Are PhD Examiners really ogres?

I read with some incredulity an article in The Times Higher Education Supplement of 25 April 2013 by Elizabeth Gibney which painted a picture of PhD external examiners as anachronistic sadistic ogres out to fail the candidate at any excuse.


She further suggested that an alternative to our current system could be one similar to the European system where essentially the thesis is a bind-up of published papers, usually at least three and sometimes up to seven.   To be fair, she did, however, outline some of the shortcomings of the European system.  Her description of the UK system is totally at odds with anything I have experienced in a 35 year-career as examinee and examiner, both external and internal.

To date, 46 of my students have been examined and received their PhDs.  Most have had minor revisions, a couple had major revisions, and not one has failed.  In all cases, they were treated with courtesy and respect, even the candidate who when asked why she had repeated an experiment that had been done twenty years previously, replied that it was because the original experiment was deeply flawed, seemingly unaware that her external examiner was the experimenter in question.  I have to admit that I almost gasped out loud, especially as the external in question had, many years before, been my supervisor.  He, however, took it in stride, smiled and passed her with minor revisions.  This does not seem to be an example of the vindictive ogres painted by Elizabeth Gibney.

My own PhD viva, took just under two hours and was conducted in a very friendly manner with plenty of opportunities to put my own views across.  At no time did I feel threatened or under pressure.  In fact I felt that I was having the opportunity of life-time in that I was able to discuss what I had been doing for the previous three years with someone who seemed to have a genuine interest in how and why I had done what I did.

I don’t see a PhD viva as a gladiatorial contest; rather a friendly, but searching discussion of the methods used, a critical discussion of the analysis of the results obtained and an opportunity to understand how and why they interpreted the results as they did.  I always begin by telling the candidate how much I enjoyed reading their thesis and tell them not to worry unduly about the Post-it notes festooning the sides of my copy of their thesis, most are usually typos and many are in the references section where students seem to become incredibly careless.

Thesis with post-its

As I tell them if you can’t be bothered to format your references properly, what message am I to take home about your experimental procedures?

I always ask the candidate what they did before and why they ended up doing the PhD that I am examining. I try to make the discussion a mixture of general wider-reaching issues and consideration of the material in each chapter. At all times, even if I feel that there is a fault, I approach the matter in a supportive and advisory role.  This is characteristic of all the external and internal examiners that I have observed over the years.  I feel that my role as an external examiner is a) to make sure that the PhD and candidate are up to scratch and b) that the material presented has the best chance of seeing the light of day by being published.  I think it is a terrible waste of three years’ work to leave it to languish in a thesis that is likely to be unread after it is placed on the university library shelves or electronic archive.  I thus always ask them where they intend to publish, if they have not already submitted some of the work.  I will also suggest what I think would be suitable journals for them to submit their work to, and which chapters will be likely to be publishable. Many students including my own try to have at least one paper in press or published before they submit.  I consider this a very good strategy, both for improving their employment prospects and ensuring an even smoother ride through the viva process.

Yes a candidate may be nervous and a bit apprehensive before their viva, but the job of the supervisor and progress review panels is to make sure that candidates should enter the examination room with a very reasonable expectation of passing with only minor revisions.  It is in no one’s interest to allow candidates with little chance of passing to get as far as the viva.  As far as I am concerned the system works well and is not broken, but perhaps it is different in other disciplines?

Today (7th May 2013) I conducted my 50th face to face UK PhD viva (21 external, 29 internal).  Reader, we passed him with minor corrections.

Simon new web page

Ogre, I hope not!

Post script 

To those of you who have not yet had your viva.  First, do discuss the choice of external examiner with your supervisor.  Most supervisors like to give their students some choice in the matter.  You may have a particular preference, but your supervisor will know if they have any particular quirks that may not make them the best choice for your thesis.  Once you know who the external is, make sure you include some of his/her references in your thesis.  It may seem petty, but it helps get you off on the right foot.

When you get to the viva, be confident, but don’t go in as if you owned the world.  Remember you have spent at least three years researching your particular subject, but your examiner will have spent many years researching the general area.  In terms of detail you should be pretty much the world expert.  You do, however, need to be able to put your knowledge in a wider context and that is the added extra that the examiner is looking for.  Work hard, think hard, embrace the wider picture, make sure those references are formatted correctly and don’t waffle.  Good luck.



Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters

20 responses to “Are PhD Examiners really ogres?

  1. Barry Hicks

    Simon, it’s been 11years since you we’re the external examiner of my PhD. You made me feel very comfortable and I continue to tell my students that today. In fact, I remember as I waited out in the hall for the decision, that I thought that I should be nervous as my 3 years came down to that exact moment. No nerves just confidence as you congratulated me as Dr. Hicks. I’m sure I thanked you in the past but here’s another thanks all these years later.
    I only started following you blog last month. I’m really enjoying your posts.


