Doctoral examiners should help themselves by creating a list of things they consider to be good evidence of whether a candidate will be a competent researcher, because few formal guidelines exist.
This is just one piece of advice from Pam Denicolo, emeritus professor at the University of Reading and consultant professor on doctoral education at the University of Surrey, who recently hosted a workshop at the Society for Research in Higher Education about the challenges of doctoral examining.
Examining a PhD is a “big responsibility” that “weighs heavily on people’s shoulders”, she explained.
“This is the very top qualification that anybody has, yet the final assessment is the one that is the least monitored,” she told Times Higher Education after the event on 10 June.
Generally, the criteria for awarding a doctorate are vague. Candidates are expected to demonstrate that they have made an original contribution to knowledge and have potential for publications, she said.
Would-be examiners should think carefully about whether they themselves have sufficient experience and topic knowledge to do the examining and should understand that there is “very little guidance” on what examiners should be looking for.
Professor Denicolo advises people to learn about any thesis rules in place at the university for which they will examine because these often vary between institutions. These are seldom intellectual or theoretical requirements, she explained, but instead concern aspects such as word count.
“The professional bit of it is knowing whether [the candidate’s work] is a contribution to knowledge [and deciding if the] thesis and viva provide evidence that this person is going to be a competent researcher on their own,” she said.
Creating a list of attributes relevant to the discipline of research ahead of time can also help, she suggested.
“It is not that the candidate has to have every single one of those attributes or a certain level of those attributes, but that you need to have some evidence that they have got most of them,” she added.
Don’t neglect training
Inexperienced examiners could benefit from training, which may give them some guidance on what qualities to look for in a candidate and a thesis, how to balance the different required elements and how to deal with any tricky situations they may encounter.
Examples of such situations may be coming under pressure or feeling obliged to take on the position of an internal examiner if asked by their head of department, for example. Or, on occasion, worrying about whether other more high-profile examiners will consider their views to be valuable or useful.
Discussing these challenges with peers can be helpful in providing examiners with a range of ideas about how to deal with them, she said.
Added to the challenges of examining PhDs is the fact that the doctorate is changing. “In the past 15 years, we have gone from the thesis being the focus of attention to the developing researcher being the focus,” Professor Denicolo said.
“What we are looking for when we are examining now is evidence that this person can be let loose on research all by themselves,” she said. This might be something that shows that they can cope with a range of research challenges rather than just writing up one particular research project, she added.
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