In my limited experience, it is not the personal dimension of relationships that can fail the PhD candidate, but their very impersonality. My field of business and management studies is vast and fragmented. Some of us build careers within a sub-paradigm of broadly agreed standards, while many of us work across multiple paradigms and areas. We cannot rely on a tacit consensus about standards to ameliorate the potential for disasters on viva day. The external examiner, and often the internal examiner too, have no knowledge of the candidate, no loyalty towards the supervisor, and no investment in the institution. Many would say that is the way it is supposed to be. The work is engaged with as if it were an anonymous journal article or a grant application.
The problem is that examining a PhD thesis is not like reviewing a journal article. The PhD candidate has been through three years or more of a programme for which they’ve paid huge fees. Their supervisor has deemed their work to be worthy of examination, notwithstanding its imperfections. In the UK, the candidate is typically faced with a judgement that says: “You thought today would mark the end of the course that has almost bankrupted you, has dominated your life for years, and will determine your future. Wrong! You now have to do another three/six/18 months of extra work to correct the work you thought wasn’t really that bad.”
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