The kindness of strangers

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

May 24, 2012

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. It's just the way it is.

But for candidates, the viva is the biggest day of their life so far. A bad one is a shattering emotional trauma, and one from which some may never recover. I have seen this process as a PhD candidate, a supervisor and an examiner. I was lucky with my own PhD - my external only asked me to get some additional data, which fortunately I was able to obtain in spite of being in full-time employment. I still remember the sense of anticlimax when I was told "congratulations - you haven't got your PhD (yet)". But I'm grateful, because it could have been so much worse. As an external or supervisor I have a lot of sympathy for candidates who see their big day collapse in slow motion as the viva grinds on and the external's implacable dissatisfaction with the thesis gradually reveals itself.

Perhaps empathy is simply inappropriate in this role. As an external, I've never gone to a viva unless I feel that I can say it's a PhD, even though I may feel it needs amendments, perhaps major ones. When I read a thesis that is simply not, in my view, at PhD level, I withdraw from the process before the viva, and explain my reasons. Why would I do two weeks of work for £150 (before tax) simply to ruin someone's life? If the candidate can make some improvements, find a different examiner, and get their PhD without a side order of post-traumatic stress disorder, then that's a good thing.

On another occasion, I asked for amendments when I really believed a thesis needed fundamental changes. I had no doubt the work was of PhD level, but I thought the research was simply placed in the wrong paradigm. But I was pitting my own intellectual prejudices against those of the supervisor and candidate. I put my concerns aside and boiled my dissatisfaction down to a single page of amendments to be completed within three months. The candidate's inability to see the point of my arguments, and their obvious distress in the viva, also influenced me. I felt sorry for them. Perhaps I moderated my intellectual judgement with compassion. Or perhaps I lacked the fortitude that is necessary to defend our intellectual standards. But let's face it, we have all set our intellectual prejudices aside when we've no choice, such as when we make changes to a paper that we feel are unnecessary just to get it past a stubborn journal reviewer. PhD candidates, unlike journal reviewers, have no power whatsoever. Like most nasty things humans do to each other, we do them because we can.

On the other hand, some of us feel that the PhD has become a sort of glorified master's degree in the new world of high volume, high fee student enrolments. It's no longer something that should rightly be judged against the highest standards of published research. Instead, such a view holds that the PhD should simply demonstrate advanced research and analytical skills. It should be publishable, although that could be after a lot of editing, and in a last resort journal. And who can say this is the wrong attitude? We have hundreds of PhDs graduating in the UK each year; does every thesis apply critical analysis and generate findings that genuinely move the field forward? We know this cannot be true. Candidates are well aware that some of their number are given a pat on the back and cup of tea at their viva, while others are torn to shreds, and it is not necessarily only the quality of the thesis that distinguishes the two.

A major problem for candidates and supervisors is that we do not know how individuals will react to the enormous power of being an examiner, even if we think we know them. The supervisor has a responsibility to the candidate to appoint the right external. I've known colleagues who are close friends with an academic they admit they would never ask to examine their own PhD student. Our field rewards a certain way of thinking that does not necessarily entail compromise. We live by intellectual prejudices, and being an external on a PhD viva is an iron-clad opportunity for us to take them out for a stroll, with nothing at stake but the happiness and career of a person who cannot call us to account however dyspeptic or pedantic our judgement of their work may be. University regulations protect the examiner, and the student who feels their viva was unfair is usually dismissed as a bad sport. Appointing a viva chair, or making an audio recording of the viva, merely tinker with the existing system but don't engage with its flaws.

The process is complicated by institutions' differing rules. There is a surprising variability in the list of outcomes available to the external. For example, some universities allow the examiner to ask for 18 months of amendments to the PhD. Others insist that amendments of that order amount to a referral, making a new submission necessary. The distinction matters a great deal to a candidate, because one is a pass, the other is not. Some state that up to three months is a suitable period of time for minor amendments. Others regard minor amendments as correcting typographical errors only. Still others include a clause in the pre-viva report asking explicitly whether the thesis constitutes work of PhD level, presumably to weed out the external prepared to travel to a far-flung corner of the world on viva day just to fail someone's thesis.

PhD examiners are essential to academic life, and examining is a thankless task. I do it because I can't in conscience ask people to examine my own students unless I do it for others. I've never done a directly reciprocal examination for someone who examined my student. But the responsibility, and the implications of the outcome for the candidate, are far too grave to rest on the fallible shoulders of one individual. Everything about the UK university environment has evolved, apart from the PhD examining process. We need to adopt a system closer to that of some European countries, in which an internal panel, with reference to external advice, effectively decides when a thesis is a PhD and the externally examined viva becomes a symbolic, public occasion which, subject to a satisfactory verbal defence, should conclude with a celebration. The fees we charge for PhDs and the commitment we demand from the candidate require that we take full responsibility for the outcome instead of washing our hands and hiding behind the bogus integrity of the independent external examiner system. The viva is the candidate's big day. What do we gain by making it the worst day of their lives?

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