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Doctorates and examiners

February 21, 2014

Way back when I started this blog, I had thought there would be discussion of more than university funding and finances.

I had just finished working for a London university, where for four years I had held a split academic-administrative post working solely with doctoral students. This may have been a role unique in English HE for all I know, since I was first academic reader of every PhD proposal submitted whatever the discipline. I conducted ‘triage’ and then worked on matching applications up with supervisory teams.

Since I also then worked with those admitted all the way through to submission, examination and what happens afterwards, I have a fair few opinions on doctorates. You can read some of my thoughts on why abandoning ‘practice-led’ research degrees might be a good idea here in an article for Afterall.

I am prompted to make some brief comments today after reading an article, ‘Fit to Supervise?’, in the latest issue of Times Higher Education. I won’t dwell on my concerns about the professionalism of the named authors in choosing to eschew anonymity. I will make a couple of points about what they appear to misunderstand about examination, since the same omissions have occurred in other articles run in the same magazine.

The power to award research degrees does not rest with the examiners. They are held by the university with which the candidate is registered.

Examiners are appointed by the institution responsible and asked to make a recommendation. The equivalent of an examination board – this may be a Research Degrees (sub)Committee – both approves the examiners and considers the recommendation.

With this to mind, and admittedly without knowing the specific circumstances, I find it hard to understand the following claim:

One of us has examined six doctoral theses in the past year and believes that not one of them was worthy of the degree. Yet he had the means at his disposal to fail only two of them. Administrative conventions and examination procedures, not to mention social pressures, simply did not allow the possibility of failure.

This really needs unpicking, as an external examiner, in theory exempt from internal institutional pressures, should really take the responsibility of making their concerns known to the exam board. Did, for example, another examiner disagree with that judgement? Did the chair of the viva moderate conflicting positions? Or did the exam board reject the case made for failing the candidate?

What’s the relevance of pressing this point? First, the division of responsibilities means that there is a structure through which to challenge inappropriate behaviour by examiners. I would recommend that one of your supervisory team attends the viva as an observer and a note-taker, allowing you to concentrate on answering the questions. (Actually, I’d make it compulsory).

Second, there are structures beyond the supervisory team which have overall responsibility for quality and progress of students from enrolment to submission through stages known under different names: ‘registration’, ‘transfer’, ‘upgrade’ and ‘confirmation’. The institution, not just the supervisory team, should be confident that a thesis submitted for examination is ready. Probably the biggest challenge for the management of research degrees is removing the uncertainty from this final stage.

However, if you are a doctoral student with concerns about your supervision, it is better to change in advance of examination. The formal transition from MPhil to PhD is often the best time to do this as at this stage you should have a clear plan to completion and accordingly know what support and expertise you need. Phillips & Pugh How to Get a Phd is generally excellent, but its chapter on ‘managing your supervisor’ is essential.

You are very unlikely to achieve redress for a poor examination outcome by complaining retrospectively about the supervision you received. And remember, the submitted thesis is only partial fulfilment of the requirements of a doctorate. The outcome rests on the viva, which will likely concentrate on framing decisions (what is in the thesis, what’s not in the thesis and why?) and discussion of your research’s more general relevance. That is, why is it a contribution to knowledge, not just scholarship (MPhil)?

In general, you should familiarise yourself with your institution’s regulations. Appeals about outcomes most often succeed owing to procedural irregularity, undeclared conflicts of interest, committee negligence or mitigating circumstances that could not have been declared in advance.


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