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July 23, 2012

Choosing your PhD examiners – by Anna

So, I'll be submitting my thesis really REALLY soon now. In about 2-3 weeks. Gulp! Over the past few weeks, my supervisor and I have been discussing whom to approach for my thesis examiners, and I've picked up a few surprising facts that I thought I would share with all you lovely people.

First the basics: You must have two examiners - one internal and one external (i.e. one from Warwick and one from another university). These two examiners read your thesis and then come to your viva, where they tell you whether you passed, give you feedback, ask for any necessary changes, and (hopefully) give you advice on future directions, where to publish etc.

So far so good, but it actually turns out there are a few surprises here, most of which are actually pretty cool and make the viva sound a lot less scary!

The first surprising fact is that your supervisor is not even present during your viva. This kind of blew my mind actually: it means that your supervisor - the person you've spent the past 3-4 years trying to please - actually has NO SAY in whether or not you pass your PhD. It's all down to your examiners.

Which might sound a bit scary in itself, except for the fact that you get to choose your examiners. Yes, you did read that correctly! You get to CHOOSE academics who are likely to be sympathetic to your topic, approach and methods. Unlike, say, your upgrade panel back in your first year, your viva will NOT involve someone who may have been randomly assigned to you and who may totally disagree with the entire basis of your project (which did sort of happen to me....but that's another story).

So, what are the most important criteria for choosing your examiners?

One is, obviously, that they know about your area of research. This sounds simple but actually turns out to be sort of complicated, because if you're like me then your thesis probably combines several different research areas. My thesis, for example, involves not only classical Hollywood cinema (my nominal research field) but also postcolonial studies, film aesthetics, gender studies, gaze theory, textual analysis, postwar history, etc etc. No one person is going to be conversant in all these things, so choosing examiners involves compromising and striking a balance, aiming to cover at least a couple of the most important areas that you refer to.

You might ask why it is to your advantage to have relatively broad coverage, rather than just choosing any two people who will likely pass you without too much hassle. The reason is because the viva is actually intended to improve your work! I.e. if one of your examiners has an issue with something you wrote, then other readers likely will too so it's useful to have it read and criticised from as many angles as possible. (This kind of blew my mind too - that the viva is actually supposed to be useful!)

Another criterion is seniority. I've heard it said several times now, by people who would know, that younger/less experienced thesis examiners are more likely to have a particular agenda to push. Lecturers tend to need a lot of experience, apparently, before they are able to see the bigger picture and pass a well-supported thesis even when they disagree with it. (I would hope that this isn't universally true, but like I say, I have heard it a few times now.)

Reputation and renown are also important factors. Your examiners, particularly your external, will become key contacts for you as you enter the job market and seek publishing opportunities. They would normally expect to serve as a reference on your job applications, in fact. They also, hopefully, will be able to give advice on where to publish and put you in contact with other key researchers in your field. So it's important that they know lots of people - and that lots of people know them.

However, it's better not to have an examiner who is retired or close to retirement. You want them to stick around for awhile to help you along!

Finally, you can often get a feel for someone's personality, even if you haven't met them, by asking around a little. Some researchers who fulfill all the above criteria will have a reputation for a sympathetic, helpful attitude towards their younger colleagues. Even when they disagree with you, you might expect these researchers to do it in a constructive way. Others, not so much. This is probably less important than the other factors but it can still mean the difference between a pleasant viva (yes, they do exist!) and a miserable one.

Does anyone else have any experiences to share about choosing examiners?


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