you face an unwarranted SAP warning, probation, or dismissal because of your school's mistake, and your Ph.D. program has failed or refused to correct the mistake, then get expert academic administrative attorney help. Retain national academic administrative attorney Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm to review your satisfactory academic progress and to communicate with the school to correct your status. A skilled and experienced academic administrative attorney has appropriate ways of getting the attention of school officials. You may also learn that you have other avenues for SAP relief, such as an SAP appeal due to exigent circumstances.

More School-Created SAP Problems

Mistaken application of clear, sound, and fair SAP policies is not the only school-created SAP problem. Ph.D. students can also face SAP issues because the Ph.D. program poorly articulates its SAP policy and related academic standards. Measurable outcomes are a big deal in higher education. You should know what your professors expect from you and how you can demonstrate it, to meet the learning goal. The Department of Education promotes career-readiness standards in higher education, helping Ph.D. students, doctoral programs, and graduate schools to define more clearly what the student should be able to do after instruction. Yet, schools can have significant problems establishing and disclosing their academic standards. Hard-working, diligent, and smart Ph.D. students can have problems discerning their school's academic standards, including that the school:

  • Does not fully and accurately disclose its academic standards
  • Poorly defines only subjective standards difficult to discern
  • Defines an unduly complex standard confusing advisors and students
  • Offers internally contradictory standards
  • Offers unclear standards with multiple reasonable interpretations
  • Apply reasonable standards arbitrarily or inconsistently
  • Applies standards capriciously toward unfair ends

National academic administrative attorney Joseph Lento has the knowledge, skill, and experience to help Ph.D. students evaluate if the school's vague or inconsistent academic standards are a source of their SAP problems. Attorney Lento also has the diplomatic skills of communicating effectively with school officials to identify and correct the unfair or inconsistent application of academic standards. In other words, your problem may not be due to your work but instead to the school's unreasonable, untimely, and unproductive assessment of your work under inadequately defined standards. Schools aren't perfect. Ph.D. advisors, Ph.D. program directors, and school officials, like students, are always learning, always growing. Your SAP issue may have more to do with the school's need to clarify its expectations and standards than your need to do more work at a higher level more timely. If so, attorney Lento has the knowledge, skills, and experience to show your school how to relieve you of the unfair impact of the school's inadequacies. Get expert academic administrative attorney help with your Ph.D. SAP issue.

Satisfactory Academic Progress Policies

Your Ph.D. program's SAP policy is more than your school simply arbitrarily picking minimum standards. Federal regulations at 34 CFR §668.34 require that your school maintain an SAP policy if you and your fellow Ph.D. students are to have access to federal loans and aid. Federal funding is the lifeblood of higher education, including Ph.D. programs. Your school must have a sound SAP policy and must pay close attention to its implementation and enforcement if you and your school's other students are to qualify for federal loans and aid. Your school must also document its implementation and enforcement of that SAP policy to the satisfaction of federal auditors and accrediting agencies. If you face an SAP issue in your Ph.D. program, then don't fight the school's reason or authority for maintaining an SAP policy. Doing so is a losing battle. Instead, fight the SAP policy's application to your individual circumstances with the help of national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the expert team at the Lento Law Firm.

Relief from SAP Minimum Standards

Here's the best news for Ph.D. students facing SAP warning, probation, or dismissal. The same federal regulation 34 CFR §668.34 that requires your Ph.D. program to have a satisfactory academic progress policy authorizes your school to grant relief from that policy. Although they look like it, and school officials may speak of them as so, SAP policies are not, after all, written in stone. SAP policies may be numeric, and your numbers may not meet the SAP minimum standards in one or more respects. But SAP policies are not all about the numbers. By federal law and regulation, SAP policies may and typically do provide for relief from the numbers. With the right showing, by a skilled academic administrative attorney, you cannot meet SAP numbers but still, get relief from the SAP policy.

