choosing a thesis examiner

Most supervisors want to discuss the choice of thesis examiners with the doctoral researcher. This may well be more than a single conversation; instead a rather long intermittent musing. There may be a short list of examiners early on, but then the final decision doesn’t become clear until the thesis writing is well underway.

Choosing examiners is a very important aspect of the PhD process. The ‘wrong’ examiner can make the outcome of the viva very unpredictable, in the same way as getting the ‘wrong’ reviewer for a journal article can. But the thesis is much more high stakes than a journal article. Getting the ‘wrong’ person might mean months spent on rewriting and making corrections. Or it might mean a pretty tense discussion between two or three examiners if there is a face-to-face interaction between them, or an adjudication process if the examination reports are written.

Of course, I don’t mean that choosing an examiner is about finding someone who is going to give the doctoral researcher an easy time. No, I’m saying that it is important to find examiners who really do have the right kind of expertise to make a well-informed judgment. And for the very specialised nature of some PhDs, for the increasing number that are interdisciplinary and/or for those texts that break the boundaries of the conventional thesis, it is absolutely crucial to find examiners who grasp the intent and the scholarly context of the work. Having someone who just doesn’t ‘get it’ can be a disaster.

The most popular wisdom about examiner choice is that the supervisor and the PhD researcher look to see which scholars have been significant in the development of the thesis and approach them. This is fine as long as these people are not retired, deceased or inaccessible. And of course they may be so famous and/or in demand that they are not available. A short list of possibles is required.

Another approach is to ask which scholars the PhD researcher would like to read their work and engage in a conversation. When this latter line of action is taken it’s not uncommon for the supervisor and the doctoral researcher to make sure, after the decision about the person is taken, to read the thesis through to make sure that the potential examiner’s work is used and cited. A referencing retro- fit, if you like.

So let’s take these two cases – the person significant to the thesis, and the desirable conversant – and imagine that they available and willing. There are some decision nuances now. The researcher may have used their early work – what if they have moved on? Or only their later work – what if they actually think the development of the work is key? If the thesis is critical of the examiner’s research, then the decision becomes a little more tricky. How will they respond to a new scholar who takes issue with some of their work? And what if the desired conversant is someone whose work the doctoral researcher hasn’t used – they are just someone who knows a lot about the field and the interest is in seeing what they make of the contribution? How will they respond to their work not being used, or perhaps being referred to only in passing?

As soon as we start to discuss these how-will-they-react questions, then it becomes clear that it might be advantageous to know more about the potential examiner than their published work (which may or may not have been pivotal to the thesis). And supervisors in particular do consider other issues when they are thinking about the choice of examiners for the doctoral researchers they work with.

For example, they might have questions about how examiners are likely to behave:

How experienced are the proposed examiners? Do they know theses other than their own? Are they familiar with the range and variety of texts that count as a thesis? These days most universities ask for information about track record in doctoral examination and supervision; this attempts to get at this kind of information. The question of track record isn’t straightforward – if experience is all that counts then how does an early career researcher get to have it? Everyone has to start somewhere. And it would be perfectly possible to be an experienced examiner and still have a pretty narrow view of the PhD and acceptable standards.

But supervisor questions can be about practice, not knowledge/experience:

Is the examiner known to be fair? Interested in other people’s work? Generous, rather than mean? Or are they a person who insists on their own work being referenced copiously? Do their examinations always result in multiple corrections?

Now these are really difficult questions, and answering them might rely on the academic equivalent of something not too far removed from gossip. If the scholarly grapevine is used, then the information that results might be prejudicial or might be just plain wrong. But we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that these discussions don’t sometimes go on. However, the only ethical way around these practice questions is for the supervisor to sound out potential examiners beforehand – to send an abstract of the thesis and, if it is highly specialised, interdisciplinary or pushing the boundaries – to ask how they would respond to it.

Supervisors might also have questions about whether the examiner might be a good strategic choice.

Are they influential in the field and likely to give really helpful feedback that will help the researcher? Are they the kind of person who will help make connections with other key figures? Do they edit a journal or books that the researcher might publish in? Would they invite the researcher to participate in a conference symposium, give a seminar? Would they give the researcher a helping hand in advancing their career?

While a ‘leg-up’ can’t be expected of examiners, it is something that often happens, simply because the examiner is at the time of examination one of the few people who knows the doctoral researcher’s work in detail. Thinking about this kind of strategic support therefore can be a real consideration in the choice making process. However, it isn’t the most important – that really does come down to finding examiners who are going to be knowledgeable about the field and positioned to make wise judgments about the thesis they have read in depth. And ultimately, that’s down to how well the supervisor, and by then the doctoral researcher, knows who’s who and what’s what in the field.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in examiner, thesis and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to choosing a thesis examiner

  1. Paul says:

    Spot on – best to rely on the supervisor to get someone they know to not be a pain in the arse.

  2. Alan Smithee says:

    This all sounds awfully complex, in every PhD I know of, you get one of the Supervisor’s mates who you know will not give you a hard time. I have never come across the ‘most popular wisdom’ as outlined here.

  3. kr5686Kathy says:

    An examiner that ‘grasps the intent’ caught my attention. You are absolutely correct in identifying the choice of examiners for interdisciplinary work as key, I learnt that lesson from the upgrade! I started reading the blog of my ‘to be’ external examiner in 2006, 3 years before I registered for a part-time PhD. I have read every entry and I have learnt a great deal as a consequence. The blog is still regularly updated which is a cause for admiration in itself, amongst a host of other things that I admire. From reading the blog I believe that my ‘to be’ external examiner will grasp the intent provided that I manage to articulate it.

    Disclaimer: By the way for anyone reading this comment, other than Pat Thomson, Pat is not my ‘to be’ examiner.

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  6. I took a list of about ten people who I knew had worked in the same area and were in the UK to my supervisor in the second year. They ruled out most of them in that meeting, and the choice then was my eventual external. It went very well, and I had an excellent external and internal, with a smooth viva from very engaged parties that are known well within the field. I do recommend taking as much control over this process as you can and discussing it with your committee early.

  7. Grainne says:

    Choosing an external examiner can actually be less stressful than putting up with the available pool of internal examiners… I know of people who have had an awful experience in their upgrade or viva due to departmental politics!

  8. Thank you so very much for this. I am in the process of choosing examiners and a little lost. I’ve mainly been considering people who’s work I really like. Might need to re think my approach.

  9. Very helpful post, Pat. I would add one thing. Over many years, it has struck me how much stricter young and inexperienced examiners than more seasoned ones. I would, reluctantly, add myself to the list of those who, in youth, are far too picky in examining PhDs. I now avoid examiners for my students, unless they have already some experience.

    • Undercover examinerlover says:

      I wish I had read this before my exam!! My mid-career external really roasted me. I know the finished product will be very good (it has to be with this examiner), but I can’t help feeling that I had a hard time of it. Also it doesn’t help having the same person review an article a couple of months prior- anything in the article was summarily ordered to be removed from the thesis.

  10. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    This is very helpful, many thanks – definitely going to come handy when “my” time for such encounter comes nearer.

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