Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Kindness of Strangers

Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Kindness of Strangers

Article excerpt

External examiners' anachronistic power over the PhD process can be painfully counter-productive. Chris Hackley calls for a more constructive, European-style approach - and for judgement moderated with compassion.

Possession of a research PhD from a UK university garners respect around the world, despite the occasional high-profile scandal. But while a few well-connected candidates might be able to abuse the system in pursuit of a doctorate, far more see the system itself as a source of abuse. In particular, the unbridled power of the external examiner to dismiss years of work as irrelevant, misguided or simply wrong seems highly anachronistic in an era of sky-high student fees and much-trumpeted student charters. Do we care enough about our students to protect them from the rogue examiner?

This is not a polemic against those examiners I see as less compassionate or reasonable than myself. I too have been a "rogue" on occasion - or at least I'm sure I've been perceived as one. My worry is that the unilateral and arbitrary power of the external examiner role in the UK system reflects an antediluvian world that was cosier, more integrated and more collegiate than the one most of us now inhabit. Granted, there is typically a second person acting as the internal examiner, but in most cases it is the external who sets the tone and who wields the decisive power. The candidate's destiny is placed in the hands of the omnipotent external, and woe betide the benighted student whose external is suffering from a case of judgement-impairing ego-depletion on that fateful day.

Many candidates have a Manichaean view of the external examiner as a creature innately good, or evil, depending on the outcome. This personalisation is hardly surprising, given that the examiner will critique that most personal of things: the intellectual and emotional labour that amounts to one's PhD thesis. Candidates hear apocryphal stories of vivas that were failed because the examiner and supervisor were enemies, or passed merely because they were pals - or that failed because the pair were pals who conspired to hate the candidate.

In my limited experience, it is not the personal dimension of relationships that can fail the PhD candidate, but their very impersonality. My field of business and management studies is vast and fragmented. Some of us build careers within a sub-paradigm of broadly agreed standards, while many of us work across multiple paradigms and areas. We cannot rely on a tacit consensus about standards to ameliorate the potential for disasters on viva day. The external examiner, and often the internal examiner too, have no knowledge of the candidate, no loyalty towards the supervisor, and no investment in the institution. Many would say that is the way it is supposed to be. The work is engaged with as if it were an anonymous journal article or a grant application.

The problem is that examining a PhD thesis is not like reviewing a journal article. The PhD candidate has been through three years or more of a programme for which they've paid huge fees. Their supervisor has deemed their work to be worthy of examination, notwithstanding its imperfections. In the UK, the candidate is typically faced with a judgement that says: "You thought today would mark the end of the course that has almost bankrupted you, has dominated your life for years, and will determine your future. Wrong! You now have to do another three/six/18 months of extra work to correct the work you thought wasn't really that bad."

For a tenured academic, this is no big deal. Many of us are used to working on a single journal article through many rejections and redrafts for three years or so. Learning that one's ideas have to be judged by people who are not on your side is part of the process of becoming an academic. Discussing PhD experiences with colleagues, it seems to me that many of us have the nightmare of our own PhD viva seared into our emotional vocabulary, and this desensitisation leads us to be phlegmatic about continuing the chain of abuse. …

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