Grounds for SAP Relief

You must, however, show special circumstances for relief. Schools cannot simply waive their SAP policy for no reason. You must give your school a sound, qualifying reason for relief from its SAP policy. The federal regulation 34 CFR §668.34 itself recognizes your illness or injury, or the death of a close relative, as examples of special circumstances. But your school's SAP officials may recognize any other special circumstance justifying SAP relief. Your illness or injury, or the death of a close relative, are the obvious examples. But the illness or injury of a close family member for whose care you are responsible would be another good example. Unexpected military callup or training, or sudden drastic changes in employment such as reassignment or relocation, could be other qualifying circumstances, depending on the individual case. Fire or flood at home, or theft or destruction of property or papers, could be other qualifying circumstances for relief. Unexpected changes relating to your Ph.D. thesis, like new legislation or scientific discoveries, could even potentially qualify, if the circumstances are sufficiently compelling.

Taking Timely Action

You must, though, take prompt action to gain relief from your school's SAP policy. The school won't do it for you automatically. Simply telling your Ph.D. advisor what's going on won't ordinarily be sufficient to gain relief. Instead, your school's SAP policy will require and permit either your SAP appeal or SAP request for reinstatement. Speaking with your Ph.D. advisor and other school officials to get their support and documentation can certainly help. But you will need to complete your school's SAP form while providing all required documentation. If you receive an SAP warning, probation, or dismissal notice from your Ph.D. program, then you need to take immediate action. For example, Northwestern University's Graduate School permits Ph.D. students to petition for SAP probation and maintains this SAP appeal policy for dismissed Ph.D. students. Ph.D. students who don't follow the required procedures won't get SAP relief. Filing an SAP appeal may be one more onerous task for which you don't have the time or mental resources. But you and your attorney representative need to take that prompt action for you to gain relief.

Expert Help with SAP Issues

And that's the problem, that your need to make an SAP appeal may come at the worst possible moment. Fortunately, you have help available. One of the first steps, not a last resort, that you should take is to get expert academic administrative attorney assistance with your SAP issue. It's not just that you probably don't have time to deal with an SAP appeal. It's also that SAP appeals can be highly technical, requiring documentation and advocacy skills with which you are probably unfamiliar. Taking an SAP appeal or making a request for reinstatement requires more than simply signing the school's form. You will also need to articulate your compelling grounds for relief and document those grounds. Documentation often includes physician statements or other medical opinions and records. Documentation may also include death certificates, counselor letters, and witness statements.

These documents are not always easy to get in the right form with the right information and authentication. That's another reason to get expert attorney help. Academic administrative attorneys know how to identify and advocate compelling grounds for relief, which is the first important step in drafting an appeal brief. Your SAP appeal must show the school why you could not pursue your Ph.D. program within its standard requirements. Effective advocacy of that soft sort can take an especially sensitive touch. But just as significantly, your SAP appeal must document those grounds with credible evidence. Documentation, not argumentation, can be the key to many SAP appeals. If your appeal doesn't adequately document the school's SAP file, then your appeal is likely to lose. Federal regulators and accreditors audit SAP files. Your school can't waive its SAP requirements without having the documentation in place to satisfy those inspectors that your appeal was reliable and sound. Get an expert academic administrative attorney's help early with your SAP issue. Retain national academic administrative attorney Joseph Lento to pursue and perfect your SAP appeal.

Your Recovery Plan

Just as important as documenting your compelling grounds for SAP relief is showing your sound plan for regaining satisfactory academic progress within your Ph.D. program. Your Ph.D. program will require that you show your change in circumstance, meaning your recovery from the condition, event, or circumstance that delayed or disrupted your Ph.D. program work. Proving your positive change in circumstance may mean showing a medical treatment plan, mental health treatment plan, or other personal documentation of your recovery from illness or injury. Or it could mean showing your plan for help caring for your close family member who has suffered illness or injury. The recovery plan will depend on the peculiar circumstance that contributed to the SAP issues. But you must put an effective recovery plan in place and show its proper working.

