By Susan Carter

Examiners play a huge role in doctoral success; they need to be chosen wisely. Supervisors can overlook this when busy, and live to regret it, along with their hapless student. The choice requires thought about the examiners–including their attitudes to writing–and about the student and their choices. What must be considered?

Obviously, there is level of expertise, and availability. I recommend that you think about other factors too. Examiners are humans from planet earth: subjective even when they are professionals aiming to be fair. Avoid someone whose work the student disproves or disapproves of. Avoid someone who uses a conflicting paradigm.

And sometimes academics find it hard to suspend their own preferences and predilections. Margaret Kiley (2009) points out that “most experienced supervisors ensure that they know, or at the very least know of, the personality traits of potential examiners.”

In some cases, a crucial factor in addition to an examiner’s expertise and availability is their attitude towards linguistic fluency. Will the potential examiner appreciate the ESL writer’s position? Might they be likely to demand prose as fluent as their own rather than good enough for the doctorate to be awarded?

Think about where student and examiner sit within the dichotomy of subjectivity/objectivity: examiners who emphatically write themselves into their own research writing are likely to hold epistemological beliefs about why this is preferable, and the same is true for those who aim to mask human agency in their own prose. Methodological preference ought not to interfere with fair assessment, but humans tend to be comfortable with what is familiar.

Another factor is the potential examiner’s position along the sliding scale running between innovation and conservatism. Getting a reasonable match on this between student’s and examiner’s practices makes sense.

What is the potential examiner’s own writing like? Our site has talked before about writing preferences, noting that they are made individually—over-archingly, I see written defence of choice within the thesis as the primary means of safety, and of good academic practice.

As a supervisor, I know that selecting examiners can be difficult: the ideal one might be unavailable, or you may have used them recently and feel you can’t ask again so soon. In some niche areas of research, there are simply not many experts who qualify to examine, and then you may have to weigh up how widely you are able to spread your net as you fish for examiners. Choice is bounded by the realities of academia.

My institution’s regulations are intended to deliver a squeaky clean process where no student would ever be able to influence examiners, no examiner ever inclined to bias from previous contact. Officially, then, the Head of Department chooses, although in practice often supervisors, closer in expertise to the thesis topic, make the initial choice and pass names forward.

Because the choice of examiners is so vital, I suggest to doctoral students that as they develop a list of potential examiners as they read and discuss with supervisors why they think people on it would be good. Students do not have anything to do with choice, but putting together a list of suggestions  can be helpful for thinking critically about their own work—and also helpful to those who are involved in choosing examiners.

Alternatively, students could list the factors that they think are important about their thesis and the choice of examiners, and raise them in a supervisory meeting, making sure that they are recorded in meeting minutes. They might include the points that I have mentioned above:

  • fluency/first language not English;
  • stance on contentious issues;
  • paradigm;
  • subjectivity/objectivity;
  • innovation versus conservatism—and there may well be other specific considerations needing to be kept in mind
  • personality (see Kiley 2009; anecdotes might be useful)

The exercise is another way of identifying how the work sits within the discipline, and how it is likely to be received. It’s a self-reflexive means to moving into examination readiness. Supervisors might pick up from there, better informed for the selection of examiners. Nothing is fool-proof, but careful choice reduces the risk of a mismatch.

See too

Kiley, M (2009). ”You don’t want a smart Alec’: selecting examiners to assess doctoral dissertations’, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 34, no. 8, pp. 889-903.

Mullins, G. & Kiley, M. (2002) ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: How experienced examiners assess research theses, Studies in Higher Education, 27:4, 369-386, DOI: 10.1080/0307507022000011507

Pearce, L. (2005). How to examine a thesis. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.