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By Claire Aitchison

The regular advice to doctoral candidates to write with their audience in mind usually refers to a generalised notion of who the examiner might be. We’ve long advocated that reader-awareness ought to be incorporated into thesis writing since this practice requires the writer to step out of their own shoes and to (re)consider how the text will be read by another. To see the writing from a different perspective is a useful tool for testing how meaning may be interpreted. Seeking feedback from supervisors, peers and critical friends helps to refine audience-awareness, however, examiners are the penultimate readers of the doctoral output since they are charged with assessing its merits. For doctoral candidates, their views matter the most.   

While the thesis will have been honed over years to match the research approach and the disciplinary expectations, as a candidate heads toward submission they will increasingly have a set of possible examiner-readers in mind. Even when candidates can’t be certain about the identity of their examiners, it’s fair to expect anyone chosen as an examiner would be familiar to the candidate because of their work in the field.

Developing an awareness of the examiner-reader can be especially critical in the final stages of thesis writing when last reviews and finessing occurs. Imagining an actual human reading to examine can help to make all that checking and revision seem meaningful and worthwhile. Reviewing ones work through the eyes of potential examiners should not alter the content in any major way, but rather should influence tone, style and format. For example, I was working with a candidate recently who argued for a tabular presentation of theory on the basis that a key scholar in the field favoured that approach. As it turned out, that scholar did examine the thesis and commented favourably about that very aspect. In this case, incorporating this stylistic preference paid off. However, it’s most important to be sure any adaptation is authentic to the style and nature of the thesis and isn’t simply an add-on in the hope of pleasing a potential examiner. When it comes to reviewing the literature, realising that a reader may be the very person whose ideas you summarise, critique and reference, can be a powerful motivator to ensure accuracy and balance. No one wants an examiner to point out they have been mis-represented or mis-quoted.   

In some systems, candidates never know the identity of their examiner, even after conferral of their PhD, nevertheless, I believe it’s imperative to encourage candidates to proactively consider the kind of examiner, if not actual individuals, they can anticipate.

An examiner is a very specific kind of reader

In an earlier blog I refer to the importance of doing one’s homework on possible examiners – collecting both insider and public knowledge about these people. The common thread in that and other blogs on the topic is that the greater one’s knowledge of the reader-examiner, the better able one is able to meet their expectations. 

A sound understanding of the role and purpose of the examiner also helps. It’s widely recognised that a PhD is awarded for an original contribution to knowledge, but how is that assessed and interpreted in practice? There will be disciplinary, institutional and even regional variations.

In my experience, institutional advice for the candidate regularly includes information about policies, awards and graduation, the thesis and submission processes– but doctoral candidates rarely have ready access to the instructions to examiners. Supervisors can help by sharing and discussing these. However, despite considerable improvements in the practices and transparency of doctoral examination, it’s still true that instructions to examiners aren’t always particularly useful, and, nor do examiners necessarily do as they’re instructed! Again, supervisors who have participated in the examination process can share their experiences, and candidates can also learn a lot from peers who’ve recently been though the process.

Knowing (about) the reader makes a difference to the writer psychologically – if we expect our reader to be positively disposed to our work, we are likely to be less anxious, and perhaps even more inclined to take risks and be bold. On the other hand, a concern that the reader is hostile, pernickety or disinterested can be debilitating. While many examination systems are blind/ double blind in relation to the examination of the written document, where it is possible, candidates should be encouraged to indicate people they do not wish to be examiners.

Having a strong hunch about the examiner can be a confidence-booster and can help inform the writing. It isn’t necessary (or advisable) to ‘write to please’. Doctoral research will produce a thoroughly scholarly, rigorous, output that should stand on its own merits. It isn’t about copying, flattering or kowtowing to potential examiners; it’s about being sufficiently aware to modify what/how you might say something, as if you knew they were the reader. I remember once examining a thesis that referenced me numerous times across the first few pages and only again at the end. I didn’t need my ego stroked – but I couldn’t help the thought that my name was plonked in as an afterthought. 

A happy examiner can only be a good thing. An examiner will be pleased to see references to their own work (they like to think they have been asked because their work has been considered influential in some way); they’ll enjoy seeing how the candidate engages with their ideas (even where there is disagreement); they’ll likely feel validated if the research shares some common assumptions or approaches; they’ll also be pleased if they find a writing style and format that matches their expectations of what a candidate should be able to do.

After all, examiners are real people, who, like PhD candidates and supervisors, have academic identities and operate within communities of scholars with whom they share common values, interests and very often writing styles. Candidates who take the time to notice these attributes are less likely to aggravate or alienate examiner-readers. 

If you’re interested in knowing more, we recommend this paper:

Clinton Golding, Sharon Sharmini & Ayelet Lazarovitch (2014) What examiners do: what thesis students should know, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39:5, 563-576, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2013.859230