Don’t give your thesis examiner a bad first impression


My hunch is that I’m a lot like most thesis examiners. When we get sent a thesis we often don’t plunge in straight away. We have a bit of a look around first. That’s not an unusual response to a new text.

Think about book shop behaviours. Most people usually check out the title and the back cover and then have a bit of a flick through, perhaps reading some of the first chapter to get a sense of writing. ‘Look inside’ options in online bookshops encourage you to do this.

Or think what you do when you get a new book you’ve ordered on spec. Perhaps you read a few random pages or the start of several chapters. Whatever you do, your little foray into the text gives you an idea about whether the book is going to keep you interested. You also know whether it will be a good read. Then you go for the armchair and the coffee, book in hand.

The thesis examiner is probably no different. They do something equivalent to a bit of a bookshop browse. They pick up or click on the thesis and have a look around.

And what do they see first? The title. Is it dull? Too long? Too vague? Or is it – just right… first impression, right there.

Next, they are likely to look at some or all of – the thesis acknowledgements, the abstract, the table of contents and the reference list. Acknowledgements? Well yes, that’s in part curiosity, but acknowledgements do often give a pretty strong impression of the person who has written them. Thanking the dog and not the supervisor for instance is certainly a statement!

The abstract tells the examiner what the thesis is going to say and gives a glimpse of the writing style. So… Stodgy writing with lots of long sentences and not much variation in style? Tentative claims or no claim at all? Nice turn of phrase and convincing argument? Depending on what there is, the examiner will start looking forward to the reading, feel a little concerned, or in rare cases, summon up the courage for a hard-to-get-through text.

The abstract, together with the table of contents, gives the examiner a pretty good idea of how the thesis is going to go. Add to this the reference list which shows what work has been cited in the text – in other words, the company the doctoral researcher has been keeping for the last few years and the scholarly conversations they’ve been engaged in – and the examiner has formed an initial view of what’s in store for them.

It’s not all bad if some of these initial bits aren’t riveting. Experienced examiners know to put their reservations on hold. For instance a table of contents that uses a lot of generic headings or seems to follow an inexplicable logic can suggest a poorly structured text. But most examiners can put that thought to one side. They know that you only really find out about structure when you get into the text proper.

So where is a poor impression actually made? Well, a bad thing is when the examiner finds typos in the acknowledgments or in the abstract. Or worse still, grammatical mistakes. Yes, careless proofreading, poor grammar and stylistic mistakes make the examiner wonder. They think to themselves –  if the writer has been careless here, then perhaps they have been careless elsewhere. They ask themselves whether there is a difficult read ahead.  They prepare to start noting corrections.

But equally tricky, if you have a scholarly-nerdy examiner like me, are when there are inconsistencies in the referencing – capitals all over the shop, erratic italics and various uses of : ;  , and pp. A sloppy reference list does make the examiner wonder about the quality of the scholarship they will encounter.  And it is an automatic correction, right at the outset.

The lesson here is simple. Don’t put your examiners off. Help your examiner browse. Steer them to focus on what matters – your research. Textual mistakes can easily distract examiner-readers from the substantive content. Present a clean text that meets the basic conventions.

Better still, use your writing to show a bit of yourself in your abstract, your headings and acknowledgements. Show the examiner what a pleasurable read they have in front of them. Make them interested in you and what you have done.

And the lesson. Don’t leave the things that create a good or bad first impression to the last minute. Spend time on the abstract. Think about your table of contents. Above all, proof read really carefully – and check that pesky reference list.

Do this, and your examiner will browse and start well disposed to the thesis, to you and to the viva.

(Yes, I’ve written about this before. Hey, after seven years and nearly eight hundred posts it’s still worth saying!)