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What PhD thesis examiners expect

Your completed thesis will generally be sent to two independent examiners for examination, one of both of whom will be at overseas institutions. Your examiners will certainly be highly qualified and competent in the discipline, and probably experts in your particular disciplinary area.

Within the Australian academic tradition, the thesis is your examination and, beyond what is on the printed page, you do not have another opportunity to explain aspects of your work to your examiner, to make an oral case for the work you have done or how you have chosen to present it, or to create a good impression. Therefore, every part of the document has to be clear, well explained, well presented and easy to read. The thesis is the culmination of your project and the quantifiable evidence of your learning and what you have accomplished for your higher degree.

The PhD thesis is the document that defines your transition from student to scholar.

Examiners often start reading a thesis with enthusiasm, anticipating an interesting and intellectually challenging work; and in fact, examiners often express appreciation for being given the opportunity to assess an original and well presented thesis.

It would appear that many examiners initially glance first at the abstract and then the introduction to the thesis, before embarking on a formal assessment process. The introductory chapter therefore has the potential to enthuse the examiner and indicate that this is a worthwile research or alternatively it can indicate a poorly conceived and presented study, which may well dampen the examiner's enthusiasm. Examiners, according to Mullins and Kiley (2002), are influenced by their first impression of the work.

Understanding the examination criteria for a PhD

While each examiner looks for something particular in a thesis and there is some subjectivity in the examination process, there are a number of general criteria, defined by the university and used by examiners in their appraisal of a thesis.

The fundamental characteristic that thesis examiners, in accordance with university degree requirements, expect is a thesis that is a substantial and original contribution to knowledge within the particular discipline.

Examiners expect the candidate to demonstrate a sound appreciation of the relevant literature, ensuring that all important theorists and researchers are incorporated and that the review includes up to date very recent references.

Additionally, the student is expected to synthesise elements of the literature and provide critical appraisal. An important connection must be demonstrated to exist between the literature and the current study.

Research methods need to be shown to be appropriate to the discipline and the inquiry. The thesis must demonstrate an understanding of the research methods and identify the rigour with which they have been used.

The results of the research must be clearly documented and fully explained, showing their relevance.

The literary expression in the thesis must be clear and concise, communicating in an academic writing style suited to the discipline. Additionally it needs to be of a standard suitable for publication.

Although generally insufficient to fail a thesis, shortcomings in literary presentation such as editing and clarity can be a strong deterrent to an examiner and result in a largely negative appraisal. Examiners quickly become annoyed and distracted by spelling, typographical, grammatical and referencing errors... One of the problems with work that is poorly presented is that the examiner tends to lose confidence in the candidate and can become suspicious that there are deeper problems of inadequate and rushed conceptualisation.

Johnston, S. Examining the Examiners: an analysis of examiners' reports on doctoral theses, Studies in Higher Education, Vol 22, No. 3, 1997

Johnston, 1997, p344-345

Each chapter and the dissertation as a whole are clearly written, logically organised, and fully developed. The author communicates in a concise and coherent manner, while maintaining a steady flow of narrative that is rich in meaning.

— Examiner F

The work is very well written. She writes persuasively, clearly and critically and at a level consistent with doctoral level scholarship

— Examiner G

The central argument of the thesis is woven throughout the work, providing an interesting and exciting thesis for the reader.

— Examiner H

The thesis certainly does reflect an ability to communicate in a clear and concise manner which is both appropriate to the discipline and to the profession.

— Examiner I

Examiners are critical of a thesis that is not concise and that is not wrtten in a professional manner.

The literary presentation is a weak area of the thesis. The candidate's presentation is generally clear and it speaks to issues. However, it is not concise, as the author himself admits to being repetitive, an appropriate behaviour for most Melanesian oral discourse but not for professional writing... Also the manner of writing is in many cases informal and 'folksy', not the type usually associated with professional writing.

— Examiner J

While there is a demand for a professional style of writing, there is still a place for exhibiting one's own personal style.

This is a work of substantial and original scholarship

— Examiner A

This is indeed an original and significant contribution to our knowledge...

— Examiner B

The candidate shows a strong familiarity with relevant research literatures and an ability to synthesise, select and critique these literatures.

— Examiner A

The literature review is analytical and comprehensive... relevant and key theories and theorists set out systematically with the literature showing a lack or a gap that this thesis attempted to close.

— Examiner B

It represents a very good piece of scholarship in terms of its conception, design, analysis and reporting.

— Examiner C

The candidate shows a strong command of appropriate methodological theories and applied methods.

— Examiner C

Although the research methods implemented in the empirical study documented in the thesis seem well founded, appropriate and illuminating, certain aspects of these research methods need to be described in more detail so that readers can be assured of their trustworthines, credibility, rigour or even the exact procedures that were followed.

— Examiner D

She answers the research questions clearly and provides convincing support for her claims

— Examiner E

The author demonstrated clarity in the presentation of her results and in the linking of different types of data and of contrasting her results with those of other researchers. She has shown high order skills in drawing conclusions from her research.

— Examiner C

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