I think I remember picking up this book just before I did my PhD viva in June 2004, then passing it on… not realising that I’d want to read the other chapters about being on the other side of the table… as the PhD examiner! The blurb describes it as:
The doctoral examination process has been shrouded in mystery and has been a source of anxiety and concern for students, supervisors and examiners alike. But now help is at hand. This book sheds new light on the process, providing constructive ways of understanding the doctoral examination, preparing for it and undertaking it.
There’s no formal training as a PhD examiner, so it’s great to be able to look at this book which draws upon years of experience, from a wide range of disciplines.
Examiners – Should You Examine?
This chapter gives an overview of what examining a PhD entails (around 5 days of work, including reading, reporting, admin and viva, with extra work if the PhD is not a straight pass). It’s clear that no one does this for the money – the rewards are academic recognition, intellectual interest, and service to the academic community. It asks you to consider whether the thesis is really in your area of expertise, whether you can be fair (including failing where necessary), and whether you have the time to properly read the material.
Examiners – Assessing a PhD Thesis
This chapter highlights the processes that need to be followed, particularly institutional processes (of the institution where the PhD has taken place), with disciplinary guidelines offering supporting advice. The viva is designed to prove that the work is genuinely that of the student, and demonstrate that they have undertaken original, independent and critical thinking, with clear justification for the methods and approaches taken, and the literature drawn upon, that they have managed a research project within the timeframe, and have the communication skills to articulate their arguments and findings to a range of audiences. There are lists to what to look out for, and what identifies a thesis as offering ‘originality’ (whether in topic, process or findings) and ‘contribution to knowledge’ (often measured by publishability equivalent to two peer-reviewed journal articles or as the basis for a monograph). With the quality of PhDs varying, what is the baseline for passing? I feel I may need to read the following chapter on writing a report.
The Viva – Tips and Issues for Examiners
This chapter highlights the preparation that needs to be done before the viva, how to work with the co-examiner, being clear on the purpose of the viva (including what questions need to be asked/order), how to conduct the viva to bring out the best of a candidate (whatever the expected outcome on the viva) – including room layout, presence of supervisors, the kind of questions to ask – ensuring that positive feedback is spaced throughout so that the candidate feels that it is worth persevering with any changes, and ensuring that it is a conversation rather than an interrogation. Final sections of the chapter deal with making difficult decisions (including failing a candidate, but ensuring that you stick to your guns if that is the outcome that feels right), and providing post-viva reports.
There’s lots of material out there for students seeking advice on what to do in their viva, less for those wanted to ensure a positive viva process from the examiner’s side. Very helpful!
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014; second edition in process) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.