We need a Tripadvisor for PhD examiners

The ability for PhD students to research previous students’ experience with particular examiners could reduce bad practice 

July 13, 2020
Trip Advisor
Source: iStock

Defending your doctoral thesis should never be an overly comfortable affair for candidates.

After all, those seeking academia’s highest award should expect their research to be thoroughly tested by experts in their discipline. But too often, UK PhD vivas are recalled as frightening and upsetting encounters that many spend their careers trying to forget.

I know this from personal experience. From the outset of my viva, my work was relentlessly attacked and no matter what I said, it seemed, the external examiners had already made up their minds not to award the PhD. Still, they felt the need to put me through two and half hours of pure hell. It went on for so long that we had pause for lunch before restarting the ordeal.

The result was a resubmission with a substantial rewrite; my findings had to be resubmitted in the same style as the work of one of the externals.

Having completed my PhD on a part-time basis while pursuing a full-time academic career, this result was crushing on many levels; I was devastated to have to spend another 12 months rewriting my work and I was embarrassed to tell colleagues that I had to resubmit.

One colleague told me that it is almost a given that a viva should be hell. But this is where I think the whole system needs revising. It was only when I found myself in this unenviable position that I realised just how powerless you are as a candidate. There is no opportunity for you to fight back or have your say on the process. For the examiners themselves, there is little accountability and scant training and guidance available on how they should conduct themselves – yet there is no option for candidates to request different examiners unless they can prove that there was some form of misconduct – which is almost impossible to do.

So how can we make the process fairer and more transparent? I think we need a website where PhD students can get advice before choosing their examiners: a “Tripadvisor for PhD students”, as one colleague put it. It would consist of short reviews of their viva experience posted voluntarily by post-PhD students (identified by a pseudonym to protect them from any backlash from their examiners). The reviews would include the conduct of the examiners, but would not publicly name them.

PhD students could visit this list, see if anyone’s research is similar to theirs, click the review link and read about the viva experience. There could be a form at the end of the review for the student to contact the reviewer if they wanted to know more – including who the actual examiners were.

I know that everyone’s viva experience is different, so such a list wouldn’t guarantee respectful treatment. I also realise that such a list could be viewed as a way to seek “easy” examiners. But surely any information is better than none, as in the current minefield. Reading about other PhD students’ experiences would have the added advantage that candidates would be more informed about the whole viva process.

Universities’ graduate research offices could start such a list if they wanted to keep them in-house; candidates are already asked by universities to complete an evaluation of how their viva went, after all. Alternatively, they could be externally hosted but updated regularly by graduate research offices nationwide, or even internationally.

Would the creation of such a list potentially put people off becoming PhD examiners? Well, not if they are doing their job properly. Another potential issue is that examiners who are consistently rated favourably would be continually chosen, adding to their workload. However, examiners do not have to agree to examine PhDs, and the hope would be that such a list would make all examiners up their game, so “fair” reviews became the norm.

In the modern age, we do not even make relatively minor consumer choices without reading an online review or two first. Why should something as important as choosing your PhD examiner still be a leap in the dark?

The author has chosen to remain anonymous.

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Reader's comments (7)

I am very disappointed to read the experience of the author. As a veteran of over 50 vivas as an examiner, I am happy to report that none were as described. It would be useful to know the subject area since I suspect that this is not in STEM, where facts can be established. There is every incentive as an examiner to pass a candidate since you do not wish to make them spend considerable time re-writing nor have to add a new thesis version to your to-do list. Therefore, my assumption is usually that the work is good enough until evidence emerges to the contrary, which is actually pretty rare in my experience.
I was very fortunate to have an excellent viva experience as a student but the author's experience is not an unfamiliar one, sadly.
I have sympathies for the author, as an unpleasant viva is not something easily overcome. That said, I take issue with the consumerist model that is promoted. A viva is *not* a consumer experience: the student is not a consumer of a service. The student's thesis and their breadth and depth of understanding is being examined. Unfortunately the examination process is by its very nature challenging and, to a degree, unpleasant. It is difficult to separate "unprofessional" (which is the examiner behaviour that is being described) from "unpleasant". I think it is the responsibility of the supervisory team to select professional external examiners who can effectively challenge - but not damage - the student. A better way is to ensure that external examiners are properly briefed (and possibly even trained) to carry out a viva. I have examined over 80 PhD theses through vivas and have not experienced what the author has - but I have experienced several students who were unprepared and unprofessional. Briefing/training goes both ways.
#3 Submitted by tedmosby Well said
Tripadvisor is subject to misconduct by all sides and I suspect such a site would be too. Perhaps other safeguards are possible. Where I teach, we have a third observer who is not an examiner. At other places the viva is audio taped in case there is a complaint about the conduct.
The pay for examiners is a joke £150 is often the norm for three days work (reading, examining and writing up the things to do) - less than the minimum wage. Meanwhile managers in Universities have bonus schemes giving them thousands of pounds. Something is terribly wrong.
As an - at the time - undiagnosed autistic, my qualifying review (1st year assessment) was extremely upsetting. I'm not good at coping with direct questions on a good day, certainly not when it is hostile and even inaccurate in places - it was so bad that the university set it aside & allowed me a complete restart (and paid for having me assessed for autism).