Pity the poor PhD student…

By Marcus Wilson 10/09/2010

I’ve recently been asked to be an examiner for a PhD thesis.  This is the first time I’ve been given this honour. It is a slightly disconcerting thought as the success of the last three (or possibly more) years of a student’s life hangs on what I choose to say about his thesis.

When I think about it, the PhD examination seems a bizarre process. A student puts three years into researching a topic that possibly only a handful people in the world will ever be interested in, and then spends six months putting together a piece of writing (the thesis) that makes the previous three years sound productive, knowing full well that (if he or she is lucky) only three people will actually read it (themselves, their supervisor, and an examiner – and the last two might not even look at it properly).

So, out of duty to the poor student, I have been filling every available free second in the last couple of weeks reading through his thesis. At the end of this, I have to submit a report back to his university (in Australia) in which I make a recommendation about whether he should be awarded a PhD. Different universities have different procedures regarding thesis examination – in my case in Bristol many many years ago I had an oral exam with an external examiner and an internal examiner (the latter not being my supervisor – he had no part in the exam process). In New Zealand, getting an external examiner to come and do an oral exam can be prohibitively expensive (and Waikato insists on an examiner from outside NZ) so in practice this examiner usually submits questions to the candidate via an internal examiner. However, for the thesis I have been asked to examine, I merely need to make comments on it; I don’t get the chance to ask questions back to the student.

When the thesis arrived in the post, I was rather expecting to find with it a document on what I should look for as an examiner – i.e. some guidance on what would be ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ theses.  Interestingly, there isn’t any. It really is left up to me to give a decision based on what I think.  Other qualifications seem to have extremely robust examination practices, where exam questions are extensively reviewed beforehand, then marking is subject to moderation, etc. etc., while the success of a PhD thesis hangs on someone’s whim.  Or so it would seem. I can of course compare it to other successful PhD theses I have read completely (let’s be honest here – this means three – my own one, that of a student whose PhD thesis I read during my PhD work, and that of a work colleague back in the UK who asked me to review it for her before she submitted it), but is that a really robust way of doing it?  I only have one of those theses available to me now, anyway.

The other interesting and unexpected thing is that I get paid for this examination. Not mega-bucks, but neither is it a trivial amount. I wonder whether my PhD examiner got paid (and does getting paid influence the chance of the examiner returning a good report?..I wonder…)

For the record, I am attempting to give an honest, unbiased report back on this student, whose future career hangs by a thread in front of me while I hold a pair of scissors…..




0 Responses to “Pity the poor PhD student…”

  • That resonates with me! I remember thinking, about 15 minutes into the oral examination of my own thesis, that the NZ external examiner hadn’t read the document in question particularly closely. I found myself saying, well, I’ve addressed that particular issue on page xyz. More than once…

  • It’s great that you are going to so much of an effort to be familiar with the students work. As you and Alison have noted some examiners don’t take such time.
    One useful piece of advice I had was, as a PhD student, was to research the interests of your examiner as this allows you to guess at some of the questions they might ask. Mine had a strong interest in NMR spectroscopy and it came through in some of the questions.
    I also think it is important for examiners to realise that students can be neervous and they might need to ask a few basic questions to begin with if they look stressed and there is sometimes the need to “tease answers out” of the student or rephrase questions.
    Has anyone experienced the system used in some European countries – your oral is head in front of an audience and sometimes is open to questions from the audience?