By Claire Aitchison
In Australia, as in many other countries, doctoral examination is a ‘single blind’ peer review process. This means the examiner will be given the name of the candidate whose work they are examining, while the PhD student will be blind to who their examiners are, until afterwards – if at all. (Examiners are given the option to retain their anonymity even after the outcome and examiner reports have been submitted.) While students may never know the identity of their examiners, and each examiner operates without knowledge of the other(s), the supervisor is intimately involved in examiner selection.
Rules and practices around examination vary, but in most cases it is the supervisor who approaches potential examiners to inquire if they are interested and available to examine a student’s work. Generally in that initial inquiry, the supervisor sends the thesis Abstract and an estimation of when the work may be ready for examination. Once potential examiners are locked in, the Grad School then handles the process. There are strict provisions that neither students nor examiners are to make contact with each other, and breaches may derail the whole process.
But just because a student doesn’t have direct knowledge of their examiners doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be involved in discussions about potential examiners.
Selecting the best examiner is in everyone’s best interests, and that is why many supervisors actively seek input from their students about examiner preferences.
Getting the right examiner
There’s plenty of good information that relates to choosing an examiner. One of the more useful papers in my opinion is by Margaret Kiley who points to the importance of considering the reputation of the examiner, their knowledge of the topic and ‘fit’ with the methodology, their capacity to benefit the candidate’s career, their examination experience, and knowledge of the type of degree (ie professional doctoral, creative practice-led degrees and so on).
Here’s a quick round up of key considerations:
- Think about the how a potential examiner may be helpful for the student’s future career. For example, if the student has a strong interest in working in a particular country, research centre or institution, an examiner from such a location could be advantageous.
- There is some research (read that Kiley article for starters) that indicates variation in examiner approaches that may be worth closer attention. For example, consider the benefits and cautions regarding in-country versus international examiners, novice versus experienced examiners, interdisciplinary experts versus disciplinary experts.
- Identify the strengths of the research and thesis – and play to these.
- Consider the mix of examiners that will produce the best coverage of key aspects, such as the field, methodology, industry knowledge and thesis type.
- Apart from these professional components, consider also examiner availability and personality; after all ‘You don’t want a smart Alec’ (Kiley, 2009) for an examiner!
But what can be done with this information?
A four step process for considering examiners
With these insights, it is time to strategise. Here’s one process for how a student might take an active role in the process of choosing an examiner.
- Some 3-4 months out from submission, arrange a special supervision meeting to discuss possible examiners.
- Prior to the meeting, students should make a list of six to eight possible examiners from most favoured to least – plus any they would not want. Don’t neglect the importance of RULING OUT unsuitable people (maybe someone’s work is admirable, but they have a reputation for being ruthless, or maybe there’s the potential for a conflict of interest). Supervisors should also think about suitable examiners.
- At the meeting these ‘lists’ can be the basis for a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of individuals for the particular thesis and research to be examined. Such discussions can illustrate the issues at stake and demonstrate how the process works, giving students valuable insights into the academic world.
- Then it’s time to do some homework in preparation for a follow up meeting.
- Both student and supervisor(s) should (carefully and appropriately) collect ‘insider’ information on the shortlisted favourites. The academic world is small and well networked. For example, it can be helpful to know if a potential examiner is reliable, if they have a reputation for being pedantic, or if they are married to a major competitor of your research institute!
- Ask the student to work through their whole thesis recording (rather than guessing) every reference to the potential examiner and their work. This activity creates an empirical account of how often, where, and in what ways, citations have occurred in the document. It’s not that every examiner needs to see themselves cited, however it would be curious to choose an examiner that wasn’t part of the community of scholars referenced in the thesis. Secondly, the student needs to check that they have correctly interpreted/ critiqued/ referenced each of these potential examiners and their work. Ask the student to think about how those who have been referenced will feel when they read what’s been said about them and others (possibly their friends and colleagues).
- At the second meeting everyone should have the chance to share their homework and air their views, and hopefully, through discussion, arrive at general agreement on a short list of favourites. In the end, however, it’s important to remember that the choice of examiners is the responsibility of the supervisor(s) – and even then, despite their best efforts, a favourite may be unavailable or unsuitable for one reason or another.
Even where institutional guidelines are strict about the examiner’s identity remaining confidential, these sorts of supervisory practices provide clear benefits. Students are given the chance to critically re-examine their own work from an examiner’s perspective and they learn more about the often occluded practices of the academy. And this kind of approach delivers concrete information to assist supervisors who have the difficult task of finding the best match of examiners to suit their student’s work.
In spite of the fact that the student will leave these discussions still not knowing who their examiners are, they will have learned a lot through engaging in the process – and no doubt will have contributed to the final decision.
You may have approached this process differently – we’d be pleased to hear from you.
Kiley, M. (2009). ‘You don’t want a smart Alec’: Selecting examiners to assess doctoral dissertations. Studies in Higher Education 34 (8) 889 – 903.