How an examiner reads a thesis



About this time every year I post something about the reading habits of thesis examiners.

At the risk of repeating myself – again – it is worth knowing what they/we examiners do when they/we receive that big fat tome the results of your hard work.

It’s helpful to know that examiners don’t often sit down and read your thesis in one go. If they do, it’s because they are on a plane or a long train journey. Mostly, your thesis will be read in three or four or even more than one sitting. The examiners will may thus need some help in remembering where they are. Those summaries you made at the end of each chapter not only helped you as a reader to sort out how your argument was sequenced, they help examiners pick up your argument where they left off reading a few days previously are also an important aide-memoire to the examiners.

The examiners are also likely to do some pre-reading before they start on the whole text. Because they can do this in between meetings Examiners will are likely to look first at one, some or all of:

  • the thesis abstract

The examiners expect an abstract to be a succinct summary of the thesis which tells them what it is about and what is coming provides key details – why the research was done, how, where and with whom, the results and the implications. They expect to see the warrant and the contribution made clear and if it isn’t they start to panic.

  • the reference list

The examiners expect to see, from the list of what has the candidate has read, how well they know the field. The examiners read the references looking for relevant current and historical materials and the ‘must cite’ seminal works, if they exist. They see what’s omitted and where the candidate’s gaps in knowledge might be – and this may lead to them worrying viva questions. From this references reading, they get some pointers to where the candidate locates their own work and that of the examiners who are supposedly appointed for their expertise. They can also see whether the references meet standard scholarly conventions. If they are a mess do not follow the required conventions, then the examiner will certainly not only ask for corrections but also form a dim view of the candidate’s lack of attention to detail scholarship.

  • the table of contents

The examiner can see a lot from the contents list. They can see whether all the steps that they expect are there. They can see whether the argument moves appear to be in a logical order. From this, they make a judgment about whether the argument is missing or garbled presented well. They may also refine their view of the candidate’s academic writing, depending on how badly well the headings and subheadings are designed. Vague and ambiguous or someone trying to be too clever by half headings can cause the examiner to put the entire text away until the last moment approach the thesis with an unnecessarily negative view.

  • the conclusion

The examiners may skim the conclusion to see what claims the candidate makes for their research. They are looking for a clear statement of contribution that is believable, given what the research actually does congruent with the research design and data set. If the candidate does not present their contribution clearly, then the examiners will know they are about to play a guessing game until they reach the second to last chapter and are likely to pursue this at the viva and require a correction.

So, knowing this, you can see it’s important not to leave these four thesis bits to the last gasp to pay attention to these sections when you write and revise. Help your examiners to read your thesis in the right frame of mind appreciatively by getting these four things right.