Supervising the supervisors 1

January 1, 2009

In "Rapid results culture undermines quality" (Letters, 11 December), the anonymous writer describes his/her unfortunate experience of being the external examiner for a PhD thesis that "... was not a thesis but a draft of a thesis, and quite a rough one at that. This presented me with an unfair dilemma. Strictly speaking, it was inadequate - an MPhil really". The writer then goes on to indicate that "the 'viva' became in effect a four-hour supervision from a specialist in the relevant field, ie, myself".

The writer "later heard that the student had done the 'corrections' and had been awarded the PhD". This approach to external examining raises a number of issues concerning the role of an external examiner for a postgraduate research degree.

Firstly, if the writer thought that the thesis was so poor, why did he/she proceed with the oral? The state of the thesis clearly indicated a lack of proper supervision of the student in the writing of the thesis and, probably, a similar lack of preparation of the student for the oral.

The examiners (as well as the supervisors) have a duty of care to the student. Subjecting a student to a very lengthy (four hours?) and, presumably, highly critical examination is likely to be highly counterproductive and not in the best interests of the student.

At the very least, it would be likely that the student would be very demoralised, which, in turn, would be likely to seriously damage the relationship between student and supervisor(s). Why did the writer not indicate to the supervisors that there was no point in proceeding with the oral until the thesis had been substantially rewritten?

Secondly, if the thesis was so poor, why did the writer tick the "degree awarded subject to minor corrections" box? Why did they not tick the "major corrections and resubmission" box so that the degree could not have been awarded until the writer was satisfied that the thesis had been adequately revised?

To complain about an institution's approach to postgraduate supervision in such strong terms as "my own anger at the university for placing me in this awkward position" and then doing nothing about it is an abdication of professional responsibility.

James Watkins, Swansea University.

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