Examining a PhD thesis

We try to give advice to our doctoral students about how to prepare for the PhD examination. These instructions (link), training events (link), and mock examinations are useful orientations for the pinnacle of doctoral students’ careers, but describing the process from the other side of the table, from the examiner’s point of view, is what I attempt to do here. I will draw on my twenty or so examinations in European countries (UK and Scandinavia, some in the US) related to empirical projects in music and science to reflect what seems to be essential in this review task.

Why examine a PhD thesis?

There comes a time when you will be asked to review a doctoral thesis. This is a recognition that you have specific expertise that is in high demand; you have the necessary trappings to go with it (usually an academic post of some kind); some experience of supervision and examination; and finally, you are considered to possess sufficient interpersonal skills to be trusted to handle something as fragile as a doctoral student’s entire academic work. The financial compensation for this task is usually minimal (an honorarium can be 80-160 pounds) so money is never your motivation, and needless to say, you would not have made it this far if money was the incentive behind your career choice. The real driver is the academic citizenship which propels peer review, grant reviews, and all other review processes in academia that are demanding and time-consuming, but often rewarding and educational opportunities to learn what is happening in your discipline and to share your expertise with others. And since we have all benefitted from the reviews carried out by others for our dissertations, manuscripts, grant reviews and promotion reviews, you should not hesitate to return the favour when asked. Unlike normal peer reviews, a PhD examination does have an element of recognition or vanity since it is a public affirmation of the review.

Exam traditions

PhD examination traditions are different. I take the UK viva as the starting point here. The UK viva – officially viva voce – Latin for “by live voice” is held behind closed doors, usually with two examiners (external and internal) sometimes with a chair and – in my experience in rare occasions – other support members. This allows for focussed exploration of the work and the formal purpose is to check that the candidate is fully competent on the topic and demonstrate that the thesis makes a significant, original contribution to knowledge. It is a fairly short event (1-3 hours) after which the examiners will decide whether the work merits a “pass” or “pass with minor corrections” or “pass with major corrections” or something worse (e.g., resubmission). I have not seen the statistics of these decision categories but the folklore seems to imply that pure a “pass” (without any corrections) is exceedingly rare, and the “pass with minor corrections” or “major corrections” tend to be the realistic options.

I personally find the public examinations appealing if you accept the fact that they serve a double function; to inspect that the candidate is a recognised expert of the specific topic and to signal to the rest of the community (and particularly to the relatives, friends and wider scholarly community) that the candidate has achieved something academically valuable which is praised by experts in the candidate’s research field. In this case, the public examination can be regarded as a great showcase which allows the candidate to demonstrate the knowledge and competences acquired during the PhD process.

What is a good PhD examination?

In other European countries, PhD examinations are similar in function but are usually public events. For instance, Scandinavian doctoral examinations are open to the public and are more formal and celebratory events than UK vivas. The written work has already been externally reviewed by at least two, sometimes three international readers – who may not be the same person as the external examiner – before the work is allowed to be publicly examined. In the public examination, the candidate usually gives an opening lecture, and all sorts of formalities from the strict dress code, to Latin phrases are part of the event. These events may also last longer than the UK vivas but there are curious exceptions. In the Dutch PhD ceremony, a sizeable committee of academics (master of ceremony and four to seven scholars) ask penetrating questions from the candidate that has two support members at hand to withstand an inquisition lasting exactly 60 minutes.

Similar to other academic reviewing, you should be kind, constructive, clear, and try to find ways to improve the work as the examiner. Read the work diligently and think through the issues the work attempts to solve, and remember to scale the contribution to the right level (a 3-year PhD, not a 5-year funded research team project). And it pays off to read the institutional instructions since they vary across institutions (how the independent and joint reports are prepared and submitted, what the decision-making structures are, and so on).

In the examination itself, I find it useful to start with a friendly and open question to let the candidate warm up and build confidence in the viva. If the work is good, the examiners are usually allowed to tell the candidate this from the outset to set the positive tone. Many institutional guidelines suggest that the candidate uses the first 10 minutes to summarise the work and outline the main findings. As an examiner, hearing this is often a useful reminder of the decisions that have been made in the thesis. I tend to follow the introduction with a broad contextualisation of the work to align it to the disciplinary landscape. It is a matter of taste whether the flow of questions follows a ‘methods and results’ type of structure, or the actual ‘chapter-by-chapter’ review of the work. It is considered to be somewhat vulgar to focus on typos or presentational issues unless these are crucial to the understanding of the work.

If the PhD has serious flaws or shortcomings, it is even more important to be supportive and let the candidate understand that the examination is not only a quality check but potentially additional help to say what aspects of the work still need to be addressed. Sometimes the candidate can be nervous and struggling to respond. In such instances, there is nothing wrong with pausing and encouraging the candidate to relax and remind them of positive aspects already covered to build some confidence. The candidate can also utilise tactics which buy time such as checking something in the thesis or asking the examiner to reiterate the question in order to write it down. Every candidate should think beforehand about the list of possible questions and have an overall strategy of how to respond to these. The candidate can also wield a strategy to accept a critical comment as something that was a conscious decision at the time after considering the alternatives. This can work well, especially if the candidate can talk about the way the other options would have shaped the work.

Further benefits for the student and examiner?

In exceptional examinations, the discussion between the examiner and the candidate goes beyond the work being examined and addresses fundamental or pressing questions faced by the discipline and the research area in general. These can be inspirational for all parties involved and can perhaps shape the postdoctoral plans of the candidate. There are also some early career funding calls (e.g. British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship) where the PhD examiner is deemed the best possible person to provide a statement about a research proposal, or they can provide a letter of reference being an independent scholar who knows the candidate’s work intimately. For the examiner, the inspiration often comes from engaging with talented PhD students, and it is also a good way to keep the network of your peers content and willing to offer their expertise when eventually one of your supervisees needs an expert but sympathetic external examiner.

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