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By Susan Carter

Commonly there is some uncertainty about when a doctorate is ready for submission. The criteria for a PhD are expressed in rather broad terms. Exactly how patently must critical analysis of literature be demonstrated to reach doctoral standard?  Just how significant must the contribution to knowledge be in a doctoral thesis compared to a masters thesis? How thoroughly must understanding of theory and methodology be shown? This post considers how supervisors and candidates can judge when the doctorate is good enough to face examination.

Although there is enormous anxiety about what is good enough, it’s not uncommon for time to be the deciding factor. Many institutions have outer deadlines. Additionally, many scholarships and study visas have limitations. And finally, a doctorate that took an unusually long time-frame to complete would have less muscle in the competitive academic job market for those candidates who are ambitious of such a career. Family and work responsibilities can also press in towards the end of the doctorate to hasten candidates to leave—see a great clip from the Macquarie Cross Cultural Supervision Project showing how much angst can be generated when candidate loyalty to family overrides supervisory advice.

Sometimes decisions about whether the thesis is good enough is passed on to examiners for quite practical reasons relating to time, then. And it is usual for candidates and supervisors to be edgy as submission is approached. We’ve written about the importance of examiner choice; anxiety can be mitigated when supervisors are certain that they have done due diligence in finding experts for the task who are likely to understand and appreciate the work.

Doctoral examination can be quite subjective. This is another situation where there are humans involved, and humans are a species that can be trickily various. There is one study, though, that aims for something more subjective in recognising what is good enough in a doctoral thesis.

Barbara Lovitts (2007) asked 276 academics from 10 disciplines for descriptors of outstanding, very good, acceptable and unacceptable theses. My own experience tells me that, whatever adjectives these individuals gave her, every examination occurs only in the context of the specific examiners who are involved. That is why it is so important to choose examiners wisely….

However, it seems very helpful to gather data from a range of examiners about how to rank a thesis. Most of us undertake our first doctoral examination only with our own experience to go by, and perhaps accounts from colleagues, so the more we know about what others think, the better.

And Lovitts’ (2007) descriptors for an acceptable thesis are reasonable, probably reassuring to candidates. An acceptable thesis bares very little resemblance to a Nobel prize (see Mullins & Kiley, 2002), according to this research; it has the following qualities, which makes it seem quite doable.

  • Workmanlike
  • Demonstrates (technical) competence
  • Shows the ability to do research
  • Is not very acceptable or significant
  • Is not interesting, exciting, or surprising
  • Displays little creativity, imagination, or insight
  • Writing is pedestrian and plodding
  • Structure and organization are weak
  • Project is narrow in scope
  • Question or problem is not exciting—is often highly derivative or an extension of the advisor’s work
  • Displays a narrow understanding of the field
  • Literature review is adequate—knows the literature but is not critical of it or does not discuss what is important
  • Can sustain an argument, but argument is not imaginative, complex, or convincing
  • Theory is understood at a simple level and is minimally to competently applied to the problem
  • Uses standard methods
  • Analysis is unsophisticated—does not explore all possibilities and misses connections
  • Results are predictable and not exciting
  • Makes a small contribution

I show this list to students when they are smitten with self-doubt, suggesting ‘it’s ok. Other people are just human too.’

Yet I think this list represents somewhat cynical academics’ points of view. When academics mark large stacks of assignments, it is not uncommon for them to groan to colleagues about how most of these ideas are pretty boring and badly expressed. After groaning in the staff room, their written feedback will be diplomatic and designed to encourage. The same jaundice can be experienced by academic ploughing through a doctoral thesis as examiner—they may moan to colleagues but give a constructive examiner’s report.

I’d never suggest to the doctoral students I work with that this quality is all they need to aspire to; my belief is that all of us, as doctoral writers, want to produce something significant. On Planet Earth, though, with its time constraints and human actors, good enough is actually excellent: it means the thesis is awarded and the honorific ‘Dr’ can be taken up.

Do you have thoughts about how to judge when doctoral writing is good enough?


Lovitts, B. E. (2007). Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Mullins, G. & Kiley, M. (2010). ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.