By Cally Guerin
One of the biggest challenges in submitting a thesis for examination is that it feels so important to get it right the first time. While students may sometimes feel that it is a one-off, make-or-break moment, in reality thesis examination is not actually as drastic as that. There are opportunities to revise and make corrections; there is a kind of ‘right of reply’ to examiners’ comments if candidates feel something might have been misunderstood. Even when further work is required, the vast majority of candidates who do in fact complete the revisions will get their degree.
The doctoral thesis is the primary mechanism for displaying the fruits of years of study. If you have ever prepared a document applying for a job, or a grant, or a promotion, you’ll know that feeling of working hard to explain yourself and demonstrate your qualities through writing alone. And just about everyone will also be familiar with that devastating feeling of personal rejection when it turns out that you weren’t the one to be chosen this time. Producing a thesis for examination is high stakes writing where the author can feel that they are being judged alongside the writing; after the enormous effort required to write the thesis, it is difficult to contemplate substantial reworking in response to examiner demands. This can feel even more challenging in the Australian context when there is usually no oral examination or defence in which you might explain directly to examiners why something ought to remain unchanged.
As students we have written assignments and exams for assessment with no right of reply – you just have to accept the grade and move on. But they are relatively short-term projects and the next task is usually sitting there waiting for us with very little time in between to dwell on the outcome of the previous piece of writing. With luck, there will be some accompanying lecturer feedback aimed at helping us understand how to improve our marks next time.
When submitting an article to a journal, authors receive reviewers’ opinions and advice alongside their judgement. There might well be the bitter disappointment of having the paper rejected by that journal, but it is standard practice to rework the article in light of the feedback gained, and resubmit the revised version either to the same journal or to another one. For most academics this has been part of their experience of getting research published. It would be very nice to have a paper accepted as perfect first time around, but the expectation of doing at least some revision is well entrenched for experienced writers. The process is one of reiteration and development.
Similarly, submitting a thesis is more like this process, and research indicates that examiners often regard their own comments as ‘formative’. This can be quite a shift in thinking for many PhD candidates about what ‘examination’ really means, being unlike their undergraduate exams.
It seems that some of the emotional intensity associated with submitting a thesis for examination is partly owing to the way this long-term project is intimately linked with the emerging researcher identity of the doctoral author. The PhD student has often sacrificed a great deal to do the degree: they may have foregone considerable income by studying instead of working; the study will take time away from being with family, especially if it requires moving to another city or country; and even for those who stay home, the PhD usually demands some weekend work instead of spending time with friends or pursuing other hobbies and passions.
Of course, most doctoral candidates are high achievers, and embarking on a PhD involves publicly declaring a will to aim even higher. Signing up for a PhD signals to all and sundry that you think you have what it takes (invoking the fear that it might turn out that you don’t actually have what it takes after all – the ‘imposter syndrome’ that many feel at some point along the way).
So by the time it comes to examination, elements of this assessment can feel like a judgement of whether the candidate is in fact ready to be called ‘doctor’. This can translate into unhelpfully high anxieties about what details an examiner might fix upon to criticise in the research. How much background needs to be explained to show that a concept or theory really is properly understood? Or that the method is appropriate to the research question and was properly implemented? If the formatting is inconsistent, will that mean the examiner will misunderstand something important? Will mistakes in spelling and punctuation matter? What does that terrifying ‘examiner’ expect? (I find myself wondering who is that examiner who strikes fear into the hearts of many PhD students?) There is a growing body of research into examiners and their processes, that can help to demystify some of these concerns (see, for example, Carter 2008; Holbrook et al. 2015; Kiley 2009; Lovat 2004). This research reminds us that examiners are looking at the big picture rather than fussing about tiny details. In most parts of the world (though not currently in Australian universities), there is also the opportunity to clarify particular points through the viva or oral defence of the thesis (Watts 2012).
It’s rare for a PhD to be slammed – supervisors and other academics in the system are there to help students present an appropriate document for examination. Supervisors should have a reasonable idea of what will be acceptable and where the weaknesses are in a doctoral thesis. Although it depends on individual university policy and varies between countries, supervisors often have significant influence over the choice of external examiners; in those situations, they can recommend someone who will be sympathetic to the methodology or experimental approach, and who is likely to have a genuine interest in the topic. So it is quite likely that the examiner will be onside.
I think it can be useful for those working with doctoral candidates to keep this in mind, which will perhaps slightly ease the final stages of thesis writing for those trying to present a perfect document for examination. As a supervisor or as a doctoral candidate, have you found ways to approach thesis examination as one more part of the learning process? Do you find examiners’ reports to be framed as formative documents aimed at bringing this newly minted scholar more confidently into the discipline? It would be great to hear what you’ve learnt about successfully navigating this final part of the doctoral journey.