Most supervisors want to discuss the choice of thesis examiners with the doctoral researcher. This may well be more than a single conversation; instead a rather long intermittent musing. There may be a short list of examiners early on, but then the final decision doesn’t become clear until the thesis writing is well underway.
Choosing examiners is a very important aspect of the PhD process. The ‘wrong’ examiner can make the outcome of the viva very unpredictable, in the same way as getting the ‘wrong’ reviewer for a journal article can. But the thesis is much more high stakes than a journal article. Getting the ‘wrong’ person might mean months spent on rewriting and making corrections. Or it might mean a pretty tense discussion between two or three examiners if there is a face-to-face interaction between them, or an adjudication process if the examination reports are written.
Of course, I don’t mean that choosing an examiner is about finding someone who is going to give the doctoral researcher an easy time. No, I’m saying that it is important to find examiners who really do have the right kind of expertise to make a well-informed judgment. And for the very specialised nature of some PhDs, for the increasing number that are interdisciplinary and/or for those texts that break the boundaries of the conventional thesis, it is absolutely crucial to find examiners who grasp the intent and the scholarly context of the work. Having someone who just doesn’t ‘get it’ can be a disaster.
The most popular wisdom about examiner choice is that the supervisor and the PhD researcher look to see which scholars have been significant in the development of the thesis and approach them. This is fine as long as these people are not retired, deceased or inaccessible. And of course they may be so famous and/or in demand that they are not available. A short list of possibles is required.
Another approach is to ask which scholars the PhD researcher would like to read their work and engage in a conversation. When this latter line of action is taken it’s not uncommon for the supervisor and the doctoral researcher to make sure, after the decision about the person is taken, to read the thesis through to make sure that the potential examiner’s work is used and cited. A referencing retro- fit, if you like.
So let’s take these two cases – the person significant to the thesis, and the desirable conversant – and imagine that they available and willing. There are some decision nuances now. The researcher may have used their early work – what if they have moved on? Or only their later work – what if they actually think the development of the work is key? If the thesis is critical of the examiner’s research, then the decision becomes a little more tricky. How will they respond to a new scholar who takes issue with some of their work? And what if the desired conversant is someone whose work the doctoral researcher hasn’t used – they are just someone who knows a lot about the field and the interest is in seeing what they make of the contribution? How will they respond to their work not being used, or perhaps being referred to only in passing?
As soon as we start to discuss these how-will-they-react questions, then it becomes clear that it might be advantageous to know more about the potential examiner than their published work (which may or may not have been pivotal to the thesis). And supervisors in particular do consider other issues when they are thinking about the choice of examiners for the doctoral researchers they work with.
For example, they might have questions about how examiners are likely to behave:
How experienced are the proposed examiners? Do they know theses other than their own? Are they familiar with the range and variety of texts that count as a thesis? These days most universities ask for information about track record in doctoral examination and supervision; this attempts to get at this kind of information. The question of track record isn’t straightforward – if experience is all that counts then how does an early career researcher get to have it? Everyone has to start somewhere. And it would be perfectly possible to be an experienced examiner and still have a pretty narrow view of the PhD and acceptable standards.
But supervisor questions can be about practice, not knowledge/experience:
Is the examiner known to be fair? Interested in other people’s work? Generous, rather than mean? Or are they a person who insists on their own work being referenced copiously? Do their examinations always result in multiple corrections?
Now these are really difficult questions, and answering them might rely on the academic equivalent of something not too far removed from gossip. If the scholarly grapevine is used, then the information that results might be prejudicial or might be just plain wrong. But we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that these discussions don’t sometimes go on. However, the only ethical way around these practice questions is for the supervisor to sound out potential examiners beforehand – to send an abstract of the thesis and, if it is highly specialised, interdisciplinary or pushing the boundaries – to ask how they would respond to it.
Supervisors might also have questions about whether the examiner might be a good strategic choice.
Are they influential in the field and likely to give really helpful feedback that will help the researcher? Are they the kind of person who will help make connections with other key figures? Do they edit a journal or books that the researcher might publish in? Would they invite the researcher to participate in a conference symposium, give a seminar? Would they give the researcher a helping hand in advancing their career?
While a ‘leg-up’ can’t be expected of examiners, it is something that often happens, simply because the examiner is at the time of examination one of the few people who knows the doctoral researcher’s work in detail. Thinking about this kind of strategic support therefore can be a real consideration in the choice making process. However, it isn’t the most important – that really does come down to finding examiners who are going to be knowledgeable about the field and positioned to make wise judgments about the thesis they have read in depth. And ultimately, that’s down to how well the supervisor, and by then the doctoral researcher, knows who’s who and what’s what in the field.