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Claire Aitchison

How can doctoral students (and their supervisors) be confident their work is up to scratch? When are students ready to judge the quality of their own work and their developing expertise? And how do doctoral students and their supervisors know when the PhD is ready to send for examination?

Answering these questions requires critical reflection and accurate judgement – but how are these skills learned?

Doctoral students commence their PhD from a place of strength; they’ve been admitted through a competitive system into the highest level of university accreditation. It’s rightly a proud moment. But as the doctoral journey progresses, other mechanisms will be needed to inform candidates and their supervisors of their performance.

Being able to make accurate judgements about quality, ‘doctoralness’ and readiness is central to becoming a knowledgeable, confident, independent researcher.

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

What we’re talking about here is evaluative judgement—that is, ‘the capability to make decisions about the quality of work of oneself and others’ (Tai et al., 2017 p. 467). Being able to make accurate judgements about one’s work necessitates cultivating knowledge, skills and attitudes that inform personal decision-making. In this blog I ruminate about how we can help students develop evaluative judgement.

Doctoral writing can be a powerful site for learning and teaching evaluative judgement.

Writing and feedback as mechanisms for developing evaluative judgement

Supervisors provide feedback to students about the design and execution of research across various stages of candidature. They also provide feedback on student writing—from research proposals, ethics and funding submissions, to conference presentations and numerous iterations of thesis chapters—this feedback helps candidates learn to position themselves within disciplinary and research communities and also to develop the capacity to make their own judgements. As candidates begin to appreciate what is expected by their supervisors who ‘stand in for the institution, examiner and scholarly community’, they fine-tune their submissions, monitoring the quality of their own writing and scholarship against an improving knowledge of an expected ‘standard’. For this to run as smoothly as possible, supervisors who review written work regularly, and who are clear, consistent and accurate in their feedback, help students recognize what counts as ‘good’ writing for the tasks at hand. Quality is a slippery term, but over time students and supervisors come to a shared understanding of what’s required.

Feedback also needs to come from outside the supervisory relationship.

You need a point of comparison in order to make sound and contextually appropriate judgements. Becoming familiar with the work of other doctoral students can offer candidates insights into what’s acceptable/expected at different stages of candidature. Students who participate in reading or writing groups, for example, develop a strong sense of what their peers are doing and are capable of. They get to know where they sit in the pack—this can bolster confidence or be a sobering wake-up call, but either way, such points of comparison help develop evaluative judgement.

Working with peers can be important for supervisors too. For example, team supervision offers important opportunities for comparison of feedback practices, and being part of a group of people reading students’ writing provides chances to see first-hand what others expect in regard to the quality of student research and writing.

Becoming an insider through writing and publication

When students put their work into the public domain (e.g., by writing for publication, presenting at conferences, seeking feedback from critical others), they are inviting external perspectives in to their work. To make good use of that external input they need to be able to reflect critically on this feedback and make accurate judgements about its validity, about what to accept, modify, apply and reject. These evaluative judgements become honed through purposeful critical reflection, through a growing familiarity with the field of knowledge, the norms and practices of the research community, and through continuous cycles of feedback.

When students ‘know their tribe’ they can begin to make judgements about what it takes to fit in. Critically reading the work of good writers and well-recognized scholars can provide examples of ‘quality’ to model oneself against. Knowledge of the field and/or of disciplinary standards and practices help developing scholars become ‘insiders,’ familiar with the norms and expectations of the communities within which they will operate. For example, we often speak of ‘discourse communities’ in relation to scholarly publication. In order to join a discourse community, submissions from an aspiring author would need to demonstrate familiarity with the debates and concerns of those who read and write for the journal; the author would reference the related literature; the writing and rhetorical style would match expectations, and the submission would accurately demonstrate a ‘contribution’.

Simply knowing what’s expected isn’t enough to develop evaluative judgement—reflexivity and mindfulness are foundational for activating this knowledge. Stopping to reflect on one’s own performance in relation to knowledge of the field/practice can be easier said than done—in part because self-reflection takes time (a commodity in short supply) but also because our accelerated, output-focused institutions don’t always reward slower, contemplative work. Specific skills, behaviours and attitudes need to be developed to become productively self-critical.

Evaluative judgement involves making considered appraisals of others’ work as well as one’s own. Being called upon to read and critique the writing of others gives students chances to rehearse their knowledge, to interpret quality and understand doctoralness. Students who practice critical critique by joining writing groups or volunteering to review conference abstracts or journal papers accelerate their ability to make such value judgements.

Knowledge of the ‘standard’ is critical for doctoral success when it comes to making judgements about the PhD examination. Is this thesis ready to submit? Is it high quality or just good enough?  It isn’t surprising that students sometimes believe their work is ready well before their supervisors do. It takes time and experience to develop the capacity to make judgements about doctoralness, quality and readiness. In a perfect world, by the end of candidature, the views of the doctoral students, supervisors and examiners will be perfectly aligned.


Tai, J., Ajjawi, R., Boud, D. et al. (2017) Developing evaluative judgement: enabling students to make decisions about the quality of work. High Educ 76, 467–481 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-017-0220-3https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-017-0220-3