You will also need an academic recovery plan, not just a personal recovery plan. Academic recovery plans can include things like new research resources, available conferences, new counselors, new advisors, and above all, new strategies. Forming those academic plans isn't easy. Your Ph.D. advisor, mentor, and other school officials can help with academic recovery plans. They may already have recommended measures that you had not yet adopted because of your extenuating circumstances. But forming a winning plan, one that your Ph.D. program accepts, can also take the insight of an experienced academic administrative attorney who knows the customs, conventions, and expectations of SAP officials. Your school officials may, in other words, be at their wit's end, out of ideas for helping you. National academic administrative attorney Joseph Lento can draw on his experience in hundreds of other cases to help you develop a winning recovery plan.

SAP Appeal Procedures

The federal regulation requiring SAP policies provides for appeal procedures. The specific policies that schools having Ph.D. programs adopt under that regulation also provide for appeal procedures. Procedures are important. They tell how to obtain the relief one deserves and seeks. Under 34 CFR §668.34, the Ph.D. student's SAP appeal must not only explain the reason for unsatisfactory progress but also show a change and plan for getting back on track with satisfactory progress. The prior section addresses the change and recovery plan. But SAP appeal procedures are usually quite specific in how the student must present that information. It's not enough that your Ph.D. advisor and program director know your situation and approve your recovery plan. Your school's SAP appeal procedure requires that you get that information in front of SAP appeal officials in the right form that they can use to evaluate, analyze, and document your SAP appeal and its winning approval. Get an expert academic administrative attorney's help meeting your school's SAP appeal procedures. Don't make the mistake of developing a sound plan but failing to get it in front of the official decision-makers.

An Example Appeal Procedure

Florida International University's SAP appeal procedure provides an example that builds on these required procedures. Florida International requires that the student's appeal must use the school's Satisfactory Academic Progress Appeal Form. Students who don't find, follow, and submit the form won't win their appeal. The appeal must also include a signed statement explaining why the student failed to maintain satisfactory academic progress, including the circumstances that have since changed and what steps the student will take to improve progress. The appeal must also include documentation proving what the appeal explains. The appeal form alone is not enough. Florida International rejects incomplete appeals. Documentation typically includes physician statements on letterhead, death certificates, police reports, and signed witness statements. Notice the authentication requirements for these documents, things like letterhead, sealed certificates, and signatures. Don't make the mistake of submitting a compelling appeal but failing to put its supporting documentation in the form that your school requires. Remember that schools maintain SAP appeal files to satisfy inspectors completing rigorous audits. Get expert academic administrative attorney help with your SAP appeal.

Getting Qualified Attorney Assistance

All of the above shows that drafting, documenting, and perfecting an SAP appeal requires an expert's commitment, skill, and experience. Most Ph.D. students, indeed, most attorneys, do not have the academic administrative knowledge and experience to know what makes a good SAP appeal, especially the recovery planning aspect but also the special circumstances. If you have suffered an unfair SAP warning, probation, or dismissal, or you simply face a legitimate SAP warning, probation, or dismissal for which you may have extenuating circumstances, then retain national academic administrative attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to review and pursue your appeal. Don't risk your future. Don't put your future in the hands of an inexperienced and unqualified local attorney who lacks the academic administrative knowledge and skill necessary for an effective SAP appeal. Retain the best available academic administrative attorney representation. Hire attorney Joseph Lento and the expert team at the Lento Law Firm.

The Best Possible Step for Preserving Your Ph.D. Degree

If your Ph.D. program has given you notice of SAP warning, probation, or dismissal, then you can do no better than get the expert help of national academic administrative attorney Joseph D. Lento. Let the expert team at the Lento Law Firm help you evaluate and pursue your SAP appeal or request for reinstatement. Attorney Lento has represented hundreds of Ph.D., graduate, professional, and undergraduate students nationwide in SAP and other disputes with their college or university. Attorney Lento and his expert team at the Lento Law Firm have the knowledge, skill, and experience that you need to preserve your Ph.D. degree and all the value that comes with it. Call the Lento Law Firm now at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation with Attorney Lento or use the Firm's online service.

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