Monday, 15 April 2013

Examination of the PhD thesis: first impressions last

The PhD viva is a highly charged event, with an immense emotional investment in the face-to-face interview that is such an important examination of whether your thesis passes or fails. But is it the most important? Here, I consider the importance of the thesis in shaping first impressions and influencing PhD examiners' decisions.

The submission of a PhD thesis is rarely easy. (Any students who find it easy usually have enough sense to keep quiet about it!) But amid all of the printing, photocopying, fighting with images and page numbers, and binding, the final stage of thesis submission can feel like more of a logistical accomplishment rather than an integral part of the academic examination of a doctorate. For a research student, submission of the thesis is typically a race to meet a university submission deadline! The immediate audience for the thesis is often an administrator in the Postgraduate Exams Office.

For various reasons, some PhD theses are submitted in a form that is not as good as it should be. One of our recent discussions at a training event described the submission of a thesis with sloppy writing, typos or poor formatting as being like turning up to an interview in a tracksuit! If the presentation of the thesis is sloppy and error-prone, then an examiner can’t help wondering about how error-prone is the research methodology or the data analysis and interpretation.

The significance of the thesis as a focus of examination is logical, and research indicates the importance of making a good first impression.

The following is a description (from an Australian study) of how examiners typically deal with a thesis that is sent to them:
… different examiners approach the task differently, but most examiners begin by reading the abstract, introduction and conclusion to gauge the scope of the work, and by looking at the references to see what sources have been used and whether they need to follow up on any of them. They then read from cover to cover, taking detailed notes, and finally go back over the thesis to check on whether their questions have been answered or whether their criticisms are justified. (Mullins and Kiley 2002: 376)
For the purpose of this post, what's most interesting is that most examiners do not change their opinion of the thesis that is formed before the viva:
Forty per cent of examiners . . . said that the decision about the thesis was made before the viva. In 74% of cases the viva served merely to confirm the examiners’ opinions of the candidate. . . .  Where the viva did influence the examiners this did not necessarily influence the examiners’ decision. (Jackson and Tinkler 2001: 361)
In fact, an important examination of your thesis occurs during its reading by the examiner, and the above research suggests that the reading of the thesis may be the most important examination. This stands to reason, as it is impossible for the examiner to read the thesis and not evaluate it along the way. Thus, the examiner has a pretty good impression about your thesis before they arrive at the viva, and research of examiners' practices confirms this (Tinkler and Jackson 2000; Trafford and Leshem 2002).
None of this should be interpreted as saying that the viva is unimportant. Nevertheless, while you must take the viva seriously and prepare adequately for it as an examination, it is also extremely important that you first submit your written thesis with a clear understanding that it is the thesis that may dominate the examiners’ impressions and assessment of your doctoral research.

PhD Skill: Carefully proofread and edit your thesis - get one of your PhD colleagues to read your thesis and you can reciprocate when it is their turn. As well as conducting and reporting high quality and valid research, present your research thesis to high standards.

Jackson, P. and Tinkler, C. (2001) ‘Back to basics: a consideration of the purposes of the PhD viva’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 26: 355-366.
Mullins, G. and Kiley, M. (2002) ‘“It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize”: how experienced examiners assess research theses’, Studies in Higher Education, 27: 369-386.
Tinkler, P. and Jackson, C. (2000) ‘Examining the doctorate: institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain’, Studies in Higher Education, 25: 167-180.
Trafford, V. and Leshem, S. (2002) ‘Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: predictable questions as stepping stones’, Higher Education Review, 35: 31-49.

Further reading
See related blog post on Doctoral Writing SIG by Susan Carter: Defending research choices in doctoral writing: getting the habit at the start of the research

See Chapter 7 The PhD Examination Process in my book 'Getting a PhD: an action plan to help manage your research, your supervisor and your project.' (Routledge Study Guide)

The Pacific Exchange. Blog post: How NOT to hand in your PhD

photo credit: Nenyaki via photopin cc


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