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This guest post is by Sue Starfield who is an associate professor in the School of Education and the Director of the Learning Centre at UNSW Australia, as well as co-author with Brian Paltridge of Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Sue teaches courses in thesis writing for doctoral students and runs workshops for supervisors on ways they can help their students with their writing. If you like Sue’s blog, you may also enjoy Susan Carter’s recent post on the examiner perspective.

By Sue Starfield

Students and supervisors are often surprised when I talk to them about the research into what examiners look for in a PhD thesis. Almost apologetically, I’ll explain that it’s an area of growing interest. John Swales, the well-known applied linguist, coined the phrase ‘occluded genres’ to describe genres that are not publically and easily available. The PhD examination process and the examiners’ reports that make our hearts sink or soar are typical examples of hidden or occluded genres. Fortunately, we now have some research that shines a light into what pleases or displeases examiners. This information is particularly important for students and their supervisors in countries like Australia where there is typically no oral defence or viva and examination is based solely on the written thesis. Hence the title of this blog post – the more we know about the examination (the end), the better equipped we are at the start.

One of the examiners interviewed in Mullins and Kiley’s (2002: 386) now well-known study of PhD examiners explained: ‘A PhD is a stepping stone into a research career. All you need to do is to demonstrate your capacity for independent, critical thinking. That’s all you need to do. A PhD is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize’. A quick Google search of Nobel Prize winners suggests there is some truth in this – many are quite elderly by the time the earn the coveted award and it seems unlikely that they would have received it for their doctoral scholarship – although it may well have started them on the path to future glory[1]. So the key message here is ‘get it done’ – do it well but see the PhD as a time-limited stage in your career development.

What else do we learn from this study that interviewed experienced thesis examiners? Students and examiners tend to have radically different understandings of the purpose and functions of doctoral assessment. I regularly speak to students who are convinced they are going to fail. Experienced examiners on the other hand see their role as helping to make the thesis better! The research shows that the number of students who actually fail is extremely small. Many will be required to do revisions. From the examiner’s perspective however, in the words of one of the examiners interviewed by Mullins and Kiley, doctoral assessment provides ‘an opportunity for the students to be able to incorporate comments so that it [the thesis] sits on the library shelf and glows more brightly’ (p. 383).

One of the key messages that can be distilled from the research is that first impressions count. Experienced examiners decide very early on whether the assessment of a thesis is likely to be ‘hard work’ or ‘an enjoyable read’ and their initial impression of the quality of the thesis is usually formed by the end of the second or third chapter – often by the end of the literature review. ‘It is unusual that if someone does a poor job of the literature review that they will suddenly improve’ said one experienced examiner. Bear in mind that chapters like the literature review that are often drafted early in the thesis process need to be kept updated and revised, often substantially, prior to submission.

We would all like our thesis to be in the enjoyable read category I’m sure. What can we do to get it there? Here are some of the things that a study of examiners’ reports (Johnston 1997: 340-341) tells us:

  • Examiners approach reading a thesis with an air of expectation and even enthusiasm, but this disappears if the thesis is not reader-friendly.
  • General impression and overall presentation of the thesis seem particularly important to the examiners.
  • The reader needs to be assisted through the use of summaries, logical sequencing, signposts and removal of excessive repetition.
  • All readers require assistance to understand the work.
  • They feel distracted and irritated by poorly presented work.
  • They appreciate well-written, interesting and logically presented arguments

Mullins and Kiley note that ‘sloppiness’ is one of the most commonly used words to indicate a negative response to a thesis. Sloppy presentation seems to indicate to the examiner that the research might well be sloppy and they start reading the thesis with a more critical eye. Putting together a reader-friendly thesis takes time and effort. It may require several drafts. It involves getting feedback from readers including, but not limited to, the supervisors. I like to recommend a proof-reader or at least a reasonably literate friend. It has to be someone other than the author who, towards the end, will not see typos, grammatical errors, repetitions and illogicalities. Some may need an editor for more help with grammar and language. Whichever the route chosen, redrafting takes time. Count back from the submission date and build in the time needed for the final polishing – it always takes longer than anticipated. But as the research shows, the effort put in to craft a reader-friendly text will be worth it.

Chapter 11, ‘Before you submit’, in How to write a better thesis (Evans, Gruba & Zobel, 2011) has a great checklist of all the many things that need to be done to polish the final draft of the thesis. Print it out and use it.


Evans, D., Gruba, P. & Zobel, J. (2011). 3rd Ed. How to write a better thesis. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press.

Johnston, S. (1997). Examining the examiners: An analysis of examiners’ reports on doctoral theses. Studies in Higher Education, 22, 3: 333-347.

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

[1] John Nash, who died tragically in late May, was awarded a Nobel Prize with two other economists in 1994, based on work in his 1950, 28-page PhD dissertation.