4 things you should know about choosing examiners for your thesis



Someone once said “the un-examined thesis is not worth writing”. Actually, that might have been Socrates talking about life, but my point remains the same. Examination is the gateway to the hallowed status of ‘Dr’ and the source of considerable anxiety. The idea of someone reading and ‘marking’ your thesis can seem so… abstract when you are writing it, but as the hand in date draws near the abstract becomes alarming concrete. So – who should it be?

In the USA research students are lucky enough to be examined by their supervisors (or maybe not so lucky, as this piece from My Grad School suggests), but in other places examination is a peer review process. In Australia the viva (an oral presentation to examiners who have already read the text) is rare. We are a long way from anywhere and flying examiners in is prohibitively expensive. At RMIT we send the text to two or three examiners who are expected to write a report and recommend a ‘grade’. It’s not really a grade, but an indication of how much work needs to be done; from not very much to rather a lot. Although examiners can recommend a ‘fail’ grade, this only happens to about 2% of students each year (I suspect they are not the kind of students who are reading the Thesis Whisperer, so take a deep breath).

Thesis examination is an object of study and researchers agree that the choice of thesis examiners needs to be handled with extreme care. Examiners are human and will bring their own pet likes and dislikes into the process of reading your work. At RMIT, and many other places, the student does not choose the examiners – the supervisor does. However it’s a bit of a grey area and many students are actively involved in the decision making process. Some supervisors are very open about discussing potential examiners with the student; others take the rules very seriously and refuse to even discuss it. If the latter is the case for you I recommend taking the initiative and broaching the subject anyway as you do have the right to say who should not be examining.

Here’s four things to think about including in such a discussion:

1) Student knows best (usually)

You have been immersed in this study for years. Only those who have been immersed in similar topics will be qualified to judge your work. It’s likely you have already ‘met’ your examiner somewhere in the literature. Your supervisor may not be reading the same sorts of literature and may be unaware of who is out there – so help them out.

The easiest way is to make an examiners profile. Make a list of your five favourite academic writers within your topic domain and Google stalk them. Use this information to write a short (2 or 3 page) document for your supervisor. Include names and short profiles of each person you have chosen as well as your rationale for why they would be a good examiner. Include contact details including university affiliation, address, phone number and email details.

Give this examiner profile document to your supervisor at least six months before you plan to submit (which should coincide with the first full draft of your thesis). Along with this include a short statement about the kind of person who shouldn’t examine your thesis and give a few examples, just to be clear. Finally please – listen to Aunty Thesis Whisperer now – keep a copy of the email with the date stamp. If there are dramas later you can point at this document and say “I told you not to send it to them!”

2) Beware of conflict of interest

It stands to reason that you can’t have your mum, dad, aunt, uncle, cousin or best friend judge your thesis. Such people have what we call a ‘conflict of interest’: their love for you might corrupt their ability to make a clear judgment and, even if they could put these feelings aside, there would still be the appearance of a conflict of interest.

It’s unlikely that a relative or close friend will be asked to judge your thesis, but you may have become friendly with people in your field at for example conferences, workshops and via Twitter. You shouldn’t avoid making friends with people in your field, but do avoid sending them any drafts to comment on as this is usually the reason why such people will be excluded from examining you. You must make your supervisor aware of these existing friendships and connections – it’s up to the supervisor to decide if the relationship constitutes a conflict of interest or not.

3) Methodology wars

The examiner profile I sent to my supervisor stated “no positivists allowed”. I was using qualitative methods and I didn’t want an examiner who thought that truth could only be found by numbers. They just wouldn’t have believed my findings. You may have entirely the opposite criteria, but either way it’s vitality important the examiner understands, and is sympathetic to, the way you are attempting to make knowledge. The best way to tell if a potential examiner is well placed to give your thesis a fair reading is to read their papers – so why not send some to your supervisor along with your examiner’s profile?

4) Shooting for the stars

If you’ve not yet read the seminal paper “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize”, you must (and share the love while you’re at it by printing it out and leaving it in the research student tearoom). In this accessible paper Mullins and Kiley talk about examiners having firm opinions on “what a thesis looks like”. So – despite the fact that RMIT, like most other universities, sends a ‘marking guide’ with your thesis, the examiner is likely to just ignore it. Here’s the thing to take away from that statement: the more experienced your examiner is, the more theses they have read and the more likely it becomes they have read ones worse than yours. Experienced examiners are more forgiving, so don’t be afraid to put ‘stars’ on your list.

So that’s my four main tips for choosing examiners – what are yours? Is there something that should be number five on the list? Alternatively, do you have any questions about examination? Pop them in the comments!