“It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize”

January 4, 2014

“A PhD is a stepping stone into a research career. All you need to do is to demonstrate your capacity for independent, critical thinking. That’s all you need to do. A PhD is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize.”

That’s how the final paragraph of the article ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses, that investigates how experienced examiners assess and evaluate Ph.D. dissertations, reads.

As a Ph.D. student, one continuously attempts to gauge the quality and progress of the research that eventually becomes part of one’s Ph.D. dissertation. While in most cases there are supervisors and Ph.D. administrators to help, it is comforting to know what the examiners will be interested in and put emphasis on when the final outcome of the Ph.D. project, the dissertation, is judged.

If you are a Ph.D. student or someone else working in academia, I believe the article is an interesting and enlightening read; it sheds light on the entire process comprising the assessment of the Ph.D. dissertation. So whether you have to write your own dissertation, supervise a Ph.D. student who is going to write the dissertation or will be examining dissertations in the future, it will provide insights on what experienced examiners focus on in their judgement.

The work is based on interviews with 30 examiners from five different universities and from a broad range of disciplines; science (14), maths/engineering (3), social science (9) and humanities (4). All the interviewees are experienced in the sense that they have served as examiners on at least five dissertations in the last five years.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

If you have half an hour to an hour, I encourage you to read through the entire article; if you only have five to ten minutes, have a look at my small review below.

The conclusions

The conclusions of the article read as follows:

“Warnings to students are also clear from the research: careful attention to detail and the avoidance of sloppiness are essential. Sloppy presentation indicates to the examiner that the research might well be sloppy. The other warning is the importance of being assiduous about actually doing what one says one is going to do, or explaining how and why changes have been made. The results of this research indicate that experienced examiners check carefully for the link between the introduction, where students outline their intentions, and the conclusions, where the intentions should have been realised.”

In the following sections, I elaborate on the above conclusions from the article.

Why examine?

The examiners give a number of reasons why they choose to examine, including helping to maintain the standards within their discipline, a sense of duty towards the discipline and because they themselves also need examiners for their own students from time to time. More interestingly, however, they also examine because they enjoy reading a good dissertation:

“These reasons included the excitement and interest involved: ‘The enjoyment of a really good thesis showing lots of promise’ (SocSc/Male/15), as well as access to state of the art research. Moreover, a thesis usually includes a level of detail not included in examiners’ day-to-day professional reading: ‘A good thesis includes a lot more detail than in articles’ (Maths–Eng/Female/18).”

As a Ph.D. student, this is important to keep in mind: However big or small the contribution is, one has with the research documented in the dissertation contributed to human knowledge, and this is interesting to read for other researchers.

Examiners spend a lot of time on the examination

The examiners indicate that they spend three to four full days of work on examining a dissertation, often over a period of a couple of weeks. They set aside time, often at night and in weekends, and read the dissertation thoroughly through:

“ ‘You’ve got a lot of somebody’s work. On the one hand it is crucial to do justice to that work, but it is also important to ensure that it should mean a lot to get a thesis’ (SocSc/Male/29).”

So while experienced examiners often have many other obligations, such as heading large research teams, editing and reviewing for journals and serving on research committees, they spend a lot of time reading and assessing a dissertation.

Experienced examiners expect the thesis to pass

Experienced examiners expect that a dissertation will pass and will go a long way to avoid having to fail it. Mainly, this is due to a perception that the dissertation represents three to four years of hard work from a talented student, and likewise the extra work that failing a dissertation would cause not only the student, but also the examiner are given as reasons why dissertations are rarely failed.

How examiners work through the thesis

There are obviously different ways that examiners read through a dissertation, but a generic description is as follows:

“…most examiners begin by reading the abstract, introduction and conclusion to gauge the scope of the work, and by looking at the references to see what sources have been used and whether they need to follow up on any of them. They then read from cover to cover, taking detailed notes, and finally go back over the thesis to check on whether their questions have been answered or whether their criticisms are justified.”

As expected, abstract, introduction and conclusion are often read first, and they therefore play an important role in indicating what the bulk of the dissertation seeks to investigate, and how these investigations are carried out. And the first impressions that these parts of a dissertation give, as I’ll get back to in the next section, matter a lot!

Typical questions that examiners have in mind when reading a dissertation are the following:

  • How would they have tackled the problem set out in the abstract and the title?
  • What questions would they like answers to?
  • Do the conclusions follow on from the introduction?
  • How well does the candidate explain what he/she is doing?
  • Is the bibliography up to date and substantial enough?
  • Are the results worthwhile?
  • How much work has actually been done?
  • What is the intellectual depth and rigor of the thesis?
  • Is this actually ‘research’ – is there an argument?

First impressions count!

The title says it all:

“An overwhelming conclusion from this research was the extent to which examiners’ first impressions counted. These first impressions were not irreversible, but they did influence the examiner’s frame of mind for the rest of the thesis. Experienced examiners decide very early in the process whether assessment of a particular thesis is likely to be ‘hard work’ or ‘an enjoyable read’.”

And given that abstract, introduction and conclusion are often read first, the above emphasizes the importance of writing these parts very meticulously.

Also, the literature review, often included in the introduction, is highly important:

“ ‘It is unusual that if someone does a poor job of the literature review that they will suddenly improve, or vice versa’ (Sc/Male/5).”

What makes a passable thesis?

To make a thesis pass the examination, the Ph.D. student should demonstrate autonomy and independence; use theoretical and conceptual frameworks originally; have selected a “real” and do-able problem; tell a story with the literature review; take the reader on a journey; and write succinctly. Likewise, reflection and critical assessment of one’s own work and arguments are valued.

On the other hand, sloppiness, in the form of typos, mistakes in calculations and errors in references, immediately alerts the examiner. As one learns during a Ph.D., research is all about the details, so if the details contain errors, the results might be wrong, too. Sloppiness therefore makes examiners read a dissertation differently and a lot more carefully.


Half of the examiners acknowledge explicitly that publication of part of the work in a dissertation favorably influences their view on the dissertation. Expressed, for instance, as follows:

“ ‘If there are two or three good publications you can put your feet up and go for an interesting drive. If there is nothing published you think “That’s interesting”!’ (Sc/Male/30).”

Publication in a reputable journal means that peers have already approved the work, and this lightens the burden on the examiners in assessing the work at hand. So publication of work prior to examination of the dissertation certainly makes matters a lot easier, both for the student and for the examiner.

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