How to Examine a Thesis

How to Examine a Thesis

How to Examine a Thesis

How to Examine a Thesis


• What is involved in examining a research-based higher degree?
• What are the roles of the internal and external examiners?
• What are the hidden agendas of higher degree examining?
• What are the essential ingredients of a 'good' viva? This handbook offers a revealing insight into the written -- and unwritten -- rules and regulations of higher degree examination in the United Kingdom today. Addressed directly to the examiners, it contains a step-by-step account of the different stages of the examination process in order to provide an insiders' guide into what to expect before, during and after the oral examination. How to Examine a Thesis covers important issues such as:
• The power-relations between the two (or more) examiners
• Hidden agendas and foul play
• Examples of guidelines and regulations across different institutions
• Advice on MPhil as well as doctoral examinations This book is essential reading for all higher degree examiners but is also of importance to those supervising, and studying for, higher degrees. Moreover, although the book focuses primarily on current practices in the United Kingdom, comparisons are drawn with continental Europe, Australia and the United States. Research degree examiners, supervisors and students throughout the world will find the book of considerable interest.


Being asked to examine a doctoral thesis is one of the greatest honours you can be afforded as an academic. It means you have acquired a reputation and a level of expertise in your own work that entitles you to pass judgement on others working in the same field. In the case of external examiners, it will also almost certainly mean that you have achieved promotion (senior lecturer or above) and, by corollary, that your name will have sufficient weight and kudos in the academic world when the candidate subsequently approaches you for a reference.

There is good reason to open this book with a consideration of what examining a thesis means to examiners in 'identity' terms. With such modest financial rewards attached (see 2.4), we have to address head-on why any academic is prepared to undertake such a tough and time-consuming job. The fact that often we are flattered into it on the grounds of our 'reputation' and 'standing' takes us straight to an ever-present issue in the UK higher degree examination process: while the examiners' status, reputation and 'ego' are usually (though not exclusively) proven and intact, those of the candidate are not. During the process of the examination – up to and including the viva – he or she is thus acutely vulnerable. This is surely first among the reasons why being asked to examine a doctoral thesis is not only one of the greatest honours you can be afforded as an academic; it is also one of the greatest responsibilities.

Although this book centres on the practical advice needed to make you a good and efficient examiner of higher degrees, it begins with this ethical point as a consequence of having seen too many young – and not so young – lives torn apart by poor and/or irresponsible examining. While I agree that a good deal of the responsibility for 'improving standards' lies with the higher education institutions (HEIs) and funding councils (see discussions in Chapter 1), 'old habits' are not going to change overnight, and I therefore trust that examiners will be prepared to initiate some modest improvements themselves.

For the stark fact of the matter is this: a bad examination experience at . . .

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