  2. Sage words. I’ll be doing my first viva as an examiner soon, so I’ll try to remember them.

    One thing I like about the Finnish system is that the examination is public, so it’s not a big secret what goes on. I haven’t seen anyone acting like an ogre in them, but that might be because the examiner is always heavily outnumbered and aware that they’re the ones being judged.


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  5. Fifty vivas is quite an achievement, well done! I think I’ve done about half of that and have never turned down an opportunity to examine a thesis, in part because it’s always good to read the ideas and approaches of younger generations of researchers in my field. My approach is similar to yours in terms of the structure of the questions, though I usually end with “are there any questions that you expected me to ask which I didn’t?” which can be very revealing about what the candidate thinks of the work.

    I wondered what your opinion was about the length of the viva? I’ve conducted exams that ranged in length from about 2.5 to over 5 hours (with breaks!). At the top end that’s probably too long (though there was a lot to talk about) but at the lower end I feel it’s a bit short and doesn’t do the student or the thesis justice. Three to 3.5 hours seems about right to me but I’ve spoken to colleagues who think that’s too long. Perhaps I’ve been influenced by my own viva which lasted 5.5 hours, but was very enjoyable.

    Finally, if I recall the THES article correctly, the negative experiences recounted seemed to be in the arts and humanities where I wonder if greater subjectivity around the findings and ideas might lead to strong reactions on both sides?


    • My final question, only to very relaxed candidates is, what were you worried I would ask but didn’t? Some actually tell me 😉 I aim for about 2 hours – so that the candidate feels they have had a good chance to talk -occasionally get to three hours, but feel that is too long. Longest one I was ever in was as an internal for someone doing their first viva – it went on for 7 hours – we did have to break for refreshments and bathroom visits.

      yes I too wondered about the difference between disciplines.


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  7. Mbor

    I wish you were my examiner. I had my viva two months ago and since my confidence is shattered. he was awful, and when we finished he said to me I was very awful with you because I had the same experience with my own viva!


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  9. Marie

    Hi, I am about to present mi viva in less than two weeks. I enjoyed reading your post, although I am bit worried because I submitted an incomplete thesis (due lack of time) all the chapters are there but the discussion is very scarce and conclusions are short, what would be advisable in this case? Actually I am dreading the Viva to death, although everyone around me says I’ll do fine… Thanks!


    • Hopefully your supervisor has explained to the examiner why you have submitted an incomplete thesis and your defence will be robust enough that you will be given the chance to resubmit an amended thesis at a later date.

      Good luck


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  11. Divan Burger

    Very inspirational. I am due to submit my thesis within the next 3 weeks, and I, like many other candidates in the same situation, am being flooded by excessive amounts of paranoia. I carried out my research in two years, and quite a lot of future research topics are outlined in the last chapter which could have been explored within this piece of work. That’s one of my biggest concerns: What if the referees raise concerns about this? Why is the candidate in such a hurry? However, my thesis is making many important contributions which are already being utilized by other researchers. Well… I suppose my supervisor would have suggested that I cover some of these topics in the meanwhile and submit only a year or so later. He’s happy with the contents of my thesis and have more than enough confidence that I’ll pass. I guess I should then stop being agnostic towards his beliefs. Again, great article and many thanks for alleviating some of the pains I’m currently trying to outlive (poor poor me).


  12. I endorse all you say, in my experience examiners are kind and supportive and want the best outcome for the candidate.
    I have mixed feelings about the systems in other countries. I once did a viva in Sweden and had a very good public discussion with the candidate. I also had to do a lay introduction to the field before the discussion and it seemed odd that I had to do this.
    My experience in the Netherlands was very different. Nobody warned me that the thesis defence was a formal occasion with only one possible outcome. Having been used to the UK system I was shocked when the head of the thesis committee divided up the 45 minutes allotted for the defence among the examiners, I got 8 minutes I recall!. After 45 minutes a person in black robes entered the room and said “Hora est”, it was now all over and the candidate had her PhD whether the questions were finished or not.


    • yes my former PhD supervisor fell foul of this in Sweden. he failed the thesis and was then told he couldn’t. he refused to retract his decision so they got someone else from the UK to pass it. Downside of this was that the candidate held a grudge against our research group and if any of us submitted papers that he got a chance to review he would reject them with one line reviews. This went on for years! Luckily he is now a scientific administrator 😉


      • The Scandinavian system really has a different function to the British viva. It’s not about examining the candidate as such, it’s about giving the candidate an opportunity to demonstrate their “PhDness” in a public arena. The longer time/funding available for Scandinavian PhDs means that the students are able to publish more of their work as they go along, resulting in the short-format thesis they produce. The expectation is usually that most chapters will have been published, accepted for publication, or at least submitted. With published work it’s very hard for an examiner then to claim that the peer-review system is flawed and the thesis should be failed! Though no doubt anomalies do get through sometimes….


      • yes indeed – European systems vary quite a bit – one I did in Lisbon has seven examiners each with different time allocations, in public and then we graded it at end by placing black or white balls in a bag!


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